Question: Are egoism and altruism mutually exclusive? Most people have a common-sense view of ethics. They think that a person should spend lots of time pursuing his own goals and happiness. They also think that a person should sometimes set aside such pursuits to help others. Basically, on this view, a person can be an egoist and an altruist, and that he should be a little of both. Yet I've heard that egoism and altruism are two wholly incompatible moral theories too. So what's right or wrong about the common-sense view?
Question: How can I refuse solicitations for gifts for co-workers? I work in a department of about thirty people. In the past few months, we have been asked to contribute money to buy gifts for co-workers – for engagements, baby showers, bereavement flowers, and Christmas gifts for the department chair, administrative assistants, housekeeping staff, and lab manager. Generally these requests are made by e-mail, and I can see from the "reply all" messages that everyone else contributes. Often these donations add up to a large amount ($10-20 each time). I do not wish to take part, but am worried that since I am a newer employee my lack of participation will be interpreted negatively. What can I do?
Question: What kinds of charities are worthy of support? Many people laud donating to charities, but they don't seem particularly concerned with which charities they support. However, I'd like my charitable dollars to do some good in the world – and do me good in return. So when is it proper to donate to charity? What kinds of charities are worthy of support or not? How can I judge the effectiveness of a charity? Are local charities better than national or international charities?
Question: How can I stop exchanging meaningless holiday presents with my siblings? My siblings and I are friendly but not close, but we still exchange Christmas presents. Mostly, that means that we buy each other stuff that we really don't want. That seems like a waste of time and money. I'd like to stop exchanging gifts with them, but how can I do so without hurting their feelings?
Question: Are manners objective? In a recent Rapid Fire Question, I think you rather too quickly dismissed the idea that manners or etiquette can be objective. You fairly quickly threw the whole lot of them over into the socially-subjective category. However, I think there's a lot that's not at all subjective, nor even optional, about manners. I happen to live in a country, China, which is much-renowned for its lack of basic human decency, and I would argue that this is a fair claim. For example, it's quite regular for a parent to pull his child's pants down and facilitate his or her urinating or defecating all over a vehicle of transportation, up to and including an international flight. It's also quite normal to hawk in such a way as to clear every cavity in one's upper torso, admire a particular piece of ground, and splat the results of one's personal nasal expiration for all to admire and tread upon. After a home-cooked meal, a guest is expected to belch massively. A small belch is a sign of dissatisfaction. To me, the latter seems quite a matter of optional cultural choice. What you said before about manners applies quite nicely to that issue: it's fairly arbitrary whether you should or you should not belch after your meal. At my in-laws' place, please do. At my mom's place, please don't. However, when I think about other ways in which Chinese people are "rude" to an American, I can think of a thousand examples where it's not just subjective. Pissing or shitting on a public bus is not just arbitrarily unacceptable to us silly overwrought Westerners. It's objectively rude. For another example, today when I was trying to get onto a bus, hale and hearty Chinese twenty-somethings were pushing in front of me in a giant triangle of evil. Nobody cared if I was there before them, nobody cared if the signs all said to line up respectfully, they just elbowed each other out of the way in order to get on the bus. So are manners objective, at least in part?
Question: Why aren't people grateful for what others do for them? I volunteer a lot, and I try to be very generous with my time and efforts in the groups that I'm involved with. Mostly, I just want people to express thanks and gratitude for what I've done for them. Mostly though, they don't thank me – or their thanks just seem perfunctory. Why is that? Am I wrong to want a little gratitude? Right now, I feel taken advantage of, and I want to tell everyone to go to hell. Is that wrong?
Question: Is charity to strangers virtuous? In a recent podcast, you answered the following Rapid Fire Question: "Does providing voluntary, non-sacrificial help to innocent, unfortunate poor people qualify as virtuous? In a free society, would such charity be a moral obligation?" You said that it's not a moral obligation, and I agree with that. You also said that you think it's a "great thing to do." But why? I'd evaluate it as such if the person you're helping is a good friend or a close relative. In that case, the act would be an expression of integrity, or of loyalty to one's personal values. But I don't understand why it's a "great thing" to provide charity to people you don't know, even if you're contextually certain that they didn't bring their hardship upon themselves and you don't view it as a moral duty. I'd think that such an act is morally neutral, or at best slightly positive. Can you explain your evaluation a bit more, please?
