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Morality 2: total selfishness
December 5, 2010, 12:43 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

In part 1 I tried to figure out what it means to act morally, and decided that I agree with the principle of Utilitarianism, or ‘Do the greatest good for the greatest number’. I found that a lot of actions that I think of as being morally good don’t fit into Utilitarianism, and that a normal person can’t really be expected to obey strict Utilitarianism all the time.

Problem: Utilitarianism says I should treat all people exactly equal, but the reality is that I care about myself most of all, my friends and family next, and outwards in widening circles, so that the further someone is from me the less I care about them.

I’ve set up a contrast between totally utilitarian behaviour and totally selfish behaviour. If I am totally utilitarian I donate all my spare money to charity, keeping only the bare minimum needed to keep myself alive, and spend all my spare time doing volunteer work. And if I am totally selfish I think only of myself and don’t do anything to help anyone in any way.

Both of these idea are nonsense. The totally selfish me doesn’t work; if I behaved that way I would actually be very unhappy, since I would feel ashamed. In fact I want to do some good in the world and to help others (to an extent) because it makes me happy, just as eating chocolate cake and going to the pub and living in a nice flat make me happy. I optimise my happiness by attempting to take care of everyone, but in a differential way: I put the most effort into caring for myself, next in line are the people close to me, and I put only a little effort into helping people who I don’t know.

Actually, come to think of it, I am a much more capable and competent person, and thus much better able to help others and do good in the world, when I am feeling happy. If anything, the principle of Utilitarianism suggests that I should focus on taking good care of myself and making sure I am as happy as possible.

The idea of a totally unselfish me is also unrealistic, because I simply wouldn’t be able to live that way. I could try it, and I might last a week or two, but I know that I would soon start spending my money on things I like, and spending my spare time watching films, reading blogs, or visiting friends. And here is an interesting point: the Utilitarian principle only demands that I choose from all possible choices the one that does the greatest good for the greatest number. If I redefine the totally unselfish me as being impossible, then Utilitarianism no longer demands that I behave that way, since Utilitarianism only demands that I pick the best of all possible choices. (I do realise that my re-definition of what is possible is arbitrary and potentially very self-serving!)

When I take a realistic view of my life, I realise that the range of changes I could make in order to live a more moral life is fairly small. I could give a bit more money to charity, but not much more. I could do a bit more volunteer work, but not much more.

However I can probably squeeze quite a lot more utility out of my life by optimizing the things that I am already doing. Utilitarianism pushes me, not only to give to charity, but to put effort into choosing the charity that will do the most good with the money I give to it. And I have to not only do volunteer work, but also give careful thought to choosing an organisation that genuinely does good, and where my skills are genuinely needed. In short, morality demands that I take the things I do for moral reasons just as seriously as I take my work. When I’m doing things in order to earn money I strive to be efficient and effective, because I want to earn the maximum amount of money possible while doing the minimum amount of work possible. Utilitarianism demands that I have the same focus on efficiency and effectiveness when I do things for moral reasons, like choosing a charity or doing volunteer work.

I have got a separation between moral and selfish activities: some of the time I am doing selfish things, like working to earn a living, or relaxing and having fun, and sometimes I am doing moral things, like volunteering. But I think that a theory of morality should apply all the time, to everything I do, rather than being something I turn on and off like a light switch. Also, I wonder where doing political work, with the aim of changing the way society is organised, fits into this scheme.

To be continued…

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