Ethical egoism

Ethical egoism

Ethical egoism is the normative ethical position that moral agents ought to do what is in their self-interest. It differs from psychological egoism, in that psychological egoism is the claim that people "can" only act in their self-interest, while ethical egoism is a claim that they "ought" to act this way. Ethical egoism differs from rational egoism, which holds that it is rational to act in one's self-interest, and individualism, neither of which claim that acting in one's self-interest is necessarily right.

Ethical egoism contrasts with ethical altruism, which holds that moral agents have an obligation to help or serve others. Ethical egoism does not, however, require moral agents to disregard the well-being of others, nor does it require that a moral agent refrains from considering the well-being of others in moral deliberation. What is in an agent's self-interest may be incidentally detrimental to, beneficial to, or neutral in its effect on others. It allows for the possibility of either as long as what is chosen is efficacious in satisfying self-interest of the agent, as in individualism in a given system in any era or society.

Ethical egoism is sometimes the philosophical basis for people's support of libertarianism or anarchism (though some libertarians and anarchists believe that people do have a duty to help others, just not by means of government intervention).cite web
last = Ridgely
first = D.A.
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title = Selfishness, Egoism and Altruistic Libertarianism
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date = August 24, 2008
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] 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"; [Waller (2005), p. 81.] A "personal ethical egoist", that "they" should act in "their own" self-interest, but makes no claims about what anyone else ought to do, while "universal ethical egoists" argue that everyone should act in ways that are in their own interest. [Waller (2005), p. 83.]

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 at all.


Max Stirner was the first philosopher to call himself an egoist. 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 in order 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, for example, is that we have duties to ourselves as well as to other people (e.g. friends) and to the "polis" as a whole.

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 collectivist altruism.Who|date=February 2008


Some contend that the view is implausible ["It seems to me this is just obviously wrong". [ Michael Huemer on the "Objectivist in a hurry"] ] [ "For example, if 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] ] , and that those who advocate it seriously usually do so at the expense of redefining "self-interest" to include the interests of others ["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"] ] . An ethical egoist might counter this by asserting that furthering the ends of others is sometimes the best means of furthering one's own ends, 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. For instance, Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to Thomas Law, in 1814:

Ethical egoism is opposed not only by altruist philosophies, but is also at odds with the majority of religions. 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 where the faith is used to validate one's self interest. [ [ Egotism and Faith ] ]



* Baier, Kurt. 1990. "Egoisim" in "A Companion to Ethics", Peter Singer (ed.), Blackwell: Oxford.
* Hobbes, Thomas. 1968. "Leviathan", C. B. Macpherson (ed.), Harmondsworth: Penguin.
* Rachels, James, and Stuart Rachels. '5. Ethical Egoism'. In "The Elements of Moral Philosophy". (5th Edition). New York: McGraw Hill: 68-88.
* Rand, Ayn. 1964. "The Virtue of Selfishness". Signet.
* Rosenstand, Nina. 2000. 'Chapter 3: Myself or Others?'. In "The Moral of the Story". (3rd Edition). Mountain View, Calif: Mayfield Publishing: 127-167.
* Waller, Bruce, N. 2005. "Egoism." In "Consider Ethics: Theory, Readings, and Contemporary Issues". New York: Pearson Longman: 79-83.

External links

* [ Merriam-Webster Dictionary entry for "egoism"]

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