While watching the season finale of Grey’s Anatomy recently, I was reminded of my general distain for ‘ethical’ egoists. These are people who believe it is okay to do what is in the best interests for themselves and their in-group (family, friends, lovers etc.), even if it leads to the otherwise preventable harm of others. As such, it is kind of a very shallow version of ethical egoism; the branch of moral philosophy that says that moral agents should act in their own self-interest. While the actual theory is a lot more detailed than my one sentence summary indicates, I still believe it has problems.
To demonstrate my problem with ‘ethical’ egoists, I’ll explain the scenario that occurred in the episode. Earlier in the season, Meredith had switched a placebo for an active drug in an Alzheimer’s clinical trial she was a part of. This was due to the fact that the patient who was to get the placebo was close to her. In the finale, her deception is revealed and the shit hits the fan. This is because it is a randomised clinical trial; the doctors do not get to assign who gets the active therapy and who gets the placebo. This prevents them from, either intentionally or unintentionally, giving the active treatment to patients they believe are more likely to recover anyway and skewing the results (i.e. making the treatment look better than it really is). So Meredith tampering with who gets the treatment invalidates the whole trial. Now, even after she is informed of this and how now no one will get access to the new drug (due to the trial not being able to go ahead, so it can’t be demonstrated to be effective) she still says she would do it again because it was a person who meant so much to her.
This sort of attitude (which is not at all uncommon) really drives me up the wall; effectively Meredith, and others in similar situations, are giving a big middle finger to everyone else just to help someone they care about. It really shows how self-centred someone is that they can’t step back and realise that while they are trying to help someone they love, so is everyone else. In the case of Meredith, she wanted to help someone she loved, but at the same time prevented hundreds of others from helping their loved ones.
I also ran into a similar phenomenon during an ethics class in my undergrad course; we were given the following scenario and asked whether we thought the decision in it was moral (paraphrased from memory);
An earthquake occurs in China and buries a man’s family in rumble. In the process of digging them out, he discovers that across the road an important official and his family are buried. The man decides to stop trying to rescue his family and rescue the official and his family instead. He successfully rescues them, but his own family die in the process. When asked why he made the choice that he did, he said that by rescuing the official, he could go on to coordinate the rescue effort (by virtue of having extensive knowledge of the local area) and end up saving more people.
Now, as a utilitarian, I said that the action was moral because it could effectively save more lives (increasing the overall well-being). Now while the majority did say they while they would have saved their family had they been in the situation but respected the man for thinking of others (a position I don’t find unacceptable), a small minority believed that he had acted immorally and should have saved his family (invoking duty to family primarily). After some discussion back and forth, I presented them with a new hypothetical to try to demonstrate the point I was trying to make;
A serial killer has you locked in a chair. In front of you is your family in a cage, ten families you do not know in another. You are given the choice of who dies; either your family or the ten families. Which would you choose?
I thought that this scenario was entirely black and white; that only a monster would say that it was moral to choose their family. However, I was wrong. Not only did these individuals say they would choose their families, they were defending it as the moral choice. I mean, I could understand someone saying that they aren’t strong enough to do the right thing, but to actually believe that ten other families dying so yours can survive is moral is downright insane. Could these people not understand that each of those families had people who loved them just as much as they loved their families? What makes them think that their love for their family trumps everyone else’s?
A bit more of a rant than usual, but there it is.