If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go: A Priori Egoism and the Challenge from Common Sense
Julia Thwaites (La Trobe University)

May 18, 2016, 4:00pm - 6:00pm
Philosophy program, La Trobe University

Martin Building (Mar) Room 369
La Trobe University


According to an oft-quoted story, Abraham Lincoln was journeying by stagecoach when, in conversation with a fellow passenger, he proclaimed that men can only ever act in their own self-interest. In the middle of their journey, they passed a sow crying over her piglets who were in danger of drowning. Moved by the scene, Lincoln jumped from the coach and rescued the litter. Upon returning, his companion suggested that the act disproved Lincoln’s point. To this Lincoln replied: “Why, that was the very essence of selfishness. I should have had no peace of mind had I left that suffering old sow worrying over those pigs. I did it to get peace of mind, don’t you see?”

If Lincoln’s logic is valid, then the psychological egoist is right in claiming that we are necessarily egoistic. Since Joseph Butler’s famous refutation in the early eighteenth century, many have held that the argument from common sense has refuted this claim. However, with moral theory turning towards evolutionary biology in more recent years, the common sense argument has fallen out of fashion. In this talk I will support the use of the argument from common sense against a priori forms of the egoistic thesis by invoking Thomas Reid’s appeal to sensus communis. After situating the claim in relation to a broader discussion on Friedrich Nietzsche’s manifold theories of egoism, I will argue against May (2011) and Sober (2013) that common sense provides us with an important philosophical trigger by alerting us to the problem of trivialisation in the egoist’s argument.

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