Egoism refers primarily to a theory of ethics, although in philosophical usage it sometimes also designates a theory of knowledge. As an epistemological position, egoism is treated under solipsism. In ethics, egoism maintains that each man should seek his own good and ignore that of others, except when this would be to his disadvantage. It is thus opposed to altruism and to all natural law and theocentric systems. Its more common types are the hedonistic, which teaches that one should live only for one's own pleasure; the will-to-power or superman kind, which makes the achieving of superiority and dominance over others the main goal in life; and perfectionistic egoism, which sees in self-development the only reason for existence. This last form is found especially among literary people and aesthetes.
Main Proponents. In antiquity, the cyrenaics and the Epicureans were hedonistic egoists. However, they subdued the selfishness that was logically entailed in their doctrines by their emphasis on such virtues as kindliness and friendship.
With the rise of Christianity, egoism died out, to reappear in Renaissance Italy under such forms as the epicureanism of Lorenzo valla. It was, however, in the 17th and 18th centuries that the position became especially influential. In England, Thomas hobbes (1588–1679) espoused materialism and an ethics suitable to it. For him, good is simply the object of men's desires, whereas evil is the object of their hate and aversion. Man's good, given human nature, consists mainly in self-preservation, the increase of personal power, and pleasure. War is thus the natural state of man, for if many desire the same thing, to get it they simply endeavor to destroy or subdue each other. Similar views were defended with biting irony and cynicism by Bernard Mandeville (1670–1733), whose Fable of the Bees had as its moral that private vices are public benefits. This egoistic tradition was continued but mellowed by Jeremy bentham (1748–1832), according to whom benevolence is a main source of egoistic satisfaction. In France, Hobbes's contemporary, Pierre gassendi (1592–1655), furthered the revival of Epicureanism by proposing it as the most satisfactory foundation for Christian theology. This effort failed, however, since readers either saw its implausibility, or, accepting the fundamental hedonism, shrugged off the Christian superstructure. Thus, influenced by Gassendi and the English empiricists, many of the leaders of the French enlightenment advocated a more or less sensual egoism: C. A. Helvétius (1715–71), J. O. de La Mettrie, and P. H. D. holbach.
In the 19th century egoism tended either to be absorbed by altruism or to manifest itself under radically new forms. Thus, Herbert spencer (1820–1903) taught that both selfishness and benevolence are normal and necessary to man, and that these will be ultimately reconciled and combined through evolution: man will be altruistic for egoistic reasons, but also self-seeking for altruistic reasons. On the other hand, Friedrich nietzsche (1844–1900) distinguished between slave and master morality. For the slavish masses, the Christian ethics of humility and compassion is suitable. The elite supermen, however, are beyond the usual notions of good and evil; not being subject to any obligations, they creatively determine their own values in expressing their basic will-to-power.
In the 20th century egoism has few philosophers to defend it, but as is often the case it continues to be spread through literary works.
Evaluation. Egoism undeniably incorporates in itself certain basic truths: it is natural for man to love himself; he should moreover do so, since each one is ultimately responsible for himself; pleasure, the development of one's potentialities, and the acquisition of power are normally desirable. Despite this, it remains obvious that egoism has a serious and vitiating error at its core: its view that a man is his own end. Such a position is usually the logical corollary of a materialistic or positivistic rejection of divine Providence. It results also from a misconception of the essential sociality of human nature.
These central faults entail others. Among them is the perversion of the whole moral order. An egoism that is consistent with its principles takes as its virtues a subordination of all others to one's ends, the gratification of one's impulses no matter what the cost to others, a fraudulent appearance of kindness, fairness, and geniality; in short, selfishness that is not obvious enough to cause dislike. Many egoists, finding such a view too inhumane, modify it by introducing into their theories such notions as natural feelings of sympathy or of solidarity with their fellow men. Such additions, however, are made at the expense of coherency. Even the latter forms of egoism have no rational way of justifying one's duties to others; hence its proponents are always liable to revert back to selfish tendencies, or to use their fellowmen to serve their own purposes.
The inadequacy of egoism as a philosophy of life can be seen also in its effects on mental health. Subordinating all things to himself, the egoist is in conflict with the indefeasible demands of society and of his own nature. He can neither love nor fit in, and so becomes frustrated and un-happy.
A valid moral philosophy will be the antithesis of egoism on most points. It will admit the existence of the supreme Creator of the entire universe, all of whose parts He has interrelated and ordered ultimately to Himself. Thus all men have the same ends: to know, love, serve, and possess Him. They have, too, the same nature, needs, and rights. They should then love not only themselves but each other. To do so in a properly rational fashion, they must keep in mind a striking paradox of human nature: man best achieves happiness by forgetting himself in the service of God and his fellow men.
Bibliography: j. leclercq, Les Grandes lignes de la philosophie morale (rev. ed. Paris 1954). r. a. tsanoff, The Moral Ideals of Our Civilization (New York 1942). j. nuttin, Psycho-analysis and Personality, tr. g. lamb (New York 1953). g. morra, Enciclopedia filosofica 1:1834–36. r. eisler, Wörterbuch der philosophischen Begriffe, 3 v. (4th ed. Berlin 1927–30) 1:298–301.
[g. j. dalcourt]
e·go·ism / ˈēgōˌizəm/ • n. Ethics an ethical theory that treats self-interest as the foundation of morality. ∎ another term for egotism. DERIVATIVES: e·go·ist n. e·go·is·tic adj. e·go·is·ti·cal adj. e·go·is·ti·cal·ly adv.