The Instigator
Stephen_Hawkins
Pro (for)
Losing
3 Points
The Contender
YYW
Con (against)
Winning
6 Points

This house believes ethical egoism is false

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Post Voting Period
The voting period for this debate has ended.
after 3 votes the winner is...
YYW
Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 1/10/2014 Category: Philosophy
Updated: 3 years ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 3,503 times Debate No: 43529
Debate Rounds (3)
Comments (57)
Votes (3)

 

Stephen_Hawkins

Pro

The rules of this debate are rather straight forward:

1) There is to be no use of separation of arguments through subheadings or headings, or any technique other than basic essay writing (that is, paragraph-by-paragraph).

2) The definition of ethical egoism is roughly that moral agents value only their self-interest. This definition may be contested, but massive departure from its meaning counts as a forfeit of the debate.

3) 4,000 characters, first round for acceptance, second round for opening arguments. No rebuttals in the first round.

4) Please state in the comments that you want to accept this debate. I'd rather go against an established debater. If you wish to take part, send me a message or comment.

Thank you and I look forward to the challenges!

EDIT: narrowed the definition of ethical egoism to be more explicit about what ethical egoism refers to.
YYW

Con

The definition of ethical egoism is fine.

I like the first rule too. Quite good.

Naturally, I look forward to PRO's opening arguments in the subsequent round.

Peace and love,

YYW
Debate Round No. 1
Stephen_Hawkins

Pro

Good morning, afternoon, or evening, depending on when you are reading this debate. Today we shall be discussing the topic of ethical egoism. To restate, my position, I claim ethical egoism is false. Ethical egoism is the position that the only thing of moral value is your own personal self-interest, and a fortiori nothing else is of moral value. I shall argue this is false. Note I am not required to present an alternative to ethical egoism, but instead an argument against its cogency. I shall present in fact two arguments: one from Professor Hepburn which I shall call the diary argument, and another similar argument which I shall call the constructivist predicate.

Firstly, however, I shall state the difference between Smithian ethics and an ethical egoism. Smithian ethics can be summarised in the famed quotation:

"It is not [from] the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest"[1].

Smithian ethics is what I shall call the idea that, by promoting our own self-interest, we can as a consequence benefit the whole. This is a claim that says, by pursuing our own self-interest, we are promoting the general welfare. Therefore, men like Adam Smith support the ethical value of general equity or general welfare, and not egoism. They value self-interest bceause it is a means to the general good, and not because they value self-interest in itself.

This distinction is important when we talk about ethical egoism, as I come to my first argument against it. Consider an individual who is writing a manifesto, who jots down that they shall only value what is in their interest. In Hepburn's words: "If I simply assert, as a personal manifesto (or, indeed, write it secretly in my diary), "I am going to pursue my own fulfilment only, and I understand morality precisely as a means to that" - then I achieve consistency - but express no public moral theory."[2] In other words, while the ethical egoist is claiming that they are supposedly going after a moral value, instead they are just pursuing self-interest, and self-interest is not a moral value any more than the taste of bubblegum. The pursuit of self-interest is acting without morality, and not able to be justified as a moral factor in its own right.

My second argument, the constructivist predicate, reinforces this point. To paraphrase a position held similar to Gilbert Harman, I propose a football relativism, or a game/contract constructivism is the apt description of how ethical language is used. This football relativism is the idea that morality emulates football. There are different rules about how people play the sport, but there is still a right or wrong way to play football - it is wrong for example to pick up the ball and run it between two posts into the back of a net past the goalkeeper, then protest at getting a card. Similarly, it is wrong to punch another player in the mouth when playing football. However, the key factor here is that what is right and wrong depends on the relationship between two people.

Suppose there was only one person on the planet, and they had no way of creating more people, in a world that is in all other ways the same as ours. They would not be morally wrong if they tried to rob a bank, nor would they be praised for building a hospital. Ethics is a social evaluator. If what is considered when we evaluate our acts is only our self-interest, then we are not evaluating our acts socially. Therefore, when we evaluate our acts based only on self-interest, then we are not acting within ethics. As ethical egoism is the claim that self-interest is the only moral value, ethical egoism is therefore false.

Thank you for reading, and I look forward to YYW's opening pitch.

1 - Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations
2 - Ted Honderich (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (section: altruism and egoism on page 221)

YYW

Con

Cheers, everyone. Before discussing my opponent's case, I want to explicate what I need to do in this debate, elucidate how I'm going to do that, and then, naturally, proceed to do it.

