WHAT IS KANTIAN EGOISM? (revised)

I HAD AN ethics class. The project at the end of the quarter was to choose and defend a moral theory — the moral theory that best represented our personal ethical point of view.

The aim of the project wasn’t to find (and defend) an ethical theory that struck out fancy — we were supposed to find THE True Moral Theory.

and argue why it is so.

At that time, I chose rule egoism. I picked egoism, because egoism (specifically rule egoism) was as close to how I make my moral decisions as any moral theory could get.

I believed then (and still do) that I cannot make any choice — be it moral, ontological, or epistemic — without seeing it through the prism of my own point of view. No matter where I go, there I am.

Even if I supported divine command theory, I’d still figure in there, somewhere.

But, despite my firm egoistic tendencies, I still had a problem. Rule egoism seemed a bit binding. I realized that I wasn’t always selfish when I decided what to do. Surely my moral decisions were always made through the filter of me-ism, but I wasn’t always a dedicated egoist.

I realized there are times when it’s absolutely not necessary to go Galt.

The problem was that there always were other moral theories creeping in.

Namely, I found myself more often than I had expected, running my moral choices through Kant’s Categorical Imperative.

This was disturbing to me.

I was, after all, an egoist. I had no duty to others, only duty to myself. I was told in the interest of consistency, that one cannot be an egoist and a Kantian simultaneously.

Doing so is about as possible as being both in Paris, France and Paducah, Kentucky at the same time.

And that just ain’t happening.

But somehow it was happening. My true true moral theory had me working two opposing moral theories simultaneously.

How was this possible?

It took some time (and graduating from college) before I realized that I was indeed both — I am a Kantian, but I am also an egoist.

The 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote, in Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), that the moral value of an act is weighed in that action is performed from duty. We evaluate the moral value of our actions according to two principles, which Kant calls the Categorical Imperative.

Principle 1 of the Categorical Imperativr states that we act only on a maxim that we can at the same time make universal law.

Principle 2 holds that we act in such a way as not to use others as mere means for our own ends.

Kent’s Categorical Imperative is one of those ethical theories that we file under: it looks great on paper.

It doesn’t take a lot of being a Kantian in the real world to figure out that Kant’s ethics, when actually practiced, tend to cause a complication or two. We often find ourselves tweaking the rules, which is exactly what we aren’t supposed to do. The Categorical Imperative, according to Kant, is absolute and inviolable.

Kant’s theory works fantastically with hypothetical ax murderers, but it makes for trouble in the real world. Likewise, egoism also tends to, when we attempt to live as pure egoists, cause it’s fair share of real world complications.

Thomas Hobbes stated that the primary goal of all men is self-preservation. Because we don’t like self-preservation disruptive things like pain or death, we make agreements with others to cooperate with one another to create a peaceful and stable society.

Hobbes called this the social contract.

We enter into the social contract  Because we are motivated to do what works best to preserve our own interests.

Ayn Rand, the 20th century philosopher and novelist who developed Objectivism, an egoism based philosophy, wrote that men,

” must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself; he must work for his rational self-interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose in life”.

For the egoist, Rand explains, our highest moral duty is when we act according to our own self-interest.

(I realize how many people out there feel about Ayn Rand, and really, I agree with all of you. But, when your trying to figure out the True Moral Theory, sometimes you gotta break eggs. Even if those eggs are shaped like a more-than-slightly misanthropic Russian novelist).

Although Ayn Rand despised Immanuel Kant and his ethics, there’s a word that is common to both ethical theories — duty.

At first glance, it may seem that these are conflicting moral systems. However, even the Kantian will admit that among our moral duties includes duties to self.

Both theories stress the role of making rational moral decisions.

Now, one may ask, how can one be an egoist, yet maintain Kant’s Categorical Imperative? The theories appear to conflict, but in fact, they do not.

At least if you’re willing to do some philosophical yoga.

