Rational egoism is an idea about what is most rational for me to do at any given point of my life. According to rational egoism I should be concerned for what is best for me. Although this does not exclude that I may have a reason to show concern for others, this concern is only derivative. Only if the suffering of others is bad for me, I have a reason to be concerned about it. When it comes to me I have, according to the rational egoist, a reason to show special concern. Moreover, I should be completely neutral with regard to when a benefit or disadvantage will occur. In other words, this concern includes me now and me at any future moment of my life. Thus there are two main components in rational egoism.
(a) Personal bias
(b) Temporal neutrality
Derek Parfit claims that since one component is neutral, whereas the other is biased, there is an asymmetry that must be explained . The best way to explain why the rational egoism is temporally neutral and not biased to the present is, according to David Brink, best explained by what is commonly referred to as ?the separateness of persons? . According to this idea we lead separate lives. My life is my own life now and at any future moment. This means that if I would forgo a small benefit now to receive a greater benefit in a few years, my sacrifice now may be fully compensated by the greater benefit in a few years. I would not be directly compensated if I would make a sacrifice and this would benefit someone else. This discrepancy in the nature of compensation is explained by the fact that I am a person who is completely separate from anyone else. This notion of separateness requires that it is an important fact that I am identical to myself. And, seemingly, it requires that personal identity matters.
According to Derek Parfit, we should abandon the idea that there is a further fact, or any other non-reductionist views. On these views, we are essentially something that could not be reduced to material substance and psychological events. I agree with Parfit. Non-reductionism is very implausible. Parfit also argues that, if we become reductionists about personal identity, we should conclude that personal identity does not matter. Instead, what matters is psychological continuity and connectedness. Although I do not agree with Parfit here, I accept his claim for the sake of the argument. Parfit argues that if psychological continuity and connectedness (relation R) is what matters, this would entail the defeat of rational egoism. According to Parfit, the egoist could adjust this view to this claim. However, this adjustment would mean the defeat of classical rational egoism, according to Parfit. This is not the claim I aim to contest. I will instead argue that the new egoism, here ?tribal egoism? is far from what we can ask for by a theory about rationality. I will proceed as follows; first I will examine Parfit’s argument in some detail, then I will consider the arguments of David Brink and Jennifer Whiting. Finally I will introduce an alternative, inspired by T.M Scanlon and Thomas Nagel.
Parfit: the non-importance of personal identity
Let us begin by first examining Parfit’s argument in detail. Consider, Parfit urges us, the case when we divide. My brain has been divided into two identical halves, and surgically implanted into two different bodies. In this case, I am not identical to any of the people that survived the operation. This is so because personal identity must, in order to preserve our common sense notion of a person, include a non-branching clause. This means that if someone divides me, the two products of fission will not be identical to me. This implies that after division I will no longer exist. However, it seems implausible, Parfit argues, that division is nearly as bad as death. If one half of my brain had been dropped on the floor, this would have implied my survival. Surely division is not worse than that. This example seems to show us that although I cease to exist when divided, this is not so bad, since there are now two people that are fully psychologically connected with me, although in an unusual manner. So, Parfit concludes, what matters is not personal identity, but psychological connectedness and continuity. What should we say about the future of my two successors? Should I care about them? On Parfit’s view, since they are continuous with me, I have the same reason to care for them that I would have to care for my own well-being in the near future. Since continuity and connectedness is what matters, these are the proper carriers of special concern, according to Parfit (310-12).
Remember, Parfit asks us, that rational egoism claims that a rational person should be equally concerned about all the parts of his future. However, since connectedness is a matter of degree that naturally declines with time, that which is important and the object of our concern also decline. We should therefore, if we accept psychological reductionism, care less for our distant future, if it is likely that we are not well connected ourselves in this distant future. This could be described as a discount rate in our concern for our future selves. The less connected the less concern. This discount rate is a denial of the egoist?s second claim, that we should be equally concerned about all the parts of our future life (312).
