WHAT IS KANTIAN EGOISM?

I had this ethics class. The project at the end of the quarter was to defend a moral theory. That is, we were supposed to find THE True Moral Theory, and argue why it is so. At that time, I argued rule egoism, with an objective view of the good. I picked egoism, because it came as close to how I make my moral decisions. I believe that I cannot make any choice (be it moral, ontological, or epistemic) without seeing it through the prism of my self. 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 egoism, I still had a problem. The theory seemed a bit binding. It was limited in that I wasn’t always so selfish when I decided what to do. Surely my decisions were always made through the filter of me-ism, but I wasn’t always such a dedicated egoist. There were always other 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. There was no duty to others, only duty to myself. I was told that, in the interest of consistency, one could not be an egoist and a Kantian simultaneously. Doing so is about as possible as being both in Paris and Fontana at the same time. And that just ain’t happening. But somehow it was. I was using what I thought were two opposing moral theories simultaneously. How was this possible? It took awhile and some getting over some denial before I realized that I was indeed both — I am a Kantian and I am also an egoist. 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 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. Now, it doesn’t take much usage 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 are not supposed to do. Kant’s rules are absolute, and unbendable. Kant’s theory works in ethics bowl, 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 agony.

According to Hobbes, the primary goal of all men is self-preservation. Because we don’t like things like pain or death, we decide to make agreements with others to cooperate with one another so as to create a more peaceful and stable society. This is Hobbes’ idea of the social contract. We are motivated to do what works best to preserve our own interests. Ayn Rand 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, 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. For using Rand to make a point, I totally, wholeheartedly apologize). But there’s a word that is common to both theories — duty. And the Kantian will admit that among our duties includes duties to self.

Likewise, both theories stress the role of making rational moral decisions. At first glance, it may seem that these are conflicting moral systems. One may ask, how can one be an egoist, yet maintain Kant’s C.I.? It seems that they conflict, but in fact, they do not. At this point, I think that it’s important to clear up what we mean when we say “egoist”. Now, The antics of Rand followers like Alan Greenspan 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 is an egotist — which is someone who operates according to his primary goal of getting as much profit or pleasure as possible. The egotist is motivated purely by selfishness. An egoist knows that, in the pursuit of his own interests, he may encounter periods or situations that may be very unpleasant. 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 himself. This is how the egoist declares that despite the outward appearance of altruism, he is no altruist. For his actions are based in the service of himself. The fact that others may benefit is just a good consequence.

A classic example of egoist thinking is the “prisoner’s dilemma”. In the arena of international politics, nation-states conduct their affairs according to their own best interests. The reason they do is because the governments of nations do not know the internal affairs of other nation-states. So, for example, during the Cold War, the United States armed itself with various sorts of nuclear missiles because we did not know what the Soviets had in their nuclear facilities (ok, I know that that’s not exactly true, but it fits the example). And, this sort of way of going about things works on the macrocosmic level of nation-states. Unfortunately, it tends to be a little difficult on the personal level. If you stockpiled weapons in your garage because you don’t know what kinds of guns your neighbor has, you might come off as a little nutty.

It might do an egoist some good if he adopted for himself as an overriding 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. My motivation, I add, is if I live according to these two principles, I am less likely to get my ass kicked. In this way, my duties to self and to others is not limited in the way that Kant’s ethics are often binding in the real world, in that among my considerations I include 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. Few of us are strict utilitarians or unshakable moral relativists. Often we find ourselves splitting the difference between moral theories — taking the elements from each that allows us to decide what to do. What I am doing is not “shopping” for moral theories, but finding where seeming opposing theories cohere and allow me to make rational moral decisions that benefit others any (more importantly) benefit myself. My ethical position simply finds the workable parts of Kantianism and egoism and binds them together into a more practicable moral theory (than any one is on their own). Hence, I call myself a Kantian egoist, or an egoist with a Kantian view of the good.

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

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One thought on “WHAT IS KANTIAN EGOISM?

  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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