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Ethics as Social Science

The Moral Philosophy of Social Cooperation

Leland B. Yeager

With this important book, esteemed economist Leland B. Yeager grounds moral and political philosophy in the requirements of a well-functioning society, one whose members reap the gains from peaceful cooperation while pursuing their own diverse goals.
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Chapter 8: Altruism and Self-Interest

Leland B. Yeager


AN INTRODUCTORY APOLOGY A benevolent impartial observer would want individuals to abide by an ethical code if he thought that their doing so would be good in itself or would benefit people in general. To have good results, however, an ethical code must actually work, which presupposes that individuals find abiding by it in their own interests, by and large. A workable social system must stand what John Rawls called the “strains of commitment” (1971, Section 29). Furthermore, individuals ought to abide by an ethical code only if they can do so; and if they could do so only at great personal cost, that fact would weaken their moral obligation. Traditional ethical rules do seem to command wide respect, or at least lipservice. Even villains often try to excuse their actions, to themselves and others, in ways that tacitly acknowledge those rules. Some feel twinges of conscience. Such a consensus, if in fact it exists, suggests that ethical training and dialogue can be effective. The person who can only be coerced, never conditioned or persuaded, must be rare (but this is a falsifiable empirical proposition). Explaining ethical consensus will further invoke, presumably, cultural or biological selection. (Propositions about consensus on values and precepts and about how they evolved are positive propositions. Yet the values and precepts themselves remain value judgments.) Group acceptance of ethical precepts, along with a mental makeup conducive to individuals’ internalizing them, presumably had survival value during the course of human evolution. (To “internalize” a value or...

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