2 Ethical Egoism

Let’s look at this video for some background info:

Narcissists are often seen as the epitome of egoism: selfish, self-serving, self-promoting people without an ounce of genuine generosity or altruism to be found.  The point is that we usually view egoistical people in an unfavorable light.  They are for themselves only with no thought of others except to use them for their own advantage.


But is the above characterization really fair to an egoist?  After all, if egoism is simply defined as self-interest, then aren’t we all egoists — at least to some degree?  Aren’t we all interested in ourselves?  If we weren’t, we’d hardly be human.  Who isn’t interested in their own happiness and all that this includes?  What’s wrong with that? A person, who believes in the theory of ethical egoism would say that nothing is wrong with that.  Let’s find out why.


What is Ethical Egoism?


Questions:  First, ethical egoism (as it true with all ethical theories) asks two primary questions:  What is good?  What is morally right?  Of course, the contrary of these questions are also important:  What is bad or evil?  And what is morally wrong?


Answers:  Ethical egoism claims that what is good is whatever an individual thinks is good for herself or himself with concern for anyone else except to the extent that that person or persons may benefit them in the short term and long run.  What is right, then, is any decision or action that brings about what a person believes is good for himself or herself only.


Clarifications:  It is important now to clarify some key features of ethical egoism, so that we will know how this “moral roadmap” or “moral compass” may apply in real-life situations.


  • Ethical Subjectivism: This is a very basic (some would say childish) view of what is morally good and right:  It’s whatever one feels, believes, or thinks is right at any given moment.  In others words, whether an act is seen as right or wrong, good or bad, to an ethical subjectivist can depend on emotions at the time of the act, dogmatic beliefs (think religious fanaticism) or some very skewed logic.  For example, suppose a student, who cheated on a final exam explained his behavior by simply saying, “I felt like cheating, so I did.”  We ask him why?  He may reply, “I felt like it was the right thing for me to do the time.”  Or what if a husband cheated on his wife and simply explained his behavior by saying, “It was just an impulse, honey.  I don’t know what came over me.”  Mature people try to control impulses and emotions, and try to think a little more objectively about what is right and wrong moral conduct.  One more example:  Road rage!  Who doesn’t get upset when someone cuts them off in fast traffic?  But should we than act on our subjective emotions and try to cut them off in return?  Is that the right thing to do?


Ethical subjectivism, obviously, cannot stand alone as a viable ethical theory or personal moral compass.  First, it is too subjective!  Imagine a world in which we think it is OK for people to act only on their subjective feelings and thoughts and not on objective considerations for others or even for themselves?  Thus, ethical subjectivism is not a theory than can be universalized.  That is, we wouldn’t want everyone to follow it.  The world would be pretty chaotic if we were all strictly ethical subjectivists.  Note, this is not to say that feelings, emotions, passions,  beliefs, imagination, and logic shouldn’t play a part in our moral lives.  It’s just that subjectivism by itself is not adequate to guide us in how we ought to treat others — or even ourselves.


  • Naïve Ethical Egoism: This is a version of ethical egoism that is just what it sounds like — naïve.  This view claims that we should always act in ways that we think will promote the greatest good for ourselves only.  Important Note:  Do not confuse this view with that of ethical subjectivism.  Naïve ethical egoism holds that if everyone were to follow this “moral code,” then the world would be a better place.  So notice that this theory is an improvement over subjectivism in that it becomes objective in considering the role it has for others.  So the idea is that if we all tend to our own business of trying to always do what’s best for ourselves (and not try to interfere with others, help others, etc.), then the world would be a better place.


Strengths & Weaknesses:  The strength of this moral point of view is that we have complete autonomy over our moral choices.  Afterall, we only have to think about what’s good for ourselves.  So there is certainty regarding what we want to do morally.  We don’t have to confer with others or take them into consideration.


