Rebirth of Reason


Endorsement or Prediction
by Joseph Rowlands

One of the most important features of a morality of rational self-interest is the idea that there is no fundamental conflict of interest between people. Instead of being stuck in a world where one man's gain is another man's loss, we live in a world where both parties can win through mutually beneficial trades. Opportunities for win-win situations are so common that we can choose to live a life in harmony with others. And the concern over people taking advantage of others encourages the establishment of justice and legal protection of rights, making it even more self-interested to seek mutually beneficial relationships.


While this harmony of interest is possible, it is also possible that one person will act in a way that creates a significant conflict between his interests and others. These kind of scenarios are raised as problematic for a morality of self-interest. Once the conflict is firmly established, the self-interested action might be one that harms someone else.


There are many possible examples. A man might borrow money from the criminal underworld and be unable to pay it back. He might then have an opportunity to steal the money from someone he knows, maybe cares about, and who might trust him and depend on him. And yet, once the situation is created, he will be left with a choice to either betray that trust and harm an innocent person, or suffer the significant consequences of an angry loan shark. If the loan shark intends to kill him, the preferred choice is clear.


The reason this appears challenging is that if the morality is defined by self-interest, the conclusion should be that he should betray the trust of the person he cares about and steal their money, in order to avoid the significantly more costly death by loan shark. But it seems to many that there is something inappropriate about calling that action "moral".


The reason for the difficulty is that declaring something as "moral" seems to be an endorsement of it. If you say he "should" steal the money, you seem to be saying that it is alright that he does so, or that he has a right to do so, or it would be forgiven. Declaring something moral is usually an endorsement of it. It is not just saying that a person technically should do something if he wants to accomplish a specific goal. It is usually taken to mean that the action is good in general, and should be practiced more widely.


This endorsement view of morality assumes some kind of universal or intrinsic standard. An intrinsic value is one thought to be valuable for its own sake, without relation to any person or context. An intrinsic value is always good, and an action taken to further that value is thought to be good in all situations. It is always the case. This allows a statement of morality to be a universal endorsement of that behavior. If it is true at all, it is true everywhere.


A universal standard is something independent of the moral agent himself. Altruism could be considered a universal standard because it focuses on "everyone else". Of course, your "everyone else" is different from my "everyone else", but it's pretty close. So an altruistic act would be good for you, and good for me, and good for almost anyone. Saying something is moral is a universal endorsement of that behavior.


A morality of self-interest is agent-dependent. What's good for me may not be good for you. That doesn't mean it isn't the moral choice for me. Morality in this case always needs to recognize that it is agent-specific. And this is true even before conflicts with others are seen. It may be moral for me to quit my job and write a book, but it wouldn't be moral for someone else who couldn't afford to quit or who had no ideas for a book.


So when you say that something is moral, you are saying it is moral "for him". There is no universal endorsement. Advice that's good for me is not necessary good for you. You aren't saying that you think it is good advice in general. You are merely saying that with this one specific person in this specific context, this happens to be the best advice.


When conflicts are added to the mix, it seems even harder to declare a self-interested act "moral". Instead of treating it as a mere identification of where that person's interests lie, it still seems to be an endorsement of the behavior. It seems to be saying that you like the outcome, you think the action is generally a good thing, etc.


This doesn't make sense, though. An action might be in a person's interests, but if his interests are conflicting with yours or others, there shouldn't be any implication that you favor that action. The conflict means you don't value his interests! Just because an action best benefits him doesn't mean you should desire or value it. In the case of a conflict, you shouldn't!


The man who must steal or get killed by the loan shark has pitted his interests against others. The specific person he intends to steal from is the most obvious conflict. And that person, while admitting that stealing seems like it would be the preferable choice if he were in that situation, would still disvalue it. There's no endorsement there.


Further, the potential thief has pitted his interests again everyone else. He's created a situation where he must gain at someone else's expense. He must be unjust to someone. He must violate someone's rights. That's a situation everyone can be unhappy about. Nobody (except maybe the loan shark) would endorse the decision to steal, even if they can understand and recognize it as that person's best option.


Instead of using the endorsement view of morality, it's possible to use a prediction view of morality. When asking what that potential criminal's interests are, we can think of it in terms of what we think he will likely do. The friend who is likely to be the target of the theft would be wise to consider the potential thief's situation and predict that he is likely to try to steal the money.


There's no endorsement here, but there is an analysis based on self-interest. You can look at the potential thief and ask what are the costs and benefits of his choices. Sure, stealing will have a number of significant side-effects making his future values more difficult to pursue. But death is a much bigger obstacle. Even if the option was to be crippled, you might want to lock up all of your money.


Thinking of moral analysis in terms of prediction instead of endorsement makes more sense. The goal is clear analysis, regardless of whether you personally value that person or his choices. If you don't value him, or he has pitted his interests against your own, of course there is no endorsement. Endorsement should be based on your own values and interests. But that analysis is different. Analyzing someone else's choices in terms of what they "should" do is entirely dependent on their own interests and should not be thought to convey endorsement from you.

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