Ethical egoism is the position that says that one ought to value oneself above others and that one ought to always act with the aim of benefiting oneself. Ethical egoism also holds that one should only aid or benefit others if and only if it somehow benefits oneself.
Serving oneself or one’s interests is the ultimate goal for the ethical egoist. Ethical egoism is generally regarded as a type of consequentialist moral theory where the aim is to produce good results with actions; and in the case of egoism, to produce good results for oneself. As Louis Pojman states, “ethical egoism is utilitarianism reduced to the pinpoint of the single individual ego.” ( Quoted in Philosophy: Quest For Truth, 10th Edition, p. 461.)
Ethical egoism differs from “egotism” which says that everyone should serve my interests or benefit me in some way. Ethical egoism prescribes that a person should serve his or her own interests as a top priority. Egotism would agree with that point, but it would also add that all others should serve one’s interests as well.
Ethical egoism also differs from psychological egoism which says that everyone is always motivated to serve themselves above others. Psychological egoism is a proposition about how human beings behave, whereas ethical egoism is a proposition on how people ought to behave.
Sometimes, of course, psychological egoism is used to justify ethical egoism. An egoist can argue that since people are always motivated to serve their own interests above others that we can only be obligated to serve ourselves. Since everyone necessarily serves their own interests then persons can only be obligated to serve themselves.
If ethical egoism is argued on the basis of psychological egoism then this is a baseless argument. For one, there’s no way to confirm that literally every individual in the world and throughout history always and everywhere acts out of selfishness or with self-love as the top priority. It would be impossible to prove that every person acts out of love for himself above others all the time. As far as one is concerned, psychological egoism is just as unwarranted as psychological altruism or the proposition that everyone always acts out of favoring others over oneself.
Secondly, sometimes people simply act immediately without thinking about their interests or motives. Sometimes persons spontaneously do good actions (or bad actions) without thinking about themselves or about any of the consequences of their actions. A person might, for instance, quickly help another get up after falling down on the ground without thinking how performing the good work would serve himself. Some philosophers have emphasized these cases, like JS Mill, who said that about ninety-nine percent of our good actions are done immediately without reflection or forethought. So it’s hard to interpret immediate action as being always rooted in self-centered motives when there may be no clear fore-thoughts or even intentions behind them.
Thirdly, there seem to be several cases in which persons seem to be genuinely concerned for others and not merely interested in serving themselves. For instance, there are numerous cases in which soldiers will sacrifice themselves in the battlefield and other related contexts where there appears to be real care for others and not just for oneself. On top of that, there seem to be plenty of cases where many care too much for others in terms of what other people might think of their actions or ideas or plans. I, of course, could go further on psychological egoism, but I think it’s evident that it is a very bold and quite unsubstantiated claim on human psychology.
Egoism may have a few advantages as an ethical theory. It may encourage a person to help himself or herself, fulfill certain basic obligations to oneself, and encourage one to fulfill their justified self-interests. However, many other ethical positions can encourage self-love and self-respect just the same. Nevertheless, ethical egoism has some serious problems.
For one, if a type of spiritual principle or moral code is correct and individuals are obligated to love and admire God above all beings then ethical egoism would be rendered false since egoism says that one is obligated to value oneself above others. So if a type of religious or spiritual view of morality is correct by which persons are obligated to serve a Transcendent Deity above themselves and others then ethical egoism would be false. Nonetheless, without even assuming a religious or spiritual obligation to serve the Deity, there are plenty of arguments that show that ethical egoism is false.
What is the basis for thinking that one ought to value oneself above others? How does one determine this to be the case? This is a real problem for the ethical egoist. As James Rachels, argues, ethical egoism is an “arbitrary doctrine” where it is simply given without sufficient warrant that persons are obligated to value themselves above others. There seems to be no clear way for the egoist to divide humanity between oneself and others and then senselessly favor oneself over others. Ethical egoism is just as baseless as an extreme form of ethical altruism where valuing others quite above oneself is prescribed.
Or, as Rachels remarks, ethical egoism is a baseless view like racism. Just as the racist arbitrarily favors people of one color and ancestry over other people of different color (just like how that bogus critical race theory favors dark skinned persons over fair skinned persons without rational justification) so the egoist favors himself over others without rational basis. The egoist theory also seems to be a rather un-parsimonious doctrine as well. Instead of following a simpler, “equalist” or “impartiality principle” where one is obligated to treat everyone and including oneself as equals, egoism advances the superfluous and unjustified move of favoring oneself above other individuals.
The ethical egoist might counter all this and say that their view is justified on the grounds that egoism enables us to be truly happy. Ayn Rand, for instance, has argued that ethical egoism best explains how happiness is the ultimate goal in life and that personal happiness is best attained by following the egoist ethic. She argues that people can be excessively concerned about others and as a consequence, lose their opportunities to gain happiness for themselves. She, of course, opposed any form of altruism where others are valued over oneself.
