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.)”


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.


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.

Continue reading

Ayn Rand and the Crude Materialism of the “Rich vs. Poor” Worldview

The Virtue of Selfishness by Ayn RandOne of the most common criticisms of Ayn Rand that I hear from people (especially on the Left) is that she “loved the rich and hated the poor,” or, in more recent terms, that she “was for the 1% at the expense of the 99%.”

Yet Ayn Rand herself did not really think or judge people in those terms, as should be fairly obvious to anyone who has read her writing without prejudice: Many of the heroes and protagonists of her novels were poor or roughly middle-income, including a young Howard Roark, Steven Mallory, Roark’s friend Mike, Eddie Willers, Cheryl Brooks, Jeff Allen, Gwen Ives, and even her most famous hero, John Galt. Many of Rand’s villains are wealthy businessmen, government officials and scientists, including the mature Peter Keating, Guy Francon, James Taggart, Orren Boyle, Floyd Ferris, Wesley Mouch, Kip Chalmers, and Mr. Thompson.

Rand’s nonfiction explicitly says that what is important in the moral judgment of people is not the scale of their productive ability, but how they choose to use their minds. In her essay, “The Objectivist Ethics” (VoS) Rand writes:

“Productive work is the road of man’s unlimited achievement and calls upon the highest attributes of his character: his creative ability, his ambitiousness, his self-assertiveness, his refusal to bear uncontested disasters, his dedication to the goal of reshaping the earth in the image of his values. “Productive work” does not mean the unfocused performance of the motions of some job. It means the consciously chosen pursuit of a productive career, in any line of rational endeavor, great or modest, on any level of ability. It is not the degree of a man’s ability nor the scale of his work that is ethically relevant here, but the fullest and most purposeful use of his mind.” [emphasis mine]

So Rand doesn’t accept that having more money automatically makes one more moral.

But why then the accusations that she’s in favor of the rich and against the poor? The accusations actually show us, not what Rand believed, but what many of her critics believe. The accusations actually reflect the materialistic nature of these critics’ worldview.

Continue reading

A Message on Ayn Rand, Compassion, and Individualism vs. Collectivism

Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand

A user on reddit posted a question to the subreddit, /r/askphilosophy, which I reprint below. I have also reprinted my response in a private message below that.

The question posed:

So I’ve read many of Ayn Rand’s work and have been frequently reading Libertarian articles and stuff. I’ve read Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead and The Virtue of Selfishness. [Links added in reprint.]

When I read Atlas Shrugged it was something quite new to me. I was a Philosophy undergraduate back then and her ideas were very different from all of the things I’ve been in contact with. Mainly her individualist ethics and capitalism.

As time went by I kept reading other books, articles, as well as debating with a few people and reflecting about all of those concepts. As for today, I really appreciate how well Rand’s ethics value the subject and how fair laissez-faire capitalism seems to be. However, I’ve seen many flaws in her ideas.

Concerning ethics, I think her ideas lack a lot of compassion and put collectivism to a zero. Individualism is great, but we are all part of social groups, aren’t we? And concerning politics I don’t see how a TRUE free market would be possible in any time soon, since it would require anarchy or minarchy to happen. (about economy, I am in favor of capitalism as an economic system, even though I disagree of how it is like right now)

So as it’s been a while since I’ve started this path, which was fairly opposite to the extreme-left I had taken when I got into Philosophy, I’d like to read some authors and books that have ideas that oppose Rand’s. I don’t want books that argue directly with her, such as “Ayn Rand Nation”. Instead, I’d like to read opposite opinions.

According to the Political Compass I’m a Right Libertarian, so I’d like to read some authors of the Left Libertarian. The Political Compass mentions Pyotr Kropotkin, Noam Chomsky and Emma Goldman in this area. (I’d like to read the Left Libertarian authors since I’m not that pro-government at the moment)

So what authors/books would you suggest me?

My response:

In your OP, you say:

Concerning ethics, I think [Rand’s] ideas lack a lot of compassion and put collectivism to a zero. Individualism is great, but we are all part of social groups, aren’t we?

First, in regard to compassion: that is an emotional response, and emotions are displayed by people, not ideas. Principles as such can neither be compassionate, nor uncompassionate. They can be true or false, justified or unjustified by evidence and argument.

