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__NOTITLE__ Studying 2014/2 PHI110: Philosophy, Morality and Society. Week 6. Undertaken Study Period 2, 2014. Content is quoted and/or summarised from the university website in fair dealing for purpose of research or study. See also: StudyWISE and AIMS.

Why be moral? Egoism and Self Interest Theories

This week, we begin with a challenge to morality posed by the character Glaucon in Plato's Republic. Glaucon argues that we only act morally because we fear the consequences of being caught acting immorally, so that if we could remain undetected (as Gyges could in the story) we would have no reason to act morally.

We will examine the question of whether we are in fact primarily motivated by self-interest, as Glaucon believes, and whether self interest can be reconciled with morality.


Herewith a list of further reading:


Lecturer for section 2: Dr Mianna Lotz.




Readings downloaded from e-Reserve.


Plato: 'The Ring of Gyges' from The Republic

1. Explain Glaucon's account of the origin of justice and the conclusions he draws from it about why people act justly or unjustly.

Glaucon sets the origin of justice as a covenant where each agrees to do no wrong in order that they might not suffer wrong.

2. What role does the story of Gyges play in Glaucon's argument?

The story of Gyges is a thought experiment in which the ring bearer can hide from the consequences of his actions and therefore is not morally bound.

3. What reasons does Glaucon offer to support his claim that, provided it is possible to get away with injustice, the unjust person is happier and more esteemed than the just person? Are these reasons persuasive? If it were possible to get away with injustice, would there be any reason for acting justly?

Glaucon believes that our natural state is to want to do wrong and thus the unjust man is happier because he is powerful and doesn't need to suffer consequences. It's not a very persuasive argument, there's no reason to believe that man's natural state is to be unjust, that's a bare assertion, not a truth.

4. Does Glaucon's view of justice undermine morality? Provide reasons for your answer.

Glaucon's view is that men are naturally immoral, and in that sense undermines morality.

5. How would you argue against a view like Glaucon's?

I would argue the point that men can't be naturally just, or enjoy justice for its own sake.

Feinberg: 'Psychological Egoism'

6. What is psychological egoism? How is it distinguished from ethical egoism? Is it descriptive or normative? What is psychological egoistic hedonism?

7. Explain the distinction between a selfish action, and one that arises out of one's own desires and motivations.

8. Explain the role of the story about Lincoln on p.72. Do you think it supports the egoist's case, or Feinberg's? Why?

9. What is the point of the story about Jones on p.74? What is the paradox of hedonism?

10. What two senses of 'pleasure' does Feinberg distinguish? On what grounds does he argue (contrary to psychological hedonism) that the sole motivation for action cannot be either of these forms of pleasure?

11. Why, according to Feinberg, should one's voluntary actions not be identified with selfish actions? Under what conditions should an action be considered selfish?

12. Think of examples of the sorts of actions that would normally be considered benevolent. In each case, can you think of a way the psychological egoist could describe the action in such a way that it can be seen to have arisen from selfish motives?

Can you think of any actions (real or imagined) that could not be so described by the egoist ? i.e. could there be actions that are purely benevolent, out of which the agent could not expect to gain anything at all? If not, what does this say about the theory of psychological egoism?

13. Explain Feinberg's argument for the conclusion that psychological egoism is not an empirical hypothesis, since it is not falsifiable in principle.

Hobbes: extracts from Leviathan

14. Why, according to Hobbes, is war inevitable if there is no common power to which all people are subject? What are the conditions existing in the state of nature that make war inevitable?

15. Why is the state of war of every man against every man not unjust in the state of nature?

16. What, according to Hobbes, is a 'law of nature'?

17. Why would someone agree to give up rights by agreeing to a social contract?

18. Why is government necessary?

19. Does Hobbes think the state of nature was ever a real state of the world? In what situations might such a state occur at a more local level?

20. Why, according to Hobbes, can some animals (e.g. bees) live harmoniously without enforcement of a contract, but humans cannot?

21. Why is altruism possible in a governed society, but not in the state of nature?

Rachels: 'The Idea of a Social Contract'

22. What are the two main kinds of argument Rachels identifies that could be used to support a social contract theory?

23. Under what circumstances would a situation analogous to the "prisoner's dilemma" arise? Can you think of any examples of how this might occur in real life?

24. How does a morality based on a social contract theory provide a way out of the prisoner's dilemma?

25. Rachels suggests that there are some rules of contemporary morality to which we would not be bound by a social contract morality. What are Rachels' examples? Why would these not be immoral according to a social contract theory? Can you think of any other examples?

