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Self-Love and Altruism*

  • David O. Brink (a1)

Whether morality has rational authority is an open question insofar as we can seriously entertain conceptions of morality and practical reason according to which it need not be contrary to reason to fail to conform to moral requirements. Doubts about the authority of morality are especially likely to arise for those who hold a broadly prudential view of rationality. It is common to think of morality as including various other-regarding duties of cooperation, forbearance, and aid. Most of us also regard moral obligations as authoritative practical considerations. But heeding these obligations appears sometimes to constrain the agent's pursuit of his own interests or aims. If we think of rationality in prudential terms–as what would promote the agent's own interests–we may wonder whether moral conduct is always rationally justifiable. Indeed, we do not need to think of rationality in exclusively prudential terms to raise this worry. The worry can arise even if there are impartial reasons–that is, nonderivative reasons to promote the welfare of others.

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1 I have discussed some of these issues elsewhere, for instance, in “RationalEgoism, Self, and Others,” in Identity, Character, and Morality, ed. Rorty O. Flanaganand A. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990). Here, I focus on developing a nonstrategic form ofegoism; I try to give a fuller sense of the historical traditions on which my own account draws so heavily and to present the principal systematic claims, worries, and resources more clearlythan I have before.

2 For a discussion of one version of this second form of the worry, see my “Kantian Rationalism: Inescapability, Authority, and Supremacy,” in Ethics and Practical Reason, ed. Cullity Garrett and Gaut Berys (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).

3 Because I do not assume that moral requirements must be rationally authoritative, I do not assume that doubts about the authority of morality imply skepticism or relativism. Moral requirements can be objective and important even if immoral conduct is not always irrational. Nonetheless, I have rationalist ambitions; I would like to see how far we can go in the direction of reconciling the demands of morality and the demands of practical reason, without distorting our views of morality or practical reason.

4 See my “Rational Egoism, Self, and Others” (supra note 1) and “Objectivity, Motivation, and Authority in Ethics” (unpublished).

5 Cf. Sidgwick Henry, The Methods of Ethics, 7th ed. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1981), pp. 164–70, 499–503; and Kavka Gregory, “The Reconciliation Project,” in Morality, Reason, and Truth, ed. Copp David and Zimmerman David (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Allanheld, 1984).

6 References to these works will be given parenthetically in the text.

7 Some might deny the relevance of counterfactual instability. It has been suggested that the Epicureans thought that they did not need to consider merely counterfactual challenges to justice. See Cicero, De Officiis iii 39, and De Re Publica iii 27; cf. Long A. A. and Sedley D. N., The Hellenistic Philosophers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 135. If my commitment to other-regarding norms would collapse in radically different circumstances, does this show that there is anything wrong with my commitment to them in actual circumstances? Even if one's commitments in some counterfactual circumstances–for instance, those in which everyone was self-sufficient and invulnerable–seem irrelevant to one's commitments in actual circumstances, other forms of counterfactual stability are more difficult to ignore. The story of Gyges, though fictional, merely makes vivid considerations that are often at work in real-life situations. Often I can fail to observe norms of cooperation, aid, and nonaggression with assurance of impunity. In these cases, it is asif I had a ring of Gyges. If Gyges has no reason to honor these norms, neither do I in such cases. And even in circumstances in which compliance with other-regarding norms is rational, theaccessibility of Gyges' circumstances suggests that my commitment in actual circumstancesis to my own self-interest, not to other-regarding morality. Cf. Irwin Terence, Plato's Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), section 130.

8 Cf. Sachs David, “A Fallacy in the Republic,” in Plato II, ed. Vlastos Gregory (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1971).

9 This perspective on Platonic love is suggested and explored in Irwin Terence, Plato's Moral Theory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), pp. 241–42, 267–73, and Irwin, Plato's Ethics, ch. 18.

10 This translation from the Symposium is adapted from that of Joycein MichaelThe Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. Hamilton Edith and Cairns Huntington (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961).

11 Translations of passages from the Rhetoric are from the revised Oxford translation in The Complete Works of Aristotle, ed. Barnes Jonathan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984).

