As Michael Slote (1984) has rightly pointed out, “ordinary moral thinking seems to involve an asymmetry regarding what an agent is permitted to do to himself and what he is permitted to do to others.” For one, agents are permitted to sacrifice their own greater good in order to secure a lesser net benefit for others, but not permitted to sacrifice someone else’s greater good in order to secure a lesser net benefit for others. For another, whereas it seems morally permissible to allow yourself to suffer unnecessarily, it seems morally impermissible to allow someone else to suffer unnecessarily. To make this a bit more concrete, consider the following illustrations. First, whereas it seems morally permissible to cut off my right arm in order to save someone else’s pinky finger, it seems morally wrong to cut off someone else’s right arm (even with his or her consent) in order to save yet another person’s pinky finger. Second, whereas it seems imprudent but not immoral of me to negligently leave thumbtacks on the ground where only I tread, it seems wrong of me to negligently leave thumbtacks on the ground where others tread.

Now what exactly is the nature of this asymmetry? I propose that it’s this:

the reason an agent has to do something for the sake of promoting her own welfare is a non-moral reason, whereas the reason an agent has to do something for the sake of promoting someone else’s welfare is a moral reason, where a moral reason to φ is (in contrast to a non-moral reason to φ) the kind of reason that gives rise to a moral requirement to φ in the absence of a non-overridden reason not to φ. (For a more careful statement of the distinction between moral and non-moral reasons, see my “Why Most Moral Theories Are Deficient,” which is available here.)

The great merit of this proposal, as I see it, is that it accounts for the self-other asymmetry without counter-intuitive implications. For instance, this account does not imply that it’s permissible to waste one’s talent to compose extraordinarily beautiful music. It does, of course, imply that the fact that developing such a talent might benefit oneself doesn’t itself constitute a moral reason for doing so. But note that there are plenty of other reasons for developing such a talent that can, on this view, count as a moral reason for doing so. For instance, the fact that developing this talent would involve developing a gift that’s both rare and valuable can, on this view, count as a moral reason for doing so — perhaps, we have a moral reason not to waste what’s so rare and valuable.

Although seemingly benign in its implications regarding particular cases, this account does have the following interesting implication regarding the nature of moral reasons: moral reasons are not overriding — at least, they can’t be if one is sometimes permitted to refrain from benefiting others for the sake of benefiting oneself instead. Consider that most of us think that I may permissibly work on a personal project (e.g., stamp collecting) even if this will only benefit myself and even if this would entail my forgoing the opportunity to benefit others (by, say, volunteering for Oxfam). On the view I’m proposing, then, the reason I have to work on my stamp collection is a non-moral reason, whereas the reason I have to volunteer for Oxfam is a moral reason. But if I have a moral reason to volunteer for Oxfam, then, by definition, I’ll be morally required to volunteer for Oxfam absent some non-overridden reason not to. Thus if I’m permitted to work on my stamp collection instead, it must be that moral reasons are not always overriding — for it must be that the non-moral reason I have to work on my stamp collection is not overridden by the moral reason I have to volunteer for Oxfam. This is an important result because it means that non-moral reasons can affect what it is morally permissible to do.

8 Replies to “The Self-Other Asymmetry

  1. But then, if moral concerns do not always trump other concerns, how is it that moral concerns EVER overide, for example, prudential concerns? If it’s not best for me, and moral concerns need not override my selfishness, then why would I bother to do anything that wasn’t in my best interest? Knowing something is a moral thing to do seems to always be justification for doing it, but that’s not the case for other kinds of concerns. “It’s what’s best for me,” is rarely an overiding reason for doing anything.

  2. Chris: You ask, “If it’s not best for me, and moral concerns need not override my selfishness, then why would I bother to do anything that wasn’t in my best interest?” The answer is that moral reasons sometimes override non-moral reasons. To say that moral reasons do not always override prudential reasons is not to say that they never do.
    You also say, “Knowing something is a moral thing to do seems to always be justification for doing it.” If by ‘moral thing’ you mean ‘that which one has most moral reason to do’ and by ‘justification’ you mean ‘moral justification’, then I would agree.

  3. Chris: I see the cause for confusion now. In my post, I say, “moral reasons are not overriding” and this is ambiguous. To be clear, I should have said “moral reasons do not ALWAYS override non-moral reasons.”

