Unedited Lecture/Video Notes on Ethical Egoism
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Chapter 3: Ethical Egoism: should morality be based solely on self-interest?
Main Idea: Ethical egoists believe you should always act in your self-interest. So, is your morality solely based on self-interest? Should you try to live as an ethical egoist? What would that look like?
Ethical Egoism reminds us that self-interest is a virtue, but most philosophers believe ethical egoists are mistaken in arguing that it is the only virtue. To flourish, we should seek self-interest, but not just self-interest. Morality is more than pursuing self-interest….
My opinion: "Nor should you choose to live as an ethical egoist for you will miss out on the best experiences in life like the deepest forms of love, friendship, wonder, and beauty that destroy all conceptions of self and self-interest. The best experiences in life ecstatically transcend self-interested thinking. Still, it is your choice to be an egoist or not."
In the previous chapter on psychological egoism, we found that people are not always selfish or self-interested. We are capable of acting with regard for others; we are capable of acting altruistically. But should we act altruistically?
In this chapter, we will explore ethical egoism, which is the prescriptive theory that you should always act in your self-interest.
According to ethical egoism, you should only act in your self -interest. Ethical Egoists do not believe you should pursue the interests of others as well as your own interests, rather they believe you should only pursue your interests. An egoist believes that “What makes an action good is that it is good for ME.”
It is important to avoid caricatures and straw man versions of ethical egoism. For example, the ethical egoist does not believe you should be a scrooge. Most egoists believe you should sometimes help others, but only because it is in your interest. For example, an ethical egoist may think it good to scratch another’s back, but only because this act is somehow in his rational self-interest (e.g. the other will scratch his back in return). According to EE (ethical egoism), the fact that an action is in my self- interest is precisely what makes it good.
It is also important to see that ethical egoists can live disciplined lives. For example, most ethical egoists will attempt to stop smoking because they recognize smoking is not in their long term self-interest and is therefore bad. Ethical Egoism does not support doing whatever you feel, rather it encourages you to follow your objective and rational self-interest.
Ethical egoists make moral judgments. For example, most ethical egoists will judge the murderer as wrong because it is rarely in one’s long term self-interest to murder. There is, after all, a chance you will get caught and end up in prison. Or maybe some God will send you to Hell for murder.
**Some ethical egoists also argue it’s bad because the object of the murderer’s self-interest is bad. That is, the ethical egoist seems to believe there are good and bad forms of self-interested activity. As we will see later, this may be a problem for EE.
Some philosophers distinguish between individual ethical egoism and universal ethical egoism. Individual ethical egoism is the idea everyone ought to serve my interests. An act is good only if it benefits me, and morality dies when I die. Universal ethical egoism is the idea that everyone ought to seek their own self-interest, not just me. Universal Ethical Egoism is stronger because it includes everyone, not just myself. This chapter will focus mostly on universal ethical egoism.
Why do people like ethical egoism? As you read, evaluate the strength of each argument for ethical egoism.
- The ethical egoist recognizes that the only thing you own is your life. There is nothing wrong with being selfish or self-interested because you are nurturing your only real possession. So, you shouldn’t buy in to the myth that self-denial is a virtue. Those who tell you otherwise are probably trying to manipulate you to get what they want. For example, they might encourage you to be altruistic, but only so they can parasitically live off your work. In short, preserving your life and your interests is all you have and all you should pursue.
- According to some versions of laissez faire economics, the world would be a better place if everyone pursued their own self interests. For example, let’s say I self-interestedly create a convenience store to make money. The consequence of my action is that you benefit from my pursuit of self-interest since you now have a local convenience store. So, the world works better when we mind our own business while pursuing self-interest. Therefore, we should each pursue our own interests.
