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Juan and Carlos discuss ethical egoism at a Loblaws
An authentic glimpse into my IB philosophy class
Write a dialogue of not more than 350 words in which you introduce/define normative ethics, describe (name/profile) character A (the egoist), describe (name/profile) character B (the consequentialist), and have A and B debate the relative merits of egoism and consequentialism. This can be either a theoretical debate illustrated by examples or this can be a discussion of an example which makes frequent reference to theories.
Juan: Hello Carlos, my brown-eyed 42-year-old neighbour who works as a regional manager at Scotiabank. How funny to run into you here at this Loblaws.
Carlos: Hola. It’s also funny to see you here, Juan. I thought you and your luscious black hair would be spending time with your six-month-old daughter, Valeria, who you take care of full-time while your wife Martina (the highly successful corporate lawyer) is on a cruise in the Caribbean.
Juan: Well, in fact, I forgot about my daughter because I was too busy contemplating the nature of normative ethics.
Carlos: What is normative ethics?
Juan: I’m glad you asked. Normative ethics is a branch of ethics investigating how people morally ought to behave.
Carlos: Is that distinct from metaethics, which pertains to the structure and language of ethics, and applied ethics, which explores how moral theories can be applied to real situations in human society?
Carlos: How interesting.
Juan: Carlos, are you planning to steal that reinforced two-tier Loblaws shopping cart?
Carlos: Yes, and I feel no remorse. Loblaws shoppers are soulless sociopaths.
Juan: Well, the question is not, "Can they reason?" nor, "Can they talk?" but "Can they suffer?”
Carlos: That sounds kind of familiar.
Juan: No, it doesn’t. Have you considered adopting a consequentialist perspective in evaluating the ethics of your shopping cart theft?
Carlos: I have not. What is consequentialism?
Juan: Consequentialism is the view that a decision ought to be made based on its moral consequences.
Juan: You may be thinking, this sounds a lot like utilitarianism, an ethical theory famously developed by 19th century English philosophers Jeremy Bentham and, later, John Stuart Mill.
Carlos: Yes, that is exactly what I was thinking.
Juan: No se preocupe, Carlos. There is a subtle distinction. Utilitarianism seeks to maximise pleasure and minimise pain. It is the most common expression of consequentialism. But not all consequentialists define consequences in terms of utility. For example, some consequentialists believe in a theory of rights instead.
Carlos: What’s your take, Juan?
Juan: I was born and raised a utilitarian consequentialist. Ergo, I do think you should return that shopping cart. Not doing so will cause pain to an unsuspecting shopper who will now have to carry the fruits of their shopping trip with feeble, broken biceps.
Carlos: Well, I am not concerned with the consequences of my actions upon others. I am concerned solely with satiating my own desires.
Juan: Could this position be described as ethical egoism?
Carlos: Yes, it certainly could. In essence, I think humans are biologically designed to pursue their own needs. I am merely a pawn in the millenia-long game of human evolution, a cog in the machine of our nature as a species.
Juan: A scintillating perspective. What do you think prominent British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins would say about this issue?
Carlos: I think he would remark that humans are survival machines — robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. This is a truth which still fills me — uh, I mean, him — with astonishment.
Juan: Where did you hear about this view?
Carlos: In Dawkins’ seminal 1976 book The Selfish Gene, for which I am happy to provide an MLA citation upon request.
Juan: I won’t be needing that citation, because I believe in your intellectual integrity even without evidence, Carlos.
Carlos: Gracias, my dear neighbour Juan. That means a lot. So tell me, what motivates your belief in consequentialism? Is it religion? Asceticism? Virtue signalling? Peter Singer fetish?
Juan: I mean, all of the above, but I also think it’s arbitrary that we are born into the particular position in the world that we are. Any other human soul could have been born in the body of Juan. So why should I have particular moral obligations to myself?
