Ethical egoism: Wikis


Note: Many of our articles have direct quotes from sources you can cite, within the Wikipedia article! This article doesn't yet, but we're working on it! See more info or our list of citable articles.


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

guess not aalot of religons follow this Ethical egoism (also called simply egoism)[1] is the normative ethical position that moral agents ought to do what is in their own self-interest. It differs from psychological egoism, which claims that people do only act in their self-interest. Ethical egoism also differs from rational egoism, which holds merely that it is rational to act in one's self-interest. These doctrines may, though, be combined with ethical egoism.

Ethical egoism contrasts with ethical altruism, which holds that moral agents have an obligation to help and serve others. Egoism and altruism both contrast with ethical utilitarianism, which holds that a moral agent should treat one's self (also known as the subject) with no higher regard than one has for others (as egoism does, by elevating self-interests and "the self" to a status not granted to others), but that one also should not (as altruism does) sacrifice one's own interests to help others' interests, so long as one's own interests (i.e. one's own desires or well-being) are substantially-equivalent to the others' interests and well-being. Egoism, utilitarianism, and altruism are all forms of consequentialism, but egoism and altruism contrast with utilitarianism, in that egoism and altruism are both agent-focused forms of consequentialism (i.e. subject-focused or subjective), but utilitarianism is called agent-neutral (i.e. objective and impartial) as it does not treat the subject's (i.e. the self's, i.e. the moral "agent's") own interests as being more or less important than if the same interests, desires, or well-being were anyone else's.

Ethical egoism does not, however, require moral agents to harm the interests and well-being of others when making moral deliberation; e.g. what is in an agent's self-interest may be incidentally detrimental, beneficial, or neutral in its effect on others. Individualism allows for others' interest and well-being to be disregarded or not, as long as what is chosen is efficacious in satisfying the self-interest of the agent. Nor does ethical egoism necessarily entail that, in pursuing self-interest, one ought always to do what one wants to do; e.g. in the long term, the fulfillment of short-term desires may prove detrimental to the self. Fleeting pleasure, then, takes a back seat to protracted eudaemonia. In the words of James Rachels, "Ethical egoism [...] endorses selfishness, but it doesn't endorse foolishness."[2]

Ethical egoism is sometimes the philosophical basis for support of libertarianism or individualist anarchism, although these can also be based on altruistic motivations.[3] These are political positions based partly on a belief that individuals should not coercively prevent others from exercising freedom of action.


Types of ethical egoism

Three different formulations of ethical egoism have been identified: individual, personal and universal. An individual ethical egoist would hold that all people should do whatever benefits them;[4] a personal ethical egoist would hold that he or she should act in his or her own self-interest, but would make no claims about what anyone else ought to do; a universal ethical egoist would argue that everyone should act in ways that are in their own interest..[5]

A philosophy holding that one should be honest, just, benevolent etc., because those virtues serve one's self-interest is egoistic; one holding that one should practice those virtues for reasons other than self-interest is not egoistic.


Max Stirner was the first philosopher to call himself an egoist, it is questionable if he wanted to install a new idea of morality (ethical egoism) or argue against morality (amoralism). Others, such as Thomas Hobbes and David Gauthier, have argued that the conflicts which arise when people each pursue their own ends can be resolved for the best of each individual only if they all voluntarily forgo some of their aims — that is, one's self-interest is often best pursued by allowing others to pursue their self-interest as well so that liberty is equal among individuals. Sacrificing one's short-term self-interest to maximize one's long-term self-interest is one form of "rational self-interest" which is the idea behind most philosophers' advocacy of ethical egoism. Noted egoist Ayn Rand contended that there was a harmony of interest among humans, so that a moral agent could not rationally harm another person.

As Nietzsche (in Beyond Good and Evil) and Alasdair MacIntyre (in After Virtue) are famous for pointing out, the ancient Greeks did not associate morality with altruism in the way that post-Christian Western civilization has done. Aristotle's view is that we have duties to ourselves as well as to other people (e.g. friends) and to the polis as a whole. The same is true for Christian Wolff and Immanuel Kant, who claim that there are duties to ourselves just as Aristotle did.

The term ethical egoism has been applied retroactively to philosophers such as Bernard de Mandeville and to many other materialists of his generation, although none of them declared themselves to be egoists. Note that materialism does not necessarily imply egoism, as indicated by Karl Marx, and the many other materialists who espoused forms of collectivism.

