Lecture Supplement on Medlin's "Ultimate Principles and Ethical Egoism: [1957]1

     Copyright © 2013 Bruce W. Hauptli

I. Introductory Remarks:

Medlin distinguishes hypothetical and categorical egoism,

"...hypothetical egoism is the view that by maximizing one's own utility, we will all be better off.  This is not really egoism but a version of closet utilitarianism that cites a utilitarian reason for emphasizing self-interested reasons in acting."

Clearly, egoists' can not maintain that egoistic action is the best course of action for us all without encouraging us to non-egoistically care for others!

     Categorical egoism, on the other hand, contends that universal egoism is the correct moral theory.

Medlin maintains that categorical egoism is not rational because self-interest can not provide a rational foundation for human action. 

Pojman maintains that Medlin is an anti-realist (or anti-objectivist) about morals.  He maintains that moral statements are not propositions about moral facts:2

-propositions, statements which are capable of being true or false.  Are all utterances propositions?

-moral realism (or objectivism)—the view that there are moral truths (objective, knowable, true).

-moral anti-realism--the view that moral utterances are not propositions (not statements of fact), but, instead, merely emotional utterances.

-conative utterances--attitudinal ones.3

Medlin adopts a position similar to that of the "logical positivists" (or "emotivists") regarding morals: they maintain there is a complete fact/value distinction.  The main implication of such a position is that moral utterances are not propositions or statements, and, hence, are not capable of being true or false.

In his "Subjectivism," James Rachels clarifies that emotivism is a version of subjectivism which maintains that:

...moral language is not fact-stating language; it is not typically used to convey information.  Its purpose is entirely different.  It is used, first, as a means of influencing people's behavior; if someone says `You ought not to do that', they are trying to stop you from doing it.  And, second, moral language is used to express (not report) one's attitude.  Saying `Betty Friedan is a good woman' is not like saying `I approve of Friedan', but is like saying `Hurrah for Friedan!'
  The difference between emotivism and simple subjectivism should now be obvious.  Simple subjectivism interpreted ethical sentences as statements of fact, of a special kind--namely, as reports of the speaker's attitude."4
Rachels continues saying: "suppose I favour strict gun-control legislation, and you are opposed to it.  Here we disagree, but in a different sense [than would be the case where there is a difference in our beliefs].  It is not our beliefs that are in conflict, but our desires.  (You and I may agree about all the facts surrounding the gun-control controversy, and yet still take different sides concerning what we want to see happen.)  In the first kind of disagreement [a disagreement in beliefs], we believe different things, both of which cannot be true.  In the second [a disagreement in attitudes], we want different things, both of which cannot happen.  Stevenson calls this a disagreement in attitude, and contrasts it with a disagreement about attitudes.  Moral disagreements, says Stevenson, are disagreements in attitude.  Simple subjectivism could not explain moral disagreement because, once it interpreted moral judgements as statements about attitudes, the disagreement vanished."5

Rachels maintains that emotivism, while superior to simple subjectivism, has a core problem: it can not account for the place of reason in ethics.

     Medlin would not agree with Rachels, but he does contend that an emotivist may argue rationally against ethical egoism.  According to him, there is a sort of inconsistency which does apply in the case of morality (at least when it comes to categorical ethical egoism).  He notes that there is both a similarity and a difference between contradictory propositions and incompatible or inconsistent attitudes:

"Fred is a married bachelor," vs.

"Fred cares deeply about Mary" and "Fred doesn't give a damn about Mary."

As Medlin notes, having inconsistent attitudes is our, all to human, fate.  However,

 ....we assert our ultimate principles not only to express our attitudes but also to induce similar attitudes in others, to dispose them to conduct themselves as we wish.  In so far as their desires conflict, people don't know what to do.  And, therefore, no expression of incompatible desires can ever serve for an ultimate principle of human conduct.

Medlin, then, maintains (1) that our ultimate ethical principles are arbitrary; (2) that moral claims are, thus, merely avowals; (3) that ethical egoism, if it is a moral "theory," must be categorical and universal; and (4) that these demands engender inconsistency or incompatibility in our attitudes.

