Friday, May 4, 2012

Relativism and Psychological Egoism

I've started revamping my Intro to Philosophy syllabus and have decided to tackle the inevitable discussion of relativism and psychological egoism early on by anticipating these objections with some readings.

I thought about using chapters from Snare's The Nature of Moral Thinking but a friend who used Snare in her class said that students found it difficult. I've tentatively settled on Rachels "The Challenge of Cultural Relativism," which appears in many anthologies, and perhaps also his "Humans are not Always Selfish". Someone recommended that I look at chapters from Shafer-Landau Whatever Happened to Good and Evil?

Any other recommendations or thoughts about the aforementioned possibilities?


  1. try Allen Wood's essay "Relativism" which appears in his UNSETTLING OBLIGATIONS. I've used this for many years, and students find it very clear and understand it well.

    Don't have any ideas on egoism but will be interested to see what folks here suggest. I'm sort of in the same boat, trying to find a good summary piece on the topic.

  2. What are your students like? Are they apt to respond to many issues with, "Hey, that's what we do around here and so it's OK" or "It's their culture so whatever they do is fine" (responses suggestive of relativism) or "If there's nothing in it for me, I can't be obligated to do anything about this" (a response suggestive of *ethical* egoism, not psychological egoism)? If not, then I would mention these sorts of views, point out some objections to them, and observe that few people really seem to accept them anyway, and point out how implausible these sorts of responses to moral issues can be (and you might even quickly want to argue that they are not true). Then I'd move on.

    The Rachels book is good on all this. The Russ Shafer Landau book is very good too, although it's more sophisticated, which may be good or bad depending on what your students are like.

  3. Elliot Sober's "Psychological Egoism" in Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory is useful in covering evolutionary arguments in more detail than many intro Ethics textbook chapters do. I found a copy of it here

  4. Thank you for this! I will look at all of these suggestions. @Nathan. I've encountered all of those varieties of students. I think mostly some of them are skeptical that people can be motivated by anything but self-interest and are skeptical of claims to objectivity in particular with respect to morality. I've had some success dealing with particular arguments raised in class discussion, but I would like to supplement it with clear readings that would further clarify the issues.


If you wish to use your name and don't have a blogger profile, please mark Name/URL in the list below. You can of course opt for Anonymous, but please keep in mind that multiple anonymous comments on a post are difficult to follow. Thanks!