Ethical egoism lends itself to individualist anarchism and is another way of describing the sense that the common good should be enjoyed by all. However, most notable anarchists in history have advocated altruistic views.

Supporting arguments

James Rachels, in an essay that takes as its title the theory's name, outlines the three arguments most commonly touted in its favour:[6]

  • "The first argument," writes Rachels, "has several variations, each suggesting the same general point:[7]
    • "Each of us is intimately familiar with our own individual wants and needs. Moreover, each of us is uniquely placed to pursue those wants and needs effectively. At the same time, we know the desires and needs of others only imperfectly, and we are not well situated to pursue them. Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that if we set out to be 'our brother's keeper,' we would often bungle the job and end up doing more mischief than good."[2]
    • To pursue actively the interests of others is to be officious. We should mind our own business and allow others to mind theirs.
    • To give charity to someone is to degrade him, implying as it does that he is reliant on such munificence and quite unable to look out for himself. "That," reckons Rachels, "is why the recipients of 'charity' are so often resentful rather than appreciative."[8]
  • Altruism denies individual value and is therefore destructive both to society and its individual components, viewing life merely as a thing to be sacrificed. "Moreover, those who would promote this idea are beneath contempt—they are parasites who, rather than working to build and sustain their own lives, leech off those who do."[9]
  • All of our commonly-accepted moral duties, from doing no harm unto others to speaking always the truth to keeping promises, are rooted in the one fundamental principle of self-interest.


According to amoralism, there is nothing wrong with egoism, but there is just nothing ethical about it. One can simply adopt rational egoism and completely drop morality as a superfluous attribute of the egoism.

Some contend that ethical egoism is implausible,[10][11] and that those who seriously advocate it usually do so at the expense of redefining "self-interest" to include the interests of others.[12] An ethical egoist might counter this by asserting that furthering the ends of others is sometimes the best means of furthering the ends of oneself, or that, simply by allowing liberty to others, one's self-interest is resultantly furthered.

Ethical egoism has also been alleged as the basis for immorality. Thomas Jefferson writes in a 1814 letter to Thomas Law:

Self-interest, or rather self-love, or egoism, has been more plausibly substituted as the basis of morality. But I consider our relations with others as constituting the boundaries of morality. With ourselves, we stand on the ground of identity, not of relation, which last, requiring two subjects, excludes self-love confined to a single one. To ourselves, in strict language, we can owe no duties, obligation requiring also two parties. Self-love, therefore, is no part of morality. Indeed, it is exactly its counterpart.[13]

Ethical egoism is opposed not only by altruist philosophers; it is also at odds with the majority of religion. Most religions hold that ethical egoism is the product of a lack of genuine spirituality and shows an individual's submersion in greed. Religious egoism is a derivative of egoism, whereby religion is used to validate one's self-interest.[14]

In The Moral Point of View, Kurt Baier objects that ethical egoism provides no moral basis for the resolution of conflicts of interest, which, in his opinion, form the only vindication for a moral code. Were this an ideal world, one in which interests and purposes never jarred, its inhabitants would have no need of a specified set of ethics. This, however, is not an ideal world. Baier believes that ethical egoism fails to provide the moral guidance and arbitration that it necessitates. Far from resolving conflicts of interest, in fact, ethical egoism all too often spawns them. To this, as Rachels has shown, the ethical egoist may object that he cannot admit a construct of morality whose aim is merely to forestall conflicts of interest. "On his view," he writes, "the moralist is not like a courtroom judge, who resolves disputes. Instead, he is like the Commissioner of Boxing, who urges each fighter to do his best."[15]

Baiers is also part of a team of philosophers who hold, in an altogether more serious strain of the above, that ethical egoism is paradoxical, implying that to do what is in one's best interests can be both wrong and right in ethical terms. Although a successful pursuit of self-interest may be viewed as a moral victory, it could also be dubbed immoral if it prevents another person from executing what is in his best interests. Again, however, the ethical egoist could retort by assuming the guise of the Commissioner of Boxing. His philosophy precludes empathy for the interests of others, so forestalling them is perfectly acceptable. "Regardless of whether we think this is a correct view," adds Rachels, "it is, at the very least, a consistent view, and so this attempt to convict the egoist of self-contradiction fails."[16]

Finally, it has been averred that ethical egoism is no better than bigotry in that, like racism, it divides people into two types — themselves and others — and discriminates against one type on the basis of some arbitrary disparity. The rejoinder, however, is that, while bigotry is a prejudice against other persons in response to or acknowledgement of a permanent trait in them (i.e. color, sex, or birth), egoism distinguishes the self from others, which is a matter of perspective, i.e. of who the speaker happens to be - the "self" to person A is the "other" to person B, and vice versa, so that the terms "I" and "you" are not like the terms "black", "Jewish" or "woman", and do not denote permanent traits or characteristics of either person as do the latter grouping; hence, egoism is not like bigotry in merely making such an important subject-object distinction.


