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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Get Over Yourself: Universal Egoism in Ethics

  • Author(s): Kleszyk, Louise Marie
  • Advisor(s): Schwab, Martin
  • Smith, David W
  • et al.

Universal egoism runs rampant in Western ethics. Too many theories justify intrinsic moral value only in terms of some moral 'self' that is defined by a concrete set of identity conditions. Such theories have failed to justify the value of non-human natural phenomena such as landscapes, plants, and animals because these theories require a basic similarity, or shared identity that grants them moral status. Understanding and acting upon the value of others, especially radically different others becomes increasingly important in a time of melting polar ice, rising sea levels and increasingly polarized political discourse. Only if we supplement identity arguments with alterity arguments can we create an ethics that not only overcomes universal egoism but also offers insight into how we face new ecological consciousness and crisis. Alterity arguments differ from identity arguments because the characterization of the other need not be particular, epistemically closed or metaphysically secure. An ethics of alterity can be grounded in resources from the phenomenal-existential tradition. Relying on insights from classic phenomenology and West-coast phenomenology, alterity arguments can justify intrinsic moral value for non-human natural phenomena such as landscapes, plants, and animals. Indeed, when paired with identity arguments, we can justify action-guiding norms and principles as well. Using resources from the phenomenological-existential tradition also allows us to reconceptualize ethics in a way that addresses both the is/ought distinction and the relationship between metaethics, ethics, and applied ethics.

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