"It's this business of saying "really want" to refer to people's impulses instead of their principles, as if their low self were the only true one, that I strongly object to; it does not help people."
I agree this something to be careful of, but on the other hand what are we to make of consistent contradictions between what someone claims to want and how they act?
Take an example I find extremely shocking, arguments by parents against other parents spending money for their children’s education. This is often put forward on the ground that it causes social inequality. If a poor parent makes this argument, I can understand it. After all it is to their child’s comparative advantage to have the children of those wealthier than themselves receive no benefit from the parents wealth. (Though in reality the more truly educated people there are the better off for all) What I can’t understand is parents who smugly announce that they could spend the money on their child‘s education, but that they will not because that would cause inequality. (granted that this argument comes more often in the hypothetical from the childless, but I have seen parents make it.)
If questioned these parents would doubtless say they love their children and want the best for their them, but should we believe them? If one believes that a child’s education is extremely important, it would seem one would do everything one could to give one’s child the best possible education. Of course maybe the parents believe that a society where money was spent on children in accordance with their ability (i.e. the smarter the more money spent on the child’s education regardless of ability to pay) would be more in their child’s interests as it would make society wealthier and benefit their child along with every one else. However in that case it would seem that the money they will not spend on their child should go to a fund to help the bright but disadvantaged, not spent on their own consumption. If they instead spend the money on frivolity (not to put frivolity down in general), what are we to make of this?
To take this a step further what if their child is very bright and wins a scholarship to Eton. (assuming that Eton does offer a superior education. As an American, I can only go by reputation) If they refuse to let their child go on the grounds that the existence of schools like Eton cause in equality what are we to make of that? Suppose the scholarship is not to a posh school like Eton, but to a state program to educate the most gifted on the premise that this is to the general benefit of society. If the parents refuse to let their child attend because this would create social inequality, because their child is already “privileged” by superior intelligence and shouldn’t be given the means to make this inequality greater, what would this tell us about the parents?
At what point do we say that their behavior towards their child is inconsistent with their claim to love their child and want the best for them?
Contrariwise, what about parents who claim allegiance to the alleged moral ideal of egalitarianism, but spend vast sums of money on their child’s education giving them a massive advantage in life. At what point do you conclude that they are either neo-aristocratic paternalists or ethical egoists?
My point is that while I agree that people do fall short of their ethical ideals (I do it myself more often than I should like others to know), we can not judge people by their words alone.