Bioethics Blogs

On the Appropriate Place of Self-Interest in Our Actions

Guest Post by Jos Philips

With Christmas and the new year fast approaching, Jos Philips reconsiders what role self-interest may legitimately play in what we are doing.

Recently, a class of students of mine were discussing a well-known article by Peter Singer (‘The Singer Solution to World Poverty,’ New York Times Sunday Magazine, 1999). In that piece, Singer argues that not giving to Oxfam is morally as wrong as Bob’s saving his Bugatti rather than a child who stands to be hit by a train. The case is such that Bob could steer the train towards his expensive car while keeping himself safe, but he isn’t willing to do so.

As usual, the students started to list various supposedly morally relevant differences between Bob’s case and not making a donation to Oxfam. Then one of the students, an elderly man who had been a doctor in Africa, spoke up and said that fighting the great bads that happened to people was much more important a consideration than all the other reasons (excuses) that his fellow students were thinking up. We should make that donation to Oxfam.
This struck a chord with me. I have always felt –although I know that many people disagree– that fighting great bads is extraordinarily important, so much so as to trump almost all other reasons for action. However, I fall out with the influential approach taken by consequentialist philosophers such as Peter Singer in that I think that this applies to all great bads that an agent has before them when they’re acting.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.