Kalin’s “In Defense of Egoism” [1968]

     Copyright © 2002 Bruce W. Hauptli

1. Introduction:

Kalin considers a common critique of universal, categorical ethical egoism1—one which holds that such egoists can not provide an adequate moral theory because they can not consistently offer both first and second/third person moral evaluations.  He rejects the criticism, but ends up with a very weakened position, and some would contend that the end result is most unsatisfying as a moral position (though he does not share this view).

     According to Kalin, ethical egoism holds that:

     (x)(y)(x ought to do y if and only if y is in x's overall self-interest). [p. 96]

Before we can go further, I need to "unpack" this sentence, which he names "(i)."  First, substituting English for the "(x)(y)" and "x" and "y" portions, we have:
 

"for all persons, for all [their] actions, a person ought to do a particular action "if and only if" that action is in that person's overall self-interest.


Second, you need to know that "p if and only if q"2 is a way of specifying what logicians call "the biconditional."  The phrase "p if q" says that "q is a sufficient condition for p",  and the phrase "p only if q says that “p is a sufficient condition for q.”3Together, of course, as they are in the biconditional, we have that "q is a sufficient condition for p, and p is a sufficient condition for q."  Thus, we end up with something like this:
 

For all persons, for all [their] actions, a person ought to do a particular action when, first, the action's being in their [own] overall self-interest is a sufficient condition for it being obligatory for them to do that action, and, second, its being obligatory that they do that action is a sufficient condition for the action's being in their [own] overall self-interest.


More succinctly, the sentence says that the action's being in one's overall self-interest is necessary and sufficient for its being obligatory for one's self (that one "ought to do it").

     According to Kalin, (i) needs both a first person4and a second5 or third person6 interpretation:
 

97 one purpose of a moral theory is to provide criteria for first-person moral judgments (such as "I ought to do s in C"); another is to provide criteria for second and third-person moral judgments (such as "Jones ought to do s in C").


Note, of course, that he significantly differs from Medlin on this point.  As we shall see, he also rejects Medlin's critique of ethical egoism.  Still and all, we will have to return to this passage when we come to the end of Kalin's essay.  We will have to ask whether he really allows for the sorts of judgments which he calls for here.

     Following William Frankenna, Kalin gives the following as the first person interpretation of (i):
 

(a) If A is judging about himself, then A is to use this criterion: A ought to do y if and only if y is in A's overall self-interest. [p. 97]


He initially offers the following for the second and third person interpretation:
 

(b) If A is a spectator judging about anyone else, B, then A is to use this criterion: B ought to do y if and only if y is in A's overall self-interest. [p. 97]


According to Kalin, when (i) is interpreted as (a) and (b), it yields radically different (and incompatible) evaluations depending upon who is who is doing the evaluating:
 

When B does s and it is in B's overall self-interest, is this something that ethical egoism so construed approves of?  It depends on who is making the judgment (A or B).  But this seems contradictory.  Either doing s is right, or it is wrong.


According to Kalin, if (i) is so interpreted,
 

97 ...the ethical egoist must choose between (i)'s parts if he is to have a coherent ethical system, but he can make no satisfactory choice.  If (a) is chosen, second and third person judgments become impossible.  If (b) is chosen, first-person judgments become impossible.  His moral theory, however, must provide for both kinds of judgment.  Ethical egoism needs what it logically cannot have.  Therefore, it can only be rejected.


     To overcome this objection, Kalin offers a revised second and third person interpretation of (i):
 

(c) If A is a spectator judging about anyone else, B, then A is to use this criterion: B ought to do y if and only if y is in B's overall self-interest. [p. 98]


According to him, when (i) is interpreted as (a) and (c), it does not engender the above problem!

     Kalin then critically considers Medlin's "Ultimate Principles and Ethical Egoism" and argues that Medlin's core argument (that ethical egoism leaves individuals with incompatible attitudes which render moral evaluation impossible) fails to note that one of an individual's desires may be stronger than the others; and, thus, that incompatible desires don't have to yield inaction.  He uses competitive games to show this!