  4. Important issues I think. I am right now inclined to just deny the asymmetry.
    “[1] For another, whereas it seems morally permissible to allow yourself to suffer unnecessarily, [2] it seems morally impermissible to allow someone else to suffer unnecessarily.”
    So, [1] is just false. It is not permissible to allow yourself to suffer unnecessarily. We might think [1] is true because if it were false, then moral requirements would be too demanding. But, I haven’t heard any goods arguments for it yet, so it isn’t a reason for me to accept [1]. We might think it is impermissible to allow ourselves to suffer unnecessarily because there is a general obligation not to allow anything to suffer unnecessarily.
    I don’t know why people feel there is asymmetry. Maybe we learn our moral concepts with concepts of rights that permit us to harm ourselves. But, I just doubt that permissions to harm ourselves going by the name of rights will help out the case for asymmetry.
    Other people are obligated to keep us from harming ourselves. If I am on the edge of the roof, contemplating death, leaning, leaning, someone who is in a position to grab me is obligated to do so, obligated to yank me from the edge. But if they are obligated to keep me from jumping, then how could I be permitted to jump. The two together sound strange to me, real strange.
    Are there some other prevailing reasons to accept the asymmetry?

  5. Christian: When you say that you’re inclined to deny the asymmetry, do you mean that you’re inclined to deny that ordinary moral thinking involves such an asymmetry or that you’re inclined to deny that ordinary moral thinking is correct in this regard?
    I did give some examples in support of the claim that ordinary moral thinking involves such an asymmetry, but I didn’t give any reasons for thinking that ordinary moral thinking is correct in this case. However, I do think that, other things being equal, a moral theory that comports with our considered moral judgments is superior to one that doesn’t. Hence, a moral theory that accommodates the self-other asymmetry and the non-overriding-ness of moral reasons (which seems to follow from it) is superior, other things being equal, to one that doesn’t.

  6. Doug,
    Not sure what to say. Definitely inclined to deny that ordinary moral judgements are correct, happy to accept that ordinary moral judgements involve the kind of asymmetry you are discussing.
    I am more interested in developing the correct moral theory, less interested in what moral theory ordinary speakers accept. One big reason for this is that I think ordinary speakers don’t agree on moral principles and counterexamples to them. Another is that Divine Command Theory seems to be accepted by at least half of my cohorts in English. But, Divine Command Theory is false and this would entail that about half of what is said about moral matters is false.
    Because I want a theory that is true, I just don’t take the following principle too seriously:
    “Other things being equal, a moral theory that comports with [our] considered moral judgments is superior to one that doesn’t.”
    Now, if you replace [you] with [my] in the quote, I am more inclined to accept the principle.
    But, this replacement is acceptable to me because I aim at truth with my considered moral judgements and I think [we], the folk, aim more at expediency.
    This is sort of from the cuff. Seem right to you?

  7. This whole thing is screwy since if it’s morally permissable for the Self to suffer but not the Other then everyone has a different moral code. So either there is no ultimate moral code (sounds feasible to me) or the notion of “Self” is somehow actually universal and every person has two natures, a Self and an Other, both of which exist within the person and manifest depending on the situation. But the choice of which should manifest is made purely by the Other, and thus the Self could never manifest and everyone is the Other. This sounds pretty nuts so I’ll go with the first choice: no ultimate moral code.

  8. I tend to agree with Christian, that there is no asymmetry, or rather that the asymmetry is an illusion. Einstein: “A human being…experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest–a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us…Our task must be to free ourselves…”.
    I would argue that, as Steven Covey might say, one must concern oneself with and protect one’s P/PC balance–the relationship between one’s production and production capability. If we are really concerned with harming others as little as possible/helping others as much as possible, it becomes our moral obligation to optimize our production capability. Harming oneself is detrimental to one’s production capability; therefore, it is an immoral act.
    I would be interested in learning what this group has to say concerning a modification to the Golden Rule offered by Dr. Tony Allesandra, which he calls the “Platinum Rule”. Tony says that whereas the Golden Rule states that we should “do unto others as we would have them do unto ourselves”, a superior rule might be to “do unto others as they would have us do unto themselves”.
    Comments?

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