- People are also drawn to ethical egoism because it is consistent with many moral beliefs. For example, it is consistent with helping others. According to ethical egoism, it is right to help others because it is usually in your self-interest to help them. Even religious morality seems to be based on self-interest. For example, many religious people do good because they believe there is a God, a heaven, a hell, or a moral force like Karma that makes it in their long term self-interest to do good. So, perhaps all of morality can be derived from self-interest. Maybe you are an ethical egoist and don’t know it? Is your religion based on ethical egoism?
- Some ethical egoists believe altruistic acts like giving to charity are degrading and condescending to the people who receive them. It is degrading to constantly “give people fish instead of teaching them to fish.” That is, altruism conceals a sick desire to make others dependent. The remedy is to be transparent; each person should unashamedly seek his or her own self-interest. Ethical egoism is authentic, altruism is deceptive and degrading.
- Some egoists argue that since every living creature seeks self-preservation, every living creature ought to only seek their self-preservation and self-interests.
- Finally, some ethical egoists are psychological egoists and believe “Science has made it obvious that everyone is always seeking their self-interests, so they should always seek them.” That is, they attempt to derive an ought from an is.
Many of these arguments come from Ayn Rand, especially The Virtue of Selfishness, Atlas Shrugged, and the Fountainhead. Some also come from Nietzsche, Thomas Hobbes, and my students.
Exercise and Criticism
Now that you have explored some of the arguments for ethical egoism, do you think it is a strong ethical theory? If it is, it should be able to: A) explain, or be consistent with, your core moral beliefs and, B) help you lead a meaningful and flourishing life. It should also be based on facts when facts are relevant. Discussing the following questions will help you analyze and evaluate ethical egoism.
- Imagine you know it is in your self-interest to kill someone for life insurance money. You absolutely know you could get away with it (for reasons we need not explore). In your moral opinion, is it morally permissible to kill this innocent person for money?
No, almost every student says it is wrong to kill someone for money even if the student believes it is in his or her self-interest. This is a problem for EE because, according to EE, it should be good because it is in your self-interest. So, the existence of even one self-interested act that you think bad proves that ethical egoism is not the whole of your moral story, it does not explain all of your moral beliefs.
Now you may have some objections to the life insurance case, but the point is that you probably believe some actions are wrong even though they are in your self-interest. So, the first criticism is that ethical egoism is inconsistent with what you believe is right or wrong. Again, most people would say something is wrong with this killing in self-interested even if they aren’t sure what is wrong. But there is nothing wrong with it if ethical egoism is true. Therefore, most people hold beliefs that are inconsistent with ethical egoism.
Question: Survey your moral mind. Can you find examples of acts that you think are wrong even though they are in your self-interest? Are psychopaths more likely to be ethical egoists? Teenagers?
- Consider the following argument for ethical egoism. If I pursue my own self-interests then everyone benefits. Therefore, it is good to pursue my own self-interest” (e.g. the convenience store argument)?
The problem is this argument supports utilitarianism, not ethical egoism. If pursuing my interest is good because everyone benefits, then it’s not good simply because I benefit. But if I don’t believe it’s good simply because I benefit then I’m not an ethical egoist. In this case, I am a Utilitarian.
For example, if I pursue my self-interest of earning money by building a convenience store, then your self-interest may also be served since you now have a neighborhood convenience store. But I am not an ethical egoist if I argue it is good because both you and I benefit. As an ethical egoist, I must say it’s good only because I benefit. So, ethical egoism may be true, but this type of argument does not support it because it presupposes caring for others for their own sake, not simply because it is in my self-interest.
In my experience, most ethical egoists are inconsistent because they believe such acts are good partly because everyone benefits, not just themselves.
- Why should ethical egoists care about posterity?
They shouldn’t. Ethical egoism says they should only care about their self-interest. An ethical egoist shouldn’t care about the future and posterity because she will be dead in the future.
If an ethical egoist counters that their “self” includes their grandchildren, notice how the meaning of “self” has been greatly inflated to meet the posterity objection. If one allows this inflated definition of self, the theory is now closer to utilitarianism than ethical egoism.