The weaknesses are probably pretty apparent by now.  Do we always know what is good for us?  Do we always know that what we think will benefit us the most will turn out that way?  And is it always wise to ignore completely how our actions may affect others?  Could our actions hurt others while benefiting ourselves?  Yes, but then we could also be hurt as a result.  For example, in the movie, “About a Boy,” Hugh Grant plays a self-centered, hedonistic, me-only confirmed bachelor.  His only goals in life are to please himself only.  In trying to live this way, however, he ends up hurting others and eventually hurting himself more.  His life is literally meaningless in this mode of existence and morality.  (Good flick!)  I’m sure you can come up with your own examples from your life that illustrates the weaknesses of a person living as a naïve ethical egoist.


  • Enlightened Ethical Egoism: This view also is what it sounds like, and it’s the view that some famous philosophers and economists (among others) have put forth as beneficial to the individual and society.  It’s a little bit like the old saying, “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.”  An enlightened ethical egoist is still interested in what’s best for herself only, but she is much more enlightened and imaginative in doing so than the naïve egoist.  The enlightened ethical egoist (henceforth: EEE) has her own self-interest at heart but knows that in order to help herself, she must help others as well.  This is class capitalistic economic theory.  Adam Smith argued 250 years ago that society as a whole benefits from each individual self-interest economically and morally.  Thus, if Steve Jobs had not himself been interested in fulfilling his own dreams at Apple, then we wouldn’t have the wonderful electronic personal technology we have today.   Jobs had to compete with other people to become the amazing CEO he was and to dominate the market.  What was good for Steve Jobs turned out to be good for millions of consumers.


Strengths and Weaknesses:  Many of us may be EEEs some of the time, although as you’ll see later in this course, we may also embrace other moral points of view.  As mentioned above, we can’t help but be self-interested.  The problem with EEE, however, is that it is still out to promote person’s own good only, regardless of how good one is at disguising it over the long term.  We all know people, who seem to be generous, kind, and helpful initially, but turn out to be “users” in the end.  This is an essential weakness of EEE.  Even though EEE argues that it should be universalized, that everyone should follow it and that it would be a better world if we all did, at the end of the day it is a moral compass that is still all about ourselves.  It is doubtful that a person, who is a confirmed EEE can really develop a genuinely generous spirit, kindly disposition, and thoughtful concern for others.


On the other hand, some of the more famous and well-respected philosophers in western thought (Adam Smith, David Hume, and Aristotle) have been viewed as supporters of EEE.  Aristotle basically tells us to “be all that we can be.”  In this way, we all become collectively stronger — a little like Smith’s economic theory.  Of course it’s great to be all that we can be as long as being so does not unduly hurt others.  And this is where many of us make honest mistakes for a while regarding working too hard in college and ignoring our families and friends; or striving so hard to be the best at something that we are unaware and unconcerned about the damage we may be doing to others and ourselves.  (Think sports here and immediate family.)


On the other hand, there are some people, who have mastered the art of being an EEE so well that we have a distinct name for them: sociopaths.! These people are clever, smooth, courteous, ingratiating, charming, and scheming.  And they are apt to leave a “body count” wherever they go.


Summary:  We may often act as ethical egoists, and sometimes looking out for Number One only can actually serve the best interests of others.  But as an ethical theory of moral framework, ethical egoism cannot hold up as a guide to ethical conduct in the long run.  It is not something we would want to universalize because if everyone were to act as ethical egoists, then there would obviously be universal and constant conflicts of interests abounding with no way to determine who is right or wrong.  Everyone is right, unless of course we happen to be a victim of others promoting their own good only — then they are wrong, because what they’re doing does not allow me to promote my own good only.


Strictly speaking, ethical egoism allows people to do great harm if they think it is for their own good.  It therefore assumes that everyone knows what is good for them.  This ethical theory, then, is simply unrealistic and impractical in the long run.  It is ultimately self-defeating.


  • Contemplate this: what moral responsibilities do I have to myself?
  • What does it mean to know yourself?
  • Our love of our fellow human beings is not mere self-love.
  • We should not reduce love, friendship, and compassion to self-love.
  • Me-ism. Discuss


Ayn Rand interviewed by Mike Wallace:

Do Good Deeds Exist?  (Clip from Friends)

Facebook Manners and You (Great Parody!):


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IDIS 302: Cases and Theories Copyright © by Antoinette Martsoukos is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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