     Kalin also maintains that we need to distinguish between what he calls the material conception of valuations (a conception of a common, singular, universal, and ultimately shared value—one which everyone  ought to pursue), and the formal conception of valuations ("...that which is to have ultimate value for different people will usually be the same only in the sense that it is the same kind of good, but not the same particular instance of it" [p. 102]).  According to Kalin, ethical egoists may offer a formal conception of ethics which is consistent and universalizable (and, thus, avoids Medlin and others' critiques).

     According to Kalin, however, the ethical egoist who adheres to this view may not publicly advocate ethical egoism and may not engage in a wide range of activities and attitudes typically associated with morality:
 

activities: moral discussions, moral advice, appeal to sanctions, moral teaching, and moral justification of one's behavior;

attitudes: remorse, regret, resentment, repentance, forgiveness, revenge, outraged, indignation, and sympathy.


Kalin questions whether one is required to promulgate one's doctrine, or engage in these activities, or have these attitudes.  Instead, he advocates a private (as opposed to a public) morality.
 

"What ought I to do?" vs. "What ought we to do?"


Critical Consideration: when we see where he ends up, however, we must wonder whether Kalin's "defense" of egoism is really much of a defense—does he "throw the baby out with the bath-water?"

2. The Text:

Section I:
 

96 (i) (x)(y)(x ought to do y if and only if y is in x's overall self-interest)
 
-(i) represents what Medlin calls "universal [categorical] egoism"—"the majority of philosophers have considered universalization to be necessary for a sound moral theory, though few have considered it sufficient."

-97 "...the major objections to ethical egoism have been derived from this [universalization] requirement.  Opponents have argued that once egoism is universalized, it can readily be seen to be incoherent."


Section II:
 

97 The question is whether ethical egoism can do two of the central things which moral theories are to do:
 
-provide criteria for first person moral judgments ("I ought to do s in C"); and

-provide criteria for second and third person moral judgments ("Jones ought to do s in C").


William Frankena offers a clear-cut version of the common argument against ethical egoism which maintains that ethical egoists do not offer a real moral theory, because they cannot provide both such criteria:7

Frankena characterizes ethical egoism as consisting of two principles:
 

-(a)  If A is judging about himself, then A is to use this criterion: A ought to do y if and only if y is in A's overall self-interest.

-(b)  If A is a spectator judging about anyone else, B, then A is to use this criterion: B ought to do y if and only if y is in A's overall self-interest.

-When B does s and it is in B's overall self-interest, is this something that ethical egoism so construed approves of?  It depends on who is making the judgment (A or B).  But this seems incoherent.  Either doing s is right, or it is wrong.

-"Apparently, the ethical egoist must choose between (i)'s parts [(a) and (b)] if he is to have a coherent ethical system, but he can make no satisfactory choice.  If (a) is chosen, second and third person judgments become impossible.  If (b) is chosen, first-person judgments become impossible.  His moral theory, however, must provide for both kinds of judgment.  Ethical egoism needs what it logically cannot have.  Therefore, it can only be rejected.

-"When the interests of A and B are incompatible, one must pursue both of these incompatible goals, which, of course is impossible.  On this interpretation, ethical egoism must fail with respect to just those cases in which the guidance is most wanted—conflicts of interest."

-The problem with Frankena's version of ethical egoism, then, is that it engenders contradictory first and second/third person evaluations of the moral worth of actions.


98 According to Kalin, "the only plausible way to escape these arguments is to abandon Frankena's definition and reformulate egoism so that they are no longer applicable...."  Kalin proposes replacing Frankena's (b) with the following:
 

-(c) If A is a spectator judging about anyone else, B, then A is to use this criterion: B ought to do y if and only if y is in B's overall self-interest.

-This version of ethical egoism [(a) and (c)] does not engender contradictions as does [(a) and (b)].  Moreover, it is universalizable, and someone who follows it will certainly behave as an egoist.


Section III:
 

99 Kalin then considers Medlin's criticism of such versions of egoism claiming that "...to affirm a moral principle is to express approval of any and all actions following from that principle."  This means that "according to Medlin, if I adopt ethical egoism and am thereby led to approve of A's egoistic actions (as would follow from (c)), I must also want A to behave in that way and must want him to be happy, to come out on top, and so forth where wanting is interpreted as setting an end for my own actions and where it tends (according to the intensity of the want, presumably) to issue in my "looking after him."
 
