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Morality and Self-InterestReview - Morality and Self-Interest
by Paul Bloomfield
Oxford University Press, 2007
Review by Tatiana Patrone, Ph.D.
Dec 16th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 51)

In his 2008 anthology -- Morality and Self-Interest -- Paul Bloomfield has assembled a remarkable collection of essays; the contributions range from Richard Joyce to Thomas Nagle, and from Julia Annas to Michael Stocker (to name only a few). 

The anthology's Introduction provides a helpful framework for the project.  In it, Bloomfield points out that its key term -- 'morality' -- is philosophically ambiguous.  "There are two conceptions of "morality" currently at play in the philosophical literature," Bloomfield says: "and employing them differentially affects how the relationship of morality to self-interest is conceived" (3).  On the one hand, the term 'morality' figures into a wide set of normative theories (e.g., traditional utilitarian and deontological ones) that take the province of moral issues to be answering the question:  'How ought one to behave toward others?'  On this interpretation of morality -- or what Bloomfield calls morality "Without" -- morality is oftentimes construed of going against self-interest or, at least, it is defined independently from self interest.  On the other hand, the interpretation of morality that goes back to the Ancient Greece (or what Bloomfield calls morality "Within") sees the relation between moral and prudential concerns to be different.  In this philosophical tradition, morality cannot be divorced from self-interest and it is defined -- largely -- in terms of self-interest.  This is due to the fact that the fundamental moral question that this tradition is answering is not 'How ought one to behave toward others?' but rather 'How ought one to live one's life?' 

The term 'self-interest's, Bloomfield says, is no less philosophically ambiguous, since it can refer to (i) the good of the agent, i.e., the good as the agent herself sees it, and (ii) good for the agent, i.e., what is truly good for her.  Bloomfield concludes that "we must somehow -- or decide whether we wish to -- distinguish between what "morality" commonly means and what it ought to mean, between what most people think and what we all ought to think.  The same is true to "self-interest", since there is always a possible gap between what is truly good for a person, all things considered, and what that person wants most (or desires or prefers), even when given an optimal amount of time to reflect" (9).

Bloomfield acknowledges that the framework that he suggests in his Introduction is not the only one possible for dealing with the theme of morality and its relation to self-interest (9).  While the framework in indeed helpful, it does not (and, perhaps, cannot) be successfully applied to the collection of essays that  the anthology contains, since the range of the topics and of the arguments in Morality and Self-Interest is still much wider than the distinction between morality "Without" and morality "Within", together with the distinction between the good for the agent and the good of the agent allow for.  Richard Joyce in his essay "Morality, Schmorality", for instance, while addressing the same question -- "Why is it bad to be bad?" -- explores the answer to it from the perspective of a moral error theory.  Since, according to the moral error theory, the predicate "... is morally bad" "has an empty extension" (much like the term "witch"), his account of relation between morality and self-interest is essentially of a different kind than an account that could be offered by the traditional normative theories (e.g., virtue ethics, deontology, etc.)

Another essay that is difficult to situate in the grid of morality "Within" vs. morality "Without" and of the good for the agent vs. the good of the agent is Mathias Risse's "Nietzsche on Selfishness".  In it, Risse examines Nietzsche's take on selfishness (in fact, Risse argues, Nietzsche's view evolved from Human, All Too Human to his later Twilight of the Idols) and argues that selfishness, for Nietzsche, is not the overriding value, but is rather subject to the concerns of justice.  Risse argues that "despite [his] self-declared immoralism, Nietzsche's praise for justice is a fixed point thought his works" (32), albeit the concern for justice (in Nietzsche) should not be understood as a concern for equality.  Thus, Risse concludes, in some respect, 'self-interest' (or "selfishness") in Nietzsche is subject to moral constrains vis-a-vie being subject to duties to others, and that even Nietzschean "higher men" (who properly manifest this "selfishness") are thus "subject to rights and duties".  In spite of the fact that these "rights and duties" bind the "higher men" only with respect to a "relatively small set of alleged peers" (31), the principal claim remains true -- the claim that, for Nietzsche, "selfishness" is not an overriding value.  (If Risse's essay does not easily fit into the conceptual grid supplied by Bloomfield, arguably, it is due to the fact that the ethics for the "higher men" is an ethics for a "relatively small set of alleged peers", and thus is not the universal ethics of e.g., deontology and utilitarianism; it even is quite far from Aristotelian virtue ethics, although it is closer to it in its interpretation of the concept of 'justice'.)

In Thomas Nagel's contribution -- "The Value of Inviolability" -- the concern for universalism in ethics returns.  Nagel addresses the issue of human rights and argues for a particular interpretation of the value (and of the significance) of human rights.  This interpretation can be related to what Bloomfield calls the morality "Without" -- on this view, human rights are "nonderivative and fundamental elements of morality.  They embody a form of recognition of the value of each individual that supplements and differs in kind from that which leads us to value the overall increase of human happiness and the eradication of misery" (104).  Furthermore, on Nagel's understanding of human rights, rights are "agent-relative" (vs. "agent-neutral") values -- "rights prohibit us from doing certain things to anyone but do not require that we count it equally a reason for action that it will prevent those same sorts of things being done to someone, but not by oneself" (106).  (Nagel's example to illustrate the difference between agent-relative and agent-neutral values is the following:  "If murder is bad in an agent-neutral sense, it means that everyone has a reason to try to minimize the overall number of murders; ... if murder is wrong in agent-relative sense, this means that each agent is required not to commit murder himself" (105).)  Finally, following Frances Kamm's account, Nagel argues that a proper understanding of rights undermines the claims of ethical egoism.  The understanding of rights as agent-relative and as nonderivative is related to taking the "impersonal standpoint" that recognizes the value of others (as having the same "impersonal value" as oneself), while the egoistic standpoint is a standpoint of "personal value" that is committed to the idea that the value of a person is ultimately subjective, i.e., the value of a person P is derived from the fact that P values himself.  Nagel points out that egoistic standpoint is in fact self-refuting, since in treating the value of a person as merely subjective, "egoism amounts to a devaluation of oneself, along with everyone else" (110).  Nagel's argument, therefore, is one that is available to the morality "Without" in dealing with the claims of self-interest, particularly, perhaps, if it is interpreted as claims concerning the good of the agent.

Overall, Bloomfield's anthology is a compilation of insightful essays that are bound to interest a serious student of normative ethics as well as of metaethics.  The set of contributions is quite demanding -- it is not an easy read and it is unlikely to serve as a comprehensive introduction to the topic of the relation between morality and self-interest.  Even with the helpful conceptual framework provided by Bloomfield in his Introduction, the reader is bound to be challenged by nearly all essays in the anthology.

© 2008 Tatiana Patrone

Tatiana Patrone is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Ithaca College.  She is author of How Kant's Conception of Reason Implies a Liberal Politics (Edwin Mellen Press, 2008)


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