Ethical Egoism

September 5th, 2010 by Kara in News

Ethical egoism is the moral doctrine that everyone ought to act to promote his or her own interests exclusively. In contrast to psychological egoism, ethical egoism makes a claim about how people should behave rather than how they actually behave. Perhaps the most notable advocates of ethical egoism were Ayn Rand and Max Stirner, each of whom argued (although in slightly different ways) that pursuit of one’s self-interest should always be a person’s primary goal.

Ethical egoism is often equated with selfishness, the disregard of others’ interests in favor of one’s own interests. However, ethical egoism cannot be coherently equated with selfishness because it is often in one’s self-interest to help others or to refrain from harming them. For example, Rand contends that it would be absurd to claim that a husband who spends a fortune to cure his wife of an illness does so entirely on her behalf.1 For an ethical egoist, the motivation to help family members and friends is one’s personal connection to them and the distress that would be caused by their misfortune or suffering.

The kinds of deeds we perform for our friends and loved ones are not to be done for everyone, however. Rand describes such actions as “a reward which men have to earn by means of their virtues and which one cannot grant to mere acquaintances or strangers.”2 Complete strangers are not worthy of this special treatment. Nevertheless, Rand does advocate showing all people a “generalized respect and good will” which amounts to nonintervention; we should avoid arbitrarily doing harm to others, but our duties to aid them are also minimal.3

Although ethical egoism has some appeal (especially in its ability to smoothly reconcile morality and self-interest), the theory has been almost universally rejected as an acceptable ethical theory. One of the most basic criticisms is that ethical egoists typically misrepresent altruism, the doctrine that opposes ethical egoism and basis morality on a concern for others’ interests. If one embraces altruism, Rand claims that the individual must also embrace low self-esteem, a disrespectful attitude toward others, and a “nightmare view of existence.”4 Stirner marks a similar mischaracterization of altruism in his description of charitable actions: “You love men, therefore you torture the individual man, the egoist; your philanthropy (love of men) is the tormenting of men.”5 Stirner and Rand do not consider the benefits of helping others; they recognize altruism only as an impediment to one’s individual goals. The problem with their view is that morality concerns all individuals, and the general welfare of others, even if it is not the exclusive focus of morality, is an indispensable component of any comprehensive ethical theory.

Arguments supporting ethical egoism, especially Rand’s, also tend to rely on a false dilemma. Altruism is considered the only alternative view to ethical egoism, and once it is dismissed, ethical egoism is endorsed. This analysis is insufficient because it omits discussion and refutation of a variety of other ethical theories. Establishing that extreme altruism is an undesirable ethical theory does not provide a sufficient basis for endorsing ethical egoism over all other alternatives.

These problems might be resolvable with further argumentation, but unfortunately, they are not the only difficulties with ethical egoism. Another is that an ethical egoist would not want ethical egoism to be universalized. If it were universalized, others would be deterred from acting altruistically toward the egoist, which would be against the egoist’s self-interests. Hence, it seems to be in one’s interests to endorse the theory personally but not publicly, which leads to an intriguing conceptual problem: how can ethical egoism be considered morally binding if its advocates do not want it to be universally applied?

Another clear problem is that ethical egoism offers no means of resolving conflicts of interest. If ethical egoism were more widely followed, sooner or later, someone’s interests would conflict with another’s interests. In such a circumstance, it would be impossible for both to pursue their own interests simultaneously, but how does one decide whose interests take priority? Ethical egoism does not provide an answer.

A final and perhaps decisive objection to ethical egoism comes from James Rachels. He equates ethical egoism with racism in terms of its conceptual construction. Racists divide all people into groups and treat people differently based on the trait of one’s race but have no justification for concluding that their own race is any better than others, rendering racism an arbitrary doctrine. Similarly, ethical egoists demand that we “divide the world into two categories of people—ourselves and all the rest—and that we regard the interests of those in the first group as more important than the interests of those in the second group.”6 The egoist can offer no justification for the distinction between the two groups. Hence, Rachels concludes that ethical egoism is an arbitrary doctrine and that others should be given the same moral consideration as ourselves because their merits and desires are comparable to our own.

Overall, ethical egoism is a widely-rejected ethical theory with few contemporary advocates. Developing ethical egoism into a coherent, functional ethical theory would require massive revision to the original principle.

  1. Ayn Rand, ed., The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Penguin Putnam, 1964), 51.
  2. Ibid., 53.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., 49.
  5. Max Stirner, The Ego and His Own, trans. Steven T. Byington (New York: Benjamin R. Tucker, 1907) 387.
  6. James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 4th ed. (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2003), 89.

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