Egoism and the Private Language Argument

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Egoism is the view that other people don’t matter, except as a means to my own ends. A familiar argument for egoism is as follows. My sensation of pain is, in itself, the only reason for me to end pain, so I have no reason to end pain I don’t feel (i.e., someone else’s pain). This ‘experiential’ argument makes egoism a default position for those who believe the argument, in the absence of a countervailing rationale for altruism (the view that other people matter, to some extent, as ends in themselves).

Egoism prescribes doing as much as I can to avoid my own suffering, even at the expense of others. This attitude can, of course, give rise to cooperative behavior for egoistic ends, but egoistic cooperation tends to break down under the strain of free-riding and non-compliance, and generally excludes the weak.

Is the experiential argument valid? From a Wittgensteinean perspective, it isn’t; because my sensation of pain is not itself a reason to do anything. To begin with, reasons require justifications. It makes no sense to say “I have a reason to do such-and-such, but there is no justification for it whatsoever.” According to the experiential argument, the justification for my ending the pain is the sensation itself, not something extraneous which would call for a separate argument. The sensation itself is, of course, private, in that it can only be apprehended by the subject.

In his private language argument (PLA), Wittgenstein questions the epistemic status of private ‘sense-data’ (for want of a better term). The following is a very brief summary; for a more thorough survey, see the entry Private Language in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy online. In essence, PLA argues that the criteria for whether objects of experience are of one kind or another are all public (i.e., in principle accessible and verifiable by other people).

Private ‘criteria’ won’t do the job, because the subject would have no way of substantiating if he’s experiencing one kind of thing rather than another. This isn’t skepticism about whether he can remember right, but about what counts as being right when no one else can correct you. Of course, I don’t usually doubt that I’m experiencing this or that kind of thing, but my certainty (if it is to be rational) rests on other people, in principle, being able to testify to my ability to tell the difference.

So the criteria which justifies my privileging my suffering above someone else’s would have to be public in order to be authoritative (even for me, if I want to be rational). Go down the list of publicly defensible reasons, and none justify egoism. To recap, a fairly orthodox interpretation of PLA derives the conclusion that private ‘sense-data’ don’t count as justifying criteria. A valid justification relies on public criteria, arising out of collective linguistic activity (e.g., describing pain as ‘unpleasant’ or ‘debilitating’).

So, the experiential argument is invalid. But, surely, doesn’t my pain compel me to end it? Yes it does, but a compulsion isn’t a reason. A strong wind compels me to fly off a cliff, but it isn’t a reason to either go along or resist. We have a pain reflex that compels us to try and stop our pain, but a reflex isn’t a reason. If the subjective feeling of pain isn’t a reason to end it, then not feeling someone else’s pain is not a reason to ignore theirs.

Some argue that egoism doesn’t rest on the experiential argument, but on the ‘ownership’ of suffering. The fact that the suffering is ‘mine’ makes a difference to me in a way that someone else’s suffering doesn’t. On the standard interpretation of PLA, whether something is ‘mine’ depends on public criteria (such as the fact that it has my name on it); and anything private (i.e., bare subjective consciousness) can’t fix the reference of first-person pronouns (‘I’, ‘me’, ‘mine’).

In trying to find a sense of ‘ownership’ that justifies egoism, we find ourselves resorting either to public criteria which won’t do the job, or a private use of ‘my’ which fails to refer. If there’s no private sense of ‘my’, then any valid reason to end my pain would apply for someone else’s pain, all relevant premises being equal.

What are the ethical implications? We can’t appeal to skepticism about other minds, or privileged access to our own, to justify egoism. Even though egoism isn’t rationally defensible, the pain reflex probably conditions us through negative reinforcement to behave egoistically. In which case, the real motive for egoism isn’t a reason but a conditioned response, so arguments have little effect on egoistic attitudes. Perhaps it’s just too painful to be entirely selfless, and we would rather think it’s irrational.


This is an edited version of an article that was originally published under the same title in The Philosopher, the official journal of the Philosophical Society of England, Volume LXXXXV No. 2, 2007. My thanks to Michael Bavidge for permission to republish. I wrote this before I came across Christine Korsgaard’s work, particularly her book The Sources of Normativity, which presents a much more detailed application of the PLA against egoism along similar lines, especially in the chapter ‘The Origin of Value and the Scope of Obligation’.

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Ben writes on the theory and social science of communication, and anything else that comes to mind

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