Am I an Egoist?

by Benjamin Studebaker

There was a very interesting tension pointed out to me yesterday in my moral philosophy. As regular readers know, I am broadly utilitarian–I think that we should try to promote the general welfare. I am concerned with the consequences of moral decisions rather than their motivation, and I do not think hard, fast rules forbidding given behaviours without regard to situational consequences are good ideas. I have, however, recently seemingly changed a position somewhere,  because I now find myself embracing, in some situations, what looks like an egoist view. The egoist position is that a person should do what is good for them, not what is good for society at large. So how do I square this circle? Let me see if it can be done.

Firstly, where am I being an egoist? I was presented with the following case. Imagine that one lives in a country run by a terrible state–it commits genocide, it’s openly racist, and so on. Another state decides to intervene in your country to get rid of the terrible state. Suppose is has good reasons, that the terrible state also threatens its interests in some way. Now say that one is drafted into the terrible state’s army. Is one obliged to refuse to defend one’s state?

I say no. I say that it is permissible for one to take up arms to defend even a bad state against invasion. Why do I say this? Because, I argue, one is never morally required to commit self-harm. So if the terrible state puts a gun to one’s head and says “defend the state against invasion or die”, even though defending the terrible state will produce bad consequences for society in general, it is still morally permissible for one to defend one’s state on the grounds that one is not obliged to harm one’s self. This is pretty clearly egoist.

So how do I square this with a utilitarian view that says that all we should be concerned about is the collective social interest? Well, while I do think that citizens in bad states are permitted to contribute, both militarily and non-militarily (remember, farmers and manufacturers contribute to war efforts too) to the survival of the bad states, I do think that other people are permitted to coerce or kill them to prevent those harms. In other words, it is morally okay for a German citizen to contribute to the Nazi war effort, but it is also okay for me, as an allied state, to kill that person so as to coercively stop them.

Individuals are morally permitted to be egoist, but states are morally permitted to coerce egoists into acting for the social good.

When I think about this, I realise it is something I have long argued, though never recognising the position with this level of clarity. I often say that businesses are permitted to act to maximise profits as best they can and that only the state is responsible for coercively intervening in their affairs to prevent social damage. I often say that states are permitted to carry out their foreign policies solely with the interests of their own citizens in mind, paying no heed to the concerns of non-citizens in other countries. If we had a world government, I would say that that world government would be permitted to coercively intervene in state affairs to prevent global damage.

In effect, I have three levels of utility concern:

  1. Human Interest
  2. State Interest
  3. Individual Interest.

An actor at a higher level has the moral authority to coerce an actor further down the scale. So a world government has the moral authority to coerce a state in the name of the human interest, and a state has the moral authority to coerce an individual in the name of the state interest. People at the same level also can coerce each other. One state can coerce another state in the name of its own interest, and one person can coerce another person in the name of his own interest.

Now, there’s an interesting difference in the relationship between the human and state levels and the state and individual levels. In the former case, there is, as of yet, no human superstate. No organisation exists whose mandate is to look after the interests of everyone collectively, so there is no one to force states to concern themselves with the human level. As a result, states are never coerced into paying attention to the human interest, and I am completely okay with that. Why? Because any state that pays attention to the human interest, in the absence of a global superstate, puts itself at risk. If, say, we determine that it is in the interests of people everywhere that no one have automatic weapons, the state that disarms will have harmed itself, because, in the absence of a superstate, other states are free to take advantage of its lack of weapons and harm it for their own gain. A state cannot be under a moral compulsion to harm itself, so a state cannot be under a compulsion to act in the human interest in the absence of a superstate.

The state and individual case is not similar, because in the state and individual case, individuals are more or less uniformly subject to states. If we lived in a state of complete anarchy, it would be acceptable for individuals to act as states do. If you wanted to kill someone for your own gain, you could do that, because if you swore off killing people for your own gain, someone else would take advantage of you. Thankfully, we do not exist in a condition of anarchy so severe as that, so instead, your desire to kill someone for gain is overruled by a coercive state, which forces you to consider the second-level interest, the interest of the community as a whole, by threatening you with imprisonment, death, or other negative consequences, or by offering you incentives, subsidies, or other positive consequences for doing so.

This means that when an individual acts in an egoist way such that society is harmed, I do not blame the individual for this behaviour, I blame the state for failing to create a system of laws, incentives, and deterrents such that pursuing the egoist behaviour was not more attractive than pursuing the interests of the wider community. Individuals who murder people are not to blame; states are to blame for not creating a climate in which individuals are coercively deterred or given incentive so as to prevent people from choosing to murder.

By the same token, I do not blame a state for aggressively pursuing its own interest internationally, I blame the lack of a superstate for this, because the absence of the superstate means that there is no comprehensive system of deterrents and incentives to encourage states to consider the global interest.

So in short, I am not an egoist, because I do not believe that egoism should govern society, I merely believe that egoism is acceptable at a given level but should be governed coercively by the next level up. And if we had a superstate? Presumably, unless we met an alien intelligence, that would be the highest form of the utility interest. If we were to meet an alien intelligence, we would unlock a fourth level:

  1. Sapient Interest
  2. Human Interest
  3. State Interest
  4. Individual Interest

It’s also quite possible that, once a superstate is created, it would relegate the current state system to the history books, turning what are presently independent states into more or less territories or provinces of the superstate. At that point, the human and state interests would merge. In this way, I think I have reconciled an egoism among entities at a given level with a morality that remains committed to promoting good consequences for people as a whole. Most importantly, I think that by doing this, I have made the utilitarian morality achievable. Utilitarianism is often criticised for being too demanding, because it asks people to put society ahead of themselves. By installing egoism at each level and permitting (even requiring) coercion from the top down, we avoid this.

If say, everyone except for me is about to die, and I have the opportunity to push a button that will kill myself but save everyone, I am not obliged to choose, of my own volition, to push that button. But if there is a state around, or if there is another individual around in the absence of a state, that state or that individual can grab my wrist and make me push the button. In the state case, the second-level interest is served, and in the individual case, another individual is merely acting on acceptable egoism in the absence of a state.

Does my reconciliation work and/or seem moral to you? Or have I gone astray?