II. The Text:


According to Medlin, "professional philosophers" now generally accept that "...ultimate ethical principles must be arbitrary."  I think he is wrong about the consensus view, and he will be a lone voice in this course as we will, by and large, concentrate on those who believe there are objective moral truths (though they will disagree significantly as to what these truths are).6
-In advancing ethical arguments, at least one principle will have to be a moral one, and "sooner or later, we must come to at least one ethical premise which is not deduced but baldly asserted.  Here we must be a-rational; neither rational nor irrational, for here there is no room for reason even to go wrong."
--His claim that "professional philosophers" generally accept this claim is wide of the mark.  There are some who contend that one can derive an ought from an is;7 and many who allow that you can't, but contend that these principles are not "baldly asserted" or "arationally held."

Medlin notes that many generally cling to "objectivist theories" of morality in order to avoid relativism (as well, I would add, as subjectivism, and skepticism).

Medlin will maintain that while "...there are moral disagreements which can never be resolved...", ethical egoism can be refuted.

1. Universal and Individual Egoism:

Universal egoism "maintains that everyone (including the speaker) ought to look after [her or] his own interests and to disregard those of other people except in so far as their interests contribute towards [her or] his own."

Individual egoism "is the attitude that the egoist is going to look after [her or] himself and no one else....[and] that I should look after [her or] him regardless of myself and others."

The latter view displays contempt for all moral considerations altogether.  "An indifference to morals may be wicked, but it is not a perverse morality."

2. Categorical and Hypothetical Egoism:

Categorical egoism "is the doctrine that we all ought to observe our own interests, because that is what we ought to do.  For the categorical egoist the egoistic dogma is the ultimate principle in ethics."

Hypothetical egoism "maintains that we all ought to observe our own interest because....If we want such and such an end, we must do so and so....The hypothetical egoist is not a real egoist at all.  He is very likely an unwitting utilitarian who believes mistakenly that the general happiness will be increased if each man looks wisely to his own."

An ethical egoist must be both a categorical and an universal one!

Medlin contends, however, that categorical egoism can not be consistently promulgated or held:

-"Obviously something strange goes on as soon as the ethical egoist tries to promulgate his doctrine.  What is he doing when he urges upon his audience that they should each observe his own interests and those interests alone?  Is he not acting contrary to the egoist principle?  It cannot be to his advantage to convince them, for seizing always their own advantage they will impair his.  Surely if he does believe what he says, he should try to persuade them otherwise."
--Medlin briefly notes two very weak replies which an egoist might try to make here:

--She may claim that it won't be to her disadvantage to promulgate egoism provided that the audience understands what is in their ultimate advantage.  [While Medlin doesn't explain this, I take it that Hobbes provides one avenue of argumentation here].  Ultimately, however, Medlin claims, "it will always be possible to push the egoist into either individual or hypothetical egoism."

--She may claim that it is in her advantage as long as the pleasure she gets out of doing this is greater than the injuries she must endure from other egoists.  Medlin finds this to be very weak--a doctrine which can be promulgated only in special circumstances is one which looks as if the egoist is heading in the individual egoistic direction!

Medlin's Central Argument Against Categorical Egoism:

…the very fact that our ultimate principles must be arbitrary means they can't be anything we please.  Just because they come out of thin air they can't come out of hot air.  Because these principles are not propositions about matters of fact and cannot be deduced from some propositions about matters of fact, they must be the fruit of our own attitudes.  We assert them largely to modify the attitudes of our fellows but by asserting them we express our own desires and purposes.  This means we cannot use moral language cavalierly.  Evidently, we cannot say something like "All human desires and purposes are bad."  This would be to express our own desires and purposes, thereby committing a kind of absurdity.  Nor, I shall argue, can we say "Everyone should observe his own interests regardless of the interests of others."

According to him, if he were a universal, categorical ethical egoist in a society consisting of Brian, Tom, Dick and Harry, expressing his "theory" amounts to Brian’s expressing the following complex attitude:

Brian wants Brian to come out on top.  and  Brian doesn't care about Tom, Dick, or Harry. 
and and
Brian wants Tom to come out on top.  and  Brian doesn't care about Brian, Dick, or Harry. 
and and
Brian wants Dick wants to come out on top.  and  Brian doesn't care about Brian, Tom, or Harry. 
and and
Brian wants Harry to come out on top.  and  Brian doesn't care about Brian, Tom, or Dick. 
and and
etc.,  and  etc. 
-Medlin contends that this complex of attitudes and avowals is inconsistent (the desires are incompatible with one another)--Brian can't consistently say and intend this complex of attitudes.

