Elucidations

Share

Episode 131: Greg Salmieri discusses egoism and altruism

Ep. 131

This month, Greg Salmieri (University of Texas at Austin) returns for his third appearance on Elucidations, this time to talk about doing right by yourself.


What was the last thing you did? The last thing I did was pull a shot of espresso. I wouldn’t say I made coffee as an end in itself, even though I love the taste of the roast I just used. If I had to tell you the main reason I made a coffee, it was in order to speed along my transformation from groggy podcast host to awake podcast host. But why do that? Hmm. I guess I wanted to wake up so that I could start writing this blog post, pay a couple bills, and put together a cool new IKEA lamp? But why pay a couple bills or put together a new IKEA lamp? So that I can continue to live in my apartment, be able to see things in it, and so on, maybe? Plato and Aristotle were interested in these ‘but what are you doing XYZ in order to accomplish?’ type questions, and they had the idea that if you keep re-asking the question every time you come up with answer, eventually you’ll get to something that is the ultimate reason you’re doing everything for. Once you get there, there won’t be any further justification for anything you do.


‘Ethical egoism’ is a nickname that philosophers give to the idea that being a good person means that everything you do, ultimately, at the end of the day, you do in order to benefit yourself.


Note that there’s already a lot of subtlety in this idea as we’ve defined it. For example, if you’re deceived about what’s good for you, and the thing you think is good for you is actually bad for you, then if you do everything you do in order to bring that about, you don’t count as a good person. Maybe I think that fame will be great for me, because of all the money, power, and attention that comes with it. But in a few years, once I actually become world famous, I realize it’s actually pretty miserable to be hounded by paparazzi, speculated about in the tabloids, and subjected to intense scrutiny every time I make a comment about anything. Once that happens, I might decide the whole get famous plan was misbegotten, longing for the days before I was a celebrity. So one point of subtlety is that what’s good or bad for a person can be complicated to determine—there are lots of cases where you can make a mistake about what’s really good for you.


A second point of subtlety is that how your everyday behavior corresponds to what you’re ultimately doing everything for can be complex. Maybe you’ve adopted a monkish lifestyle, sacrificing the day to day comforts we take for granted so that you can help as many other people as possible, volunteering, donating to charities, and so forth. An ethical egoist would say that if you’re ultimately doing all those things because of the deep, persistent, long-term satisfaction it brings you—because of how it enriches your life to the fullest possible extent, then that counts as being a good person. So it’s not like commonly-held stereotypes about what selfishness is necessarily line up with what ethical egoists recommend.


Due to those two factors, there’s a lot of wiggle room in what concrete behaviors can count as acting in your self-interest, and different behaviors are going to count as self-interested for different people, because different people often have fundamentally different needs and abilities. And I would say that’s what makes it especially interesting to think about whether ethical egoists have it right.


Join us this month as our esteemed guest defends the viability of ethical egoism!


More Episodes

2/13/2022

Episode 139: Jessica Tizzard discusses the philosophy of pregnancy

Ep. 139
This month,Jessica Tizzard(University of Tuebingen) makes hersecond appearanceon Elucidations to talk to Matt about pregnancy.Human pregnancy is weird. Try talking to a reproductive endochrinologist about it, and you’ll soon find that there’s a lot we don’t really understand about it even at the scientific level. But even when it comes to thinking about pregnancy at the commonsense reasoning level, puzzles begin popping up the second you start trying to think about it systematically. Like, consider the commonsense idea that a fetus is ‘inside’ the person who is pregant with it. They clearly are, in the sense that they aren’t out and about in the world the way a marsupial fetus is. But if you think abouthow containment and interiority are defined mathematically, there’s also a sense in which the fetuscan’tliterally be inside the womb, because in order for one thing to be inside another they have to be physically disconnected.In this episode, Jessica Tizzard argues that our commonsense thinking about pregnancy is dominated by ‘container’ metaphors: i.e. we think about a fetus inside a womb the way we think about a cookie inside a jar. However, she thinks that ‘parthood’ analogies are often an equally good fit for how a fetus relates to the person pregnant with it. That is, there are also biological analogies you could draw between a fetus and a body part: a body part is seamlessly physically connected to the body it’s a part of, and a body part is subject the same organism-level system of homeostatic regulation that the rest of the body is.The next step is to start thinking about how these observations ramify morally. Can acknowledging that the ‘parthood’ way of thinking is at least as biologically accurate as the ‘container’ way of thinking help shed light on what kinds of duties a pregnant person has to their as-yet unborn fetus? Join Matt and Jessica as they dive right into these thorny but important questions!Further ReadingOur distinguished guest recommends the following literature on pregnancy, which she draws on heavily in her own work:‘Lady Parts’, Elselijn Kingma‘Were You a Part of Your Mother?’, Elselijn Kingma‘9 Months’, Elselijn Kingma‘Neonatal Incubator or Artifical Womb?’, Elselijn Kingma and Suki Finn‘Abortion, Intimacy, and the Duty to Gestate’, Margaret Olivia LittleHappy reading!Matt Teichman
1/23/2022

