Egoism is the concept of acting in one’s own self-interest, and can be either a descriptive or a normative position. Psychological egoism, the most well-known descriptive position, holds that we always act in our own self-interest. In contrast to this, ethical egoism is a normative position: it claims that one should act in one’s self-interest as this makes an action morally right, such that the claims of others should never have weight for oneself unless their good can serve one’s own good. Similarly, rational egoism maintains that, in order to act rationally, one must act in one’s self-interest, and the fact that an action helps another person does not alone provide a reason for performing it, unless helping the other person in some way furthers one’s own interests.
All these positions deserve to be critiqued: psychological egoism in that people find the greatest happiness and meaning in states where they are self-giving, for example when in love, parenting a child, or contributing to society; and ethical egoism by the challenge of numerous philosophical and religious ethical systems that place self-interest within the context of contributing to the greater good.
Psychological egoism holds that every human has only one ultimate goal: his or her own good (where this good can variously be defined as welfare, happiness or pleasure). This description is verified by widespread and frequent observations of self-interested behavior. For instance, we often motivate people to act in certain ways by appealing to their self-interest in the form of rewards and punishments, while acts which appear altruistic are often shown to be motivated by self-interest. Likewise, one can find a non-altruistic explanation for the apparently altruistic behavior of organisms in general. Worker bees are an interesting case in point: although they seem to act solely for the sake of their hive with no concern for their own welfare, sociobiologists offer an account of this behavior in terms of their genes’ survival. They hypothesize that natural selection favors ‘altruistic’ behavior in either cooperative relations in which all members benefit (reciprocal altruism) or familial relations (kin altruism). Both forms of altruism are concerned with the survival of one’s genes: acts of reciprocal altruism increase one’s chances of survival, and therefore one’s genes’ chances of survival, while ensuring the survival of one’s relations ensures the survival of a percentage of one’s genes. For a worker bee, ensuring the survival of her sister worker means that she has ensured the survival of half of her genes. Thus, sociobiologists typically claim that, on a genetic level, altruism cannot exist. However, psychological egoism is a stronger position, as it claims that, regardless of what happens on a genetic level, the individual him or herself is motivated by thoughts of self-interest. Thus, while it allows for action that does not accomplish its goal of maximizing self-interest, as well as action that is at odds with one’s intentions (a weak will), most forms of psychological egoism rule out both altruistic behavior and acting solely out of respect for one’s duty. Importantly, psychological egoism allows for goals other than one’s own self interest, but claims that these goals are then means to realizing one’s own well-being.
There are in turn two forms of psychological egoism. Exclusive egoism makes the strong claim that people act exclusively out of self-interest, and therefore altruistic behavior does not, in fact, exist. On the other hand, predominant egoism makes the weaker claim that people seldom act unselfishly, and when they do so, it is typically only because their sacrifice is small and the beneficiaries’ gain is much larger, or when they are partial to the beneficiary in some way: when the beneficiaries are, for example, friends, lovers or family.
Exclusive egoism allows for no exceptions; this means that one instance of someone who does not act exclusively out of self-interest is sufficient to show that exclusive egoism’s thesis is empirically false. Imagine a soldier throws himself on a grenade in order to prevent other people from being killed. His motivation for this act of self-sacrifice might quite plausibly be his desire to do his duty or to save the other peoples’ lives, while attempting to explain his action in terms of self-interest would appear to be a wholly implausible move. The exclusive egoist may want to defend her position by arguing for some kind of ulterior self-interested motive, such as pleasure. Perhaps our soldier believes in an afterlife in which he will be rewarded ten-fold for his apparently selfless act on earth, or perhaps, if he had not hurled himself on the grenade, he would be overcome by guilt and a concomitant sense of self-loathing. In both cases then, he is, at least from his perspective, acting in his self-interest by acting in this apparently selfless manner. There are two problems with this response. The first is that, while it might explain many instances of apparent self-sacrifice as motivated by egoistic concerns, it does not necessarily cover all cases. The psychological egoist must argue that all instances of ostensible altruistic behavior are in fact motivated by self-interested desires. If, for instance, our soldier disagrees with this, and claims that his action was truly altruistic in motivation, the exclusive egoist must respond that he is lying or is deceiving himself. At this point, however, exclusive egoism turns out to be trivially true, which means that it is unfalsifiable, since there is no empirical instance that could in principle disprove the hypothesis. As with the trivially true statement “all ostriches that live on Mars have gold and purple polka dotted wings,” this version of psychological egoism provides no useful information and therefore fails as an empirical theory. It does not allow us to distinguish, for instance, between our soldier and the soldier who thrusts a child onto the grenade in order to save himself. Whereas we generally think that the latter is behaving selfishly, while our soldier is acting in a selfless manner, exclusive egoism maintains that both soldiers are equally selfish, because both are acting in their self-interest.