-In short, "...whenever my interest conflicts with A's interest, I will approve of inconsistent ends and will want incompatible things....Since I approve of incompatible ends, I will be motivated in contrary directions."

-100 Without denying [as he implies he would be willing to] Medlin's commitment to emotivism, Kalin contends that we can undercut Medlin's argument by showing that his analysis of approbation (approval) is wrong:
 

--Consider competitive games (football, chess).  "Medlin's mistake is to think that believing that A ought to do y commits one to wanting A to do y and hence to encouraging or otherwise helping A to do y.  The examples from competitive games show that this needn't be so."


Section IV:
 

100-101 Kalin contends that: "the egoist's affirmation of (i) rests upon both teleological8and deontological9elements.  What he finds to be of ultimate value is his own welfare.  He needn't be selfish or egocentric in the ordinary sense...but he will value his own interest above that of others.  Such an egoist would share Sidwick's view that when "the painful necessity comes for another man to choose between his own happiness and the general happiness, he must as a reasonable being prefer his own."10 When this occasion does arise, the egoist will want the other's welfare less than he wants his own, and this will have the practical effect of not wanting the other's welfare at all."

"...if it is reasonable for the egoist to justify his behavior in terms of what he finds to be of ultimate value, then it is also reasonable for others to justify their behavior in terms of what they find to be of ultimate value.  This follows from the requirement of universalization and provides the deontological element."

101-102 "Medlin's crucial charge against ethical egoism is not that it is incoherent or unable to fulfill the necessary functions of a moral theory such as decisively guiding conduct in cases where interests conflict, but that principle (i) is simply not an expression of egoism.  Egoism is [according to Medlin] an unformulable moral theory, and hence no moral theory....Medlin's criticism rests on the assumption that ethical egoism...is saying that there is something of intrinsic value which everyone ought to pursue—that there is one specific state of affairs everyone ought to pursue.  This is false, and is the result of not distinguishing material valuations from what I shall call formal valuations."
 

-103 A moral theory may be teleological in terms of merely formal values.  Consider, again, professional football: "the players' interests...do not have to be shared or even mutually compatible—only one team can win, glory is a scarce good requiring the defeat of others...."

-When viewed on the formal level, any apparent contradiction disappears!  "The egoist finds that his own self-interest gives him a reason to act in certain ways, but he does not think that this self-interest per se gives another person a reason to act.  Self-interest is an ultimate good in the formal but not the material sense.  He therefore holds that what he ought to do, all things considered (what it would be most reasonable for him to do), is pursue his own self-interest, even to the harming of others when necessary.  But he further acknowledges that if this form of reasoning is sufficient to justify his egoistic behavior, it is sufficient to justify anyone's, or everyone's egoistic behavior.  Consequently, he will accept the universalization of his position...."


Section V:
 

104 For Kalin, however, the ethical egoist can not publicly advocate egoism and can not engage in a wide range of behavior typically associated with morality.
 
-The ethical egoist can not engage in moral discussions (at least not sincerely).  It will not be in his interest for him to argue for (i)—minimally, others will become suspicious of him!

-The ethical egoist will not be able to give or receive moral advice.  He can't give others his reasons for the advice he would give them, and he can't trust their advice or reasons—either he will be told to do things which are not in his self-interest, or he will have to distrust the claim that things are, in fact, in his self-interest.

-105 He will be unable to teach his principle to others.

-"Finally, one of the points of appealing to a moral principle is to justify one's behavior to others—to convince them that their (sometimes forcible) opposition to this behavior is unwarranted and ought to be withdrawn.  When we do convince someone of the rightness of our actions, he normally comes to our side, even if reluctantly."


Moreover, here are, then, a variety of moral attitudes which the ethical egoist will not be able to express: remorse, regret, resentment, repentance, forgiveness, revenge, outrage, indignation, and sympathy!
 

