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On the Appropriate Place of Self-Interest in Our Actions

Guest Post by Jos Philips

With Christmas and the new year fast approaching, Jos Philips reconsiders what role self-interest may legitimately play in what we are doing.

Recently, a class of students of mine were discussing a well-known article by Peter Singer (‘The Singer Solution to World Poverty,’ New York Times Sunday Magazine, 1999). In that piece, Singer argues that not giving to Oxfam is morally as wrong as Bob’s saving his Bugatti rather than a child who stands to be hit by a train. The case is such that Bob could steer the train towards his expensive car while keeping himself safe, but he isn’t willing to do so.

As usual, the students started to list various supposedly morally relevant differences between Bob’s case and not making a donation to Oxfam. Then one of the students, an elderly man who had been a doctor in Africa, spoke up and said that fighting the great bads that happened to people was much more important a consideration than all the other reasons (excuses) that his fellow students were thinking up. We should make that donation to Oxfam.
This struck a chord with me. I have always felt –although I know that many people disagree– that fighting great bads is extraordinarily important, so much so as to trump almost all other reasons for action. However, I fall out with the influential approach taken by consequentialist philosophers such as Peter Singer in that I think that this applies to all great bads that an agent has before them when they’re acting. By contrast, consequentialists famously hold that one should always act so as to minimize the overall bad in the world –or to maximize the overall good– as seen from a detached perspective; this is what defines their position.

At least, consequentialists think that minimizing the overall bad is what morality requires, while my concern here is with what we should ultimately do – all things considered. If I am right that all bads (and goods) matter there, this might include bads that go beyond the overall bad; and it could then turn out that morality isn’t everything, or that morality should not be concerned exclusively with overall bads.

Split Nature

An important question seems to be this: if one finds it appealing that ultimately one’s actions should be concerned with all great bads, then what –more exactly– is the appropriate place for the great bads that happen to oneself? This is what I want to concentrate on, and my approach of it takes a lot of inspiration from the New York philosopher, Thomas Nagel – although I by no means claim that he would approve of it.

I begin by noting that human beings have a split nature. On the one hand, it is very important for them to see that they are just one human being among others, and they would lose a whole lot if they wouldn’t acknowledge this. In this sense human beings inhabit –to express it metaphorically– the standpoint from nowhere on which consequentialists draw when they speak of the overall (or objective) good. To give a feel of the importance of the objective standpoint, Thomas Nagel points out, in The Possibility of Altruism (1970), that ‘when [people] are wronged, [they] suddenly understand objective reasons, for they require such concepts to express their resentment.’ On the other hand, people also have their own distinct point of view, and this is equally important. My own flourishing or pleasure –or that of my near and dear– isn’t the same for me as just anyone else’s; it is different for me and it looms larger.

Now assuming I am concerned about fighting all great bads, it seems to follow straightforwardly that both standpoints –which both come with their own great bads– should be very much taken into account. However, the worry is that this may be too quick. For aren’t the real bads exclusively associated with the standpoint from nowhere? One may think this because truth and this standpoint are commonly closely connected. After all, truth is usually regarded as a matter of transcending my own standpoint and reaching as far as possible –through intersubjective scrutiny– in the direction of an objective, ‘perspectiveless’ viewpoint. In other words, the suspicion is that bads as seen from the personal standpoint are not really bads after all. If this were to be so one should –if one is concerned about great bads– merely consider the viewpoint from nowhere; and then quite possibly one should, like Peter Singer, be a consequentialist.

In the end, I do not think that this is so. The personal standpoint is real and involves real bads that may be taken into account when one decides how to act. But the challenge is not to get this conclusion –which is after all very convenient for many of us– for free. One needs a good argument and simply saying that it is too demanding to base one’s actions exclusively on the viewpoint from nowhere isn’t such an argument – it is only to put a seemingly honourable face on a convenient gut feeling or intuition.

Complete Sympathy

What could a good argument look like? I think there is one that proceeds from something which even consequentialists will commonly have to recognize. The argument begins by noting that the overall –the objective– perspective is arrived at by aggregating the perspectives of all persons (if we confine our story to human beings). Now consequentialists do not usually think that for these persons, everyone’s flourishing or pleasure is as intense an event as their own. If it were as intense, the persons in question would be totally sympathetic. But if people were completely sympathetic, this would shatter the consequentialist’s idea of (say) helping this sick child and thereby making at least one tiny corner of the world all right. For suppose that this child would experience everyone’s predicament as intensely as her own. Then she would be helped just as much (or as little) if she were cured as if anyone else were. This is not what consequentialists generally have in mind when they advocate that the child be cured.

