10 Self-Regarding Attitudes

10.1 Selfishness and Self-Interest

All of us are, to some extent, concerned about our own self-interests and, indeed, most of the moral theories canvassed above suggest that we should protect our own interests at least as much as everyone else’s. However, selfishness, understood as simply pursuing one’s own preferences and interests without any consideration of the preferences and interests of others, is not only generally considered immoral; it is also irrational.

First of all, it doesn’t seem to be psychologically plausible. Almost all of us have some automatic and unavoidable feelings of sympathy and care for some other people. As relational theorists have pointed out, we are social beings who are for large parts of our lives intimately dependent on the good will and care of other people. Indeed, all of us are totally (or at least largely) dependent on others for most of the first couple of decades our lives and most of us experience such dependency to varying degrees and for varying lengths of time throughout our adulthood. The trust and nurturance that exist in healthy relationships of dependency are important for our emotional well-being. We psychologically benefit from helping each other.

Secondly, if everyone always behaved selfishly the vast majority, and perhaps all of us, would likely be considerably worse off than if we cooperated. This means that selfishly pursuing one’s own self-interest would undermine one’s self-interest, which is self-defeating. So, rational self-interest requries us to think of others.

Early modern political theorists in the liberal tradition recognized this and generalized from the ethics of personal interactions to the ethical justification of how we structure society and justify the limitations on our personal freedom within society. English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, identified the situation where everyone simply pursues their own immediate self-interest as a “[war] of every one against every one” where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”[1] We are better off, thought Hobbes, if we enter into a social contract where we submit to a state power that maintains order. As we have already seen, Mozi had much the same idea. (We might think that ubuntu also expresses a similar insight.) Much of political philosophy is committed to trying to figure out the details of this idea.

It is worth noting that even those who tout the virtue of selfishness will typically defend some limits on individual liberty. After all, as we saw in Chapter 9, rights come with corresponding duties. One cannot protect everyone’s freedom without limiting people’s freedom to act in ways that would limit the freedom of others. Respecting other people’s rights inevitably entails curtailing some of our own preferences.

Thinking that everyone should simply pursue their own self-interest and not be asked to look after the interests of others also seems to be substantially unfair. After all, sometimes people are simply unlucky and need help from others through no fault of their own. To find ourselves in a world in which nobody has an obligation to help us when we are in terrible need—through sheer misfortune—would not at all serve our preferences and interests. So, our rational self-interest seems to require certain types of altruism and reciprocity.

Of course, some people will think that there is no such thing as luck and people have nobody but themselves to blame for their circumstances, so they don’t deserve help from anyone else. However, this attitude simply overlooks real facts of life—not merely simple bad luck, but also the reality that there are oppressive political structures that harm people and severely limit their options. The failure to appreciate this reality tends to reflect a certain type of self-oriented thinking that fails to take seriously the challenges in other people’s lives or the good luck and privileges of one’s own.

10.2 Exceptionalism

Exceptionalism is a form of self-oriented thinking that often undermines ethical decision-making. Exceptionalism is where one believes or acts as if one group (or person) is exempt from following the rules that everyone else must follow or is immune from being judged by the same standards as others. Typically (though not always), exceptionalism is self-serving. We tend to want special treatment for members of our own group, and we may tend to rationalize reasons why the general rules and standards shouldn’t apply to us. One of the most common forms of exceptionalism is nationalism—though there are many others.

Stop and Think

As mentioned, nationalism is a common type of exceptionalist thinking.

What other kinds of exceptionalism are there?

It is important to remember that exceptionalism is not only a moral failure; it is a rational failure. Exceptionalist thinking treats one group or individual as different from every other when there is, in fact, no relevant difference. Of course, in some cases there may actually be a difference that justifies differential treatment. Sometimes the same rules shouldn’t apply to everyone equally. Sometimes there are relevant facts that entail that it would be irrational and unfair to treat everyone exactly the same.

After all, we may have a special obligation to the members of a certain group that justifies our placing their interests over others. For instance, a teacher will typically prioritize the learning goals of their own students over those of other students who aren’t in their classes. As another example, the members of our group may be systematically treated unfairly in some respects and given this injustice, it may be fairer to give us special opportunities. This is the logic behind most affirmative action initiatives. In such cases, getting clear on the facts is obviously important. Certainly, if one believes that a particular individual or group should be exempt from the rules governing everyone else, then one should expect to be able to give an argument justifying it.

Importantly, exceptionalism may infect the way in which we think about accountability. Particularly within certain groups—like professional organizations, political parties, or religious groups—there is a tendency to think that one is only truly accountable to other members. Immoral actions by corporations are sometimes defended by the claim that their only obligation is to their shareholders, whose only interest is the maximization of profits. This, however, is just a self-serving way of protecting oneself from criticism and is, again, a kind of moral failure. As a general rule, we should think of ourselves as accountable to everyone who is affected by our actions or who has some other interest in our behaviour.

10.3 Moral Licensing

Moral licensing picks out another kind of ethical mistake that is grounded in inappropriate self-regard. This happens when people who have behaved ethically by some measure in the past feel this good behaviour licenses them to behave badly in the present. There is no reason to think this is a conscious or considered decision. Rather, it seems that the good behaviour in the past feeds into a positive self-image that then resists the negative implications of the present behaviour. So, for instance, someone who voted for a Black politician in the past might go on to vote for an overtly racist politician in the present, without thinking that what they are doing is racist.[2] It is as if previous moral behaviour inoculates oneself against current immoral behavior.

Of course, ethically speaking, such a view is absurd. Moral licencing is best thought of as a cognitive bias. As with other biases, we need to protect ourselves against making this kind of mistake if we hope to behave ethically. As with other emotional or subconscious reactions, the best ways to avoid cognitive biases that lead to unethical behaviour are evaluating decisions using the various ethical lenses discussed above, critical engagement with others who have very different perspectives, and careful reasoning.

Stop and Think

We have identified two kinds of bias—exceptionalism and moral licensing—that may get in the way of moral decision-making.

What are some other types of bias that prevent us from reasoning well about ethical matters?


Further Reading

In addition to the sources in the footnotes, the following may be helpful:

Gladwell, Malcolm. “The Lady Vanishes.” Revisionist History . June 16, 2016. Podcast. Accessed November 11, 2022, https://www.pushkin.fm/podcasts/revisionist-history/the-lady-vanishes.

Kavka, Gregory. “The Reconciliation Project.” In Morality, Reason and Truth, edited by David Copp and David Zimmerman, 297-319. Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Allanheld, 1984.

Plato. “The Immoralist’s Challenge.” In Ethical Theory: An Anthology, edited by Russ Shafer-Landau, 132-37. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

Rachels, James. “Ethical Egoism.” In The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 4th ed., 76-90. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2003.

  1. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Project Gutenberg, 2013), chapter 8, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/3207/3207-h/3207-h.htm.
  2. The 92nd Street Y, New York, "Malcolm Gladwell on Racism, Trump, and the Moral Licensing Phenomenon," YouTube, June 15, 2016, video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rjf8b_LLZ6g. See also Anna Merritt, Daniel Effron, and Benoît Monin, "Moral Self-Licensing: When Being Good Frees Us to Be Bad," Social and Personality Psychology Compass 4/5 (2010), 345-46.


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Applied Ethics Primer Copyright © 2021 by Letitia Meynell and Clarisse Paron is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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