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Allison Hills opens her excellent new book, The Beloved Self: Morality and the Challenge from Egoism, by reminding us of the elusiveness of "an argument that even an egoist should accept that egoism is false" (5). Seeking this "Holy Grail" of moral philosophy, philosophers like Thomas Nagel, Christine Korsgaard, and Henry Allison have argued that egoism is incoherent because it offers a theory of practical reason that lacks "qualities essential to a theory of practical reason"; Derrick Parfit takes a different tack by arguing that egoism depends upon a questionable "metaphysics of the self" (90-1). But according to Hills, the former attempts rest upon positive theories of practical reason that end up begging the question, and the latter attempt, while perhaps forcing egoists to adopt a more defensible theory of the self, ultimately leaves their rejection of morality untouched. Hills' discouragement regarding the failure of these "ambitious" attempts to combat egoism leads her to adopt the more "modest" aim of vindicating morality to those of us who already believe that we have specifically moral reasons for acting and who want to rest assured that it is epistemically rational to hold this view.
Hills' book is divided into three parts. The first lays out three different kinds of egoism, each one corresponding to a different moral theory. The egoist "shadow" of utilitarianism is "standard egoism," which claims that agents only have reason to maximize their own happiness; the egoist shadow of Kantian deontology is "Kantian egoism," which claims that agents only have reason to respect their own rational natures; the egoist shadow of virtue theory is "virtue egoism," which claims that egoists only have reason to do what the "virtuous egoist" does. By stressing the potentially "protean" nature of egoism, this part of the book shows that a response to egoism requires more than just picking a moral theory that rejects the rationality of happiness maximization, like Kant's (89).
The second part of the book exposes the failure of ambitious attempts to vindicate morality and thereby points out the need for a more modest approach. We can best see what Hills means by a "modest vindication" of morality by considering the main problem she thinks such a vindication must address. All Hills wants to show that it is epistemically rational to believe that we have genuine moral reasons for acting; to establish the truth of this belief would be to provide the sort of ambitious vindication of morality that Hills finds implausible. The biggest obstacle to Hills' modest vindication lies in the fact that it is usually epistemically rational to suspend one's judgment about something when faced with disagreement from epistemic peers. If this norm holds regarding the disagreement between egoists and defenders of morality, then the latter can't even feel vindicated in their own eyes (that the egoists can't either, Hills points out, is "hardly a consolation") (166). So Hills' task is to show that rationality does not demand that defenders of morality suspend their own judgment just because egoists sincerely and stubbornly disagree with them.
Hills makes this argument in the third part of the book. She starts by pointing out that we can determine the standards of epistemic rationality for holding any kind of belief by looking at the way the belief functions in promoting successful action. Conduciveness to knowledge and/or truth (Hills leaves open the question of which is more important) determines the standards of epistemic rationality for non-moral beliefs because holders of beliefs with these qualities are best able to achieve their aims. Since we attain knowledge or true beliefs by granting authority to the testimony of others, rationality often demands that we suspend our judgment in the face of disagreement regarding non-moral matters. However, this is not the case for moral matters. The function of moral beliefs is not to promote success in action but to make one's actions "morally worthy." Morally worthy action is right action performed for the right reasons and with a self-conscious "grasp of the relation between moral propositions and the reasons why they are true" (193). Hills' calls this grasp "moral understanding." Those with moral understanding don't just know what is right and why but have the right kind of "orientation" to moral reasons, as well as the ability to employ their own moral judgment (217). Because this cannot be achieved merely by accepting others' testimony, even when it's justified and true, defenders of morality are not being irrational when they do not grant intrinsic authority to the opinions of their disagreeing epistemic peers. (Hills does not mean that others' moral views shouldn't sometimes lead us to reevaluate our own; she means that we shouldn't give weight to others' views "independently of the force of the reasons that they cite for" holding them) (223). Thus, the sheer existence of egoists gives defenders of morality no reason to suspend their judgment regarding the authority of morality. Things would be different if egoists could vindicate their views based on premises that defenders of morality would accept. But, Hills argues, this possibility is just as unlikely as its opposite has proven to be.
Hills' concept of moral understanding has fascinating implications for how we think of certain facets of moral life, first among which is moral education. The most surprising result of her argument is that it ends up showing that egoism is epistemically irrational. Because egoists care only about the outcomes of their actions, there is no obvious reason why they would value understanding over knowledge. Thus, rationality calls upon them to suspend their judgment in face of all kinds of disagreements with their epistemic peers, including ones about morality.
I imagine and Hills acknowledges that egoists, especially those of the Kantian variety she describes, would object most strongly to the notion that understanding plays no role in their conception of practical rationality. But herein lies the value of Hills' work. The Beloved Self is groundbreaking in focusing the debate on a new issue. It is recommended most strongly to readers with some experience studying moral philosophy, but it is by no means inaccessible.
© 2011 John McHugh
John McHugh received his PhD in philosophy from Boston University in January 2011. He is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Denison University in Granville, OH. He has written an essay on Adam Smith that will appear in the Fall 2011 issue of the Journal of Scottish Philosophy. He has also published an essay in the collection, Red Sox and Philosophy.
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