Alternatively, the psychological egoist might opt for a non-trivial response to the soldier counter-example. She could argue that, as infants, we have only self-regarding desires; desires for our own well-being, for instance. However, as we grow older, we find that desiring things for their own sake eventually satisfies our self-regarding desires. We then come to desire these things for their own sake. For example, I might detest exercise, but also find that exercising results in physical well-being; after a while, I will begin to desire exercise for its own sake. This would preclude the common objection to psychological egoism, that one must desire things other than one’s welfare in order to realize one’s welfare. However, then the psychological egoist will have moved away from exclusive egoism. It may be true that our soldier would not have had a present desire to save others, unless saving others was connected in the past with increasing his welfare, but this does not mean that his present desire is selfish. At this point, the psychological egoist could adopt the weaker stance of predominant egoism which allows for exceptions, and thereby forestall counter-examples like our heroic soldier; moreover, predominant egoism is both an empirically plausible and non-trivial position.
In her novel, Atlas Shrugged, Russian emigrée Ayn Rand sketches the portrait of a man who feels responsible for himself and no one else. John Galt is the archetype of the individual who practices what Rand calls the “virtue of selfishness”: a man for whom true morality consists in resisting the temptations of self-sacrifice, sympathy and generosity. In the fictional figure of John Galt we find the embodiment of egoism as an ideal. Similarly, the move from psychological egoism to ethical egoism is a move from a descriptive to a normative position. Ethical egoism claims that for one’s action to count as morally right it is both necessary and sufficient that one act in one’s self-interest. Precisely how one acts in one’s self-interest is a matter of some divergence among ethical egoists. As with psychological egoism, ethical egoism comes in both a maximizing and a non-maximizing flavor: the former holds that self-interest must be maximized for an action to count as ethical, while the latter simply claims that one should act in one’s self-interest and thus leaves the possibility for acting in others’ interest open. There is also a distinction between short-term and long-term interests: I might gain a short-term benefit by stealing from my friends, but experience a long-term loss when they discover the theft and I lose those friends. In addition, ethical egoism can also apply to rules or character traits, as well as acts. Finally, acting in one’s self-interest means acting for one’s own good, but this good can variously be defined as one’s happiness, pleasure or well-being. There are various permutations of these conceptions, but considering that the arguments for and against them are generally relevantly similar, I will very broadly define ethical egoism as the thesis which states that in order for one’s actions to count as ethical, one should act to promote one’s self-interest, where self-interest is taken to mean one’s own good.
There are several arguments in support of ethical egoism. Ethical egoists occasionally appeal to the findings of psychological egoism as support for their normative claims; however, regardless of whether psychological egoism is true or not, the jump from a descriptive to a normative position is fallacious, as one cannot use supposed existing conditions as justification for how one ought to behave. A more valid move is to argue that, as psychological egoism is true, it is impossible to motivate people on non-egoistic grounds. Thus, ethical egoism is the most practical moral theory, or the most capable of motivating people to act ethically. However, as we have seen, exclusive egoism just seems false, and substituting it with predominant egoism loses the crucial claim that it is impossible to motivate people to behave altruistically. On the other hand, if psychological egoism is true, it follows from psychological egoism that I cannot intend to perform an action which I believe is not in my self-interest. However, if I am wrong, and this action is in my self-interest, then ethical egoism stipulates that I should perform an action that I cannot intend. The appeal to psychological egoism therefore fails to ensure its practicality.