Also, some people to whom we have close ties are strongly connected to us. On psychological reductionism, when this connectedness is stronger than the connectedness to our future self, our sacrifices might be compensated by benefits to these people. And some sacrifices might not be compensated by benefits to our future self, according to Parfit (317-19).
The argument may be summarized as follows;
(I) Special concern presupposes compensation, i.e. A is justified to be especially concerned for B if and only if B?s benefits compensate for A?s burdens.
(II) Compensation presupposes that the beneficiary and the burdened be the same person.
(III) On psychological reductionism our present self may be numerically distinct from our future self.
(IV) Therefore, according to psychological reductionism sometimes benefit to our future self cannot compensate for the burdens imposed on our present selves.
(V) Therefore, special concern for our future selves is not necessarily justified.
However, the case against rational egoism is, I am afraid, more difficult. We will consider some objections in the next section.
Brink: temporal unity and equal concern
David Brink has some good objections to these claims. Brink objects that it is not at all clear why the mere metaphysical claim that there is no further fact should have any direct implications on whether or not we should be concerned with our future selves. If thought that I had a soul, Brink argues, and learned that I was to be subjected to torture, my fear would not be eased if I learned that I never had a soul, and what matters is continuity and connectedness. Metaphysical depth does not; in itself undermine special concern, according to Brink (Brink: 117-18).
Brink suggests two reasons to why we should reject Parfit’s suggested discount rate. Brink notes that although, on Parfit’s account, both continuity and connectedness matter; only connectedness is a matter of degree. Now, it is not impossible, not even very implausible, to be a psychological reductionist and defend the view that only continuity matters, Brink suggests. And since continuity is not a matter of degree, the support for Parfit’s discount rate disappears. So we need to assume not only psychological reductionism, but more specifically Parfit’s ?connectedness and continuity- view?, Brink observes (Brink: 119-20). As Parfit admits (299) loss of connectedness is not necessarily a bad thing, if what we lost were bad features of our psychology, such as irrational fears or obsessions. Parfit mentions that we appreciate many of our memories, and the unity o
f our character (301). These claims are true of some memories and some people. Speaking for myself, I know I have a very poor memory. I hardly remember any events of my childhood, and very few events of my adolescence. And I believe that I will be very poorly connected to my future self in say 10 years. I do not see this as a problem. Parfit owes us a better explanation to why we should care about connectedness, and not merely continuity.
One such explanation could be that psychological continuity consists in a strong overlapping chain of connectedness. Since this chain can hold to different degrees, continuity is also a matter of degree, Parfit might argue. Therefore, we need not care about both connectedness and continuity, since if we claim that continuity holds only to a degree, this may support the discount rate.
Also, Brink argues that even if we would accept Parfit’s form of reductionism, this would not support the discount rate. According to Brink, all parts of my life, are equally parts of my life, regardless of how well connected they are to me now. Brink claims that we are not essentially momentary parts of a life, nor are we extended parts of that life. Rather I, or the agent, is the person who?s this life consists in. As long as continuity holds, I am the same person. Different stages may be better or worse connected to each other, but as long as continuity holds, the agent must consider things from the whole life-span perspective, not from a momentary life-slice, Brink argues (Brink: 121). One is justified in probing deeper into this notion. Why am I my whole life, rather than person stages, or for that matter, slices? Why should I consider a distant future self that is, although continuous with me, hardly connected, as important as my present self? Why should I choose a temporally impartial standpoint rather than a presentist standpoint?
If we assume that we choose a presentist standpoint, we could choose the temporally minimal person stage and claim that this is what we essentially are. However, Brink argues, this is very implausible. If we were ?person slices? we would hardly have any interests at all, except for momentary desires. However, it seems as if our thoughts, desires and interest range for a much longer temporal span, Brink suggests. I agree with this notion. Our very psychology indicates that we are not person slices, and it is unclear whether someone who actually would regard himself as a momentary being, completely separate from the existence in the very near past and the very near future, would qualify as a person at all.