12 Translations of passages from the Nicomachean Ethics (NE) are from Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Terence Irwin (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1985).

13 My understanding of Aristotle's account of friendship and its role in his ethical theory has been influenced by Irwin Terence, Aristotle's First Principles (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), esp. ch. 18.

14 Even justice gets only one book (NE V), and it is not uncommon to regard friendship, unlike justice, as a comparatively minor virtue.

15 Insofar as this is true, Aristotle can provide further justification for his assumption that there are posthumous benefits and harms and that the welfare of one's loved ones and the success of one's projects, after one is dead, are part of a complete good (NE 1100a10–31, 1101a23–30).

16 Green T. H., Prolegomena to Ethics, ed. Bradley A. C. (New York: Thomas Crowell, 1969); references to specific sections of this work will be given parenthetically in the text.

17 See Bradley F. H., Ethical Studies, 2d ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1927), esp. essay V.

18 To my mind, Green's ethical theory is vastly superior to Bradley's; itis not only better informed as to the history of ethics and less dogmatic, but also much moresubtle and resourceful.

19 Here, as elsewhere, Green shows the influence of both Butler and Kant. Cf. Butler Bishop, Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel, abridged as Five Sermons, ed. Darwall Stephen (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1983), sermon II, paragraphs 13–14; Kant Immanuel, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Ellington J. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1981), pp. 446–48, 457, 459–60 (Academy pagination); and Kant, The Critique of Practical Reason, trans. L. W. Beck (Indianapolis: Library of Liberal Arts, 1956), pp. 61–62, 72, 87 (Academy pagination).

20 Cf. Irwin Terence, “Morality and Personality: Kant and Green,” in Self and Nature in Kant's Philosophy, ed. Wood Allen W. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984).

21 Locke John, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Nidditch P. H. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), book II, chapter xxvii, sections 8, 15, 17–21, 23, 26.

22 Nonresponsible agents might usefully be praised or blamed for forward-looking (e.g., deterrent) reasons; but they do not deserve praise or blame. Moreover, in claimingthat ‘person’ is a “forensic” concept, Locke means not only that only persons can be held responsible but also that holding P2 responsible for Pl's actions only makes sense if P2 = PI. I am here appealing to the former claim. I doubt the latter claim is true; I suspect responsibility presupposes deliberative control, rather than identity.

23 Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, sections 14, 15, and 19.

24 Shoemaker Sydney, Self-Knowledge and Self-Identity (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1963), p. 23.

25 However, Brownson does have one very important part of Brown's body, viz., his brain. There is, therefore, a kind of physical criterion of identity–one that defines personal identity in terms of continuity of the brain–that can accommodate the kind ofbody swap in Brownson's case. But this is an implausible form of the physical criterion. The obvious question is “Why is the brain especially important?” No one thinks that the foot, the nose, or even the heart is necessary or sufficient for personal identity. The brain is a candidate only because in this case, and most others, continuity of the brain is what secures continuity of mental life. But then the reason for focusing on the brain ispsychological, not physical. This supports a psychological criterion, however, not a physical one.

26 Similar mentalistic views are defended by Parfit Derek, Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), part III; and Sydney Shoemaker, “Personal Identity: A Materialist's Account,” in Shoemaker Sydney and Swinburne Richard, Personal Identity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1984).

27 Some kinds of psychological connections may seem more central or important than others. For instance, my career goals and plans and the actions that depend upon them seem more central to my psychological profile than my preference about what shirt to wear on a particular morning and the actions that depend on that preference. But my career aims seem more central than my fashion preferences largely because more of my beliefs, desires, intentions, and actions depend on the former than on the latter. If so, perhaps qualitative differences among psychological connections can be cashed out in purely quantitative terms.

28 The problem of fission for mentalistic views about personal identity was first raised, I believe, by Reid Thomas; see Reid, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, ed. Brody Baruch (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1969), p. 357. Fission and its significance are discussed by Wiggins David, Identity and Spatio-Temporal Continuity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1967);Nozick Robert, Philosophical Explanations (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), ch. 1; Parfit, Reasons and Persons, ch. 12; and Shoemaker, “Personal Identity,” sections 12–13.

