Monday, October 23, 2006

Egoism and Community

Every fortnight during term the CSSJ runs lunchtime sessions where we focus on a member’s “work-in-progress”. Today was my turn and I suggested a recent paper I wrote entitled “Towards an Economic Theory of Community”.

The initial catalyst for the paper was this essay contest. The paper tries to bridge two distinct (though related) debates- one in normative ethics, the other in political theory.

The debate in normative ethics concerns prudential versus non-prudential (esp. Kantian) accounts of morality. For proponents of the prudential account of the authority of morality, morality is rationally justified. David Gauthier (1986), for example, argued that rational utility maximizers would accept moral constraints.

David Brink has recently advanced a novel prudential account of morality, one that bases morality on a particular account of self-interest- eudemonia. Human flourishing, on this account of self-interest, involves exercising our practical reason (deliberative capacities). Brink draws upon a rich tradition of thinkers, including Plato, Aristotle and T. H. Green.

A few years ago I published a critique of metaphysical egoism, but I think the challenges I raised against Brink are not insurmountable. Indeed, I now think it is important to invest more thought in defending (rather than critiquing) the theory. Hence why I have been moved to write this new paper.

The second debate the paper is meant to address is the long-standing debate in political theory (that dominated much of the literature in the 1980’s and early 1990’s) between liberals and communitarians. One of the distinctive features of a communitarian political theory is the conception of the self it embodies. This conception of the self is often referred to as a “social” or “embedded” conception and it can be contrasted with the “unencumbered” conception of the self endorsed by contemporary liberalism. A social conception of the self recognizes the fact that humans are social beings and as such they are embedded in a web of social networks (e.g. family, neighbourhood, national identity, etc.) that shape their constitutive ends. This interconnected web of social relations is ignored by atomistic social theories that envision persons as rational utility maximizers placed behind a veil of ignorance or in a prisoner’s dilemma.

In this paper I argue that the emphasis on our social nature is only one component of a defensible communitarian conception of the self. The social conception of the person must be supplemented and integrated with the *temporal* conception of the self. As human beings we are temporal beings with finite time and abilities (e.g. knowledge, empathy, etc.). Taking the temporal and finite nature of human beings seriously is important for determining what kinds of community are viable and what kinds of things we can do to foster and cultivate different communal aspirations.

To take the temporal and finite nature of human beings we must develop an economic theory of community. That is, one that explains the communal ties and affinities of a particular person by the costs and benefits of communal membership. This is where I think metaphysical egoism can be very useful to communitarians.

By developing an economic theory of community that is based on the Greek eudaimonist tradition one can make sense of the different commitments temporal and finite individuals have to different kinds of communities at different stages of their lives. And this should prove invaluable in terms of considering the wide range of possible strategies available for fostering different kinds of community, whether it be within the family, local neighbourhoods, a country or globally. More specifically, the economic theory of community emphasizes the need for individuals to be psychologically connected and continuous with others. And there are a variety of different ways to foster these connections- ranging from having a spouse and children to reading novels and caring for a pet or one’s garden.

At some future stage I will probably post a few things related to the argument I advance in the paper. For example, how it inspires a moralized (though not overtly moralized) account of deliberative democracy. And how it invokes a plausible (and attractive) interpersonal discount rate that occupies the mean between selfishness and complete altruism. The latter is so because the scope and stringency of other-regarding inclinations are, according to metaphysical egoism, determined by the degree to which we are psychologically connected and continuous with others.