-106 "This is strange not because the egoist is in some sense required to promulgate his doctrine while at the same time faithfully follow it, for we saw above that he can coherently reject this demand, but strange because his position seems to have lost most of the features characterizing a morality.  When put into practice, ethical egoism discards the moral activities of advocacy, moral discussion, giving and asking of advice, using sanctions to reward and punish, praising and blaming, moral instruction and training, and interpersonal excusing and justification, as well as the expressing of many moral attitudes and emotions.  With these features gone, what remains that constitutes a morality?  The egoist may, indeed, have a coherent practical system, but it lacks certain major structural features of a morality, it is not a moral theory."


106-107 While Frankena and Medlin maintain that a "silent" theory is not a moral theory (a theory of morality), Kalin disagrees.
 

-106 "...Frankena connects nonuniveralization with silence, and thereby universalization with promulgation.  This is a very strong sense of "universalize"...."

-A weaker sense of `universalize' merely says that "What's right for one person is right for similar people in similar circumstances."  [The stronger sense maintains that universalization requires "promulgation."]

-106-107 "Universalization in this strong sense is not a rational requirement....
  I personally think that it makes sense to speak of egoism as a morality, since I think it makes sense to speak of a "private morality" and of its being superior to public moralities."  The egoist's basic question is "What ought I to do; what is most reasonable for me to do.  This question seems to me a moral question through and through, and any coherent answer to it thereby deserves to be regarded as a moral theory.  What is central here is the rational justification of a certain course of behavior.  Such behavior will be justified in the sense that its reasonableness follows from a coherent and plausible set of premises."


(end)

3. Criticism:

At the end of his article, Medlin contends that
 

95 ...we assert our ultimate principles not only to express our own attitudes but also to induce similar attitudes in others, to dispose them to conduct themselves as we wish.


In what seems a similar vein, Kalin contends that
 

97 one purpose of a moral theory is to provide criteria for first-person moral judgments (such as "I ought to do s in C"); another is to provide criteria for second and third-person moral judgments (such as "Jones ought to do s in C").


We must ask whether there is any purpose to providing such judgments when we have accepted all that Kalin wants us to.  Clearly we can not have the goals which Medlin has in mind if our ethical egoism is, like Kalin's a "private" one!  Given the restrictions Kalin places upon our activities and attitudes, what sorts of "judgments" are we left with?  More directly, the essay leaves us with the question whether a private morality has much purpose?

Notes:

Cf., Jessie Medlin, "Ultimate Principles and Ethical Egoism," reprinted in Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings (fourth edition), ed. Louis Pojman (Belmont: Wadsworth, 2002), pp. 90-95, esp., p. 92.   Back

2Here p (and q) are variables which stand for any "proposition"—any true/false assertion.   Back

The distinction between necessary and sufficient conditions may be made in a number of ways.  Necessary conditions may be described as "those which must be there for an event to occur" (thus paying your parking fines is necessary for graduation), while sufficient conditions are conditions such that the event must occur (thus a direct double shotgun blast to the head is sufficient for death).  Note that conditions may be sufficient without being necessary (as in the example), and that necessary conditions need not be sufficient (as in the example).  An alternate way of drawing the distinction is to say that "p is a necessary condition for q" means "if q is true, then p is true" (symbolically q-->p), while "p is a sufficient condition for q" means "if p is true, then q is true" (symbolically: p-->q).   Back

4First Person: the person used by a speaker in statements referring to her/himself (I for the singular, and we for the plural).   Back

Second Person: the person used by a speaker in statements referring to the one or ones to whom he/she is speaking (e.g., you).   Back

Third Person: the person used by a speaker in statements referring to anyone or anything other than himself or the one or ones to whom he/she is speaking (e.g., he, she, they).   Back

Kalin is discussing William Frankena's arguments against ethical egoism in Frankena's Ethics (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1963) pp. 16-18.   Back

That is, goal-oriented.  A teleological ethical consideration focuses attention upon the agents' goals and objectives.   Back

That is, duty-centered.  A deontological ethical consideration focuses its attention upon the duties which it ascribes to agents.   Back

10 Kalin cites Henry Sidgwick’s The Methods of Ethics (seventh edition) (London: Macmillan, 1907), preface to the sixth edition, p. xvii.   Back

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