  1. ^ Sanders, Steven M. Is egoism morally defensible? Philosophia. Springer Netherlands. Volume 18, Numbers 2–3 / July, 1988
  2. ^ a b Rachels 2008, p. 534.
  3. ^ Ridgely, D.A. (August 24, 2008). "Selfishness, Egoism and Altruistic Libertarianism". Retrieved 2008-08-24. 
  4. ^ Waller (2005), p. 81.
  5. ^ Waller (2005), p. 83.
  6. ^ He notes, however, that "the theory is asserted more often than it is argued for. Many of its supporters apparently think its truth is self-evident, so that arguments are not needed." (Rachels 2008, p. 534.)
  7. ^ That is, that regarding and pursuing the interests of others is a self-defeating policy. Rachels quotes Alexander Pope in support of this: "Thus God and nature formed the general frame/And bade self-love and social be the same."
  8. ^ Rachels 2008, p. 534, where it is pointed out that, in the strictest egoistic terms, this is an inconsequential argument. Ethical egoism does not bother itself with how others receive charity, irrespective of how degraded it makes them feel. The same reasoning applies to the previous two bullets, which use self-interest as a means to the end of beneficence, rather than for its own purposes, as the theory would dictate.
  9. ^ Rachels 2008, p. 535, where this argument is attributed to Ayn Rand, "a writer little heeded by professional philosophers but who nevertheless was enormously popular on college campuses in the 1960s and 1970s". She is quoted as writing that, "[i]f a man accepts the ethics of altruism, his first concern is not how to live his life but how to sacrifice it."
  10. ^ "It seems to me this is just obviously wrong". Michael Huemer on the Objectivist in a hurry
  11. ^ "[I]f it is in your best interest to obtain ten million dollars, and a practically risk-free opportunity to embezzle that much money arises, then on egoistic principles, where every ethical action is governed by what is best for the individual, it would seem that the ethical thing to do would be to embezzle. And this seems obviously wrong." Stephen Parrish's review of Viable Values by Tara Smith
  12. ^ "But other [of Ayn Rand's intellectual heirs], such as David Kelley and Tibor Machan, see that there is at least something wrong with "egoism" as Rand construed it". wirkman Virkkala At the Altar of the Ego
  13. ^ Jefferson, Thomas. June 13, 1814. The Moral Sense. Teaching American History (accessed 3 Aug 2007) [1]
  14. ^ Egotism and Faith
  15. ^ Rachels 2008, p. 538.
  16. ^ Rachels 2008, p. 539.


  • Baier, Kurt. 1990. "Egoisim" in A Companion to Ethics, Peter Singer (ed.), Blackwell: Oxford. ISBN 978-0-631-18785-1
  • Hobbes, Thomas. 1968. Leviathan, C. B. Macpherson (ed.), Harmondsworth: Penguin. ISBN 978-0140431957
  • Rachels, James. "Ethical Egoism." In Reason & Responsibility: Readings in Some Basic Problems of Philosophy, edited by Joel Feinberg and Russ Shafer-Landau, 532–540. California: Thomson Wadsworth, 2008. ISBN 978-0-495-50069-8.
  • Rand, Ayn. 1964. The Virtue of Selfishness. Signet. ISBN 978-0451163936
  • Rosenstand, Nina. 2000. 'Chapter 3: Myself or Others?'. In The Moral of the Story. (3rd Edition). Mountain View, Calif: Mayfield Publishing: 127–167. ISBN 978-0072963359
  • Waller, Bruce, N. 2005. "Egoism." In Consider Ethics: Theory, Readings, and Contemporary Issues. New York: Pearson Longman: 79–83. ISBN 978-0321202802

External links



Got something to say? Make a comment.
Your name
Your email address