26. How is punishment justified on a social contract theory?

27. Why does a social contract theory not demand supererogatory actions? For example, why would you not be obliged to sacrifice your own life to save five others?

28. What account can a social contract theorist give of civil disobedience?

29. Do you think it matters that the 'contract' is a fiction? Why or why not?

30. Why do social contract theories have a problem with animals and with mentally impaired humans? Do you think this objection is decisive (as Rachels seems to)? Why or why not?

Nozick: The Experience Machine

31. In what sense would the experience machine be inferior to real life? Why?

32. Nozick thinks that "Plugging into the machine is a kind of suicide". Why?

33. How does the story of the experience machine constitute an argument against utilitarianism? To which form of utilitarianism is it most relevant?




Things to do, most important on top:


Things that are done, most recent on top:


Herewith a list of new and/or interesting words and selected definitions:


To put forth new buds, leaves, or greenery; sprout.
To begin to grow or blossom.
To grow or develop rapidly.


To strengthen or support with other evidence; make more certain. See Synonyms at confirm.


Easily deceived or duped.


An easily deceived person.
A person who functions as the tool of another person or power.
To deceive (an unwary person). See Synonyms at deceive.


The act of conferring aid of some sort.
A charitable gift or deed.


The young of certain animals, especially a group of young birds or fowl hatched at one time and cared for by the same mother. See Synonyms at flock1.
The children in one family.
To sit on or hatch (eggs).
To hover envelopingly; loom.
To be deep in thought; meditate.
To focus the attention on a subject persistently and moodily; worry: brooded over the insult for several days.
To be depressed.
Kept for breeding: a brood hen.


A flat paper container, especially for a letter, usually having a gummed flap.
Something that envelops; a wrapping.
Biology An enclosing structure or cover, such as a membrane or the outer coat of a virus.
The bag containing the gas in a balloon or airship.
The set of limitations within which a technological system, especially an aircraft, can perform safely and effectively.
The coma of a comet.
Mathematics A curve or surface that is tangent to every one of a family of curves or surfaces.
push the envelope To increase the operating capabilities of a technological system.
push the envelope To exceed the existing limits in a certain field; be innovative.


To come into view as a massive, distorted, or indistinct image: "I faced the icons that loomed through the veil of incense" (Fergus M. Bordewich). See Synonyms at appear.
To appear to the mind in a magnified and threatening form: "Stalin looms over the whole human tragedy of 1930-1933" (Robert Conquest).
To seem imminent; impend: Revolution loomed but the aristocrats paid no heed.
A distorted, threatening appearance of something, as through fog or darkness.
An apparatus for making thread or yarn into cloth by weaving strands together at right angles.
To weave (a tapestry, for example) on a loom.


The teaching of something by using frequent repetition.


Authoritative permission or approval that makes a course of action valid. See Synonyms at permission.
Support or encouragement, as from public opinion or established custom.
A consideration, influence, or principle that dictates an ethical choice.
A law or decree.
The penalty for noncompliance specified in a law or decree.
A penalty, specified or in the form of moral pressure, that acts to ensure compliance or conformity.
A coercive measure adopted usually by several nations acting together against a nation violating international law.
To give official authorization or approval to: "The president, we are told, has sanctioned greed at the cost of compassion" (David Rankin).
To encourage or tolerate by indicating approval. See Synonyms at approve.
To penalize, especially for violating a moral principle or international law.

non sequitur

non sequitur
An inference or conclusion that does not follow from the premises or evidence.
A statement that does not follow logically from what preceded it.


Of questionable authorship or authenticity.
Erroneous; fictitious: "Wildly apocryphal rumors about starvation in Petrograd . . . raced through Russia's trenches" (W. Bruce Lincoln).
Bible Of or having to do with the Apocrypha.


A depression or hollow, usually filled with deep mud or mire.
A stagnant swamp, marsh, bog, or pond, especially as part of a bayou, inlet, or backwater.
A state of deep despair or moral degradation.
The dead outer skin shed by a reptile or amphibian.
Medicine A layer or mass of dead tissue separated from surrounding living tissue, as in a wound, sore, or inflammation.
An outer layer or covering that is shed.
To be cast off or shed; come off: The snake's skin sloughs off.
To shed a slough.
Medicine To separate from surrounding living tissue. Used of dead tissue.
To discard as undesirable or unfavorable; get rid of: slough off former associates.


Gymnastic exercises designed to develop muscular tone and promote physical well-being: Sit-ups, trunk twists, and other calisthenics are demonstrated on the videotape.
The practice or art of such exercises: Calisthenics is recommended to relax the muscles before a run.


Of, relating to, or contributing to the sense of smell.


Of or relating to the sense of taste.