Dialogue with an Egoist

by Benjamin Studebaker

I want to try something a little bit different today and present some philosophical ideas in the form of a dialogue. Our characters are:

  • Chris the Christian
  • Steve the Skeptic
  • Annie the Egoist
  • Randy the Reciprocity Utilitarian

The four characters are housemates who have lived together for a short time.

To begin, Chris find himself objecting to the distribution of household chores.

Chris: The counter is mess yet again! Annie, I thought we agreed that this was your week to keep the kitchen surfaces clean?

Annie: If you’re so bothered about it, why don’t you do it yourself?

Chris: I have been doing everything myself for weeks without complaint! You’ve been shirking your duties the entire time we’ve been living in this house, and I’m sick and tired of cleaning up after you.

Annie: Look, we both know that you can’t tolerate a mess and that if I wait long enough eventually you’ll deal with it. It’s pointless to argue about  it. We know how this is going to end.

Chris: That’s beside the point. Don’t you feel on some level that you have a duty to do your fair share?

Annie: Not if I can get you to do my share. This might surprise you, but I actually don’t like wiping down counters.

Chris: I think that’s monstrous, but it’s not for me to judge.

Steve: Oh? Who will be judging Annie then?

Chris: Our lord and savior, Jesus Christ.

Annie: Oh for Pete’s sake, not this again.

Chris: God rewards those who treat others with respect and dignity and punishes the wicked and the selfish.

Steve: So you’re insinuating that Annie is going to burn in hell?

Chris: I’m not insinuating that. Like I said, it’s not for me to judge. But god will judge.

Steve: What if there’s no heaven or hell and god is just something we made up?

Annie: I can’t believe it’s happening again.

Chris: If there were no god, there would be no justice, and our actions would mean nothing.

Steve: Exactly. Well I don’t believe in god and, if I’m not mistaken, Annie doesn’t either, so what’s the point in getting so worked up, mate? If you want a clean house, make the house clean. If you don’t, don’t. It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters.

Annie: I don’t believe in god, but don’t speak for me. Your view doesn’t make any sense either.

Chris: Can’t you see that god is all around us?

Steve: Hold on a moment, Chris. I want to ask Annie a question. Why doesn’t my view make any sense?

Annie: You claim that nothing matters, but your actions don’t reflect that belief. You’re just like anyone else–you enjoy eating good food, you don’t like to suffer pain, you seek pleasant activities and avoid unpleasant ones.

Steve: Those are just subjective desires. They don’t mean anything objectively.

Annie: Then why does everyone share them? We all seek pleasant activities and avoid unpleasant ones. We don’t all agree on which activities are pleasant and which unpleasant, but we all operate this way. Why do you assume that these experiences don’t have any kind of intrinsic value?

Steve: Why don’t you assume that there’s a god? There’s no evidence in either case.

Annie: That’s different. When you prick a person’s finger, that person can’t help but feel pain. There’s a phenomenology of positive and negative experience. There’s no evidence for or against god, which is why it’s such a silly thing to argue about. You either believe it or you don’t.

Chris: God spoke to me once. He’s real!

Annie: You might legitimately believe you experienced that, but you’re not going to be able to convince me, because I’ve never had that experience. When it comes to pleasure and pain, we all can identify, because we’ve all experienced those sensations. For Steve to say that those sensations we all have are of no value is to make a bold assertion with no evidence. It’s unearned skepticism. Steve certainly doesn’t live as though his experiences didn’t matter. He’s a contrarian hipster pseudo-intellectual, and he’s just trolling you, Chris.

Steve: You wound me.

Annie: If your experiences don’t matter, what do you care?

Steve: I don’t care.

Annie: You’re so fake, Steve.

Chris: But Annie, you said that you don’t believe in god. How can these experiences really matter if there’s no final authority on what is good and what is bad?

Annie: Who says we need an authority to make them matter? You only think that right and wrong matter because you think god will reward you in heaven if you do what he wants and punish you in hell if you don’t. But what are heaven and hell anyway? They’re just places where good or bad experiences happen to people for all eternity. You’re still ultimately motivated by the same selfish desire you claim motivates me–the desire to have good experiences and avoid bad ones. The only difference between you and me is that you think heaven and hell are real and I don’t. You’re just as motivated by your experiences as I am.

Chris: Then you can see why belief in god is so important. Without god, there’s no good reason for people to act unselfishly.

Annie: On the contrary, because I don’t believe in god, I’m not bound by your slavelike conception of morality. I can pursue my own good in this life instead of waiting around for an afterlife that may not be coming.

Chris: You can go on believing that–it’s your eternal soul–but I still believe that god is going to reward me for doing the right thing and keeping the house clean even if you won’t do your part.

Annie: And I will continue to take advantage of the fact that you believe that.

Steve: And I still don’t care.

Annie: Go sit in the corner and do nothing, Steve. It’s not like it will make any difference to you.

Randy: Hi guys. Sorry, I couldn’t help overhearing–you guys argue rather loudly. I was going to let this go, but I have to point out that Annie is totally exploiting Chris by not doing her fair share.

Annie: Yeah. So?

Randy: Don’t you think it’s wrong for you to take advantage of Chris’ sincerely held religious beliefs?

Annie: Not even a little. I only experience my own positive and negative experiences. I don’t experience Chris’ experiences. I don’t feel his pain. Why should I care about what Chris experiences?

Randy: You know, there’s this thing called empathy.

Annie: Why should I have empathy for Chris? If I help Chris out, what do I get out of it? Asserting that empathy matters is one thing, but why does it matter? I don’t believe there’s a god who will reward or punish me for being empathetic, so why should I see empathy as a virtue? What’s in it for me?

Randy: Look, in the long run this living arrangement is only going to work if we all feel that we’re all doing our fair share. We’re friends, right?

Annie: Are we? I don’t even like you guys most of the time.

Chris: Believe me, we know. Who invited Annie to live with us in the first place anyway?

Steve: I did. I thought she was cute.

Annie: You still do, but why should you bother to do anything about it? It’s not like it matters to you. Nothing matters to you.

Randy: Well, if we’re not friends, we’re at least housemates. A housemate is a kind of reciprocal relationship. Each of us contributes, and each of us can expect that the others will contribute in turn. This allows us to cooperate without mutual suspicion, allowing us to live better together than we could live separately. Don’t you see? To have a housemate, you have to be a housemate.

Annie: Why? What will happen to me if I don’t? So far, I’ve been able to get all the benefits without contributing much of anything, so why should I change?

Randy: Because if you don’t, we’ll kick you out when the lease ends, and in the meantime, we’ll stop doing your work. This is our house. It’s our moral community. You’re exploiting us, and it isn’t the first time, either. You never replace the toilet paper, you don’t take the trash out, and you never scrub the shower. You always wait for someone else to do it. If you don’t care about us, why should we care about you? We’re not going to put up with it anymore, right guys?

Chris: Actually, I was thinking about just turning the other cheek. If she wants to be this kind of person, that’s her issue.

Randy: Chris, you’re part of the problem. You keep letting Annie get away with  violating the terms of cooperation in this house. If we want Annie to cooperate with us, we need to ensure that she has strong incentives to do that. This means we can’t just let her get away with it. We need to make rules and enforce them to ensure that everyone in the house gets the most out of this arrangement, not just Annie. God or no god, we’ve got to create our own cooperative spaces so each of us can flourish in this life.

Chris: Meh. I’m still playing the long-game. The meek shall inherit the earth.

Steve: Did I mention that I still don’t care?

Annie: Looks like you’re on your own, Randy.

Randy: This is why we can’t have nice things.