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.