Ethical Egoism

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Generally defined as the view that one ought to do whatever and only whatever is in one's own maximum interest, benefit, advantage, or good, "ethical egoism" contrasts with (1) psychological egoism, which says that people do in fact, perhaps necessarily, act in that way; and from (2) alternative ethical theories, which claim that we have other fundamental obligations such as to act for the sake of others, even at ultimate cost to ourselves, or in ways having no necessary relation to anyone's benefit.

Egoism strikes many as cutting through pretenses and getting down to fundamentals. This appearance soon dissipates when we make essential distinctions. Foremost is that due to the classic work of Bishop Joseph Butler (16921752). Is "self-interest" in that theory to be understood as one's interest in certain states unique to one's own selfas distinct from certain states of other people? Or is it merely interests of one's own selfthe interests one happens to have, whatever they may be? Since action is necessarily motivated by interests of the agent motivated by them, the second interpretation is trivial: Whatever we do, we are somehow interested in doing it. But the first interpretation is implausible: People are notoriously capable of sacrificing themselvesfor friends, loved ones, or causes.

Ethical egoism would also be vacuous if it said only that whatever we ought to do, we ought to do it only if we are motivated to do it. Only when self-interest is construed in the narrow sense, as describing certain of our intereststhose focused specifically on oneselfbut not others, does it make sense to say that we ought to act self-interestedly. Then the question "Why?" arises, for we have our choice.

This brings up the question of what is the ultimate good or interest of an agent. Alas, we must leave this important issue open in the present discussion. The next question, however, is crucial. What is meant by ethical ? Here we must distinguish between a wide sense in which ethical means something like "rational" and a narrower sense in which specifically moral requirements are intended. I should choose Bordeaux 1989, but that isn't a moral matter; that I should refrain from cheating is.

If ethical egoism is understood in the wider sense, it is a theory about rational behavior; and construing self-interest in Butler's second way, egoism says that a rational agent acts so as to maximize the realization of whatever she or he is interested in attaining. This highly plausible idea is noncommittal about the content of our interests.

Now turn to the moral version. Moral rules call upon us all to do or refrain from certain things, whether we like it or not. Can there be a rational egoistic morality, then?

But the interests of different persons can conflict. This leads to a problem, which becomes clear when we distinguish two possible interpretations of moral egoism:

  1. "First-person" egoism appraises all actions of all persons on the basis of the interests of the propounder alone. What Jim Jones thinks, if he is this kind of an egoist, is not only that Jim Jones ought to do whatever, and only whatever, conduces to Jim Jones's best interestsbut that everyone else should, too. This is consistent, to be sure, but from the point of view of anyone except Jim or his devotees, it is evidently irrational, if they too are self-interested.
  2. "General" egoism, on the other hand, says that each person ought to do whatever is in that person's interests. If Jim is an egoist of this type, he believes that Jim ought to do whatever is in Jim's interests, but Sheila ought to do whatever is in Sheila's interests, and so on.

Serious conceptual problems arise with general egoism. Suppose that Jim's interests conflict with Sheila's: Realizing his frustrates hers. Does Jim tell Sheila that it is Sheila's duty to do what is in Sheila's interests? Or what is in Jim's interests? Or both? Every answer is unacceptable! The first is unacceptable to Jim himself: How can he, as an exclusively self-interested person, support actions of Sheila's that are detrimental to himself? The second is unacceptable to Sheila: If she is exclusively self-interested, why would she take Jim's "advice"? And the third is flatly inconsistent: For their interests to "conflict" means that they cannot both do what is in their own best interest.

A standard reply is to hold that egoism tells each of the differing parties merely to try to do what is in their interests. But this is either just wrong or turns the theory into something else: "Here, all you ought to do is try to bring about your best interestsbut it doesn't matter whether you succeed!" But self-interested agents are interested in results.