In outlining what I need to do in this case, it is necessary to describe what I need to do to win this debate. Simply, I need to argue that ethical egoism is not false. I do not, however, need to argue that ethical egoism is true. But, a framework for delineating truth from falsehood would nevertheless be useful in determining whether or not ethical egoism is either true or false, and not neither true nor false.

As such, I want to posit the idea that in order for something to be true or fall, there must be some conceivable kind of evidence which would indicate that a statement is either true or false -consistent with A.J. Ayer's verification principle. Simply stated, Ayer's verification principle holds that a statement only has meaning if it is either analytically (meaning that it logically coherent based on the meaning of words or deductive analysis) or empirically (meaning that a statement is true or false if empirical evidence would go towards establishing that the statement is the case or not the case) verifiable. From Ayers framework it follows, then, that all statements which are not empirically verifiable (meaning that there is no possible evidence which could indicate whether a claim is or is not the case) can be neither true nor false.

It is at this point that I want to make a distinction between cogency and truth. To prove that some statement, claim or idea is cogent -which is to say that it is logically coherent- is not to say that it is true, if what that statement, claim or idea states is neither analytically or empirically verifiable. Rather, to say that something is or is not cogent is only to indicate whether a statement is analytically verifiable (and thus meaningful or otherwise) rather than empirically verifiable (and thus true or false). So, while my opponent might argue that ethical egoism is meaningful on the basis of its cogency, pursuant to Ayer's verifiability principle -that is to say nothing of whether or not it is true or false.

But, this debate is over whether ethical egoism, which states in my opponent's words, that "the only thing of moral value is [one's] own personal self interest, and [therefore] nothing nothing else is of moral value" is or is not false, rather than whether it is meaningful. Because to be false requires the existence of some evidence which demonstrates that the claim posited is not the case and ethical egoism is, by definition, a statement about what has something of moral value, it can neither be true nor false because moral value is not empirically verifiable. So, ethical egoism cannot be false. Equally, it also cannot be true -but that too is beyond the scope of this debate.

However, Stephen argues that "the pursuit of self-interest is acting without morality, and not able to be justified as a moral factor in its own right" and that "when we evaluate our acts based only on self-interest, then we are not acting within ethics" to the logical end that that ethical egoism's proposition is not cogent -but that does not mean that ethical egoism is false. As I have stated above, pursuant to Ayer's verification principle, while something may be analytically verifiable (and therefore cogent or not), only empirical verifiability is sufficient to indicate whether or not some claim is true or false. Given that my opponent has offered no empirical evidence to prove that ethical egoism is not the case (nor could he, because evidence for claims as such does not exist) and therefore false he has failed to meet his burden of proof however readily he may have sufficiently established that ethical egoism is not cogent.

Many thanks to all who read this. I'll look forward to Stephen's response.
Debate Round No. 2
Stephen_Hawkins

Pro

Firstly, I’d like to thank my opponent for his novel response. His argument is one that supposes verificationism – the idea that, for anything to be true, it must be empirically verifiable. Or, in the negative, “all statements which are not empirically verifiable…can be neither true nor false” (to quote YYW) and are meaningless. Whether this is an uncharitable definition of the word “false” from the resolution I shall leave to those voting, but I shall present a series of arguments against the verification principle in its application to this ethical debate.


Firstly, I shall use the Frege-Geach problem to highlight how intuitively verificaitonism is wrong if applied to ethics. Then, I shall argue that verificationism is self-refuting. Finally, I shall argue that constructivism (which I presented in the first round) does offer empirical tests.


First, to note first why intuition is important. Keep in mind what my opponent suggests when he is saying everything that is not empirically testable is false. All religious and aeshetic claims according to verificationism are meaningless. Any political policy or ethical claim, as highlighted in this debate, becomes moot. The phrase “We ought to have a small government” or “Murdering children is unjustifiable” become meaningless. You cannot say it is true that children have the right to life, or that government ought to be smaller, as all these ethical claims, my opponent states, are meaningless. If we are to say ethics exists, then we have to reject my opponent’s argument for the reason that ethics is more obviously real than the verification principle.


To take the Frege-Geach problem. Consider the following argument:


P1 – If stealing is wrong, then getting my brother to steal is wrong.


P2 – Stealing is wrong


C1 – Therefore, getting my brother to steal is wrong.