However, this is not necessarily a shortcoming of an ethical theory, as part of the value of an ethical theory may lie in its offering us an ideal for us to live up to. Setting aside the appeal to its supposed practicality, ethical egoists might alternatively claim that ethical egoism best fits our commonsense moral judgements. For instance, it captures the intuition that I should not let others exploit me, and unlike consequentialism, allows me to keep some good for myself, like a house, even though giving this house to someone else might benefit him slightly more. Moreover, it stipulates that it is often in one’s best interests to ostensibly take other peoples’ interests into account so as to secure their cooperation. I derive a much larger long-term benefit if I act generously and compassionately towards my friends, for example, than if I steal from them, even though theft might provide the greatest short-term benefit to me. Nevertheless, it appears that ethical egoism is also at odds with some of our most deeply held ethical beliefs. It mandates that one should only ever help someone else if doing so benefits oneself, which means that one is not morally obligated to help those who cannot help or hinder one. Imagine I can easily save a drowning child, but none of the players in this scenario can offer me any beneficial cooperation in return for saving the child (like praise) or negative retaliation for failing to help (like scorn). Further, say that I am indifferent to the situation presented to me, and regardless of what I do, I will feel no sense of guilt or pleasure, then ethical egoism will remain silent as to whether I should save the child. Moreover, if there is some slight uncompensated sacrifice I will have to make, like getting my shoes wet, then ethical egoism will tell me to refrain from saving the drowning child. However, we generally think that, in this case, there is a moral obligation to save the child, and ethical egoism can neither explain how such a duty might (validly) arise, nor generate such a duty. Ethical egoism therefore appears to be morally insensitive to situations which we ordinarily think demand great moral sensitivity. We can further see that ethical egoism will potentially generate counter-intuitive duties in situations where the individual in need of help cannot reciprocate (like physically or mentally disabled people) or where the sacrifice one might need to make is not compensatable. Ethical egoism will, for instance, condemn the action of the soldier who throws himself on the grenade as ethically reprehensible, precisely because it entails an irreversible sacrifice (loss of life) for the soldier, while we ordinarily think it is an ethically admirable action, or at the very least, not a morally repugnant one.
Furthermore, a number of critics have argued that egoism yields contradictory moral imperatives. There are generally two inconsistency charges against ethical egoism. The weaker of the two lays this charge: say ethical egoism recommends that X and Y buy a particular item of clothing on sale, since buying this item is, for some reason, in the self-interest of each. But there is only one remaining article; hence, ethical egoism recommends an impossible situation. However, the ethical egoist can reply that ethical egoism does not provide neutral criteria: it advocates to X buying the article of clothing for X, and advocates to Y that Y buy the article for Y, but ethical egoism has nothing to say on the value of X and Y buying the same article of clothing.
The second inconsistency argument claims that, in any given situation, the ethical egoist must aim to promote her own self-interest, but if her brand of egoism is to count as an ethical theory, she must simultaneously will that everyone else also act to promote their own self-interest, for one of the formal constraints on an ethical theory is that it be universalisable. Say I am a shopkeeper, and it is in my best interest to sell my products at the highest practically possible profit, it will generally not be in my clients’ best interests to buy my products at these high prices. Then if I am an ethical egoist, I am committed to recommending a contradictory state of affairs: that I both sell the products at the highest possible price and that my customers pay less than the highest possible price. The ethical theorist, however, can respond that, although she morally recommends that the customers pay less than the highest possible price, this does not necessarily mean that she desires it. Jesse Kalin provides an analogy with competitive sports: in a game of chess, I will be trying my utmost to win, but I will also expect my opponent to do the same, and I may even desire that he play as good a game as possible, because then the game will be of a far higher standard. If the analogy with competitive gaming holds, it is therefore not inconsistent for me to recommend both that I attempt to sell my products at the highest possible price and that my customers attempt to buy them at lower than the highest possible price.
However, this move to making an analogy with competitive games cannot preclude the worry that ethical egoism is not sufficiently public for it to count as an ethical theory. What is meant by this is that ethical egoism is at odds with public morality (which generally appears to value altruism) and one can therefore imagine many cases in which the ethical egoist might find it in her interests not to profess ethical egoism. Imagine I am an ethical egoist and I donate a large sum to a charity because it gives my company a good image and I receive a large tax deduction for doing so. Then it is most definitely not in my best interests to reveal these reasons; rather, it is to my advantage that I pretend to have done so out of a spirit of generosity and kindness. Leaving aside worries of duplicitous and unreliable behavior, it does not seem as if ethical egoism can truly be made public without the ethical egoist’s interests being compromised. Yet it seems as if an ethical theory requires precisely this ability to be made public. Moreover, although it meets the formal constraints of an ethical theory – it must be normative and universalisable – as noted above, it also fails to provide a single neutral ranking that each agent must follow in cases where there is a conflict of interests. Just what makes for a moral theory, however, is contentious, and the ethical theorist can subsequently respond to any argument against ethical egoism’s status as an ethical theory by claiming that the failed criteria are not really constraints that an ethical theory must adhere to. A more elegant solution, however, is to move to rational egoism, which might provide the ethical egoist with non-ethical reasons for adhering to ethical egoism.