While I disagree with most of Rand’s points, there is some truth to her contention. It’s possible that a person can sacrifice too much of their time for others at the expense of their individual happiness. For example, if one is invited to a party full of snobby people that will be predictably rude and exclude one in the conversions and activities, then going to such a party would be a big waste of time. This holds true even if going to the party produced more overall happiness or pleasure to other people in one’s accessible environment.
By the way, the party example is one of the reasons why some find utilitarianism (or certain forms of it) to be objectionable. This is because if the goal of morality, for the utilitarian, is to produce the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest amount of people, then it would seem that one can be obligated to go a party full of snobs given utilitarian reasoning. Or, at the very least, it would seem that certain hedonistic forms of utilitarianism would require one to go to a party full of snobs if the goal is to just produce the greatest amount of happiness for the greater amount of people. Ethical egoism, to its credit, avoids this sort of problem of unnecessarily sacrificing one’s time and happiness to go to a party full of snobs.
Typically the stated goal of egoism is to attain happiness and that happiness is the ultimate goal in life. Now I find the proposition that happiness is the ultimate goal in life to be questionable. For one, there seem to be more important goals in life besides happiness like virtue and integrity. Moreover, there seems to be no guarantee that living a moral life will always bring one happiness or feeling well. It also even seems possible that a person can find their happiness in doing bad or even evil actions. Let alone, there’s a problem in clearly defining what happiness is as such and how it may relate to ethics.
Nonetheless, apart from the difficulties of happiness being the ultimate goal and how it might relate to morality, let us assume for the moment that happiness is the ultimate goal in life. Would ethical egoism grant one a happy life? No. At least, ethical egoism would not make many people happy—including myself.
Ethical egoism fails to account for deep friendships or what Aristotle would call “the friendship of the good.” In a solid friendship, the friends value each other for their own sake and not merely because they benefit themselves by engaging in the friendship. In a good friendship, particularly a deep one, the friends care for each other as though they were caring for themselves. They tend to see each other as equals. The persons involved in the deep friendship may even be willing to lay down their life for each other if there came to be a dangerous circumstance.
In a good friendship, the friends tend to forget about themselves and are not focused on benefiting themselves but focus upon and benefit the other person. While things like enjoyment, helpfulness, and common interests are all part of a good friendship, a person, however, is not merely valued by how enjoyable, how helpful or useful that person is in a substantial friendship. For these reasons, experiencing a very good and deep friendship and attaining happiness from it, is impossible for someone that follows an egoist ethic.
Because egoism cannot accommodate deep friendships, many philosophers have referred to this difficulty as the “paradox of egoism.” The paradox of egoism is that in order to attain the basic goal of egoism, namely happiness, one has to give up the egoist ethic and enter into a deep friendship to attain personal happiness. Following an egoist ethic and valuing oneself above others may work out for more superficial friendships (and there are evidently different types and levels of friendship) but the consistent egoist cannot allow herself to experience happiness through a deep friendship. At the very least, the egoist cannot take every opportunity to attain a great level of happiness since good, unselfish friendships are closed off for the egoist.
Moreover, ethical egoism does not seem to be a coherent position. For one, if it is prescribed that everyone serve themselves as the top priority then how does one resolve conflicts of interests and needs? It seems that egoism results in prescribing contradictory obligations when there’s a conflict of needs and interests. For example, let us say there are two persons that are poisoned and there is only a limited amount of antidote that can save only one person from the poison. According to ethical egoism, both persons would be obligated to attain the antidote and survive while the other person is left to die from the poison.
But here’s the problem. According to egoism, I would have an obligation to serve my well-being while at the same time someone else has an obligation to prevent me from attaining my obligation to gain health and get the antidote for himself. Likewise, the other, according to egoism, would have a duty to attain the antidote while I would have an obligation to prevent him from restoring his health. In other words, ethical egoism entails that a person can be obligated to support himself while others may have an obligation to prevent him from attaining well-being and happiness. But if I have an obligation to be happy and healthy then how can someone else have an obligation to suppress my duty to be happy and healthy?
Egoism gives us no explanation. It’s quite a paradox within the position itself considering that it entails that it is possible to have a moral obligation to attain happiness and well-being while, at the same time, another person can have a moral obligation to prevent one from attaining their ultimate goal in life. At any rate, ethical egoism gives us no account of how to resolve differing interests and needs when they clash among individuals since it prescribes that everyone always serve themselves above others. This is known as the “conflicting interests” or “inconsistent outcomes” argument against egoism.
There is also the “publicity objection” to ethical egoism. The objection goes, if one is obligated to serve their own interests primarily then why have a duty to make ethical egoism public? Why promote ethical egoism to others? Oddly enough, egoism is often promoted not merely because it supposedly serves oneself but also for utilitarian reasons; that egoism supposedly creates more benefits or happiness in society by having everyone acting by egoist principles. We see this in Ayn Rand’s defense of ethical egoism.
