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Ethical egoism

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Thinking hardly
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Come to think of it

Ethical egoism is the consequentialist philosophy which states that morality should be (or inescapably is) based on self-interest. It is the philosophical basis for many libertarians and (so they claim) Randroids but also got support from Thomas Hobbes.[1]. Some egoists that do not believe in the existence of ethics call themselves rational egoists, because they want to be selfish, but do not want to support metaphysical ideas like ethics and morals.

Key ideas[edit]

Ethical egoism is based on three arguments:

  1. That morality is subjective and that it is different for every unique individual.
  2. That self interest is the origin of all morality.
  3. That one ought to further one's self interest and that acting against it is immoral.

It is the polar opposite of ethical altruism, the belief that one ought to live for others, and is contrasted with utilitarianism, which is objective. Egoism is subjective, meaning that its implications and conclusions change from person to person and nothing is objectively ethical. This is interesting considering that some of the most vocal proponents of ethical egoism are so-called Objectivists.[2]

Criticism and clarification[edit]

Contrary to many strawmen arguments, egoism does not mean that you should never act in the interest of another, even if it does not benefit you. Instead, it is acting to benefit yourself, regardless of whether it harms or benefits another. Another way of saying this is that intentions are always selfish. Results may vary, whether they are good for others or not. This is because those who selfishly refuse to help others later find others will not return favours since they received none. If some misfortune arises and the egoist now needs the unselfish help of another, and if everyone is a consistent egoist, the egoist may or may not get the help he needs. So in the interests of self-interest, an egoist must act altruistically, at least sometimes, even if intentions are only about personal gain, thus why it is a relativistic philosophy. There are three types of egoism: universal (everybody should act for their own self-benefit), personal (the egoist is an egoist, but other people can be altruistic or utilitarian), and individual (everybody acts for one individual's self-benefit, which is completely unrealistic).

However, many egoists would say that, for example, helping the homeless is driven out of self interest because you don't want other people to be homeless, it's driven by what you feel, or want, and so altruism is still ultimately driven by egoistic desires (and as a result, true altruism isn't possible because that would require not having any interest in being altruistic in the first place).

Many anarchists, particularly those influenced by the work of Max Stirner, are egoists, and likewise believe in the concept of mutual reciprocity, meaning that helping others out is driven by self interest because others would be indebted to help you out in turn, a self reinforcing cycle that still allows for altruistic behaviors to be driven by egoistic desires. They also point out that "self-interest" is defined by the self in question, so altruism and self-interest need not be mutually exclusive: if someone is interested in helping others, then by definition doing so is in their self-interest.

See also[edit]