Wednesday, June 22, 2011

'Ethical' Egoists

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.


  1. I think such things are the product of evolution.  By putting your family above others, your DNA survives in them, and also they will help your DNA survive in you.  You know that your family will help you survive.  You have no such guarantee from the other people in these scenarios.  We are all the progeny of people who made those choices.

    Ever watch "House?"  It gets hokey sometimes but there are ethical dilemmas in almost every episode.  And in case you can't see through the obvious motives of the characters, the characters spend half the episode telling each other what they think of them.

  2. *Nods* Yeah, I would definitely agree that it is a product of evolution. Richard Dawkins is 100% correct in saying that an understanding of evolution raises your consciousness; it allows you to think about issues in different ways than we otherwise could.

    And no, I don't watch House. Have heard that it is decent, but I don't really have time to start a new. I think it is a common trend of medical shows to use ethical dilemmas as plot devices. ER is still the best at it though.

  3. House is rather soap opera-y sometimes but some of the ethical dilemmas have been interesting.  House has chronic leg pain, and in one episode he was fascinated by a child that was unable to feel pain due to a rare condition.  Some of the dilemmas have been whether to withhold information from a patient or his/her family, especially when it's information that would damage their relationship or risk someone's life.  Usually, the cast take the selfish route.  They tell the wife the hubby has an STD.  Or they trick the JH family into giving permission for a blood transfusion for a child.  Stuff like that.

  4. 1) The hypothetical is loathsome. Extreme Hollywood style scenario are kitch and inevitably self-indulgent. More over its proves close to bupkis, because:
    (A) You are asking people to speculate on a situation so bizarre they inevitably have no personal context for it.  It is as valuable and interesting as another Nazi "what would of I done?"
    (B) The intentional bias perverts the goal of the question. You created an "entirely black and white" hypothetical to support and already preconceived position. You can be a "monster" or you can "do the right thing".
    (C) We are all frequently confronted with ethical dilemmas with similar moral consequences: carbon consumption, fair trade purchases, eating meat, domestic financial decisions. All of these are morally gray issues and when followed to there conclusions have life and death consequences. The serial killer scenario cheapens the everyday moral reality that we live in (and I suspect the point to the ethical exercise).

    2) The ethical responsibility of a doctor is about 2 steps removed from a free agent that is not legally or morally bound by the Hippocratic oath. You have conflated the season finale of Grey’s Anatomy with the responsibility of people who are not functioning as doctors but as members of a family. You and I both believe that there is no round 2, when this life is over we are not going to be reunited with our loved ones. When we only have one life to live, there is no ultimate reward or punishment for our decisions; the only ultimate is weather we can live with our choices in this life.  We kill other people alive now and those yet to be born every-single-day because of the decisions we make – I don’t think that makes us “monsters”.

    3) I agree with your general point about the ethical’ egoists particularly in regards to those in positions of significant responsibility like a doctor. I completely disagree with your disregard for the complexity of responsibility, emotion and function of the everyday moral decision. A decision might be objectively selfish, however, self-interested decisions are not necessarily wrong. As a doctor you cannot afford to be cold to the ambiguity of choices that people are asked to make.

    4) My hypothetical:

    “Someone you love is dyeing of kidney failure sibling/parent/friend and you can give them yours.  You know that there is someone of significant important to science/medicine/people that is also dyeing of kidney failure who is a match to you. On top of this you have your own family spouse/children and giving up your kidney will effectively half you life expectancy and therefore your life with them.”

    I know people who have had to make similar choices and as a doctor you will meet them to (I hope that you will never have to make the choice yourself). This is a worthwhile hypothetical because it is: A) realistic and played out all over the world daily. B) Is not black and white and reflects the gray of what makes a choice moral.  C) No choice you make would make you as a “monster” or is "do the right thing".  Its makes you human.

  5. I have said elsewhere in relation to this entry that I do not expect
    people to make the hard choices that I believe are the moral ones (i.e.
    sacrificing self-interest for the greater good of humanity/all sentient
    beings), just to acknowledge that the choices they make in self-interest
    are not necessarily moral.

    As said at the end of the post, this
    is a lot ranty than I usually am. My point is not that people who choose
    their family/self-interest are immoral (if the choice is too hard for
    them to make, then it is out of their power to make it, so I don't hold
    them responsible for it), just that people should be able to
    acknowledge that, at least in principle, it would be better act in ways
    that benefit humanity as a whole.

  6. I dont think family/self-interest are choice is by nature immoral. Maybe I should of stated that more clearly.

    I realise i write they way I debate - combative. I will try and be more friendly in the future. =D