At this point, I think that it’s important to clear up what we mean when we say “egoist”. Now, The antics of some Rand followers aside, an egoist is not one who is exclusively motivated by unbridled greed. Quite the contrary, an egoist is one who merely evaluates his moral choices according to how they coincide with his rational self-interest. It is possible that when someone thinks of an egoist, what he is thinking of egotism.

And the definition of egotism is:

Egotism is the drive to maintain and enhance favorable views of oneself, and generally features an inflated opinion of one’s personal features and importance. It often includes intellectual, physical, social and other overestimations. Wikipedia

The egotist is motivated purely by an over-inflated sense of self importance. For the egotistically inclined, selfishness is the manifestation of a psychological disposition. By contrast, the egoist practices an ethics of selfishness as a matter of rational, moral judgment.

An egoist isn’t so centered on his own interests that he neglects the needs of others. In fact, he may be motivated to do for others before he satisfies his own physical needs — if he sees that by serving others he ultimately serves his own rational interests.

The thing about egoism is that, egoism, like other consequentialist systems of ethics, judges the moral rightness or wrongness of an act based on outcomes — not what method we use to arrive at the best consequences.

This kind of moral reasoning is what allows us to pull the lever on the train tracks.

We’re kind of free to do whatever works — just as long as the consequences are good.

And if you’re an egoist you need only be concerned with how the consequences affect just one person: YOU.

It might do an egoist some ggood if the egoist adopted a paramount moral principle — something like this: in the pursuit of my own self-interest, I will live according to 1) do not engage in any act or act according to any maxim that I cannot also universalize, and 2) do not use others as a mere means to my own ends.

Of course, this is easily recognized as Kant’s Categorical Imperative.

Believe it or not, it actually works.

BEHOLD THE MORAL THEORY OF KANTIAN EGOISM!

I’ve been a practicing Kantian egoist for some time, and I will say since adopting an egoism lifestyle according to Kant’s  principles, I am less likely to get my ass kicked.

For some strange reason, people want to beat up egoists — especially utilitarians.

My duties to self and to others is not limited in the way that Kant’s ethics are often binding in the real world. Egoism allows me to consider consequences, in particular, consequences to myself.

My ethical position recognizes that in the real world, it is difficult to live purely according to one set of moral principles. We often find ourselves operating according to multiple theories, sometimes simultaneously. Very few people are strict utilitarians or unshakable moral relativists. We often find ourselves splitting the difference between moral theories — taking the elements from each that allows us to decide what’s the right thing to do.

Rest assured I’m not “shopping” for moral theories. Kantian egoism is about finding where seeming opposing theories cohere and allows us — me — to make rational moral decisions that benefit others and (more importantly) benefit myself.

My TRUE MORAL THEORY simply finds the workable parts of Kantian ethics and egoism and binds them together into a more real world-ready theory.

So, I declare with absolutely no philosophical trepidation whatsoever, I am a Kantian egoist.

Or an egoist with a Kantian view of the good…

Or an egoist with Kantian tendencies…Or whatever.

Now that I’m thinking about it, this all stinks of intuitionism.

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One thought on “WHAT IS KANTIAN EGOISM? (revised)

  1. Old post I know, but stumbled on this while researching. I found your site because I was thinking the same thing. I'm not an egoist, but Kant's maxim is easily justified by someone who is. That's because it's basically the Golden Rule, a conclusion that both the egoist and the altruist can logically reach. Epicurus came to the same conclusion, from the most extreme of egoist positions. Hobbes similarly. Confuscious. Even Jesus did, if he ever existed as an individual. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Kant's maxim seems to me exactly that. Psychological egoism easily reaches this conclusion.But it takes the use of humankind's faculty for reason to realise it, and more importantly it takes application once that realisation has been made.The problem with ethical egoism is that it has a normative effect as well. People embrace the first part, but forget how important the other part is, the reasoning part. They instead 'justify' their behaviour post hoc and make decisions that effect others negatively, without thinking about the environment that their actions help create until it is done to them. IF it is done to them. There is always the chance in life that it won't. Instead of using reason to guide their behaviour, they gamble and contribute to the problem.I don't know if I'm an egoist or not, but I think your position reconciling Kant with egoism is a good one.

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