Rational egoism maintains that it is both necessary and sufficient for an action to be rational that it promotes one’s self-interest. As with ethical egoism, rational egoism comes in varying flavors. It can be maximizing or non-maximizing, or can apply to rules or character traits instead of actions. Certain versions might claim that acting in one’s self-interest is either sufficient but not necessary, or necessary but not sufficient for an action to count as rational. However, as with ethical egoism, relevantly similar objections to and defenses for the various species of ethical egoism can be made. The salient common feature amongst all variants is that all claim that the fact that an action helps another person does not alone provide a reason for performing it, unless helping the other person in some way furthers one’s own interests. Stronger versions might also hold that the only underived reason for action is self-interest.
In support of their thesis, rational egoists most commonly appeal to the way in which rational egoism best fits our ordinary judgements about what makes action rational. However, as we saw with the soldier counter-example, both psychological and ethical egoism fail to make sense of his action, and rational egoism will similarly generate a counter-intuitive response to this example. It will classify his action as fundamentally non-rational because it has permanently violated his self-interest. However, we would ordinarily characterize his action as rational, because it realizes his strong non-self-interested preference to save the lives of others. In other words, we take the safety of others to be a legitimate motivation for his action, whereas his hurling himself on a grenade in order to save a chocolate cake would ordinarily be seen as non-rational. Yet rational egoism would not allow us to distinguish between these two cases, because it does not recognize the demands of others as alone providing one with reason to act in a certain way.
Rational egoism furthermore appears to make an unjustified weighted distinction between one’s own self-interest and the good of others. Imagine I decide that I should act to increase the good of brown-eyed people over that of others. Justifying this preferential treatment on the grounds that brown-eyed people just are more deserving of preferential treatment is not rational. James Rachels argues that ethical (and here, rational) egoism, makes a similarly unwarranted or arbitrary move, because it claims that I ought to act in one person’s interest (myself). The rational egoist might want to respond that non-arbitrary distinctions can be made by one’s preferences. The fact that I like oranges and not apples makes my decision to buy apples rather than oranges non-arbitrary, and similarly, my preference for my own good makes my commitment to achieving my own good non-arbitrary. However, as we have seen, there are cases (as with the soldier example) where I might lack a preference for my own welfare. In these instances, rational egoism cannot give me a reason to pursue my self-interest over that of others. Nevertheless, rational egoism might hold that, in these cases I am wrong, simply because we must take it as a ground assumption that our own good comes before that of others. In other words, the preference for one’s own good needs no further justification than the fact it is one’s own good that one is pursuing. When it comes to the preferential treatment of brown-eyed people, we generally do not accept their being brown-eyed as a good reason for their preferential treatment, but when it comes to acting for our own good, we seem to take the fact that it is our own good as a reasonable justification for doing so; we do not ask why acting in one’s own good is pertinent.
However, although this may be so, this argument does not demonstrate that acting to promote one’s own good is always sufficient or necessary for an action to count as rational. There are instances where we take an action to be rational, but where the agent makes no reference to pursuing his own good as justification for performing the action. The villagers of Le Chambon provide us with a real-life example of this. Le Chambon was a pacifist French village responsible for saving the lives of several thousand Jews from the Nazis, often at a great risk to the inhabitants. The reason they gave for this altruistic behavior was that it was simply their duty to help anybody in need. Here, no reference is made to their own good (and indeed, their own welfare was often severely jeopardized by their actions), and we generally take their concern for the others’ welfare as a good reason for their actions.
At present, there seems to be no good reason to accept the theses of psychological, ethical or rational egoism. Nevertheless, egoism in general presents us with a useful insight into the moral life by pointing out that, contra what many of us might suppose, morality and self-interest do not necessarily conflict. Indeed, there may be many cases in which there are good self-regarding reasons for acting ethically and egoism forces us to question whether we pay sufficient attention to legitimate self-interest when assessing moral situations.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Butler, Jospeh. (1900). Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel. In The Works of Bishop Butler, J. H. Bernard (ed.). London: Macmillan. Available online at: http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/3150 [See Sermons I and XI for responses to Hobbes’ version of exclusive egoism]. Retrieved May 31, 2008.