Question: Can evil be requited with good? Christians claim that evil can and ought to be requited with good. So in "Les Miserables", the Bishop inspired Jean Valjean to reform by telling the police that he willingly gave Jean the silver plate (and added the candlesticks) even though Jean stole the silver. Does this strategy ever work to reform an evildoer? Or is it merely a license to further evil? In some cases, might it be useful to "heap burning coals on [an evildoer's] head"? If so, when and why?
Question: Does egoism suffer from "one thought too many"? Bernard Williams argues that utilitarianism suffers from a problem of inappropriate motivation in which a person has "one thought too many" before acting morally. So, for example, a good utilitarian must calculate whether the general welfare is served by saving a drowning child before jumping into the water. A truly good person, in contrast, simply jumps into the water to save the child without that calculation. Wouldn't this same objection apply to even rational, benevolent egoism? Or are those extra thoughts between situation and action actually rational?
Question: Should an egoist be willing to torture millions to benefit himself? In your discussion of explaining egoistic benevolence on December 22, 2013, you indicated that you regarded such a scenario as absurd. Could you explain why that is? Why wouldn't such torture be not merely permitted but rather obligatory under an egoistic ethics? Why should an egoist even care about what happens to strangers?
Question: Is a person responsible for his incapable sibling? Imagine that your brother (or sister) is not capable of taking care of himself: he makes poor choices, he has poor work habits, and he is emotionally immature. Are you thereby responsible for him? Should you try to help as much as possible, so long as you don't drag yourself down? Or should you refuse to help on the principle of "tough love," even though that won't help him take care of himself? If you take the latter approach, doesn't that mean that you're foisting the care for your sibling on society? Wouldn't that be shirking your responsibilities as a sibling? Also, does your responsibility depend on whether your brother is incapable due to his own choices, as opposed to merely bad luck?
Question: What should I do when a friend exhibits severe body dysmorphia on social media? At several points in my life, I had a valued friend who seemed otherwise rational and grounded, but who also exhibited dangerous body dysmorphia on social media. In these cases, the friend would first go through a several-month phase of confessing to several psychological problems, such as fantasizing about suicide and of cutting herself with a blade. This friend would then sternly add that she has since recovered, but would admit to still feeling that her natural physical features are ugly and deformed. Then, months later, the friend would go into another phase. On social media, in front of many other people, she would make brazen gestures indicating body dysmorphia, such as uploading photoshopped pictures of herself as a corpse ready for burial or saying that she planned to starve herself to achieve her ideal of being skeletally thin. A major problem was the reaction from our online mutual acquaintances. Some admitted that they saw these problems, yet they acted like the friend was behaving normally. Others outright complimented the dysmorphic imagery and statements. In these cases, I think that my friend knew that her body dysmorphia was dangerous. She put it on display so that others would normalize her pathology, because then she could more easily rationalize her behavior as harmless. That seems really dangerous, but what is the proper alternative? How should people respond when a person puts his pathological self-destruction on display?
Question: Should ethics begin with facts about evolution, including altruism? The ethical egoism advocated by Ayn Rand doesn't seem to incorporate genetics or evolution. Having evolved in tribal and family groups, we are creatures tuned to group behavior more than to individual behavior. Altruism wasn't invented by religion. In a tribe, helping those around you helps you survive too. Helping your kin helps your genes survive. The fact is that feeling good when you help others is built into the core of being human. The fact is that much status seeking and other seemingly irrational actions are techniques to ensure the propagation of our genes. Objectivism starts with "A is A." But, if reality is most important, shouldn't people base their ethics on the facts about humans as they actually are – altruism and all?
Question: Is "body acceptance" rational and healthy – or dangerous? Many people are divided on the issue of accepting one's body for whatever it is. Some think that a person should be proud to be "healthy at any size" (or even just a larger-than-average size). Others say that such views perpetuate unhealthy lifestyles and destroy standards of beauty and health, perhaps out of envy. What is a rational view of body acceptance? Is "fat shaming" or "fit shaming" ever acceptable? More generally, what are the boundaries of morally acceptable comments on such matters between acquaintances, friends, and strangers?
