called simply egoism
) is the normative ethical
position that moral agents
ought to do what is in their own
. It differs from
claims that people do
only act in
their self-interest. Ethical egoism also differs from rational egoism
, which holds merely that it
to act in one's
self-interest. These doctrines may, though, be combined with
Ethical egoism contrasts with ethical altruism
, which holds that moral agents
have an obligation
to help and serve
others. Egoism and altruism both contrast with ethical utilitarianism
, which holds that a moral
agent should treat one's self
(also known as the subject
with no higher regard than one has for others (as egoism does, by
elevating self-interests and "the self" to a status not granted to
others), but that one also should not (as altruism does) sacrifice
one's own interests to help others' interests, so long as one's own
interests (i.e. one's own desires
) are substantially-equivalent to the
others' interests and well-being. Egoism, utilitarianism, and
altruism are all forms of consequentialism
, but egoism and altruism
contrast with utilitarianism, in that egoism and altruism are both
forms of consequentialism (i.e. subject-focused or subjective
), but utilitarianism is called
) as it does not treat the
subject's (i.e. the self's, i.e. the moral "agent's") own interests
as being more or less important than if the same interests,
desires, or well-being were anyone else's.
Ethical egoism does not, however, require moral agents to harm the
interests and well-being of others when making moral deliberation;
e.g. what is in an agent's self-interest may be incidentally
detrimental, beneficial, or neutral in its effect on others.
allows for others'
interest and well-being to be disregarded or not, as long as what
is chosen is efficacious in satisfying the self-interest of the
agent. Nor does ethical egoism necessarily entail that, in pursuing
self-interest, one ought always to do what one wants to do; e.g. in
the long term, the fulfillment of short-term desires may prove
detrimental to the self
pleasance, then, takes a back seat to protracted eudaemonia. In the
words of James Rachels
egoism [...] endorses selfishness, but it doesn't endorse
Ethical egoism is sometimes the philosophical basis for support of
or individualist anarchism
these can also be based on altruistic motivations. These are
political positions based partly on a belief that individuals
should not coercively prevent others from exercising freedom of
Types of ethical egoism
Three different formulations of ethical egoism have been
identified: individual, personal and universal. An individual
would hold that all people should do whatever
; a personal ethical egoist
hold that he or she should act in his or her own
self-interest, but would make no claims about what anyone else
ought to do; a universal ethical egoist
would argue that
everyone should act in ways that are in their own interest..
A philosophy holding that one should be honest, just, benevolent
those virtues serve one's self-interest is
egoistic; one holding that one should practice those virtues for
reasons other than self-interest is not egoistic.
was the first philosopher to
call himself an egoist, it is questionable if he wanted to install
a new idea of morality (ethical egoism) or argue against morality
). Others, such as Thomas Hobbes
and David Gauthier
, have argued that the
conflicts which arise when people each pursue their own ends can be
resolved for the best of each individual only if they all
voluntarily forgo some of their aims — that is, one's self-interest
is often best pursued by allowing others to pursue their
self-interest as well so that liberty is equal among individuals.
Sacrificing one's short-term self-interest to maximize one's
long-term self-interest is one form of "rational self-interest
" which is the
idea behind most philosophers' advocacy of ethical egoism. Noted
egoist Ayn Rand
contended that there was a
harmony of interest among humans, so that a moral agent could not
rationally harm another person.
As Nietzsche (in Beyond Good
) and Alasdair
) are famous for pointing out, the ancient Greeks
did not associate morality
with altruism in the way that
post-Christian Western civilization
's view is that we have
duties to ourselves as well as to other people (e.g. friends) and
to the polis
as a whole. The same is
true for Christian Wolff
, who claim that there
are duties to ourselves just as Aristotle did.
The term ethical egoism
has been applied retroactively to
philosophers such as Bernard de
and to many other materialist
of his generation,
although none of them declared themselves to be egoists. Note that
materialism does not necessarily imply egoism, as indicated by
, and the many other materialists
who espoused forms of collectivism
Ethical egoism lends itself to individualist anarchism
another way of describing the sense that the common good should be
enjoyed by all. It fits perfectly into the anarchist idea of 'do
what you want and harm no other, and then no harm shall come to
you', unless harming other is seen as beneficial by the victimary.
