Thursday, January 17, 2008

Self interest

One of the very stupidest ideas in moral philosophy is the idea that morality has to run contrary to one's self-interest. Such philosophers typically reduce self-interest to immediate material self-interest to make their case.

But I live in a house I could not have built by myself. I eat food I could not have grown myself. I drive a car I could not have built myself. I use a computer I could not have built myself, and could not myself have discovered the subtle, scientific principles on which it's constructed. Even though I'm a computer programmer, I use software I could not possibly have had the time to write myself. I see a physician who knows more about my body than I could have learned myself. There are soldiers, police and lawyers who protect me in ways I cannot protect myself. I've been educated, edified, entertained and amused by thousands of books, plays, movies and television shows I could not have written or produced myself. I've been taught a body of knowledge I could not have created myself by teachers, scholars and scientists.

The notion that these items do not accrue to my self-interest is absolutely idiotic.

And yet all of these benefits rely on the moral beliefs both I myself and the members of my society have adopted: Don't steal, don't hit people, don't lie. Without these moral beliefs, we would have no cooperation, no society, no civilization: We would, as individuals, be little more that brute animals living on the brink of starvation.

Yes, I have to "sacrifice" my immediate, material self-interest. I cannot simply take what I want from the grocery store: I have to pay for it. I cannot simply occupy a house that pleases me, I have to pay rent or a mortgage. I cannot simply punch someone who annoys me.

Well whoop de fucking do. Living in a civilized society? Or living in a cave, eluding tigers and killing antelopes with rocks? You do the math.

Morality is contrary to self-interest my house-living, car-driving, grocery-store-shopping ass.


  1. There's currently a huge backlash going on against evolutionary psychology (and not entirely undeservedly in the "intellectual" press, but it seems to me that evolutionary psychology holds some pretty keen insights. Among them, the simple idea, which you make a case for above, that morality is an adaptation necessary for human survival as a social species.

    Otherwise we'd be small families of orangutans swinging in trees, as opposed to REALLY BIG tribes of chimps still poking each other with sticks and hitting one another with rocks (which is what we are, only with Playstations and bigger egos).

  2. Um, replace the comma after "press" with a close parenthesis. Dunno what happened there...

  3. Well, the Playstations make it all worthwhile.

    The problems with evo-psych is mostly that they've bought into the adaptationist fallacy that Gould so eloquently describes. Furthermore, they try to justify a conclusion of biological evolution by arguing conditions known to go only tens or hundreds of thousands of years, which is insufficient time, by 1-4 orders of magnitude, for deep genetic changes. Tens or hundreds of thousands of years can shift a mean here or there, but it's not enough time for much more.

    We have to be able to trace things back millions or tens of millions of years to get deep genetic changes.

    More importantly, we have to rule out (or at least differentiate) social and cultural evolution. There are some features in common between biological and social evolution, but there are many difference. For this reason, I really dislike Dawkins' term "meme", which, in its intentional isomorphism to "gene" misses precisely what's different between biological and social evolution.

  4. stawman. i know of only one philosopher--kant--who's argued for the position that your trashing here. and even though undergraduate philosophy students regularly have to endure the broken-down but still moving deontology/utilitarianism wagon, no philosopher i know of takes kant's ethics seriously.

  5. It's not like Kant is exactly chopped liver in philosophical circles, but if philosophers don't take Kant's ethical arguments seriously, then good for them.

    Regardless, it's not a straw man fallacy to rebut a weak argument; a straw man fallacy is rebutting a weaker argument when a stronger argument exists. If you have a stronger argument, I'd love to hear it.

  6. Just out of curiosity, if no philosopher that you know of takes kant's ethics seriously, then why do undergraduate students (if I read you aright) still have to endure his ethical philosophy?

  7. why are students required to read Kant? academic inertia.

    strawmanning: a species of strawman is inflating a position that relatively few people endorse into something worth getting excited about. my contention is that's what you're doing when you get hot and bothered about the position--which, again, i don't know anyone who endorses--that being moral demands going against one's self-interest.

  8. I'm ever so sorry, Peter, that the topics on my humble blog do not satisfy your exacting standards of relevance.

  9. Wait, now you're taking issue with the Kantian conception of morality. Did I grossly misunderstand the other post I commented on?

  10. Did I grossly misunderstand the other post I commented on?

    Yes, you misunderstood, but only because I expressed myself unclearly.


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