Question: Does ethical egoism promote narcissism and insensitivity to others? People often suggest that ethical egoism – such as the Objectivist ethics advocated by Ayn Rand – promotes unfriendly if not hostile behavior toward other people. Ultimately, the egoist cares for himself above everything else, perhaps to the point that the thoughts and feelings of others aren't even noticed or of concern. The problem seems to be exacerbated by a commitment to moral absolutes and moral judgment. So do these ethical principles incline a person to be self-absorbed, insensitive, hostile, unkind, or otherwise unpleasant to others? How can egoists take care not to fall into these traps?
Question: Is it wrong to invent stories about yourself to tell to strangers? In the past, I've made up stories about myself (basically assuming a character) and told them to strangers on the bus or in an airport. When I mentioned this to my spouse, I hadn't really thought of this as lying until I saw his horrified reaction. Do you think this is wrong? If so, why? Would it be acceptable in some contexts, such as for an acting class?
Question: Is it morally wrong to profit from someone else's distress? People often decry "taking advantage" of other people as cruel and wrong. For example, suppose that a person desperately needs water after a hurricane or other natural disaster. I charge him $1000 for a gallon jug, knowing that he can pay that much if he's really that desperate. Is such price gouging immoral? Is it fundamentally different from other kinds of trade – or just different in degree? Is it morally wrong to profit so handsomely by the distress and scanty options of other people in this way?
Question: What is the individualist response to claims about "white privilege"? In May 2013, you published a blog post entitled "Personal Motives for Benevolence" where you introduced the idea that prejudice is often formed by favoritism and not overt bigotry. Clearly, such favoritism can be based on race too. So what is the proper and just response to claims of "white privilege" – such as found in the article "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" by Peggy McIntosh?
Question: How can we better explain how helping others can be egoistic? In your October 7, 2013 radio show, you observed that people often don't understand how acting kindly and generously towards friends is self-interested. Instead, they think that being benevolent toward anyone is "other-regarding" and hence, altruistic. How can we egoists untangle this seeming conflict for people?
Question: How should I respond to panhandlers asking for money? I live and work in a downtown area, and I am often asked by strangers on the street for money. These requests vary in form from the brief but honest ("Spare some change?") to the manipulative and dishonest. My stock response is to say that I have no cash, which is almost always true, but somewhat dishonest in that my lack of cash is not my main reason for refusing to give. Explaining my real reasons – I don't know who this person is, I don't know how he will spend the money, and I don't think giving people money helps reduce their reliance on handouts in the future – seems overly harsh on someone who is obviously having a rough time of it already, and takes a long time to boot. I feel like I should acknowledge the request somehow, but I want to effectively disengage from the situation as quickly and safely as possible. Is my stock response inappropriate because it is dishonest? If I shouldn't be using my stock response, what can I say to quickly and safely disengage? Also, I get a lot of dubious stories about being stranded downtown without bus fare. I've often thought about carrying a few valid, single-use transit tickets with which to respond to such stories. It's something I can afford, and it would in theory limit how my charity gets used. Would this be a wise or safe course of action?
Question: How much sympathy should I have for people failing in their obligations due to personal struggles? In the past two years, I've witnessed two businesses (both one-person operations) crash and burn due to the owners' inability to continue to operate while suffering from severe depression. I don't know the trigger in the first case, but in the second case, the depression was precipitated by a divorce, then the murder of a toddler in the family. The business is online, and unhappy customers have been airing their frustration with the fact that they never received goods already paid-for. Some friends are stepping in to help, but the owner's reputation has been ruined. How much slack should I – or others aware of the situation – cut the owner? How far should my sympathy go?
Question: Is it ever okay to tell a lie as part of a happy surprise for someone else? This question is from Ryan (age 11) and Morgan (age 8). We bought birthday presents for our brother Sean, and we had to sneak them into the house. We didn't want Sean to know what we were doing. At first, we thought we should make up a story about why we were going back and forth to the car. Morgan thought she should tell Sean she was going outside to swing. But then we talked about how that would be a lie and she decided to go out and actually swing before bringing her present inside, that way there was no lying involved. Should we have told the lie to Sean? Is it okay to tell a lie as part of doing something nice for someone?