Most notable anarchists in history have advocated altruistic views,
opposited to egoism.
James Rachels, in an essay that takes as its title the theory's
name, outlines the three arguments most commonly touted in its
- "The first argument," writes Rachels, "has several variations,
each suggesting the same general point:
- "Each of us is intimately familiar with our own individual
wants and needs. Moreover, each of us is uniquely placed to pursue
those wants and needs effectively. At the same time, we know the
desires and needs of others only imperfectly, and we are not well
situated to pursue them. Therefore, it is reasonable to believe
that if we set out to be 'our brother's keeper,' we would often
bungle the job and end up doing more mischief than good."
- To pursue actively the interests of others is to be officious.
We should mind our own business and allow others to mind
- To give charity to someone is to degrade him, implying as it
does that he is reliant on such munificence and quite unable to
look out for himself. "That," reckons Rachels, "is why the
recipients of 'charity' are so often resentful rather than
- Altruism denies individual value and is therefore destructive
both to society and its individual components, viewing life merely
as a thing to be sacrificed. "Moreover, those who would
promote this idea are beneath contempt—they are parasites
who, rather than working to build and sustain their own lives,
leech off those who do."
- All of our commonly-accepted moral duties, from doing no harm
unto others to speaking always the truth to keeping promises, are
rooted in the one fundamental principle of self-interest.
According to amoralism
, there is nothing
wrong with egoism, but there is just nothing ethical about it. One
can simply adopt rational egoism
completely drop morality as a superfluous attribute of the
Some contend that ethical egoism is implausible, and that those who
seriously advocate it usually do so at the expense of redefining
"self-interest" to include the interests of others. An ethical
egoist might counter this by asserting that furthering the ends of
others is sometimes the best means of furthering the ends of
oneself, or that, simply by allowing liberty to others, one's
self-interest is resultantly furthered.
Ethical egoism has also been alleged as the basis for immorality
writes in a 1814 letter to Thomas Law:
Self-interest, or rather self-love, or egoism, has been
more plausibly substituted as the basis of morality.
But I consider our relations with others as
constituting the boundaries of morality.
With ourselves, we stand on the ground of identity, not
of relation, which last, requiring two subjects, excludes self-love
confined to a single one.
To ourselves, in strict language, we can owe no duties,
obligation requiring also two parties.
Self-love, therefore, is no part of
Indeed, it is exactly its counterpart.
Ethical egoism is opposed not only by altruist philosophers; it is
also at odds with the majority of religion
Most religions hold that ethical egoism is the product of a lack of
genuine spirituality and shows an individual's submersion in
. Religious egoism is a
derivative of egoism, whereby religion is used to validate one's
In The Moral Point of View
objects that ethical egoism provides no moral basis for
the resolution of conflicts of interest, which, in his opinion,
form the only vindication for a moral code. Were this an ideal
world, one in which interests and purposes never jarred, its
inhabitants would have no need of a specified set of ethics. This,
however, is not an ideal world. Baier believes that ethical egoism
fails to provide the moral guidance and arbitration that it
necessitates. Far from resolving conflicts of interest, in fact,
ethical egoism all too often spawns them. To this, as Rachels has
shown, the ethical egoist may object that he cannot admit a
construct of morality whose aim is merely to forestall conflicts of
interest. "On his view," he writes, "the moralist is not like a
courtroom judge, who resolves disputes. Instead, he is like the
Commissioner of Boxing, who urges each fighter to do his
Baiers is also part of a team of philosophers who hold, in an
altogether more serious strain of the above, that ethical egoism is
paradoxical, implying that to do what is in one's best interests
can be both wrong and right in ethical terms. Although a successful
pursuit of self-interest may be viewed as a moral victory, it could
also be dubbed immoral if it prevents another person from executing
what is in his
best interests. Again, however, the ethical
egoist could retort by assuming the guise of the Commissioner of
Boxing. His philosophy precludes empathy for the interests of
others, so forestalling them is perfectly acceptable. "Regardless
of whether we think this is a correct view," adds Rachels, "it is,
at the very least, a consistent
view, and so this attempt
to convict the egoist of self-contradiction fails."