Continue reading

One Internal Contradiction in the Christian Worldview: God’s Omniscience vs. Free Will

Unjust God predestines people, yet judges them morally for actions. I recently found a blog post where a Christian reprints a debate he and his friends had on Facebook with an Objectivist. It’s a very long discussion where a lot of words are written, yet very little actual debate seems to be accomplished. In skimming this wall of words, one point caught my eye: the Christian participants are claiming that what distinguishes the Christian worldview from others–and what makes it the true worldview–is that it is internally consistent, whereas other worldviews are not.

In epistemology, this view, that what makes something true is (solely) its logical consistency with an overall structure of knowledge, is called the “Coherence Theory of Truth.” To say that this epistemological view is problematic is an understatement; it really is a non-starter. My theory of truth is a version of the Correspondence Theory: the only theory I consider tenable.

But my point here is not to attack coherentism or defend correspondence. Beyond the problems of coherentism, the claim that the Christian worldview is internally consistent is blatantly false. There are several places where I could show logical contradictions, but I only need one irreconcilable contradiction to demonstrate internal inconsistency. So I will confine myself to one: the contradiction between God’s supposed omniscience and human free will. (1)

Free will vs. God’s Omniscience

Most Christians are committed, implicitly, if not explicitly, to what I regard as genuine free will. This is the idea that a person’s choice in a given situation is not necessitated by antecedent factors, but represents a selection among alternatives that could also have been chosen in the same circumstance. (In contemporary philosophy, this is called “libertarian free will” as opposed to the alleged alternative, “compatibilist free will.” I will discuss Christians who hold compatibilist views after dealing with the libertarian version.)

Christians also generally believe that God is omniscient, such that he knows the future outcome of people’s choices and can infallibly implement his divine plan. But if God currently knows, with certainty, the outcome of future choices, then this means that there must be a current fact about those outcomes for him to know. If there is a current fact about the outcome of future choices, then those choices are already predetermined. This means that those “choices” are not genuine choices, because there is only one thing that will happen, with no alternative possibilities. Any “choice” is purely illusory, and thus, there really is no free will. So Christians are logically committed both to the position that humans have free will, and to the position that they do not.

Continue reading

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

Carpenter Working with Pencil and HammerThe definitions of the terms we use have consequences for our ability to think and communicate clearly.

Imagine for a moment that your friend told you that he defines “carpenter” as “one who shapes wood by shooting it with a gun.” You’re baffled and you ask him what word he uses for someone who shapes wood by other means, such as a saw, lathe and sander. He says that he really has no word for this. He has a couple of synonyms for “carpenter,” but they also carry the implication that the person shaping the wood used a gun.

Hopefully, you can see that the problem with this hypothetical situation is not merely that you and your friend are using terms differently: shooting wood with a gun is a terribly impractical way of shaping it into useful forms. If the only concepts you have of wood shaping mean using a gun to do it, then you can’t really talk about those who shape wood using the practical methods in their profession.

Ayn Rand held that the common concept of “selfishness” is in an exactly analogous position to your hypothetical friend’s use of “carpenter.” At root, “selfishness” means pursuing one’s own interests and well-being. But the common use today adds in a second element: “pursuing your interests/well-being by means that are shortsighted and hurtful to others.” In today’s culture, the approximate synonyms of “selfishness,” such as “egoism” and “self-interest,” tend to be regarded with the same connotations of shortsightedness and harmfulness, so they are not much different.

Yet Ayn Rand rejected the idea that being shortsighted and hurtful to others is inherent in pursuing one’s interests and well-being. In fact, she recognized that the pursuit of one’s genuine interests in everyday life is specifically the opposite of “shortsighted and hurtful to others.” An individual’s genuine interests require long-term planning to fulfill, and his well-being is not served by doing harm to others. Attempting to pursue one’s self-interest by shortsighted and hurtful means is like trying to shape wood into a beautiful chair by shooting it with a pistol: utterly doomed to failure.

Continue reading

The Meaning of “Necessary” Versus “Contingent” Truth

Billiard balls ready to be brokenThere is a long history in philosophy of distinguishing between truths that are “necessary” and truths that are “contingent.”

A necessary truth is a true statement whose negation must imply a contradiction in reality, such that the negation would be impossible.

