Was Saint George Virtuous?

That unselfishness is a virtue and selfishness a vice is such a firmly established fact that only a dyed-in-the-wool Objectivist would ever be so presumptuous as to challenge it. So let me put it to the test by giving just one concrete example:

A dragon is holding a princess captive in a tower. Along comes Saint George: at considerable risk to himself he fights the dragon, manages to slay him and liberates the princess. Was this a virtuous act on his part or not?

This is a question of motive. Let us say, simply, that he wants to marry the princess and get half the kingdom in reward. That, of course, is a selfish motive, so his act wasn’t virtuous.

But let us say he does not care a hoot about the princess, because she is ugly and not terribly nice, and neither is she a good cook; and he already owns half the kingdom and is not particularly keen on getting the other half as well. Yet he risks his life to liberate her, because it is a categorical imperative that captive princesses should be liberated. Now, his act would be truly virtuous.

(There is of course a third alternative: that he marries the princess despite her ugliness and her bad cooking, just to get half the kingdom. That would be “selfish” in the bad sense of the term. And the marriage would be unhappy.)

So why bother about this now? We live in a world where most dragons have been exterminated and where monarchy is on the wane (except for North Korea and Cuba).

Well, my Facebook friend Stuart Hayashi is reading Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature and quotes this line on Facebook:

You and I ought to reach this moral understanding not just so we can have a logically consistent conversation but because mutual unselfishness is the only way we can simultaneously pursue our interests. [Italics added.]

How can it be “mutually unselfish” to “pursue our interests”, given that we have those interests in common? – I answered as follows:

The line of reasoning is quite simple: There is only one way to be selfish, and that is to prey on other people. We should not prey on other people; therefore, we should be unselfish.

Next question: How do we know there is no other way to be selfish? Well, we have observed many instances of selfish behavior, and there is one common denominator, and that is preying on other people.

There might be a flaw in this reasoning …

Someone suggested that this is an example of the “naturalistic fallacy” – the idea that if something is in our nature, it must be good, and that bad things are bad because they are against our nature. But I disagree with this. Clearly, it is in our nature to have a capacity for evil as well as a capacity for good; and it is in our nature to be capable of acting unselfishly as well as acting selfishly.

No, I think the flaw is that the reasoning is circular or “question-begging”. It is simply assumed beforehand that “selfishness” is bad and the word a term of opprobrium. Thus, a person who reasons this way will see “selfishness” only in acts of preying on others. And he would, if he follows his own logic, see Saint George rescuing the princess as a bad act, simply because he want to marry the princess; and if the princess also wants to marry Saint George, that would be “mutually selfish” and thus “mutually bad”. Not that anyone is prepared to draw this conclusion, but it is still the only possible conclusion. (We should have a “logically consistent conversation”, shouldn’t we, Mr. Pinker?)

But certainly, there is such a thing as “predatory selfishness” – although it is just the other side of altruism’s false coin – and unfortunately, we see far too much of it, when we look at the world. Altruism says that we should sacrifice for others, and “predatory egoism” says we should sacrifice others for ourselves. And the sad thing is that altruists very seldom actually sacrifice themselves (if they did, we would soon be rid of them). But predatorily sacrificing others is a far too common thing.

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2 Responses to Was Saint George Virtuous?

  1. gseine says:

    I agree entirely that the concept of ‘selflessness’ is improperly defined and as such improperly used to describe actions that harm the initiator, hence harming the ‘self’. The fact that we are not being educated about the root of concepts and their linkages causes most people to use words inappropriately. I’ve done so myself, many times, and welcome correction.

    It’s in that vein that I ask you to reconsider the use of ‘established’ when modifying ‘fact’ in your first sentence. I would have used the word ‘accepted’ as a more precise definition as i see ‘established fact’ to carry a degree of credibility that your argument seeks to challenge. I believe you are granting the opponents of your argument a credibility they don’t warrant with the use of ‘established’.

    Cheers, and best wishes over the Christmas season, gs

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