Finally, it has been averred that ethical egoism is no better than
in that, like racism
, it divides people into two types — themselves
and others — and discriminates against one type on the basis of
some arbitrary disparity. This, to Rachels's mind, is probably the
best objection to ethical egoism, for it provides the soundest
reason why the interests of others ought to concern the interests
of the self. "[W]hat," he asks, "is the difference between myself
and others that justifies placing myself in this special category?
Am I more intelligent
? Do I enjoy my
life more? Are my accomplishments greater? Do I have needs or
abilities that are so different from the needs and abilities of
others? What is it that makes me so special
? Failing an
answer, it turns out that Ethical Egoism is an arbitrary doctrine,
in the same way that racism is arbitrary. [...] We should care
about the interests of other people for the very same reason we
care about our own interests
; for their needs and desires are
comparable to our own."
- Sanders, Steven M. Is egoism morally defensible? Philosophia.
Springer Netherlands. Volume 18, Numbers 2–3 / July, 1988
- Rachels 2008, p. 534.
- Waller (2005), p. 81.
- Waller (2005), p. 83.
- He notes, however, that "the theory is asserted more often than
it is argued for. Many of its supporters apparently think its truth
is self-evident, so that arguments are not needed." (Rachels 2008,
- That is, that regarding and pursuing the interests of others is
a self-defeating policy. Rachels quotes Alexander Pope in support
of this: "Thus God and nature formed the general frame/And bade
self-love and social be the same."
- Rachels 2008, p. 534, where it is pointed out that, in the
strictest egoistic terms, this is an inconsequential argument.
Ethical egoism does not bother itself with how others receive
charity, irrespective of how degraded it makes them feel. The same
reasoning applies to the previous two bullets, which use
self-interest as a means to the end of beneficence, rather than for
its own purposes, as the theory would dictate.
- Rachels 2008, p. 535, where this argument is attributed to
Ayn Rand, "a writer
little heeded by professional philosophers but who nevertheless was
enormously popular on college campuses in the 1960s and 1970s". She
is quoted as writing that, "[i]f a man accepts the ethics of
altruism, his first concern is not how to live his life but how to
- "It seems to me this is just obviously wrong". Michael Huemer on the Objectivist in a
- "[I]f it is in your best interest to obtain ten million
dollars, and a practically risk-free opportunity to embezzle that
much money arises, then on egoistic principles, where every ethical
action is governed by what is best for the individual, it would
seem that the ethical thing to do would be to embezzle. And this
seems obviously wrong." Stephen Parrish's review of Viable Values
by Tara Smith
- "But other [of Ayn Rand's intellectual heirs], such as
Machan, see that there is at least something wrong with
"egoism" as Rand construed it". wirkman
Virkkala At the Altar of the Ego
- Jefferson, Thomas. June 13, 1814. The Moral Sense.
Teaching American History (accessed 3 Aug 2007) 
- Egotism and Faith
- Rachels 2008, p. 538.
- Rachels 2008, p. 539.
- Rachels 2008, pp. 539–540.
- Baier, Kurt. 1990. "Egoisim" in A Companion to Ethics,
Peter Singer (ed.), Blackwell: Oxford. ISBN 978-0-631-18785-1
- Hobbes, Thomas. 1968. Leviathan, C. B.
Macpherson (ed.), Harmondsworth:
Penguin. ISBN 978-0140431957
- Rachels, James. "Ethical Egoism."
In Reason & Responsibility: Readings in Some Basic Problems
of Philosophy, edited by Joel
Feinberg and Russ
Shafer-Landau, 532–540. California: Thomson
Wadsworth, 2008. ISBN
- Rand, Ayn. 1964. The Virtue of Selfishness. Signet.
- Rosenstand, Nina. 2000. 'Chapter 3: Myself or Others?'. In
The Moral of the Story. (3rd Edition). Mountain View,
Calif: Mayfield Publishing: 127–167. ISBN 978-0072963359
- Waller, Bruce, N. 2005. "Egoism." In Consider Ethics:
Theory, Readings, and Contemporary Issues. New York: Pearson
Longman: 79–83. ISBN 978-0321202802