Skip to main content



Aristotle claims in the Nicomachean Ethics that it is the virtuous person "more than any other sort of person who seems to be a self-lover. he awards himself what is finest and best of all" (1168b2830). Aristotle's thought is that if one pursues things such as pleasure and wealth, one pursues what is base, injuring oneself. Contrast this with the implication of the recommendation "Look out for number one." This advice is not taken to mean that one should pursue virtue. Rather, the idea is that the interests of others should take second place to one's own. Virtue is not usually seen as the path of self-interest, especially because it can often involve self-sacrifice. This conflict suggests that effective pursuit of self-interest, or the interests of others, requires an account of the nature of well-being. (Henceforth, I will often use the term well-being rather than self-interest since that term is used more often in philosophical discussions of self-interest.) In the first part of this article, the major theories are discussed. In the second part, the focus is the importance (or lack thereof) of having an account of well-being for ethics.

Theories of Well-Being

The three dominant types of theory regarding well-being are hedonism, desire theory, and objective-list theories. This classification needs refinement, but it is a useful starting point. Take hedonism first. Jeremy Bentham (1970) was probably the most notorious proponent of hedonism. He espouses a type of hedonism that Derek Parfit dubs "narrow hedonism." Bentham holds that pleasure is what is good for humans; pain is bad. He says, in An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, that pleasures are homogenous sensations. How well one's life is going depends on quantity of pleasurethe more the better.

One major objection to this outlook is that there is no felt sensation in common among the experiences that people find pleasurable. For example, L.W. Sumner (1986) asks us to imagine the difference between the pleasure of going for a walk in the woods and the pleasure of completing a difficult task. Both are pleasures but they have no felt sensation in common.

Henry Sidgwick's form of hedonism, "preference hedonism," avoids this difficulty. He observes, in The Methods of Ethics, that "the only common quality [among pleasures] seems to be the relation to desire and volition expressed by the general term 'desirable'" (1907, p. 127). Sidgwick says that the judgments of the individual about which feelings are desirable must be taken as final. So pleasures, on this view, are those mental states that are desired by the individual. Some have noted that it strains the meaning of "pleasure" to call all of the mental states that we desire "pleasures." James Griffin's (1986) example citing Freud's desire to be mentally aware, but in horrible pain, rather than take opiates for his cancer pain, is such a case. Perhaps the name of the theory should be modified (as Shelly Kagan suggests) to "preference mental statism."

One strength of preference hedonism is that it respects the authority of the individual in determining which experiences make his or her life go better. Narrow hedonism says that a life of pleasurable sensation is better for the person even if one does not prefer it. Preference hedonism's weakness is that there are some desirable states of affairs that seem to contribute to well-being yet are not, strictly speaking, experiences. Probably, the most famous illustration of this problem is Robert Nozick's (1974) Experience Machine. Nozick asks us to imagine a machine that will give us all of the experiences we desire. He suggests that people would not choose to enter the machine because the experiences would have no relation to reality. Take another case. Imagine that someone is happy because she believes, falsely, that she has devoted friends. Now imagine the same person with happiness resulting from a true belief in devoted friends. Some think that the second is clearly the better life, especially if the second is preferred. The implication is that the fulfillment of desires for things other than mental states contributes to well-being. So, it seems that preference hedonism should be abandoned in favor of desire theory.

If desire theory is unrestricted, then it says that the fulfillment of any desire contributes to self-interest. That this is implausible is nicely shown by Parfit's (1984) case of the stranger: I meet a stranger with a supposedly incurable disease. I desire a cure for him; later, he is cured, though I never know this. It seems ludicrous to say that I am better off when the stranger is cured. This shows that the desires that should count as contributing to a person's well-being have to be restricted. Parfit suggests that the desire has to be a desire about one's own life. This encompasses, for example, the desire not to be deceived, if it is a desire about one's own life.

But it may be unclear what qualifies as a desire about my own life. Is my desire to live in a just world, or in a world without starvation, a desire about my own life or not? Shelly Kagan (1992) argues that for a state of affairs to matter to my well-being, it has to affect me. My subjective experience is the same whether I am deceived or not. Kagan concludes that it may be that we should restrict the class of desires that are relevant to well-being to desires about mental states. This would mean a return to some form of preference hedonism. Whatever account is better, it is clear that a successful desire theory needs a plausible way to restrict the class of desires that impact well-being.