Carlos: Because it’s in human nature to do so. We can only experience our own pain and pleasure, so it’s only natural to put ourselves first. Any other moral philosophy is akin to a Chinook salmon swimming upstream through frigid, swirling waters. After all, Juan, aren’t you the one who left your six-month-old child alone in the pursuit of your own interests?
Juan: Well, stretching his hand up to reach the stars, too often man forgets the flowers at his feet.
Carlos: Very astute.
Juan: I thought so too. But Carlos, I think you’re conflating a descriptive claim with a normative one. Humans behave a particular way, but this doesn’t prove that they should behave that way.
Carlos: That is a criticism commonly known as the is-ought fallacy, famously made by Scottish philosopher David Hume.
Juan: Did you know that David Hume started attending Edinburgh University at the ripe age of 12, only to stop studying at age 14?
Carlos: ¡Qué barbaridad! I did not. You learn something new every day. But on the is-ought issue, I suppose I just view this as an inherent feature of all moral deliberation. Remind me why you believe in consequentialism, Juan?
Juan: Because I think the pain and pleasure of other people matters.
Carlos: And why do you think other people matter?
Juan: Because I care about others. As the traditional Spanish expression goes, mi casa es su casa.
Carlos: So true. And why do you think pain is bad?
Juan: Because I dislike it. For example, today I stepped on my six-month-old daughter’s cardiac support machine, which was rather painful for me. So I think it’s reasonable to assume others also dislike pain.
Carlos: I’m deeply concerned about that remark, but the point I was going to make is that all of those things collapse into intuition. We care about other people out of a biologically induced sense of empathy, probably derived from social bonding and nurture kinship. We think pain is bad out of a biologically programmed reaction that tells us pain is bad. These intuitions have been artificially expanded into a pseudo-rationalistic moral system that pretends there is an objectivity outside of instinct.
Juan: Why does that mean ethical egoism is correct?
Carlos: Because if I feel a biological intuition that I ought to prioritise myself — and steal a shopping cart, for example, to avoid expending energy on taking the cart back — why should I repress this instinct? It isn’t any less valid than your belief in helping others which is also recursive to instinct.
Juan: Well, cada maestrillo tiene su librillo. This is a popular Spanish expression directly translating to “each master has his own trick,” which means figuratively speaking that different people have different perspectives. So maybe my moral system isn’t inherently better, but I do feel the intuition to help others. Why are my intuitions to help others less correct than your intuitions to help yourself?
Carlos: My version of ethical egoism actually doesn’t suggest that we should never help others, to be clear. We should help others if it benefits ourselves (which I think is actually fairly often), and we should help others if it makes us feel good.
Juan: Yes, I think leaving my six-month-old child in a colander on the floor does not make me feel good.
Carlos: I’m calling your wife, Martina the highly successful corporate lawyer, as soon as I leave this Loblaws.
Juan: Copy that.
Carlos: But also, this is exactly why I think conceding that consequentialism folds into intuition sort of crushes your argument. Feeling an intuition to help another person probably means I would feel guilt if I didn’t help them. And I don’t want to feel guilt; it contradicts my self-interest. So I wouldn’t leave my child in a colander, and I wouldn’t do most of the things that people have the most extreme intuitions against either — torture, murder, etc. I’m either conditioned or born into a moral repulsion for those actions, so the guilt harms me too.
Juan: Where do our views actually diverge, then?
Carlos: The difference is the cases where there is no strong intuition telling us to care about consequence. Often cases that are particularly distant from us, or where for whatever reason we don’t care about consequences upon others.
Juan: So if I didn’t actually care about hiring hitmen to kidnap my wife and send her on a decrepit boat to the Caribbean, that would be morally acceptable?
Carlos: I suppose so.
Juan: What if I hired hijackers to send that Carribean boat a little further South? And I felt no remorse?
Carlos: I mean, technically yes, but Juan —
Juan: Alright, Carlos, I need to make a quick call. I’ll see you back in our friendly, suburban gated community with minimal internal security.
Carlos: Where is Bentham when you need him?
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