Question: Should disabled kids be kept out of the public eye? Recently, a waiter at a restaurant refused to serve one party after hearing them make fun of a child with Down's Syndrome sitting with his family in a nearby booth. Both parties were regulars to the restaurant. Some people have praised the waiter's actions because he took offense at overhearing the first party say "special needs kids should be kept in special places." He called them on their rudeness and refused to serve them. Others think he was wrong: his catering to the party with the disabled kid is indicative of a culture that embraces mediocrity and disability. What is the proper assessment of the remark made and the waiter's response? Should people with disabilities be kept from public view?
Question: Am I obliged to help a friend in trouble due to her own poor choices? I have a friend who is emotionally draining to me, and she is especially "down on her luck" this month. However, her situation is a direct result of especially poor personal choices over the last year, and there is no good path to get her out of the hole of poverty and depression. We don't have much in common other than similar-aged kids, and active participation in a local moms' group, but because I have come to her aid in the past, I feel an unspoken obligation to continue. (Maybe it's guilt, or pity, or empathy?) What are my obligations in a friendship that has recently become more taxing than beneficial? I don't dislike her, and we have many mutual friends, but I just don't think I can muster the time, financial resources, or energy this time to help bail her out of the latest fiasco. Is it morally acceptable to refuse to help? Should I talk to her about why now – or wait until she's less vulnerable?
Question: When does humor work against my values? Sometimes, I wonder whether my jokes undermine what I value. Is it wrong to poke fun at my friends or myself? Is it wrong to joke about principles that I hold dear? How do I draw the line?
Question: Do I owe my boyfriend an explanation for my breaking up with him? I dated my recently-ex-boyfriend for a few months. Over the past few weeks, I realized that some personality and value differences preclude any long-term prospects. When I broke up with him, I didn't give him any reasons why, and that really upset him. Do I owe him an explanation? Would that help or hurt our chances of a cordial relationship in the future? If I should talk to him about my reasons, what should I say?
Question: Is is second-handed to work hard to clean and repair your house before company arrives? I'm constantly fighting a battle to get my house looking reasonable. Then, right before company arrives from out-of-town, I make an extra big push to get it as clean and tidy as possible. I'd like it to always be that way, but I'll work a lot harder when I know that someone else will be in the space. So is it second-handed to want to present a better home than I normally maintain? Or is putting in that effort that a matter of respecting and providing for people that I value?
Question: Are cynicism and sarcasm unhealthy? I know some very bright people who also frequently express cynicism and sarcasm towards world events, public figures, etc. Their remarks can often be quite witty and insightful. But is there something unhealthy about looking at the world in this way, or can that be an appropriate response to all the many real negative facts of reality?
Question: Is a person ever obliged to "give back to the community"? Businesses often speak about their charitable work as "giving back to the community." I know that's wrong, because they didn't take anything from it in the first place. But when a person benefits from a certain group or organization, should he "give back" to it by volunteering his time or donating his money? Why or why not?
Question: Do we have an obligation to help others in need? Many people think that the need of others creates an obligation to help. Is that right or wrong? Why? When should a person help others?
Question: If you find money in a house that you've purchased should you return it? A man recently found about $45,000 hidden in the house that he'd recently bought. (See this article.) It was saved up by the prior owner, now dead. He returned it to the man's children. Should the buyer of the house have returned the money? Was he morally or legally obligated to do so? If not, was doing so foolish or altruistic?
Question: What are the personal benefits of being a blood donor (or organ donor)? Is it worth doing under today's laws, where donors cannot get paid? Should people be able to trade blood and organs in a free market?
Question: Are peanut bans in schools immoral? In particular, do restrictions on certain types of food in schools (such as peanuts due to a known peanut allergy) infringe on the rights of the parents of the non-allergic kids to determine the type of diet their children follow? Are the parents of the non-allergic kids making an immoral sacrifice by following the 'no-peanut' rules? What about parents who choose to ignore the rule and send the food to school anyway? Would this scenario be any different in a private school versus a government school?
Question: Should you help a man who's dying in front of you? Suppose it will cost you two hours and 200 dollars to save the life of a man you do not know. Should you do it?
Question: What is the proper way to respond to a beggar? How should one respond when approached on the street by strangers asking for money? Do you have any suggestions for dealing with aggressive beggars?
Question: If you have a dear friend with depression that is honestly struggling, what can you do to help? I've listened. I've recommended a book Mind Over Mood. I've sent a picture each day of a memory and what is says about her i.e. focus on the positive.