Unformatted text preview: our life – unless
you succeed in compensating for ill health and brevity
of life with increased quality.
It may be thought that an ethical egoist must be a very
unpleasant person, but this is not true.
The ethical egoist may find pleasure in helping other
people; he or she may have all sorts of altruistic
However, once a conflict emerges it is clear how the
ethical egoist, who wants to abide by his or her
favored moral theory, ought to act: he or she ought to
ensure that his or her own welfare is maximized.
From an egoistic point of view there seems to be little
reason to sacrifice one or two generations in the hope
that some time in the future there will be
compensation for these sacrifices.
However, given egoism, it might be difficult to find
reasons to make sacrifices now in order to avoid
future disasters such as global warming.
It may be thought, though, that if everybody cares his
or her own concerns the result will on the whole be
better for everyone.
There are situations such that, even if everybody
succeeds in maximizing his or her welfare, everybody
fares worse than they would have done if they had not
abided by their favored moral theory.
The argument to this effect (which dates back to the
1950s) is known as ‘the prisoner’s dilemma’, and I will
state it very briefly. It stems from rational game theory
and it is usually attributed to A. W. Tucker.
70 Prisoner’s Dilemma
Prisoner B stays
(cooperates) Prisoner B
(defects) Prisoner A stays Each serves
(cooperates) Prisoner A: 1 Y
goes Prisoner A
(defects) Each serves
three Prisoner A:
year 71 Egoism
Two men are arrested, but the police do not possess
enough information for a conviction.
Following the separation of the two men, the police
offer both a similar deal—if one testifies against his
partner (defects/betrays), and the other remains silent
(cooperates/assists), the betrayer goes free and the
cooperator receives the full one-year sentence.
If both remain silent, both are sentenced to only one
month in jail for a minor charge. If each 'rats out' the
other, each receives a three-month sentence.
Each prisoner must choose either to betray or remain
silent; the decision of each is kept quiet. What should
When many people interact in a rather anonymous
modern society, they often face situations that are in
important respects like the prisoner’s dilemma.
We face such situations when we contemplate how we
should dispose of our litter at a picnic, we face them
when we consider whether we should drive our own
car or travel by public transport, and so forth.
In such situations each person has something to gain
by leaving litter behind or driving his or her own car,
irrespective of what others do.
irrespective 73 Egoism
But if many people leave their litter (causing
environmental damage) or drive their own cars
(causing traffic jams and adding to global warming),
the situation of each will be worse than it would have
been if they had all disposed of their litter carefully or
opted for public transport.
Situations such as these are often referred to as social
dilemmas, and they are the rule rather than the
Given the existence of many social dilemmas, rational
egoism begins to seem like a version of collective
There are other objections to egoism. First, egoism is
incompatible with many accepted human activities,
such as giving advice and true friendship, and in such
business activities as being an agent for another.
Simply ask yourself, How can one who is always
acting in his own interest give advice? Suppose the
advice would hurt the advisor.
If as an insurance agent you are to give your client the
best advice, there will be times when you talk them out
of a policy that would give you a bigger commission.
You do not just do this because you are concerned
about your long-range self-interest; you do this
because it’s your responsibility as an agent to look out
for your client’s best interest.
The incompatibility with friendship is even easier to
show. Who would consider someone a true friend if
they knew that person was just around for what he
could get out of the friendship?
We expect friends to put themselves out for us, and
we expect to put ourselves out for our friends. The
consistent egoist, then, can be seen to be
recommending against friendship.
Another difficulty with egoism is that it can’t resolve
disputes. If everyone is to look out for themselves,
what should two people do when both of them need
the same thing? To say that both should look out for
their own in...
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