So, if “One plus one equals two,” is a necessary truth, then the statement “One plus one does not equal two” will imply a contradiction. Given the meanings of “one” and “two,” we can immediately see that the addition of two “ones” (units) always does yield “two,” yet the statement “One plus one does not equal two,” contradicts this. It’s incomprehensible that one plus one should ever add to anything but two. So “One plus one equals two,” is commonly held to be a necessary truth, with its negation being impossible.

A contingent truth is a true statement whose negation does not imply a contradiction in reality, such that the negation could have been the case.

So, if “John married Jessica last Sunday,” is a contingent truth, then the statement “John did not marry Jessica last Sunday,” could have been true, without implying a contradiction in reality. Since John could have chosen not to marry Jessica, or to have married her on a different day, we can see that this is indeed a contingent truth.

The Objectivist View on the Necessary/Contingent Distinction

Objectivism-The Philosophy of Ayn RandCausality (the Law of Cause and Effect) is the Law of Identity applied to action. This means that an entity’s actions follow from its nature. That is, the nature of the entity (its attributes, properties, etc.) causes the action it will take in any given situation. In any given context, there is only one action open to it: the one in accordance with its nature. Any other action would contradict its nature.

Continue reading

Ayn Rand’s Philosophy vs. Abortion Bans: Why a Fetus Doesn’t Have Rights

Fetal rights and abortion meme. A fetus and a doll both look like babies. Pro-choice is pro-life. Embryos don't have rights.

I hope none of my readers operate on this intellectual level when it comes to the issue of abortion and fetal rights.

[Note: I consider the basic ideas used in this essay to be Ayn Rand’s, but the content of the entire essay is mine. Also, a summary follows this essay.]

The author and philosopher of Objectivism, Ayn Rand, was a champion of capitalism and a staunch advocate for the principle of individual rights. Yet, unlike most of today’s conservatives and Tea Party supporters, Ayn Rand supported the right of a woman to abortion. (She was “pro-choice.”) This post will argue that Rand was right about abortion, and that any conservative who wants to be reasonable in his or her advocacy of human rights should advocate for the right to abort a pregnancy.

Should it be illegal to slaughter cattle for meat? Do the emotions of sympathy that some activists have for animals mean that cattle have rights, and thereby mean that killing cattle for food should be illegal? If someone shows you a picture of a freshly slaughtered cow, and you say “Oh, how awful,” does that mean the cow’s killer should be given a jail term?

No, sympathetic emotions and graphic pictures are not enough to establish that animals have rights, the violation of which should be punished by the government. So it is with human beings, fetuses, embryos and human kidneys. Our emotional reactions are not enough to establish that any of these entities has rights. We must look at what the entity is and identify facts about it to establish whether or not it has rights that should be protected by the government. If, instead of going through this process, I claimed that Zeus told me through my emotions that trees have a right to life, you would have good reason to say that I was being irrational.

If a doctor performs surgery on you, will he find a body part called a “right to life”? If someone analyzes your DNA, will he find a gene that encodes for human rights? Obviously not.

Does a right to life serve as a physical barrier to harm? If you tell a ravening tiger or a Nazi soldier that you have a right to life, will that stop him from killing you? No?

What about the Bible? Are rights violations the criteria by which Christ separates the righteous from the wicked? That’s not what I remember Jesus saying about salvation. What about the Old Testament? Do rights come from the Commandments? Well, the Israelites practice slavery and participate in a tremendous amount of non-defensive killing, with the Old-Testament God’s approval, after the Commandments are given. (See: Ex. 32:27-29, Lev. 24:10-23, 1 Sam. 15:2-11, Jos. 6:1-21.) Further, Yahweh’s laws for the Israelites violate the US Founding Fathers’ notion of individual rights in countless ways. (No freedom of religious speech; no right to a fair trial, etc.) In the New Testament, Jesus, Paul and Peter encourage followers not to defend their rights against others, or exercise their personal property rights. (See: Mt. 5:38-42, Mt. 16:23-25Mt. 19:21, Acts 2:42-451 Cor. 4:10-13, 1 Pet. 2:18-25.)

In fact, the “rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” on which the US was founded are not mentioned once in the entire Bible. What then are “rights” and where do they come from?

Continue reading