Suppose Everything You Know Is False

In a series of posts (mainly here and here) at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, Jason Brennan makes an ambiguous case about Ayn Rand. His point seems to be either that Rand (despite her own claims) was not an ethical egoist, or that ethical egoism itself is an invalid ethical system. Both of those blog posts, and the less-closely-related Brennan posts leading up to them, are worth reading and understanding, so I encourage you to do so.

Regarding Brennan's claim that Ayn Rand was not truly an ethical egoist, he almost has me convinced. I do not have much objection to his reasoning. Many commentators at BHL also seem to share his view that Rand is a type of virtue ethicist. That seems consistent with my understanding of her philosophy, and explains a lot of the disparity between how I interpret Objectivism and how a lot of self-described Objectivists (and critics) seem to interpret it. That is to say, if Brennan is correct about Objectivist "egoism," then he has done a great service to Objectivism by helping to clarify their ethics.

Regarding Brennan's claim that ethical egoism is wrong because it results in unethical conclusions, I remain unconvinced. Here I shall explain why.

First, I would like to clarify that I am not really an ethical egoist. I am, perhaps, an "ethical-egoist-flavored virtue ethicisit," as Rand perhaps was. I say this only to point out that I don't really feel that I have any "skin in the game" here, other than that I find the game interesting to think about.

Second, I should qualify this discussion by pointing out that Brennan accepts the concept of "moral truth," whereas I myself do not. What this means is that, for Brennan, the statement "murder is morally wrong" is true in the same sense that "force equals mass times acceleration" is true. It is a fact of the known universe. To me, the statement "murder is morally wrong" is a conclusion based on the output of a person's ethical deliberation. It is a belief based on a person's moral code, not a "fact."

While Jason Brennan references a zap-the-homeless-people scenario created by Michael Huemer, he lays out a more concise scenario as follows:
Suppose my younger son is hurt. A genie appears and gives me two options. 1. He fixes my son’s injury. 2. He casts a spell instantly killing my son, erasing him from everyone’s memory, erasing all traces of him, and thus allowing us to go on as if he never existed at all. If I were just trying to avoid the bad feelings, I’d be indifferent between these two options. But I’m not–I’d pick option 1 over option 2, hands down. This means that I’m concerned not merely to avoid bad feelings, but to help for his sake. Again, it means I’m genuinely altruistic.
Notice that if I derive any pleasure at all from my relationship to my sons, then 1 will always be preferable to 2, and that preference will be fully consistent with ethical egoism. Thus, commentator "TracyW" adds an additional caveat:
So, specify that the genie will, in option 2, that the genie will make Jason's life in option 2 so much better that overall, Jason's own well-being will be about the same with the two options.
Taken altogether, this scenario is perfectly analogous to Huemer's. The point is to deny the egoist any ability to allow his egoism to reach the ethical position, i.e. Brennan's "moral truth." Paralyzing it in this way, Brennan and Huemer are then able to say, "Look, see? Egoism doesn't work."

It should be obvious, though, that every ethical system fails any test that was specially crafted to disqualify it. For example, I could disprove utilitarianism by crafting a scenario in which every outcome is specified to result in exactly the same net utility. I could disprove deontology by crafting a scenario in which the force that establishes the ethical rules is assumed not to exist. And so on, and so forth.

There is nothing interesting about any of these scenarios. They are paradoxes, or contradictions. Suppose everything you know is false. Then, what is true? No system of ethics can answer questions in which the ethics themselves are assumed to be impotent.

So Brennan's criticism falls flat to me. I can only imagine what actual egoists think about it.