A Refutation of G.E. Moore’s Critique of Ethical Egoism: A Dialogue

G. E. Moore He thought ethical egoism was self-contradictory.

G. E. Moore

In a post on Reddit, a user called /u/Regtik quoted the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Egoism, which features G.E. Moore’s criticism that ethical egoism is self-contradictory. What follows is my discussion with Regtik. (Another user, called “parolang” also makes an appearance.) My comments explore the status of “good”–including “moral good”–as inherently relational to a living creature, versus the mistaken notion of “intrinsic goods,” as well as the reason that the rational self-interests of individuals generally do not conflict.

I am “Sword_of_Apollo” in this discussion and, as usual, I am arguing from an Objectivist perspective, (which advocates a normative ethics of rational egoism):

Regtik: Ethical Egoism is an internally inconsistent morality.

From the [Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy]:

“G. E. Moore argued that ethical egoism is self-contradictory. If I am an egoist, I hold that I ought to maximize my good. I deny that others ought to maximize my good (they should maximize their own goods). But to say that x is “my good” is just to say that my possessing x is good. (I cannot possess the goodness.) If my possession of x is good, then I must hold that others ought to maximize my possession of it. I both deny and am committed to affirming that others ought to maximize my good. (Sometimes Moore suggests instead that “my good” be glossed as “x is good and x is mine.” This does not yield the contradiction above, since it does not claim that my possession of x is good. But it yields a different contradiction: if x is good, everyone ought to maximize it wherever it appears; egoists hold that I ought to maximize x only when it appears in me.)”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prisoner%27s_dilemma

This is a good example of why ethical egoism fails. Ethical Egoism fails to reap the full benefits of human cooperation because it holds the stance that cooperation is only useful when it benefits yourself. …

Sword_of_Apollo: This is not a sound argument. The actual, rational basis of the concept of “good” involves a relation. Something is good for something else, (a living creature.) Plato and Kant to the contrary notwithstanding, this includes moral goods.

Moral goods are those goods that are freely chosen by humans, (potentially rational animals) that are good for all humans in all–or almost all–circumstances. (This universality means that they are very much abstract goods. Note here that when I say “good for all humans,” I mean that the goal or object of each moral act is always good for the agent acting; not that the actions of each agent are necessarily good for all humans.)

To claim that egoism is self-contradictory as G.E. Moore did is absurd. It’s like saying that the concept of “destructive” is self-contradictory, because something can be destructive to one object, but not to others: A bomb that destroys one building is destructive, because it destroyed that building; but it is also not destructive, because it left many others standing. So the bomb is both destructive and not destructive at the same time. Since we (allegedly) have a contradiction, the concept of “destructive” can only apply to things that destroy everything, and is otherwise nonsensical. That’s absurd. Something that is destructive is destructive to something else, just as something that is good is good for something else.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prisoner%27s_dilemma

This is a good example of why ethical egoism fails. Ethical Egoism fails to reap the full benefits of human cooperation because it holds the stance that cooperation is only useful when it benefits yourself.”

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Prisoner’s Dilemma is an artificially restricted situation that is not a good model for real life.

Regtik:

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Prisoner’s Dilemma is an artificially restricted situation that is not a good model for real life.”

Well that’s a minority opinion among philosophers. A very large part of philosophy is taking ideas to their theoretical extremes through thought experiments.

“Moral goods are those goods that are freely chosen by humans, (potentially rational animals) that are good for all humans in all–or almost all–circumstances. (This universality means that they are very much abstract goods. Note here that when I say “good for all humans,” I mean that the goal or object of each moral act is always good for the agent acting; not that the actions of each agent are necessarily good for all humans.)”

Your definition of moral goods is irrelevant to what Moore is saying. Ethical Egoism is the stance that one ought to pursue their own self interest – this entails that moral goods are goods that serve one’s self interest.

“To claim that egoism is self-contradictory as G.E. Moore did is absurd. It’s like saying that the concept of “destructive” is self-contradictory, because something can be destructive to one object, but not to others: A bomb that destroys one building is destructive, because it destroyed that building; but it is also not destructive, because it left many others standing. So the bomb is both destructive and not destructive at the same time. Since we (allegedly) have a contradiction, the concept of “destructive” can only apply to things that destroy everything, and is otherwise nonsensical. That’s absurd. Something that is destructive is destructive to something else, just as something that is good is good for something else.”