But why promote ethical egoism if it is true? It would be better for the egoist to keep his or her morality a secret. It would work better for the egoist, for instance, if everyone else was an ethical altruist or had a moral system that values others more than oneself. Surely, the egoist can use the altruist motives of others better to serve himself than a society that consistently follows egoism. In the poison/antidote example, the egoist, of course, would prefer the other person in need of help, to give him the antidote and be cured of the poison. So ethical egoism has the odd implication that the theory itself should not be publicized.
Moreover, there’s an even deeper problem for ethical egoism relating to the “publicity objection.” If it would serve the egoist better to keep their ethic a secret then why even prescribe that everyone else in the world should serve themselves above others? Why not just opt for an even more radically solipsistic morality like egotism where it is only prescribed that one serve oneself and that all others ought to serve oneself? Ethical egoism says that one ought to value oneself the most and do actions for oneself as the primary object. But if that’s the case, then why even bother trying to universalize this proposition to everyone? If the egoist says that there’s no reason make his egoist ethic public then it seems that his views would collapse to egotism or the view that one should serve himself above others and that all others should serve him as well. Of course, egotism would have its own related problems, one of them being that it’s begging the question of which individual should be served by everyone. Nonetheless, making the theory public seems to be a real problem for the ethical egoist.
Finally, there’s the “counter-intuitive” objection to egoism. Why do persons always have to act in ways to benefit themselves? Let alone, why do persons ought to always value themselves as the top priority? To borrow some examples from Louis Pojman, if I have an opportunity to save all of Africa and Europe from immediate destruction by pushing a button then I should not push that button unless it somehow benefits me according to ethical egoism. Also if I were to pollute and damage the environment and harm others in the process while gaining a great deal of money and comfort for myself, this doesn’t seem to be wrong according to ethical egoism. This is because all I need to be concerned about, according to egoism, is my own well-being and happiness and if I can attain happiness at the expense of others then nothing would be wrong given the egoist ethic.
Moreover, why would it be wrong to voluntarily give one’s life for others to live? How would egoism account for self-sacrifice? If there are two people that need an antidote after being poisoned and there is just enough medicine to cure only one person then why would it be wrong for me to voluntarily forfeit my need to be cured and allow the other person to have the antidote? Ethical egoism doesn’t seem to be able to permit self-sacrifice. Self-sacrifice would certainly be one way to the avoid the conflict of interests and needs paradox that egoism is saddled with as such.
In conclusion, I don’t find ethical egoism to be a sound position in ethics. While it may have some truth to it in that we are obligated to respect ourselves and pursue our general interests, egoism, however, presents an unbalanced view of the self and how one should relate to others in action. And undermines its own credentials by creating unnecessary paradoxes involving conflicts of needs and making ethical propositions public. On top of all that, ethical egoism seems to prevent people from attaining their full potential towards happiness which is certainly one the important goals in life. Overall, I believe that it’s better to live a balanced approach between self-love and love for others where one values oneself about the same as valuing others. One ought to avoid both extremes of over-valuing oneself at the expense of others or over-valuing others at the unjust expense of oneself.
Some might think that ethical egoism is something that is widespread in our culture or nation. I would say it’s a minority view. However, I think we have more of an egotist or “entitlement mentality” problem throughout the culture rather an ethical egoist one, which is worse. At least with Ayn Rand, there is this notion that one ought to advance oneself and be self-sufficient and not totally rely on others to accomplish things in life.
The entitlement egotist mentality, however, basically holds that ‘the world owes me whatever I want, however I want, whenever I want it.’ Or, as the economist Thomas Sowell adequately describes this mentality, as the notion that “other people are bound to provide you with what you don’t provide for yourself.” Often times, the entitlement mentality is also coupled with the idea that one is somehow a ‘permanent victim’ in life. And since the egocentric person perceives himself as an entrapped victim in life that he also perceives himself as being owed by others whatever he wants at the time.
The entitlement-egotist perspective is a very bad approach on life. This mentality makes it impossible for a person to be (consistently) just or fair towards others and develop good friendships because a person cannot treat others with justice if he is only concerned about his desires and emotions over others and feels entitled to get whatever he wants even at the expense of others.
Moreover, egotism makes it impossible for a person, oddly enough, to build self-respecting virtues like diligence and self-sufficiency because of how the entitled, selfish person is constantly expecting others to provide things he wants from them rather than making the effort to accomplish things for himself. Perhaps this entitlement mentality explains why several people prefer socialism or communism because of how big government appears to feed into this notion that personal desires are always “rights” or “entitlements” like “free college” or whatever socialist nonsense that sounds good but ends in failure.
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