Following our discussion this afternoon, perhaps we can draw the following conclusions:
Rational Egoists tell us we should do what we want (i.e. we should aim to do what is in our interests, whatever is good for us)
Graham asks, however, what should we want to do? Is there something that we should all aim at or does anything go when deciding what we want? That is, does egoism imply a subjectivist view of value, and need it necessarily do so?
Most of us claim that we want to be happy and therefore we come to lessons, do exams, get jobs etc.
Thus psychological egoists claim that we are always, in effect, doing what we want – to which Graham says, so what? We always act for a reason or other. There is a difference, though, between wanting something for its own sake, like happiness, and wanting something because it will bring you something else, like money, jobs, qualifications, sitting through lectures etc. When asked “why do you want happiness?” there doesn’t seem to be an answer and this is because we value happiness for itself, we say it has intrinsic value. On the other hand, we value jobs, money, and qualifications, for the sake of each other, and for the sake of the happiness they bring, ultimately (hopefully!). These are called instrumental values, and if we were offered an alternative we might not value them at all. For example, we exchange euros for other currencies, and in another reality in which we were born with ready-made qualifications, I doubt many of us would choose to come to lessons and sit for exams voluntarily.
Now, with regard to doing what we want and whether this is good, we came up with some counter examples:
1a) the drug addict who wants drugs because he or she thinks mistakenly that it will lead to happiness.
i.e. Drug Addict A is wrong about his/her instrumental values, but right about intrinsic value.
1b) The drug addict who wants drugs because he or she thinks correctly (i.e. he or she knows) that it will bring happiness (it’s hard to do, but imagine it might be possible…)
Drug Addict B is right about both intrinsic and instrumental values.
Now, teachers, parents, church-leaders, the police and perhaps you will object here. We have laws that say drugs are wrong or illegal at least.
The relativists among you will say, well, laws are different around the world, and just because something is illegal that doesn’t make it wrong. There is no absolute right or wrong, because the words ‘good’ and ‘bad’ just reflect our own minds and cultures. A subjectivist will go on that it just depends on what you happen to like, what you happen to believe, your past experiences and so on. To whom we say, for now, ok…
Now consider the next counter-examples:
2) The torturer of kittens/ breaker of hearts/ rapist/ sadist/ pedophile etc. who does exactly what he or she wants to do.
What shall we call this guy or girl? Let’s imagine that it’s someone who has hurt us and call him or her that B@$! Imagine him or her as the worst possible person, someone you hate, who has trampled on your feelings, and perhaps completely destroyed your world. I’m sure some of you already have someone like that in your lives.
Now again we have two possibilities:
2a) B@$ A thinks that acting this way will bring him or her happiness but in fact it doesn’t. Again he or she is mistaken about the means to happiness, and, if we have enough patience and forgiveness we might try to show them the error of their ways.
2b) B@$ B does actually get happiness out of torturing kittens/ breaking your heart/ raping/ etc. He or she is right about both the means and the end.
Now first of all, some of us would want to say with B, that that only makes things worse and shows that this person is mentally unwell. He or she seems to get happiness out if the wrong things.
But a consistent subjectivist could claim that, in that case, there is nothing wrong with B@$ B having tortured kittens, broken your heart, raped your wife and kids etc. Of course, to be really consistent, subjectivists would have to never get angry when somebody mistreats them. After all, you wouldn’t fight with someone because they’d chosen chocolate ice-cream. You might decide that what they want does not coincide with what you want, and take action to counter theirs, but you’ve no right to be angry.
But now the subjectivists among you will raise a further counter-example. So far, we have only questioned instrumental values, we have assumed that we all want happiness and argued about the means. But what if someone didn’t value happiness? What if someone simply wanted to die, for example, or wanted to be unhappy or valued anything else other than happiness, say, simply to cause others pain, for its own sake?
Call him or her a pessimist/sadist/ weirdo whatever. The important point is that what he or she values intrinsically is not happiness but something else. Is there any way we can say that they value intrinsically the wrong thing?
We could analyze their brain and find that it is different from ours, but again that difference does not make what they do wrong. In fact, if anything we find it makes it less wrong. An illness is not one’s fault after all.
So it seems the subjectivists might be right that there are no facts about right and wrong. We can find facts about instrumental values (this is the right thing to do if you want a particular outcome, like happiness) but not about what is intrinsically good. It seems obvious to most that what is desirable for its own sake is happiness, or well-being, health, flourishing and so on, but we cannot point to the goodness of these natural properties (Moore’s Open Ended Question).
This theme will be with us throughout the course, and especially when we come to the Hedonists, Aristotle etc. The problem of subjectivism is an important one which Graham addresses throughout the book.
The only reply I can give is that to be a truly consistent subjectivist, one must never become angry with the way the world is, because there is no way the world should be. No matter what anyone does to you, remember they’re just doing whatever they want.
Granting that we don’t want to accept this burden of subjectivism and that we think there is a fact, a true and correct answer to the question of what we should want – we will turn to Nietzsche next time, who answers that we should want power.