Internal consistency has to do with how a concept is defined. If something is destructive, by definition that means it destroys. Destroying one building but not another doesn’t imply internal inconsistency. Moore is saying that by definition a good is a good, ie: it ought to be maximized. If what is good for me happens to be what is good for someone else, then I simultaneously hold that a) they ought to pursue their self interest and b) that in my self interest, I ought to hold that they shouldn’t pursue their own self interest

Sword_of_Apollo:

“If something is destructive, by definition that means it destroys. Destroying one building but not another doesn’t imply internal inconsistency.”

Maximizing one individual’s good but not another doesn’t imply internal inconsistency.

“Moore is saying that by definition a good is a good, ie: it ought to be maximized.”

Ought to be maximized by whom?

“If what is good for me happens to be what is good for someone else…”

Why would I as an egoist hold that a single particular is literally good for two people simultaneously and in the same respect? Healthy food is good for a hungry individual when he eats it. Is a bite of healthy food that I ingest simultaneously good for my neighbor across the street, in that it nourishes his body as well?

Regtik:

“Maximizing one individual’s good but not another doesn’t imply internal inconsistency.”

If the good happens to be good for both people, then it is.

“Ought to be maximized by whom?”

Those that hold it to be a good for their self interest.

“Why would I as an egoist hold that a single particular is literally good for two people simultaneously and in the same respect?”

Say ethical egoism recommends that A and B both go to a certain hockey game, since going to the game is in the self-interest of each. Unfortunately, only one seat remains. Ethical egoism, then, recommends an impossible state of affairs. Or say that I am A and an ethical egoist. I both claim that B ought to go to the game, since that is in her self-interest, and I do not want B to go to the game, since B’s going to the game is against my self-interest.

“Healthy food is good for a hungry individual when he eats it. Is a bite of healthy food that I ingest simultaneously good for my neighbor across the street, in that it nourishes his body as well?”

This isn’t relevant.

Notice here how Regtik conflates two issues: one is the idea of non-relational “intrinsic moral values” that are normatively binding for all individuals to pursue; the other is the idea that there can be conflicts of interest between two individuals both pursuing a single object that is relationally valued by each, according to his own self-interest. The first idea appears to be the one G.E. Moore is tacitly assuming, and it is the idea I assume Regtik is arguing for, up until the last comment above. After seeing this last comment, I realize that Regtik is conflating the two issues, and I start explaining how the two conflated issues are separate.

The comments below start with another reddit user’s, (/u/parolang’s) response to Regtik’s first comment above. I then respond to Regtik’s further responses:

parolang: Moore’s argument that you copy and pasted looks like a sophism to me. The theory of ethical egoism says that any agent ought to maximize his/her own good. It doesn’t mean that everyone ought to maximize my (/u/parolang ‘s) good. That’s the sophism.

But in fact, maximizing my own good involves helping other people and cooperating with other people. I help other people, because it is good for me to help other people. This is because I have care, concern, and compassion for other people. Yet this is still egoism!

Regtik: If what is good for me happens to be what is good for someone else, then I simultaneously hold that a) they ought to pursue their self interest and b) that in my self interest, I ought to hold that they shouldn’t pursue their own self interest

parolang: Why is it in my self interest that other people not pursue their own self interest? That’s not what egoism says at all.

Regtik:

“Why is it in my self interest that other people not pursue their own self interest? That’s not what egoism says at all.”

If what is good for me happens to be what is good for someone else, then I simultaneously hold that a) they ought to pursue their self interest and b) that in my self interest, I ought to hold that they shouldn’t pursue their own self interest

Or to put it in other words, if I ought to pursue a good, and they ought to pursue a good, I ought to hold that they shouldn’t pursue a good if the good is a good for the both of us.

Sword_of_Apollo:

“Or to put it in other words, if I ought to pursue a good, and they ought to pursue a good, I ought to hold that they shouldn’t pursue a good if the good is a good for the both of us.”

So you’re saying that if I and a stranger see an apple on a wild tree at the same time, under egoism, it is normative for me to grab for the apple, and normative for me for him not to grab for the apple. But it doesn’t really make sense to speak of what is normative for me for him to choose to do: I am the one acting under my egoistic normative guideline, not him.

I have to determine what I should choose to do, not what he should choose to do. So the further question to be asked is: Should I attempt to forcibly prevent him from succeeding in grabbing and eating the apple? It does not follow from egoism, as Objectivism conceives it, that I should. But that is a separate issue, and I have explained why G.E. Moore’s “problem” of egoism doesn’t hold water.