- Hobbes, Thomas. (1651). Leviathan. Michael Oakeshott (ed.). Oxford: Blackwell. Available online at: A classical account of exclusive egoism and ethical egoism. Retrieved May 31, 2008.
- Hume, David. (1975). "An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals." In Enquiries. L. A. Selby-Bigge and P. H. Nidditch, (eds.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. [See Appendix II for an elegant criticism of psychological egoism]
- Kavka, Gregory. (1986). Hobbesian Moral and Political Theory. [A partial defense of Hobbesian ethical and political theory. See pp. 64-80 for an explication of predominant egoism] Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 069102765X
- Singer, Peter. (1982). The Expanding Circle. New York: New American Library. [A discussion of the relevance of sociobiology to egoism]
- Slote, Michael Anthony. (1964). “An Empirical Basis for Psychological Egoism.” In Journal of Philosophy 61: 530-537.
- Broad, C. D. (1973). "Egoism as a Theory of Human Motives." In Egoism and Altruism. Ronald Milo (ed.). California: Wadsworth. [See pp. 88-100 for an elegant set of arguments against ethical egoism]
- Campbell, R. (1972). "A Short Refutation of Ethical Egoism." In Canadian Journal of Philosophy 2: 249-254.
- Frankena, W. K. (1973). Ethics. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall; 2nd edition, 1988. ISBN 0132904780
- Gauthier, David. (1967). "Morality and Advantage." In Philosophical Review 76: 460-475. [A salient and entertaining critique of ethical egoism]
- Glasgow, W. D., (1971). “Ethical Egoism Again.” In Ethics 82 (1):65-71. [A thorough discussion of the inconsistency argument against ethical egoism]
- Goldstick, D. (1973). “Refutation of ‘Ethical Egoism’.” In Analysis 34 (2): 38-39. [A brief version of the inconsistency argument against ethical egoism]
- Kalin, Jesse. (1970). "In Defense of Egoism." In Morality and Rational Self-Interest. David Gauthier (ed.). Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall. [A strong defence of egoism based on game theory]
- Machan, Tibor. (1978). "Was Rachels' Doctor Practicing Egoism?." In Philosophia 8: 338-344. [A response to Rachel’s objections to ethical egoism]
- Moore, G.E. (1903). Principia Ethica. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Nagel, Thomas. (1970). The Possibility of Altruism. Princeton: Princeton University Press. [A defense of altruism]
- Rachels, James. (1974). "Two Arguments Against Ethical Egoism." In Philosophia 4: 297-314. [Interesting for its comparison of ethical egoism with racism]
- Brandt, Richard. (1972). “Rationality, Egoism and Morality.” In The Journal of Philosophy 69 (20):681-697 [A good overview of the relationship between rational egoism and ethical egoism]
- Gauthier, David. (1974). "The Impossibility of Rational Egoism," The Journal of Philosophy 71: 439-456.
- Kagan, S., (1986). “The Present-Aim Theory of Rationality.” In Ethics 96: 746-759. [A response to Parfit’s objection to rational egoism]
- Monroe, R., Barton, Michael C., and Klingemann, Ute. (1990). "Altruism and the Theory of Rational Action: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe." In Ethics 101: 103-122. [A defence of the rationality of altruism, citing the example of the villagers of Chambon]
- Parfit, D., (1984). Reasons and Persons. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [A more complex response to rational egoism based on present-aim theory]
- Parfit, D., (1986). “Reply to Kagan.” In Ethics 96: 843-846, 868-869.
Fiction and popular literature
A small selection of literature in popular culture dealing with ethical egoism and altruism.
- Clavell, James. (1962). King Rat. London: Martin Joseph; Delta, 1999. ISBN 0385333765
- Lavey, Anton Szandor, Gilmore, Peter H. (1969). The Satanic Bible. Avon; Reissue edition, 1969. ISBN 0380015390
- Rand, Ayn. (1957). Atlas Shrugged. New York: Signet; 35th Anniv edition, 1996. ISBN 0451191145
- Rand, Ayn. (1964). The Virtue of Selfishness. New York: Signet; Reissue edition, 1964. ISBN 0451163931
All links retrieved February 12, 2024.
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Egoism
- The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Egoism
General Philosophy Sources
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Paideia Project Online
- Project Gutenberg
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