Episode 131: Greg Salmieri discusses egoism and altruism
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!