The egoist, of course, might contend that she has been misrepresented here.  What is wanted is something which avoids the inconsistency expressed in all but the first case on the right hand column.  But to leave off these and simply say that one wants to others to be happy is still inconsistent since in the first case one expresses lack of concern with the others.

Medlin contends that the egoist must either give up appealing to the self-interest of his audience (in which case he goes the way of individual egoism), or he must give up the categorical character of his egoism and adopt a utilitarian argument generally.

It is important to note what Medlin is not saying, as well as what he is saying.  He notes that "I have said from time to time that the egoistic principle is inconsistent.  I have not said it is contradictory....we assert our ultimate principles not only to express our attitudes but also to induce similar attitudes in others, to dispose them to conduct themselves as we wish.  In so far as their desires conflict, people don't know what to do.  And, therefore, no expression of incompatible desires can ever serve for an ultimate principle of human conduct."


Having familiarized ourselves with Medlin's argument against ethical egoism, we can now turn to a critical consideration of them in Kalin's "In Defense of Egoism."  Before looking at Kalin's defense, however, examine the following criticism of Medlin's argument.

III. John Hospers' Criticism of Medlin's Argument:

In his "Baier and Medlin on Ethical Egoism," John Hospers maintains that Medlin's central argument is not as strong as he implies:

the egoist need not, I think be guilty of such duplicity [that is, of having the inconsistent attitudes alleged by Medlin].  What if he assembled Tom, Dick, Harry, and everyone else into his presence at the same moment?  What would he say to them all together?  He might say, "I hope that each of you comes out on top."  But in that case, he is saying something self-contradictory, since of course each of them cannot come out on top--only one of them can.  But he need not say this; suppose that instead he says, "I hope that each of you tries to come out on top," or "Each of you should try to come out the victor."  There is surely no inconsistency here.  The hope he is expressing here is the kind of hope that the interested but impartial spectator expresses at a game.  Perhaps the egoist likes to live life in a dangerous cutthroat manner, unwilling to help others in need but not desiring others to help him either.  He wants life to be spicy and dangerous; to him the whole world is one vast egoistic game, and living life accordingly is the way to make it interesting and exciting.  It may be that, if our egoist says this, his egoism is somewhat diluted from the stronger and earlier form of "I hope that you all win"...but at least, in this formulation, he is not caught in inconsistency.8

1 This supplement was developed around the reprint of Medlin's essay in the fourth edition of Louis Pojman's Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings (fourth edition), ed. Louis Pojman (Belmont: Wadsworth, 2002).  The essay is not contained in the current edition of this text.  It was originally published in the Australasian Journal of Philosophy v. 35 (1957), pp. 111-118.  

2 Cf., Louis Pojman, "Ethical Relativism versus Ethical Objectivism," in Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings (fourth edition), op. cit., pp. 15-19; and Louis Pojman, "A Critique of Ethical Relativism," in ibid., pp. 38-51.  

3 In his "Value and the Origin of Right and Wrong" [1986], Richard Taylor maintains that: "to describe men as conative is not to say anything at all abstruse or metaphysical, as this bit of terminology might suggest.  It is only to call attention to the fact of human nature with which everyone is perfectly familiar: men have needs, desires and goals; they pursue ends; they have certain wants and generally go about trying to satisfy them in various ways" (Richard Taylor, "Value and the Origin of Right and Wrong," in Ethical Theory; Classical and Contemporary Readings (sixth edition), eds. Louis Pojman and James Fieser (Belmont: Wadsworth, 2011), pp. 113-120). 

4 James Rachels, "Subjectivism," in A Companion to Ethics, ed. Peter Singer (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), pp. 432-441, p. 437.  Emphasis added to passage.  

5 Ibid., p. 438.  Emphasis added to passage twice.  

6 If you are interested in pursuing this issue further, I recommend Louis Pojman's "A Critique of Ethical Relativism," [1988], and Gilbert Harman's "Moral Relativism Defended" [1975], both are in Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings (sixth edition), op. cit.  

7 Cf., John Searle, "How To Derive An `Ought' From An `Is'," Philosophical Review v. 73) (1964), pp. 43 ff. 

8 John Hospers, "Baier and Medlin on Ethical Egoism," Philosophical Studies v. 12 (1961).  Cited here from the selection in An Introduction to Ethics, eds. Robert E. Dewey and Robert H. Hurlbutt (N.Y.: Macmillan, 1977), pp. 214-220, p. 219. Emphasis added to passage.  

Return to PHI 3601 Home page