Regtik:

“So you’re saying that if I and a stranger see an apple on a wild tree at the same time, under egoism, it is normative for me to grab for the apple, and normative for me for him not to grab for the apple. But it doesn’t really make sense to speak of what is normative for me for him to choose to do: I am the one acting under my egoistic normative guideline, not him.”

You hold that he ought to grab the apple while simultaneously holding that it is against your self interest for him to do so. It’s not about you choosing what decision he shall choose, but what you ought to think he should do as an ethical egoist.

“Should I attempt to forcibly prevent him from succeeding in grabbing and eating the apple?”

If it is in your self interest to do so, then it necessarily follows that you ought to under ethical egoism.

Sword_of_Apollo:

“You hold that he ought to grab the apple while simultaneously holding that it is against your self interest for him to do so. It’s not about you choosing what decision he shall choose, but what you ought to think he should do as an ethical egoist.”

I can of course adopt his perspective, apply my ethics to him and think that he should act on his self-interest as an ethical egoist. But because I am I, not him, and because I do not control his actions, and ethics is defined to guide choices, it is not a moral norm for me for him to make any particular choice. What he does may be a benefit or a loss to me, but it is not an ethical issue for me. (It is not an issue of me acting in my self-interest or not, because I am not the one acting.)

I agree with Objectivism, in that I consider non-relational (“intrinsic”) values, including such alleged moral values, to be ultimately baseless. (See: Values Are Relational, But Not Subjective and Viable Values by Tara Smith.)

What you’re actually talking about here is a conflict of interest, not a contradiction in Rand’s ethical egoism. The instinctive interests of a lion sometimes conflict with those of a gazelle: the lion’s interests can involve catching and eating the gazelle, but this occurrence would be very much against the interests of the gazelle. That this situation arises does not mean that there’s a contradiction in either the lion’s or the gazelle’s driving instincts. Nor does it mean that we must find a contradiction in an analysis of the lion-gazelle relationship.

Conflicts of interests can arise among humans in dire emergency situations, and perhaps in the very primitive circumstances of hunter-gatherers. But ever since humans learned to produce valuable things, the rational interests of individuals (in non-emergencies) do not conflict. The supply of values to be had is not a fixed quantity, but expands with human production. It is production that enables humans to survive long-term and to achieve happiness. And production results from individuals’ rational thought, rather than from coercion.

“Should I attempt to forcibly prevent him from succeeding in grabbing and eating the apple?”

“If it is in your self interest to do so, then it necessarily follows that you ought to under ethical egoism.”

Well obviously. But the situation of simultaneous grabbing for wild edibles never really comes up in modern civilized life. And even if it did come up, it is not at all a given that trying to steal from someone is in my self-interest. Given all options open to me, I and Ayn Rand would argue that my actual self-interest generally consists of production rather than theft. I won’t argue for this extensively here, but I can recommend this essay of mine related to wealth creation: Wealth is Created by Action Based on Rational Thought

I also recommend Ayn Rand’s book, The Virtue of Selfishness, especially the essay entitled “The ‘Conflicts’ of Men’s Interests.”

—–

Related Posts:

Bernie Madoff: Not Rationally Selfish, But Self-Destructive

Values Are Relational, But Not Subjective

Other People as Egoistic Values Versus Other People as Objects of Self-Sacrifice in Ayn Rand’s Philosophy

Why “Selfishness” Doesn’t Properly Mean Being Shortsighted and Harmful to Others

A Dialogue on Metaethics, Moral Realism and Platonism from an Objectivist Perspective

2 thoughts on “A Refutation of G.E. Moore’s Critique of Ethical Egoism: A Dialogue

  1. Moore’s argument is not relevant to rational egoism. Rational egoist doesn’t want others to maximize his good. His primary concern not others but himself. More than that, if man’s good primarily depends on others that means all men live for others and this is altruism. Rational egoist is not expecting others to live for him, nor he lives for them.

    Carrying for others argument is also inconsistent with rational egoism.since good is defined in objective terms, not just by feelings of satisfaction. Otherwise any drug addict could be called rational egoist which is an absurd. The same applies to the grabbing apple argument. Cooperation between rational people could be valuable and rational egoist trades values for the mutual benefit.

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