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Self-interest and the Concept of Self-sacrifice

  • Mark Carl Overvold (a1)
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Footnotes

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I am indebted to Edmund Pincoffs, John Hodson, Ernest Sosa, Tom Carson, Richard Brandt and William Frankena for helpful comments.

Footnotes

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1 Brandt, RichardRationality, Egoism, and Morality,” Journal of Philosophy 69 (1972), pp. 681-97. Brandt no longer holds this view. For a statement of his present view see his A Theory of the Good and the Right (Oxford University Press, 1979), Ch. XIII.

2 Wright, G. H. vonThe Varieties of Goodness (London: Compton Printing, 1972), pp. 107f.

3 Rawls, JohnA Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1972), esp. pp. 399f.

4 Brandt, p. 682

5 Brandt, pp. 684-85.

6 Brandt, p. 686

7 Cf. Paton, H. J.The Good Will (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1927), p. 390.

8 Condition (Ill) is probably still too weak in that it allows minor or trivial losses of welfare to count as instances of self-sacrifice. Presumably the term “self-sacrifice“ is reserved for cases where the loss suffered is very great. A thorough specification of the nature of self-sacrifice ideally should include some specification of the degree of loss required. The weaker condition, however, is all that is needed for the present argument.

9 “Voluntary” can be taken as equivalent to “what the agent most wants” for present purposes, and since the loss must be anticipated, the agent must at least be informed about the feature which we might suppose to be most crucial for his choice, if he were to act otherwise. It might be objected that people do not always act from inclination (wants or desires), but sometimes act out of a sense of duty. In such cases, the objector continues, it is incorrect to conclude that since the act was voluntary, the agent must have wanted to perform it more than any other alternative which he considered at the time. He may have acted from duty rather than desire. But this objection reads my use of “want” and “desire“ more narrowly than intended. “Want” and “desire” are to be taken broadly enough so that any motivational factor whatever is included. In the case of someone who acts out of a sense of duty, one can say on the broad construction of “want” that he wanted to do his duty. In any case, I think that Brandt's discussion does employ the broad use of the term, and thus the objection stands.

10 In fact, there are a number of things we might do to avoid the problem. Let me briefly sketch two alternatives. One possibility would be to return to a hedonistic account of self·interest. If self-interest consists wholly in obtaining pleasure and avoiding pain for the agent, then self-sacifice can be defined as a voluntary act which the agent correctly believes to be less than optimific from the point of view of his own expectable pleasure. However, insofar as there are things other than pleasure which have intrinsic value (knowledge, power, achievements, etc.), it is natural to suppose that attaining them enhances an individual's wel· fare or contributes to his self-interest. Thus a hedonistic account of self-interest will be no more plausible than hedonism as a general theory of value.

The account I favor restricts our concept of self-interest so that the satisfaction of only some of the agent's desires and aversions is logically relevant to the determination of the agent's self-interest. Specifically, an act is in the agent's self-interest if and only if it is the act which the agent would most want to perform if he were (a) fully aware of all the features and outcomes of the alternative acts open to him at the time and (b) his choice were motivated only by his rational desires and aversions for features and outcomes of the act which are such that the proposition asserting that the agent exists at t is a logically necessary condition of the proposition asserting that the feature or outcome obtains at t. On this account the only outcomes or features of acts which are logically relevant to the determination of an agent's self-interest are those in which the agent is an essential constituent. All such outcomes or features directly concern the agent, and insofar as he wants some of them to obtain, having such desires satisfied would be relevant to determining what was in the agent's self-interest. The features excluded, on the other hand, are such that they can obtain whether or not the agent exists at all, and thus would appear to be logically irrelevant to a determination of the agent's self-interest. It may very well be the case that the agent's welfare will be affected by such features, but if so, it will be due to causal factors which make such features necessary if the agent is to be happy, successful, miserable, etc. But when this is the case, the agent will have desires and aversions for these additional consequences of the act which do satisfy the proposed restriction, and it is in virtue of such desires and aversions that the question of which act is in the agent's self-interest will be determined.

It should be clear that the proposed restriction enables us to speak coherently about self-sacrifice. Since some of the agent's desires are eliminated from the determination of his self-interest, it is at least possible that what he most wants to do, all things considered, is not the same as the act which is in his selfinterest. A person could voluntarily and knowingly pass up an alternative which would have been more in his self-interest in order to perform another act which he knows will cost him great personal loss. We can explain the person's choice by calling attention to his desire for the welfare of others, to see Justice done, etc. But since such desires do not figure in the determination of the agent's self-interest, it is entirely possible that had such desires not been present, he would have chosen another act. If so, then that act was the act that was most in his self-interest, and in knowingly and voluntarily passing it up, the agent has performed an act of self-sacrifice.

* I am indebted to Edmund Pincoffs, John Hodson, Ernest Sosa, Tom Carson, Richard Brandt and William Frankena for helpful comments.

Self-interest and the Concept of Self-sacrifice

  • Mark Carl Overvold (a1)

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