To quickly state a fact of philosophy, all arguments must consist of propositions and only propositions. Propositions are in essence statements that are either true or false. However, if we take this argument, suppose verificationism. If all ethical claims are meaningless, then the second premise is meaningless. Moreover, the first premise must be meaningless – in fact, it ought to make no sense whatsoever. The phrase “If then” signals a logical operator, and logical operators can only connect propositions. But as it connects two meaningless sentences (“Stealing is wrong” and “Getting my brother to steal is wrong”), then the first premise is illegible. And finally, the conclusion must not logically follow.


However, clearly, the conclusion logically follows from the two premises. If the two premises are correct, then the conclusion is necessarily true (and meaningful). Yet verificationism says the conclusion is not meaningful. The logical conclusion, therefore, is that verification is false, and logic is true (for it is more likely that verificationism is mistaken than the well-established laws of logic).


My second argument is the argument from self-contradiction. Firstly, keep in mind that verificationism states that anything which cannot be empirically tested is meaningless. Secondly, the principle of verification cannot be tested. So the logical conclusion is that the verification principle is meaningless. So one cannot use it as a system to refute the resolution.


Finally, note that my theory made empirical claims. If my theory is true, then “ethics is a social evaluator”. This means what is ethical will tend to be expressed by all persons – for example, the vast majority of people will agree murder is a moral (as opposed to a-moral; murder has ethical implications) act, while your personal taste in clothing is not. As such, my theory is able to be falsified, and able to therefore be given evidence to support it. Just as a game of football has rules that most would recognise, so does my theory. While it is not definitive verifiable evidence, it does show my theory has empirical elements demanded by verificationism.

YYW

Con

Many thanks to Stephen and readers, of course. Now, let's get started.

To clarify my previous argument, I want to state as simply as possible what Ayer's Verification principle is: Verifiability exists in two kinds, and statements can only have meaning if they are analytically or empirically verifiable. If some statement is analytically verifiable, then it is logically coherent/deductively valid and is without implicit and without inherent contradiction. If some statement is either internally or implicitly contradictory, then it cannot be analytically verifiable. In order for a statement to be empirically verifiable, then there must exist some piece of empirical evidence (observable state of affairs in the world) which can state definitively whether something is or is not the case. However, only if a statement is empirically verifiable can a statement be referred to as possibly true or false, because truth or falsehood require verifiability because all statements which lack evidence are necessarily speculative, meaning that they are opinions and not facts. So, while opinions can have meaning only if they are analytically verifiable, unless there could conceivably be evidence which states that some statement is or is not the case, it cannot be classified as either true or false.

What is or is not, as such, is not contingent upon intuition, which entails feeling and not careful observation of the real world. While we can think, feel or believe as we choose, to say that something is false is to state that it is not the case -and there can be no empirical evidence against which ethical egoism can be measured. However, that does not mean that ongoing debates about political policy, criminal activity or other normative questions of what "ought" to be are meaningless. Rather, it is to acknowledge that what "ought" to be is not absolutely settled, and that only what "is" can be called true or false.

If anything, acknowledging the distinction between statements of what "is" and what "ought" to be reemphasizes the both the meaning, and the absolute necessity for individuals to continually interrogate and challenge their normative beliefs to ensure that what they think "ought" to be is really what ought to be, rather than imprudently arriving at the conclusion that their conception of human ethical behavior is the final word. Therefore, my opponent's Frege-Greach example holds no water against my framework for this debate because it confuses a value judgement with empirical reality.

Moreover, my opponent misunderstands what Ayer's verification principle denotes for meaning. Stephen says "that verificationism states that anything which cannot be empirically tested is meaningless." But, neither I nor Ayers made that claim. Ayer's verification principle holds that for statements to have meaning, they must be either synthetically or analytically verifiable. Synthetic verifiability requires logical consistency, whereas analytical verifiability requires the capacity to be tested against empirical evidence. A statement does not have to be both synthetically and analytically verifiable to have meaning, so it is entirely possible that any normative statement could be analytically verifiable and still have meaning, and yet not be empirically testable, so long as that proposition was logically sound. Therefore, Stephen's argument that Ayer's verification principle is self defeating because it cannot be tested equally holds no water, because it is analytically verifiable on the basis that it is without logical contradiction -as I have sufficiently explained above.

