Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Present moment ethical egoism

One of the least popular ethical theories is present moment ethical egoism (pmee): you ought do what produces the state that is best for you at the present moment.

But pmee has a very lovely formal feature: it can be used to simulate every other ethical theory of permissibility, simply by changing the value function, the function that ranks states in terms of how good they are for you at the present moment. To simulate theory T, just assign value 1 to one’s presently choosing an action that T says is permissible and value −1 to one’s presently choosing an action that T says are impermissible. In this way, pmee simulates Aquinas, Kant, virtue ethics, utilitarianism, non-present-moment egoism, etc.

This formal feature is not shared by non-egoistic consequentialist theories. For the only way a consequentialist theory can simulate a deontological theory is by assigning an overwhelmingly large negative value to wrong choices. But this gives a result incompatible with many deontological theories, namely that you should choose to commit a murder in order to prevent two other people from doing the same.

The formal feature is also not shared by egoistic but not present-moment theories. For on some deontological theories, it is wrong to commit a murder now in order to prevent oneself from choosing two murders later.

Here is another curious thing. Basically, the only present thing in my present control is my present choice. This means that pmee cannot be a consequentialist theory in the typical sense of the word, because all causal consequences take time, and hence every causal consequence within my present control is in the future. In other words, it is the value of the present choice that pmee needs to focus on (both in itself, and in a larger context).

But once we see that it is the value of the choice itself, and not the causal consequences of the choice, that pmee must base a decision on, then given the fact that the most compelling value that a choice has is its moral value, it seems that pmee tells one that one should do what is morally right. And what is morally right cannot be defined in terms of pmee on pain of circularity.

This is a Parfit-like thought, of course. (Maybe even exactly something from Parfit. It’s been a while since I’ve read him.)

1 comment:

Alexander R Pruss said...

Of course, one can also have "five minute ethical egoism", say an egoism that only counts the next five minutes. But that's ad hoc.