Now, consider the third type of theory: objective list. According to these theories certain things are good for people, even if they do not want them or have a negative attitude toward them. Consider John Rawls's (1999) famous example of the talented mathematician who wants to spend his life counting blades of grass. Some think that such a life cannot be good for him because the activity is worthless.

However, the difficulty for objective-list theories lies in giving an account of which activities are objectively worthwhile. One prominent account is Aristotle's Function Argument. The function of a flautist is to play the flute, and the flourishing flute player plays the flute well. The function of a human being is to engage in rational activity in accordance with virtue. A good example of a flute player plays the flute well, and a good example of a human engages in virtuous rational activity.

One major worry for the argument, noted by Peter Glassen (1957), is that even if it gives a correct account of human excellence, the inference that it must be good for a human to be a good example of his or her kind is fallacious. It is easy to imagine cases in which the excellent thing fails to be good for the agent. There are prosperous, sensible knaves, and sometimes the good die young. Some form of desire theory is now most commonly thought to be a correct account of well-being.

Well-Being and Ethics

It may be thought that it is obvious why having a theory of self-interest is important for ethics. If moral theories yield principles about people's duties, and if their duties include benefiting themselves and others, people need to know what counts as a benefit and what counts as a harm. The classical utilitariansJeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Henry Sidgwickall think that the only thing that is intrinsically good is welfare or well-being and that the ultimate principle of morality is to perform the action that maximally benefits people.

Other theorists think that there are other goods besides well-being. W. D. Ross (1930) imagines two worlds in which there are equal amounts of happiness and equal amounts of virtue and vice. In the first the virtuous are happy, in the second the vicious are. Ross thinks that the first world is clearly better because of the distribution, even though they contain equal amounts of happiness. G. E. Moore holds, in Principia Ethica (1903), that it is good for beauty to exist even if it never affects anyone's conscious life. The deontologists writing in the Kantian tradition think that there is a duty of beneficence, although what is unconditionally good is the good will. However, there are some moral theorists who think that issues about well-being have little importance for ethics. For example, T. M. Scanlon (1998) argues both that individuals do not use the concept of well-being much in their deliberations about their own lives and that moral and political philosophers focus on just distributions of things such as primary goods, resources, or capabilities, rather than well-being. And he thinks that we do not have a general duty of beneficence. Notice, however, that one of the main reasons for the focus on primary goods or resources is the problem of expensive tastes. For example, Ronald Dworkin (1981) imagines a person who needs ancient claret and plover's eggs to be satisfied. Another person might reach an equal level of well-being with something much cheaper such as beer. To equalize welfare would require giving more resources to the first person. Dworkin and other theorists think that would be unjust, so they reject the idea of distributing welfare. The rejection might be correct, but it would be impossible to make the argument without a conception of human well-being.

See also Aristotle; Bentham, Jeremy; Dworkin, Ronald; Egoism and Altruism; Ethical Egoism; Eudaimonia; Freud, Sigmund; Happiness; Hedonism; Mill, John Stuart; Moore, George Edward; Nozick, Robert; Parfit, Derek; Pleasure; Rawls, John; Ross, William David; Sidgwick, Henry.


Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by Terence Irwin. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1985.

Bentham, Jeremy. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, edited by J. H. Burns and H. L. A. Hart. London: Athlone Press, 1970.

Dworkin, Ronald. "What is Equality? Part I: Equality of Welfare." Philosophy and Public Affairs 10 (1981): 185246.

Glassen, Peter. "A Fallacy in Aristotle's Argument About the Good." Philosophical Quarterly 7 (1957): 319>en>322.

Griffin, James. Well-Being: Its Meaning, Measurement, and Moral Importance. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986.

Kagan, Shelly. "The Limits of Well-Being." Social Philosophy and Policy 9 (1992): 169189.

Mill, John Stuart. "Utilitarianism." In Essays on Religion, Ethics, and Society. The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill. Vol. 10, edited by J. M. Robson. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969.

Moore, G. E. Principia Ethica. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1903.

Nozick, Robert. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books, 1974.

Parfit, Derek. Reasons and Persons. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1999.

Ross, W. D. The Right and the Good. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1930.

Scanlon, T. M. What We Owe to Each Other. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1998.

Sidgwick, Henry. The Methods of Ethics. 7th ed. London: Macmillan, 1907.

Sumner, L. W. Welfare, Happiness, and Ethics. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986.

Joyce L. Jenkins (2005)

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Self-Interest." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. . 10 Aug. 2018 <>.

"Self-Interest." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. . (August 10, 2018).

"Self-Interest." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. . Retrieved August 10, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.