In closing, because my opponent has failed in his rebuttal against my argument that ethical egoism not false, because he has not dismantled my framework and all of my previous arguments still stand. In that I have sufficiently argued that ethical egoism can be neither true nor false, I have won this debate.

Many thanks to all who read, and to Stephen for this delightful exercise.
Debate Round No. 3
57 comments have been posted on this debate. Showing 1 through 10 records.
Posted by whatledge 3 years ago
whatledge
morality itself cannot be empirically proven to exist, so i think it kind of detracts from the debate at hand to appeal to a strict verification principle. the debate isn't focusing on a scientific principle, it is a philosophic one, and philosophy (by nature abstract) is more meaningfully discussed under rational evidence than an empirical one. That said, it was still an interesting debate, and I chose not to vote because I felt it became more of semantics.
Posted by Segnit 3 years ago
Segnit
By the way the comments section is a lot of fun. At least this time it is.
Posted by Segnit 3 years ago
Segnit
YYW:
"Philosophobot, you're missing the point. It can't be true by definition. [1] Things which are logically sound are analytically verifiable, but not necessarily true. [2] Truth or falsehood ONLY exists for things which are empirically verifiable."

For [2] to be true, [1] has to necessarily be false in order to be self consistent. That's because in [2] it is directly implied that logic or analytical verifiability cannot yield in a truth or falsehood and yet in [1] it is suggested that there is a possibility for a logically sound, analytically verifiable premise to be either true or false.

Put simpler:
Statement [2] suggests that analytic propositions NEED to also be empirically verifiable to be either true or false.
Statement [1] leaves the door open for a logically consistent premise backed only by analytical verification to become either a true or flasehood.

Put even simpler:
Statement [2] is making a hard rule.
Statement [1] is suggesting the hard rule can be broken.

At the very least statement 1 is incomplete. And at most, statement 2 is wrong.

To make statement 1 complete (assuming what it's saying is correct) it would have to look something like this:

Things which are logically sound are analytically verifiable, but necessarily not a truth or a falsehood unless empirically verifiable.

> What I did here is I moved the "not" from in front of necessarily to right after it and then added a qualifier in order to protect integrity of statement [2].

Providing we can all agree to the logical realignment in this post, does that make YYW's original statement true? There is probably a simple answer but I haz it not.

What is important though is that nobody says "I standby everything I've said". When you write 5000+ words on a subject then you're promoting the fact that you believe 100% of what you've said is true. That's not only a defensive thing to say it's also infinitely like to be statistically wrong.
Posted by Philosobot 3 years ago
Philosobot
Okay. I guess the conversation is over. Its just hard for me to understand how you can maintain you haven't misrepresented Ayer when you say things like "Analytical verifiability means logical consistency... analytical verifiability is NOT enough to indicate whether something is true or false.", and Ayer says things like "I hold that a proposition is analytic if it is true solely in virtue of the meaning of its constituent symbols..." It seems untenable to continue to suggest analytical verifiability merely means logical consistency when Ayer himself said an analytic proposition must be true by the definition of the terms involved. Anyways, take care I guess.
Posted by YYW 3 years ago
YYW
We're to a point where I'm just tired of talking to you, actually. It's really no more than that...

I stand by everything I've said, I have not misinterpreted Ayer's verification principle and this is the sort of thing that while I find it interesting, the time I've invested in trying to explain things has already proven futile and there are other things I'd rather to than allocate more time to get you to understand something that you're not going to understand anyway, because to do so would require a concession on your part.

I'm sure you probably feel the same about me, so I'm calling it a day. Do what you will, though.
Posted by Philosobot 3 years ago
Philosobot
All right. I guess so. But I've given quotes from Ayers text that seem to me to contradict your formulation of his principle and your understanding of what an analytic proposition is. Its all right there for you to read, should you so wish. I do wonder how you explain or interpret those quotes to allow you to maintain your current position?
Posted by YYW 3 years ago
YYW
w/e... this is pointless, now.
Posted by Philosobot 3 years ago
Philosobot
The full text of Ayers' Language Truth and Logic is available here: https://archive.org...

YYW, I suggest you read it, because you made the claim that truth and falsity belong only to empirically verifiable claims (which Ayers rejects, given he accepts analytic truths), and which is obviously false (it is contradictory.) Again, the relevant quotes from the text:

"...tautologies and empirical hypotheses form the entire class of significant propositions..." (Ayer 24)

"I use the word tautology in such a way that a proposition can be said to be a tautology if it is analytic; and I hold that a proposition is analytic if it is true solely in virtue of the meaning of its constituent symbols and cannot therefore be either confirmed or refuted by any fact of experience." (Ayer 185).