29 There is clinical evidence that suggests that severing the corpus callosum can produce two distinct spheres of consciousness, corresponding to the right and left hemispheres of the brain. See, for example, Perry R. W., “The Great Cerebral Commissure,” Scientific American, vol. 210 (1964); and Nagel Thomas, “Brain Bisection and the Unity of Consciousness,” in Personal Identity, ed. Perry John (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1975). When hemispheres are severed, dividing consciousness, each hemisphere can “learn” to perform some functions that the other had performed for the united brain, and in some patients various capacities usually found in only one hemisphere are found in both. Insofar as this is true, the possibility of dividing the brain and preserving two qualitatively identical but distinct streams of consciousness is not so fantastic. A residual empirical obstacle is that the functionality of a single hemisphere of the brain seems to depend upon the integrity of the brain stem, which does not admit of division. But these empirical obstacles to dividing the brain are not important, I think. What we would or should say about personal identity in merely counterfacrual circumstances can constrain what we think personal identity consists in and what its significance is, and this can affect what we can or should say about personal identity and its significance in actual circumstances.

30 Parfit, Reasons and Persons, p. 256.

31 If so, Parfit is wrong to claim (as he does in Reasons and Persons, pp. 259–60,278–79) that it is an “empty question” which answer is right because they all describe the same outcome.I am unsure myself whether psychological continuity, rather than identity, is all that matters; if it can matter, in the relevant way, that psychological continuity takes a unique or non-branching form, then identity will have some independent value. However, it is enough for present purposes that psychological continuity has significant independent value.

32 In this way, I agree with Parfit, who thinks that personal identity is “less deep” and normatively less significant on the psychological reductionist view; see Reasons and Persons, chs. 14 and 15. Unlike Parfit, however, I do not think that this follows from considerations about the metaphysical depth of a reductionist view per se; it follows from seeing that there is interpersonal, as well as intrapersonal, psychological continuity and that the difference between the two is at most a matter of degree. I discuss this issue somewhat more fully in “Rational Egoism and the Separateness of Persons,” in Parfit and His Critics, ed. Jonathan Dancy (Oxford; Blackwell, forthcoming).

33 Even parental concern for a newborn is preceded by decisions, plans, and actionson the parent's part on which the newborn's existence and condition depend.

34 Insofar as the metaphysical-egoist attempt to reconcile self-interest and other-regarding moral demands depends upon the fact that people are not individually sufficient for a complete deliberative good, the reconciliation depends upon contingent facts, and the resulting defense of the authority of other-regarding demands will not hold in all possible worlds. But this sort of counterfactual instability is very different from that which afflicts strategic egoism (cf. note 7); for the worlds in which strategic egoism fails are very similar to theactual world (indeed, they include the actual world), whereas the worlds in which metaphysicalegoism fails are very different from the actual world. As a result, it is not clear that the sort of counterfactual instability that afflicts metaphysical egoism is a problem.

35 This is a latent theme in Plato's early and transitional dialogues; it comes closer to the surface in the Gorgias, where greater probative value is attached to discussion with diverse and more radical interlocutors. Cf. Terence Irwin, “Objectivity and Coercion in Plato's Dialectic,” Revue Internationale de Philosophic, no. 156/157 (1986), pp. 49–74. The deliberative value of freedom of expression and diversity of opinion and lifestyle is an important strand in John Stuart Mill's arguments against censorship, moral legislation, and paternalism, especially in On Liberty; see my “Mill's Deliberative Utilitarianism,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 21 (1992), pp. 67–103.

36 This translation from the Lysis is by J. Wright in The Collected Dialogues of Plato (supra note 10).

37 Jennifer Whiting objects to the colonial or imperial perspective that she thinksthe egoist must impose on interpersonal concern; see Whiting, “Impersonal Friends,” The Monist, vol. 74 (1991), pp. 9–10. Purely instrumental concern for another, of thesort to which Socrates seems to be committed, is colonial or imperial in some straightforwardly objectionable way. But where the egoist can justify derivative but noninstrumental concern for others, it is unclear what the moral objection to the egocentric perspective is.