Episode 138: Toby Buckle discusses Mill's liberty principle

Ep. 138
This month, Toby Buckle, host of the Political Philosophy Podcast, returns to talk about John Stuart Mill’s liberty principle! (Also sometimes called the ‘harm principle’.) The occasion for the episode is the recent release of Toby’s cool new book, What is Freedom?, which is out now from Oxford University Press. Get it while it’s hot!John Stuart Mill is probably one of the most influential intellectuals of the 19th century, having penned treatises on markets, logic, feminism, utilitarianism, and freedom of speech that people continue to pick up and read today. In this episode, we talk about how he had one foot in the free market-oriented tradition of liberalism and another in the more social justice-oriented type of liberalism, how he was raised under the world’s most ambitious parenting/education regime, and how he had a lifelong collaboration with Harriet Taylor. We also introduce what gets called his ‘liberty princple’.The idea behind the liberty principle is that we want as much freedom for each person as possible: they should have the ability to set their own agenda and carry it out. But we also need to limit it somewhat, because if everyone was completely unconstrained in how they set their agenda and carried it out, they’d interfere with each other. We’d have one person’s freedom detracting from other people’s freedom. So in order to achieve the perfect equilibrium we want, the thing to do is aim for sort of a greatest lower bound: every person should be allowed to do whatever they want for whatever reason they want, only stopping shy once they reach the point where doing whatever they want would harm another person. It might seem like an obvious principle to us now, but arguably that’s because we’re all living in the shadow of Mill!Part of the background context for this principle is a worry about paternalism. There’s a natural tendency for Person A to prevent Person B from doing what they want because Person A thinks it’s obvious that what Person B wants to do right now is harmful to them. The liberty principle tells us that that’s not a good reason to have laws prohibiting some course of action. We should only have a law prohibiting some course of action if allowing that course of action would interfere with other people’s freedom. That way, Mill argued, we keep the decision about whether to pass a law prohibiting something grounded in empirical facts about what would actually happen if it were passed. He also wanted to emphasize that each person has the right to be their own arbiter of what kinds of risk they will assume.I hope you enjoy our discussion! It was a fun one.Further ReadingIf you’d like to hear more along the lines of what Toby and I discuss in this episode, you can do no better than to take a look at Mill’s exquisiteOn Liberty, which you can get for free here:https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/34901And if you missed the link up at the top, definitely check out Toby’s edited volume, which gathers together a number of the interviews from his own podcast. The overarching theme is what freedom is and what it can be.What is Freedom?: Conversations with Historians, Philosophers, and Activists, Toby BuckleHappy reading!Matt Teichman
1/2/2022

Episode 137: Bryan Caplan discusses open borders

Ep. 137
This month, I talk to Bryan Caplan (George Mason University) about what a world without immigration restrictions could look like. The work discussed in this episode comes out of Bryan’s incredible non-fiction graphic novel, Open Borders, which I highly recommend checking out. Don’t let the comic-book-iness of it fool you; it is 100% accessible and entertaining, but it is also written at the level of detail you’d normally expect to see in a peer-reviewed research paper.One basic fact about the world today is that it’s kind of a pain to move from country to country. You can maybe pull it off if you’ve already landed a fancy job where you want to move and if you’re coming from a first-world country, but even then, there are more complications than you might think: work visas, sponsorships, visa renewal, permanent residency, possible eventual citizenship. Basically just a ton of red tape. And if you’re coming from a third-world country, forget it: you typically either have to be a political refugee or enter a lottery that leaves you with a vanishingly small chance of getting in. So although it is technically possible to immigrate, assuming that planets are aligned, the fact remains that in most situations, there are strong legal pressures locking us into whatever country we live in right now. Bryan Caplan thinks that we should essentially just eliminate the bureaucratic machine that makes it so difficult to live wherever you please. Sure, there can still be customs, and nation states, and basic security checks—but other than that, make it as easy as possible for everyone to move around.Let’s take the US as an example. One obvious benefit of opening up our borders is humanitarian: anyone living in poverty would be able to come here and with no difficulty whatsoever be able to start earning ten times as much money as they could back home. But far beyond that, there is a growing body of research within economics which suggests that having a large influx of formerly poor, newly productive people will lead to a boost in our economy. So everybody wins. And it isn’t just any old boost; it’s a massive boost. If these models are correct, everybody wins big time.Tune in to hear our guest run through some of the empirical evidence for this prediction and find out why, according to him, the supposed dangers of an open boders policy are greatly exaggerated!Further ReadingIf you’re curious to learn more about the arguments discussed in this episode, you can do no better than to turn to the book:Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration, Bryan Caplan and Zach WeinersmithYou might also enjoy Bryan’s blog post at Econlib running through the many topics the book covers.Finally, our distinguished guest recommends the following paper by Michael Clemens, which was part of the inspiration for his work on open borders:‘Economics and Emigration: Trillion-Dollar Bills on the Sidewalk?', Michael A. ClemensHappy reading!