What if we were temporally extended person segments? Initially more plausible, this idea is also very problematic. Consider the person segments ?childhood-me? and ?adolescent-me?. It is quite clear that, since both of them are parts of my life, and they are psychologically continuous, they are connected by overlapping chains of psychological connectedness. Thus, person segments that are continuous always overlap with at least one other segment, we could not distinguish between them. And would they not overlap, it would then hardly be the same person at all. Thus, we should consider the agent to be a temporally extended entity that consists of psychologically continuous mental states, that is a person?s whole life, Brink concludes (Brink: 112-14).
If I am not me-now, but rather temporally-extended me, it makes sense to say that although some parts of my life are not as well connected to this stage, they are equally parts of my life. And therefore, I have a reason to be concerned about them, a reason that is, other things being equal, as strong as I have to care for my near future. To conclude, Brink argues that the separateness of persons explains the asymmetry in rational egoism. Although the egoist depends on the notion that persons exist, it is not inconsistent with psychological reductionism. Even if we accept Parfit?s idea that both connectedness and continuity is what matters, all the parts of our life are equally parts of our life, and thus equally important, from a whole-life-perspective.
Brink?s arguments seem to succeed in defending rational egoism against Parfit?s main objection, that we should accept some discount rate. However, it is not clear that rational egoism can be defended against the objection that sometimes, we are rationally permitted to be care about our close friends rather than our future selves. Let us consider Jennifer Whiting?s arguments concerning this issue.
Whiting: friendship and concern
According to Jennifer Whiting , psychological continuity and connectedness holds, not only between me and my future self (in most cases at least) but also between me and my friends and relatives. Thus, the concern we have for our friends, that their life go well and that they be happy and successful, is not separate from them being our friends, but rather, according to Whiting, an inseparable fact of what it is to be a friend (Whiting: 569).The same goes for our future selves. Part of what it is to be my future self is that I am now concerned in various ways about the welfare of my future self. Therefore, Whiting argues, special concern is not provided by psychological continuity, but rather it is part of that continuity (Whiting: 570). However, there are important differences between concern for our friends and concerns for our future selves, Whiting claims. This is so since concern for our future selves is necessary for our existence and persistence in a way that concern for others are not. Would we fail to be concerned about our future, we would also fail to be a person. This is, according to Whiting, a reason to dismiss the extreme claim, the claim that we have no non-derivative reason whatsoever, to be especially concerned with our future selves. Therefore, if we would not care, we would not exist as persons (Whiting: 575). I find this hard to accept. I believe that Whiting overemphasizes the importance of concern. Assume that I would, as Perry suggests, be concerned about my future self, not because he is of special importance for me, but rather because I believe that he is best disposed to carry out projects that I believe are very important. Suppose that this project consists in solving some mathematical problem. My concern is, in this case, completely dependent on my future ability to carry out this project. Say that I would learn that I contracted Alzheimer?s disease and could therefore not solve this mathematical problem. If I had no other projects, I could rationally be concerned that my younger college would receive all the financial support that he needs to accomplish this aim. In the remaining months, my concern for my colleague?s welfare is total. But during this period I do not seem to cease to exist as a person. Concern for my future self is not either rationally required in these situations, nor does it seem to be required to ensure my personhood.
However, Whiting claims that although there are some differences in the characteristics between concern for friends and concern for future selves, these forms of concern are no different in kind (Whiting: 575). Whiting is, I believe, on to something important here, that may undermine the rationale for rational egoism. What most of us find remarkable about the egoist claim is that no benefit to others can directly compensate our sacrifices. We often believe that some sacrifices indeed are compensated by benefits to our children or other people whom we hold very dear. Whiting?s idea can explain why we consider such acts of sacrifice are fully compensated. Consider the following thought example:
Choice: White?s son is in a burning house. In another room, there are two their children. However, White?s son is in a room that poses significantly more risk to White. Nevertheless, White ignores the risk and the two other boys and saves his son. However, White inhales great amounts of smoke, and his lungs collapse shortly after saving his son.