These quotes confirm what Stephen and I have been saying the entire time, and contradict your claim that to be an analytic proposition merely requires logical consistency. Furthermore, you said "Ayers' verification principle does not claim to be true or false." This is patent nonsense. I'm sorry, but it really is. If the verification principle is not true, then why should we think that normative statements are meaningless and incapable of being true or false? Your entire defense falls apart if the principle is not true.

Again, if we consider the following principle: "Statements are only meaningful or capable of truth or falsity if they are analytically verifiable or empirically verifiable." Is that principle analytically verifiable (true by the definition of the terms, as Ayers explained?) No, it isn't. Is that principle empirically verifiable? No, it isn't. Since it is neither, accepting it would require rejecting it. It is contradictory.
Posted by YYW 3 years ago
YYW
Philosophobot says: "YYW, regardless of Ayer's formulation, you still made the claim that all truth or falsity requires empirical verification, but since we cannot empirically verify that claim, it cannot be true."

You've repeated this time and again, and it's meaningless, because Ayers' verification principle does not claim to be true or false; nor does it need to be; nor can it be. I've explained why this is the case, and your only response is to repeat yourself as prolifically as erroneously. So, I'm not going to try to teach this any more, because at this point you're either making a conscious choice NOT to understand it or it's just over and above your ability to comprehend. In either case, c'est la vie.

Stephen: There are ways to refute what I'm talking about here, and you'll find them around the time that positivism became something relegated to the philosophical past. It's not that you can't refute this, it's that you haven't. Recognize also that there is a semantic distinction between what positivists would call "true" and what other people would call "true." You need to begin there, if you actually want to break any of this down.
Posted by YYW 3 years ago
YYW
I never said that ALL analytic statements are necessarily devoid of truth value... nor did Ayers, for that matter.
3 votes have been placed for this debate. Showing 1 through 3 records.
Vote Placed by Mikal 3 years ago
Mikal
Stephen_HawkinsYYWTied
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Reasons for voting decision: I am entire agreement with BSH on this. After reading over the debates and the previous votes, I feel as if me and BSH read this debate with the same mindset. When you normally see a topic like this you would expect Con to challenge Ethical Egoism directly, rather than using semantics to win it but Cons case as presented still over shadows pros outline. Con used Ayer's Verification Principle to refute the outline that pro laid out. Pro was never able to overcome this and Con was able to show that ethical egoism is not false due to the pre mentioned principle. I think Con played this perfectly when he stated that he did not have to prove it to be true, but rather show that it is not false. It was a debate of definitions and validity rather than a clash on the direct definition. I felt con had a slight edge with this due to the semantics he played. Pro never really addressed this and he let Con control the debate
Vote Placed by philochristos 3 years ago
philochristos
Stephen_HawkinsYYWTied
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Reasons for voting decision: This was a good debate to read because you both communicated very clearly (unless I misunderstood you, in which case i'll have to eat my words). Pro gave two arguments for why he thinks ethical egoism is false. Rather than attack either one of those arguments, Con argued that ethical egoism is meaningless, i.e. neither true nor false. If Con was right, then that renders Pro's arguments moot, and Con should win. I gave the win to Pro because I think Pro refuted the verification principle, rendering his original two arguments both relevant and unrefuted. Pro's best argument against the verification principle was the argument that it was self-refuting. Con attempted to answer the argument by saying that the verification principle is analytically verifiable, and he did so by pointing out that it is without logical contradiction. But even if it is without logical contradiction, that doesn't show that it is analytically verifiable, so Con didn't carry his burden of proof, and Pro did.
Vote Placed by bsh1 3 years ago
bsh1
Stephen_HawkinsYYWTied
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Reasons for voting decision: Interesting debate. I wish Con had clashed more directly with the notion of "egoism" rather than simply running a "kritik" of the topic--i.e., saying it is impossible to affirm because we cannot know if something non-empirically verifiable is true. Despite this, I find myself voting Con because Con shows that his theories are internally consistentt and still allow for "meaningful" discourse, regardless of Pro's stated misgivings. This was less a debate on ethical egoism, and more so a debate on the nature of truth. Anyway, I grant Con the arguments.