38 For more discussion of these issues, see my “Rational Egoism and the Separateness of Persons” (supra note 32).

39 In discussing the puzzle about whether to wish one's friend the good of divinity, Aristotle claims that one who cares about the friend for the friend's own sake would not wish this good on the friend, because the friend would not survive the transformation (NE 1159a5–11). This seems right. But persistence does not require fixity of character over time. Thus, while it is plausible that one should not wish on oneself or others the good of divinity, it is not plausible that one should not wish on oneself or others significant improvement of character; rather, this is just what friendship toward oneself and others requires.If so, then concern for someone, whether oneself or another, for his own sake requires neithersimilarity nor fixity of character. Insofar as Aristotle disagrees (esp. U65b17–30), his claims seem problematic.

40 For a brief discussion, see my “Rational Egoism and the Separateness of Persons.”

41 Continuity must figure in a mentalistic account of identity if only to meet Reid's demand that any criterion of identity be transitive; see Reid, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man (supra note 28), p. 358.

42 Insofar as he conceives the common good universally, Green's view is perhaps closer to the Stoic than to the Aristotelian view. See Cicero, De Finibus iii 63. This aspect of the Stoic view is emphasized in Annas Julia, The Morality of Happiness (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), ch. 12.

43 Part of Aristotle's justification for restricting citizenship assumes that manual labor is inimical to deliberation and virtue (Politics 1329a35–38). Dull and repetitive labor over which the worker has no control is menial and can only be instrumentally valuable to the extent that it furnishes life's necessities. But manual labor need not be menial in this way. As long as the farmer or artisan has responsibility for and control over production, distribution, and the organization of his labor process, manual labor can and will involve the exercise of important deliberative capacities. By Aristotelian criteria, meaningfulmanual labor ought to be an intrinsic good.

44 The introduction of the proverbial remotest Mysian into discussions of the scopeof ethical concern is discussed by Annas, The Morality of Happiness, ch. 12.

45 C. D. Broad calls this interpretation of common-sense morality “self-referential altruism”; see Broad, “Self and Others,” in Broad's Critical Essays in Moral Philosophy, ed. David R. Cheney (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1971).

46 I am not sure that this strong thesis can be reached from recognizably individualist premises; it may require fundamentally anti-individualist metaphysical claims, according to which persons are merely parts of an interpersonal organic whole and must view their own well-being in terms of the proper functioning of the whole of which they are a part.

47 The claims I sketch in this section for a principled accommodation of self-confined and other-regarding aspects of self-interest bear some resemblance (I'm not sure how much) to claims that Thomas Nagel and Samuel Scheffler make about the reconciliation of personal and impersonal moral demands; see Nagel, Equality and Partiality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), and Scheffler, Human Morality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), esp. ch. 8. One difference is that whereas Nagel and Scheffler are concerned about the accommodation of different aspects of morality, I am concerned about the accommodation of different aspects of self-interest. It is also worth noting apparent similarities between my claims and claims Hegel makes in The Philosophy of Right, trans. T. M. Knox (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952), and Introduction to the Philosophy of History, trans. Leo Rauch (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1988). My claim that proper self-realization requires partitioning one's life into differentially regulated spheres is like the Hegelian claim that it is only by participating in the three very differently organized spheres of family, civil society, and the state that one is able fully to realize oneself in the modern world. My claim that accommodation of these two aspects of self-interest is not always possible and would be a political accomplishment is like the Hegelian claim that reconciliation is a possibility only in the modernworld. Unlike Hegel, however, I am not confident that full accommodation is yet possible.

48 Cf. my “Kantian Rationalism: Inescapability, Authority, and Supremacy” (supra note 2).

* I am indebted to Richard Arneson, Neera Badhwar, David Copp, Stephen Darwall, Thomas Hurka, Terry Irwin, Diane Jeske, Philip Kitcher, Christopher Morris, Bruce Russell, Gerasimos Santas, Alan Sidelle, Michael Slote, Ed Stein, Nicholas Sturgeon, Virginia Warren, Gary Watson, the Los Angeles area Moral and Political Philosophy Society (MAPPS), the other contributors to thisvolume, and its editors, for helpful discussion of issues in this essay.

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