Are You Just Self-Interested?

Imagine you are doing some spring cleaning and you’re finally getting to all the clutter in the basement. It’s a Saturday, and you’ve had a long work week - yet here you are, spending your precious time for relaxation on this annoying project. In any case, you do it because it is your responsibility; in fact, you are a generally responsible person, tending to your spouse and kids with love, caring for the well being of your co-workers and your community.

Now, suppose you come across a small, rustic looking wooden box. You’ve never seen it before. Its edges are worn down with what look like centuries of rough handling. Upon opening, you find an unremarkable brass ring. No special markings or engravings. It seems to be just the right size and you watch as you slip it onto your finger. But to your astonishment - your hand disappears!

Not actually, yet your hand is no longer visible to you. In bewilderment, you shakily approach a nearby mirror and the hair stands up on your arm, goosebumps ripple down your limbs because - you see nothing in the reflection. You’ve discovered a ring of invisibility! You do some testing. You wave your hand in front of your spouse’s face, and he or she has no idea you’re there. Upon various tests, you find out that this thing is in fact rather remarkable - you remain utterly undetectable while it hugs your finger; no noise, no smells, you leave no trace of presence such as fingerprints. As long as no one bumps into you, you’re in total stealth.

Try to appreciate the power you have now. It is shocking how much wealth and other nefarious opportunities lie just out of reach simply due to normally being visible. You could easily stroll into your neighbor’s house and steal their jewelry. You could do a run on every till in town collecting thousands in cash. The more creative among us could surely conjure up some other wickedry with this new found power.

This story is an adaptation of Plato’s Ring of Gyges tale he lays out in his famous work The Republic. Here, lowly Gyges finds a similar ring and quickly abandons all notions of morality due to wielding such extreme power. He kills the king, seduces the Queen, and becomes king himself.

The story puts pressure on an idea that most of us would presume: I do the right thing because it is the right thing to do.

Do you really? Or do you do it because acting otherwise would result in unchoiceworthy consequences, like a bad reputation, jail, or worse?

But, if you had the Ring of Gyges, with invisibility (or whatever cool power you want to make the example work for you - you just need suitable power to avoid normal recompense), would you still do the good or right thing even if there were no threat at all of those negative consequences?

Good question.

Some say, “Of course not!” We only ever act out of our self-interest. See, there’s no such thing as altruism, or acting genuinely for the interest of others. Your ordinary moral behavior is really just you abiding to a social contract; you don’t want to get in trouble so you’ll play along. But, if you could get away with it, you’d do the “wrong” thing.

What do you think of this idea? What would you do with your ring of invisibility? It’s a hard thing to know for sure, but if history tells us anything, more often than not, having power without fear of backlash leads to some disastrous results.

But, maybe we can concede that point without handing over our treasured moral principles.

If you are curious about the role self-interest should play in our moral theorizing and how to respond to the Ring of Gyges thought experiment, you may enjoy this week’s episode “Does Self-Interest Matter Most?” You can watch on Youtube or listen on your favorite podcatcher.

Stay Curious!