Thus even consequentialists will be committed to recognizing that personal bads are real. Even when starting from the overall viewpoint and how it is constituted they will not in the end want to deny the distinctness of the personal viewpoint and its bads. But if even consequentialists have to accept that personal bads are real, these can’t be a mere mirage. The implication is that for every agent there are two kinds of bads, namely bads as seen from the objective viewpoint (where the agent is one human being among all others) and bads as seen from the personal viewpoint (from her distinct perspective). And if one is committed to fighting all bads, one will have to attend to both.

Extreme Demands

We can inquire further and ask what the relation between these two viewpoints is. I’d say that both are clearly very important for the agent but there is not, as far I can see, a common measure to compare their importance; they seem incommensurable. This state of affairs is unfortunate. We now seem left in a limbo as to what to do when the two perspectives conflict. On the other hand, if fighting great bads is what one is concerned about, they only conflict if there is a great bad is at stake in both of them. If a great bad is not at stake in both perspectives then –as they both are very important– precedence should be given to the perspective where it is. (I then assume, of course, that a clear distinction can be made, within each perspective, between great and small bads.) All of this has an important implication: we should do whatever we can to help others who are facing great bads, at least as long as we can do so without incurring great bads ourselves. We should, for example, give up on relative luxuries. By contrast, it is unclear whether we must still help others out if we do stand to incur great bads ourselves – for example, if we truly stand to lose everything that makes our own life worthwhile.

To return to my class: even if fighting great bads is much more important a consideration in deciding what we must do (all things considered) than almost anything else –and I continue to think this, along with my elderly student– there may be a really good reason why the extreme demands that consequentialists are typically willing to embrace, can be avoided. Unsurprisingly, consequentialists are bound to disagree. According to their view, one should morally always maximally promote the overall good or minimize the overall bad, and they commonly also hold that morality trumps all other considerations. If there were very good reasons to go along with all this, we may well have to accept very extreme demands. But I do not know of any sufficiently strong reasons, and would therefore stick to the view outlined above. This view does not imply, to be sure, that it is enough that we do for others what we can do at little cost (although this would already be much more than we typically do now!). Rather, this is the minimum we should do, and it isn’t clear whether we also ought to do more. Thus while the view dissolves the worst spectre of demandingness, it is not exactly undemanding either. Perhaps even my student would find it acceptable.

Jos Philips is Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Utrecht, The Netherlands

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1 Comment on this post

  1. You distinguish between objective bads and bads from a personal viewpoint. But, for welfarist consquentialists like Singer, personal bads are no mirage – they are the building blocks of objective badness. That is, consequentlialists determine what is objectively good/bad by aggregating all those individual, personal goods/bads. There is not a conflict between them, but rather a conflict over whether consequentliasts are right about that relationship. Deontologists deny it, often by denying that personal goods/bads can be aggregated.

    Does your proposal reject that aggregation? Suppose option A is bad for you, and option B is bad for two other people (no other consequences, equal levels of badness for each individual). If we allow aggregation, there’s a clear sense that option B is worse. It’s twice as bad as option A, and so we should go with A. But if you reject aggregation, comparability becomes difficult. B is just as bad for some people as A is for you, so there’s no problem siding with B.

    One problem with this view is that it has rather problematic implications. In lifeboat cases, it is (following Taurek) acceptable to save 1 person rather than 5. In the realm of policy, it’s perfectly permissible to choose exceedingly inefficient policies (say, a medical intervention that will save 1 rather than save 1,000), so long as choosing a different policy would be really bad for at least one person.

    Interestingly, even some (like Scanlon) who reject aggregation deny these implications, and thereby allow for strong demandingness. For them, while it’s not the case that B is overall worse than A, one should nevertheless choose A. The number of claims does some work, though not by aggregation. So even if one rejects commensurability and aggregation, it is not clear you can avoid Singer’s demandingness.

    I get the sense, though, that you actually want to allow aggregation, while saying there is this other class of non-aggregative bads (personal bads) that are not commensurable with aggregated bads. But that looks suspiciously like double-counting; the personal bads are already taken into account in the function for objective bads. And also, once you allow some aggregation of those personal bads, it seems they’re not incommensurable after all – they can be integrated into an aggregative well-being function.

    Additionally, most realistic cases of demandingness are not ones where you are sacrificing well-being at a level of rough equivalence to the well-being you are providing. A commonly-cited estimate puts the cost of saving a child’s life through the Against Malaria Foundation at about $3,300( If you give away your income to AMF until you reach a little above the poverty line, you’d be sacrificing a *lot*, but nothing really comparable to the lives lost if you don’t do so (assuming you make significantly above the poverty level). So, while one is off the hook when asked to jump on a grenade to save five others, your account is still *very* demanding when asking how much of our income we should give to charities.

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