I’ve been teaching ethics since 2006, and just about every semester I teach the problem of ethical egoism. In short, that problem is: Why should I do what’s right if it’s not in my self-interest. To me, this is THE central question in ethics.

It’s not a new question. In Plato’s Republic, Glaucon raises this question (bk II). He gives three arguments that people should only care about their self-interest. First, he gives a proto-social contract theory for the origin of justice: people agree to a compromise of giving up the freedom to be unjust to others in order to stop others from being unjust to them. Second, he tells of the ring of Gyges, which makes one invisible. If, he says, we had two such rings and gave one each to a just and unjust person, both would behave unjustly. The moral righteous just person would no longer have any reason to behave justly; he or she could get away with anything. Third, if forced to choose between a living as a perfectly unjust person (unjust but fools everyone into thinking he or she is completely moral) or the perfectly just person (who always does the right thing, but never gets credit and is even thought by everyone to be the most unjust and punished accordingly), everyone would choose the perfectly unjust life. Therefore, being just–being morally good–is only good for its positive consequences, not for its own sake.

The challenge Glaucon raised was so significant, that Plato spent the next 9 books (the rest of the Republic) answering them. And the problem remains today. The reason I realized this problem was so important came early in my teaching career. In the Fall of 2007 and the Spring of 2008, during the collapse of the Great Recession, I was teaching Business Ethics at Brooklyn College. As I talked with my students about determining right and wrong, they raised a version of Glaucon’s challenge. Several students pointed to examples of “friends” that knew in advance that the financial collapse was coming, at least to a degree. They knew the housing market was a disaster waiting to happen because they helped make it that way. There were massive financial incentives for them to sell homes or approve mortgages to people who couldn’t afford them. So they did. Their goal was to make these sales and get out before everything went to hell.

So, my students asked me, why shouldn’t they do this. Why shouldn’t someone try to take advantage of others/the system, knowing full well that others are too and that because so many people likewise taking advantage of the system will break the system, and that other people will get screwed in the process? I didn’t have an answer. That’s when I realized that if ethics is going to be worthwhile as an area of study, as a subject for me to teach, I should have an answer to that question.

This semester, my students in Intro to Philosophy are reading James Rachels’s “Egoism and Moral Skepticism” as their segue into the Ethics section of the course. While Rachels explains the problem fairly well, his answer is deeply unsatisfying. He asserts that not harming others is to valued for its own sake.

This is a complete, sufficient reason which does not require qualification or supplementation of any sort. If someone seriously wants to know why this action shouldn’t be done, that’s the reason. If we are pressed further and asked the skeptical question, “But why shouldn’t I do actions that will harm others?” ‘we may not know what to say… There are limits to what can be accomplished by argument, and if the egoist really doesn’t care about other people-if he honestly doesn’t care whether they are helped or hurt by his actions-then we have reached those limits. If we want to persuade him to act decently toward his fellow humans, we will have to make our appeal to such other attitudes as he does possess, by threats, bribes, or other cajolery. That is all that we can do (Rachels 1971).

While Rachels acknowledges that this answer won’t satisfy the egoist, he’s not troubled by that fact. But he should be. Otherwise, I see little point in teaching ethics, particularly business ethics or other forms of applied ethics. (Business Ethics courses seem to have become quite popular since the Great Recession, presumably as a hoped-for prevention of future bankers and other financial actors from selfishly screwing the global economy again). The great moral problems of our day don’t arise because generally good people want to do the right thing but didn’t learn enough Kant or Mill in college to figure out what it is. The great problems exist because selfish, egoistic assholes care only for themselves.

Ethics should be able to change things for the better. Yet, Rachels’s argument against egoism (you just shouldn’t be one) won’t convince anyone to behave any differently. The egoist will still behave in a way that looks only after himself or herself and never anyone else. The non-egoist remains convinced that other people have value, and the egoist is left saying, “Yeah, who cares?” The challenge of the egoist and Glaucon remains unanswered. When I teach ethics, my goal is to actually get my students to be better (morally speaking) than they were before. I need to reach those egoists. If I don’t, one of them might become the next Bernie Madoff or contribute to the next recession… or worse.