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Philosophy 302: EthicsAyn Rand Library of Congress LC-USZ62-114904 Ben Pinchot
Ethical Egoism 

Abstract:  The various forms of ethical egoism are defined. Standard objections to ethical egoism are evaluated, and the conclusion is drawn that ethical egoism is incomplete.

I. Ethical egoism is the prescriptive doctrine that all persons ought to act from their own self-interest.

  1. Personal ethical egoism is the belief that only I should act from the motive of self-interest, nothing is stated about what motives others should act from.

    1. Personal ethical egoism is not a theory because it is not generalized to others.
    2. I cannot recommend personal ethical egoism to others because such a recommendation would be against my own self-interest.

  2. Individual ethical egoism is the prescriptive doctrine that all persons should serve my self-interest (i.e.,egotism)

    1. Individual ethical egoism is a belief that can't be consistent unless it applies to just one person. In other words, this belief is not universalizable.

    2. Practically speaking, the doctrine is similar to solipsism—there's no way to justify the belief since it applies to just one person.
  3. Universal ethical egoism is the universal doctrine that all persons should pursue their own interests exclusively.

    1. One problem is without knowledge of the world, how can we truly know what's in our best interest? (c.f. the Socratic Paradox).

    2. Another problem is trying to figure out what "their own interests" means. Does this phrase mean short-term or long-term benefit, pleasure, happiness, preference, or something else? What gives you pleasure might not be a benefit or in your interest.


A theory of ethics should

  1. set forth systematically the first principles of morality
  2. show how to justify these principles, and, as a result,
  3. elucidate a conception of a life of excellence for people.

Therefore, the theory should be both consistent and complete.

  1. Consistency:  there should be no contradictions or incompatible statements.

    e.g., the injunctions from folklore morals, "Haste makes waste" and "Look before you leap" would be inconsistent with "A stitch in time saves nine," or "The race is to the swift."

  2. Completeness: there should be no moral truth which is not provable from the basic moral principles of the theory.

    e.g., In Christian ethics, the principle "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's" (Matthew 22:21) is meant to distinguish between secular and religious situations in order to avoid political difficulty for religious belief and so would be an incomplete theory of action in the secular realm.

Consequently, the three ways to raise objections to an ethical theory is to show that the theory is 

  1. mistaken in truth or
  2. inconsistent or
  3. incomplete.

I.  Charge: Ethical egoism is contradictory because it allows one and the same act to be evaluated as both right and wrong.  Charge: the theory is mistaken in truth; it is inconsistent.

  1. Example: suppose Jack is competing against Jill for a job. Ethical egoism would say

    1. It's right for Jack to praise Jack's qualities.
    2. It's wrong for Jill to praise Jack's qualities.

      Therefore, praising Jack's qualities is both right and wrong—right for Jack and wrong for Jill.

  2. But this is not to say the same act is both right and wrong—these are two different acts: one is done by Jack and one is done by Jill.

  3. The best that can be said is that there is a conflict of interest which could be settled by contract law. Hence, this is not a good objection.

II. Charge: Ethical egoism is committed to giving inconsistent advice. (The charge is inconsistency.)

  1. Example: Jack and Jill are competing for a job.

    1. We tell Jack to do his best and we tell Jill to do her best, or

    2. Jack tells Jill to be an altruist.

    3. Isn't this inconsistent?

  2. But there is no inconsistency. All statements are consistent with Jack's interest. There is no formal contradiction. In contest in sports we can hope that each team will do its best without contradiction; in fact, we can even hope that each team wins without contradiction..

III. Charge: If the (universal) egoist believes that each person should promote his own interest, then isn't he acting against his own interest to state his theory. (The charge is inconsistency.)

  1. Example: Jack believes that Jill should promote her own interest in accordance with ethical egoism.

    1. Jack might believe this, but he isn't going to tell Jill.

    2. He looks to his own interest first.

  2. Again, there is no inconsistency in not telling Jill.

IV. Charge: There are certain interpersonal decisions that have to be made that transcend the egoist's point of view. (The charge is of incompleteness)

  1. Example: Where the hirer for a particular job has no personal stake, who should he choose for a job when the candidates have equal qualifications:  Jack or Jill?

  2. This objection holds good—there have to be some impartial decisions, and the belief that each person should seek his own interest does not tell how a person should act in this instance.

    1. Hence, the theory of ethical egoism  is incomplete.

    2. When there is a conflict of interests between egoists, egoism provides no way to resolve the conflict.

V. Final Comments on Ethical Egoism:  the egoist is often seen to be egotistical and selfish, rather someone acting under enlightened self-interest.

  • Life is not seen as a contest between people so much as it is a challenge. If someone an egoist, then that person does not necessarily act against my own self-interest.
  • Some observations are in order.

  1. Acting in one's self-interest very often benefits others.

    1. E.g., your going to college is in your self-interest, and it will help keep you off welfare. In pursuing your self-interest, you will get a job which will benefit others.

    2. E.g., you start a business to make money, but you must have satisfied employees and a competitive product thereby helping others.

  2. The egoist is affected by many more events than one would first think. I.e., it is in his interest to think about others.

    1. If the egoist doesn't help others to be happy, they will not return the favor.

    2. Often, it is in our own interest to look to our long-term interests by the effects of our actions on other people as a group. Hence, there is no inconsistency for the egoist to help a group of which he is a part.

      E.g., An ethical egoist can act in self-interest by contributing to the Salvation Army or to the United Fund.

VI. If the egoist is to choose what is in his own interest, then he must have the personal freedom to choose.

  1. Hence, the egoist must allow everyone to pursue his own personal interest (universal ethical egoism).

  2. Consequently, egoism leads into a right-based theory-each individual has certain inalienable rights or

  3. Egoism leads to a rule-based theory that certain rules of conduct are in the interest of everyone to observe. That is we are all better off if everyone obeys the law—we have to give up some good to achieve our maximum possible good.

Recommended Sources

Solipsism: An excellent discussion of the role of solipsism in the history of Western and Eastern philosophy and its role as a limiting case in thought experiments and epistemology from Wikipedia. See also from this source links to various related concepts to egoism including ethical egoism.

Ethical Egoism: A section of the entry "Egoism" discussing arguments for and against by Robert Shaver published in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Ethical Egoism: A section of the entry "Egoism' from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy by Alexander Moseley emphasizing conflict resolution.

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