Was White rational? Not according to rational egoism. White subjected himself to a very great risk, thereb
y ignoring what would be best for him. Although the loss of his son would have been a bad thing for White, death is worse, we can assume. According to Whiting?s idea about the justification of concern, White?s sacrifice was not necessarily irrational, since his sacrifice may be compensated by the great benefit to his son. This view is clearly more intuitively appealing than rational egoism, and seems to be more consistent with common-sense notions about rationality. However, on both Whiting?s view and rational egoism, it would have been irrational to save the two boys, at a much lower risk for White?s life. According to Whiting and rational egoism, this would have been irrational because the sacrifice of White would not have been not fully compensated by the benefit of the two boys. I believe that this example illustrates that although Whiting?s view is more intuitive than rational egoism, it seems to be counterintuitive when judging that White would have been irrational, had he saved the two children. I think that from a common-sense approach, we would understand, and maybe even applaud White?s behavior. We could not require White to ignore his son, but we would not condemn him saving the two boys as irrational. I believe that, from a common-sense approach we believe that it was rationally permitted for White to save the two boys at a low risk for himself.
The view that would be supported by a certain kind of psychological reductionism is thus no view of impartial benevolence, but rather something that we could call ?tribal egoism?. According to this view, it is rational to be concerned about people to whom we have close ties to, including our future selves. A personal sacrifice could be compensated by a benefit to a friend or sibling, but not by a benefit for a stranger. According to this view, it is justified to care more about people that are more similar to you, that have the same attitudes and values. In front of the ?runaway- trolley ?example?, it would be more rational for me to save one person?s life, if this person was a secular liberal than to save five people, if they were conservative Christians. Somehow this notion seems to me as disturbing as rational egoism, and very far from the impartial benevolence that Parfit seems to prefer. As I understand it, the purpose of a moral theory is to explain why we have reasons to be impartially benevolent. And tribal egoism does not provide us with more reason to do so than rational egoism.
I am rational to the extent I correctly respond to apparent reasons. According to rational egoism, only my own welfare can provide with reasons to act. According to tribal egoism only the welfare of my ?tribe?, that is people to whom I have close ties, can provide me with reasons. Can the idea that unknown people?s welfare can matter to me, and thus provide me with a reason to act, be defended? I believe so. If it is possible to defend this view, it should be our aim to do so. I believe that there are two main reasons for believing this. First, this view would explain why we believe that concern for people outside our ?tribes? is important, and that showing this concern is not irrational. I also believe that although theories of individual rationality are important, it may be more important do discern what we should rationally do as a collective. In modern societies and great cities, we often affect many people with our actions. Most of these people are not closely connected to us. It is clear that in many cases, what is most rational for each of us to do (according to rational and tribal egoism) is irrational for all of us to do. Perhaps it is more important to know what we should do to be rational rather than what I should do to be rational. And the answer to what we should do, will be more impartial and less person- biased, i.e. more similar to rational benevolence. Perhaps tribal egoism is the correct answer to the question ?what does rationality require me to do?? However, this may be the wrong question to ask. Perhaps we should ask ourselves ?what does rationality require us to do??
This paper discussed the issue of special concern and the case against rational egoism. According to the psychological reductionism, what matters is psychological continuity and connectedness. If we accept this theory of what matters, we ought to abandon rational egoism, according to Derek Parfit. David Brinks objections were also discussed, and also a possible answer to these objections. However, Brinks objection is not fatal against Parfit?s case against rational egoism. And according to Whitney, we can often explain how and why psychological continuity and connectedness could matter more than my own survival. However, the denial of rational egoism results in the acceptance of what I refer to as ?tribal egoism?. According to this view, we ought to care about our ?tribe?, our close friends and relatives, but not about strangers in need. We seem to be quite far from the rational benevolence that Parfit seems to prefer. The final section of this paper suggests that perhaps we should ask, instead ?what is most rational for me to do?, ?what is most rational us to do?.