Or it might be held that the good life consists not in succeeding but in striving. This turns egoism into a game, and in conflict situations, a competitive game. And games are interesting, but also very special, requiring players to abide by certain game-defining rules. True chess-players do not cheat, even if they cancheating is not really playing the game. They want opponents to do their best, even if they themselves lose. Of course, they prefer to win, but even if they do not, the game is worthwhile. This defense lacks generality. Ethical egoism is not about games, it is about life. Some people may make life into a game, but most people do not. They want results, not just effort; in conflicts, they are not about to cheer for the other side.

So egoism seems to be self-defeating. What to do? The answer requires, first, that we utilize the vital distinction between egoism as (1) a theory of rationalityof what is recommended by reason; and (2) as a theory of morality. The latter is interpersonal, and concerns rules for groups. Such rules require that people sometimes curtail their passions and conform to the rules.

If we view egoism as a theory of rationality, then whether agent A should aim only at bringing about certain states of A is an open question. But that A should aim at bringing about only those states of affairs that A values is not: We can act only on our own valuesin acting, we make them our own.

But when we turn to the subject of formulating specifically moral principles, we must attend to the facts of social life. From the point of view of any rational individual, moralities are devices for securing desirable results not attainable without the cooperation of others. To do this, mutual restrictions must be accepted by all concerned. They will be accepted only if they conduce to the agent's interests. Therefore, moral principles, if rational, must be conducive to the interests of all, those to whom they are addressed as well as those of the propounder herself. Thus, egoism leads to contractarianism: Moral principles are those acceptable to each person, given that person's own interests, if all comply. Undoubtedly, some will not; but noncompliance, as Thomas Hobbes observed, leads to war, which is worse for all.

Rational egoism, then, leads to the abandonment of moral egoism. Sensible people will condemn egotism, and regard selfishness as a vice: We do better if we care about each other, engage in mutually beneficial activity, and thus refrain from one-sided activity that tramples upon others, such as killing, lying, cheating, stealing, or raping. The core of truth in egoism leads to a fairly familiar morality, whose principles must cash out in terms of the good of every agent participating in society. Narrowly egoistic moral principles cannot do this, and thus are the first to be rejected by rational egoistsanother of those fascinating paradoxes of which philosophy is full.

See also Butler, Joseph; Egoism and Altruism.


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other recommended works

On virtue-theoretic treatments of self-interest, see: Annas, J., The Morality of Happiness (New York: Oxford. 1995); Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics ; Badhwar, N., "Friends As Ends in Themselves," Philosophy & Phenomenological Research 48 (1987): 123; Cottingham, J., "Partiality and the Virtues," in How Should One Live? (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996); Den Uyl, D., The Virtue of Prudence (New York: Peter Lang, 1991); Foot, P., "Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives," in Virtues and Vices (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978); Hampton, J., "Selflessness and the Loss of Self," Social Philosophy & Policy 10 (1993): 135165; von Humboldt, W., The Limits of State Action (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1993); Rasmussen, D., "Human Flourishing and the Appeal to Human Nature," Social Philosophy & Policy 16 (1999): 143; Schmidtz, D., Rational Choice and Moral Agency (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995).

On contractarian treatments of self-interest: Gauthier, D., Morals by Agreement (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986); Narveson, J., The Libertarian Idea (Toronto: Broadview, 2001).

Other theories with egoistic components: Mack, E., "Moral Individualism, Agent-Relativity, and Deontic Restraints," Social Philosophy & Policy 7 (1989): 81111; Nagel, T., View from Nowhere (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986); Scheffler, S., The Rejection of Consequentialism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982); Wolf, S., "Moral Saints," Journal of Philosophy 79 (1982): 419439.

On the connection between psychological and ethical egoism: Dawkins, R., The Selfish Gene (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976); Feinberg, J., "Psychological Egoism," Reason and Responsibility (Belmont: Wadsworth, 2005); Nagel, T., The Possibility of Altruism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979); Ridley, M., The Origins of Virtue (London: Penguin, 1998).

Jan Narveson (1996)

Bibliography updated by David Schmidtz (2005)

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Ethical Egoism

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