In short, why should I care about posterity if there is nothing in it for me, nothing in my self-interest? But I do care, so ethical egoism is inconsistent with my core moral beliefs.
- Do your interests count for more than other peoples’ interests just because they are your interests?
In The Elements of Moral Philosophy, James Rachels argued this is the deepest criticism of ethical egoism. He believes the egoist thinks like racists and sexists because they believe their interests ultimately count for more simply because they are in the “right” race or gender. That is, “there is US and THEM, and we’re better because we are Us and they are Them. So, we can treat them however we please.”
Ethical egoists categorize people in the same way. They say, “There is ME and EVERYONE else, and my interests count for more simply because they are mine.” If you ask an egoist why their interests count for more, they say, “Because they are MY interests.” But this answer is no better than the racist answer that “MY group is better because it is MY group.”
Think of all the people you have encountered today. Do their interests not count? Don’t you care about them? Don’t others have feelings, goals, pains, pleasures, and interests just like you? Why should your pain count for more than their pain just because it is your pain? “Isn’t the starving child sometimes on par with your own interests?” (Rachels)
Let’s say you save some money to buy a video game, but then give it up to feed a starving child. Is this not a good act, and is this not a case of letting another person’s interests outweigh your interests? Most importantly, don’t you think this is a good act?
Now, let’s say the child is not starving, she just wants a new bicycle. In this case, your interests may outweigh the child’s because you choose to buy the video game.
The point is that it is too simplistic to say morality is always based on self-interest. When you think morally, you are considering your interests, but you are also considering the interests of others for their own sake.
Of course, it does not follow from these examples that you must always sacrifice your own interests, rather it only shows that their interests count too. As Lawrence Hinman says, “Self-love is a virtue, but it’s not the only virtue.”
In a way, this criticism shows that ethical egoism does not even enter the moral sphere of thinking because moral thinking begins when we start considering other peoples’ interests, not simply our own.
- Do ethical egoists present a false dilemma in arguing you should always be altruistic or always egoistic? Can one be both at the same time?
“Self-love is a virtue, but not the only virtue” (Lawrence Hinman).
Let’s begin by exploring how the same act can be both altruistic and egoistic.
I may throw a grenade to save myself and my buddies. This act seems both self-interested (saving self) and altruistic (saving buddies). I may jump on the grenade, which seems altruistic, but not self-interested. I may watch the grenade explode, which is neither altruistic nor self-interested. Or, I may run away without warning my buddies, which seems very selfish.
The point is egoists present a false dichotomy because they believe actions (and motives) must be entirely self-interested or entirely altruistic. But this is too simplistic, morality and human motivation are more complex than this.
For example, I may help the old lady across the street because I care about her and because I want the nickel she will give me. I may become a teacher because I want to learn, help others, make money, and improve my reputation. It’s rare to find an act or motive that is purely altruistic or purely self-interested.
Also, it is sometimes good to give up my interests (e.g. feed a starving child), and sometimes it is not good (e.g. staying in a toxic relationship). The point is an Aristotelian one; Morality is a mean between the extremes. Morality is not about always surrendering your self-interest, nor is it about always pursuing your self-interest. Moral thinking means you are weighing all interests and sometimes choosing your interests over others, and sometimes choosing the interests of others over your own. In short, ethical egoism is too extreme and presents a false dilemma. The choice is not between 1) always altruistic or 2) always self-interested.
- If morality begins when I consider the interests of other people and not just my own interests, are ethical egoists capable of moral thinking?
No. Many ethicists believe morality begins with the common point of view, with considering other peoples’ interests for their own sake. If I believe only my interests count, I never enter the moral sphere. Of course, most ethical egoists are probably moral, but they are moral in a logically inconsistent way (i.e. ethical egoism contradicts their moral beliefs).
- According to ethical egoism, should one be morally praised for jumping on a grenade to save five people?
No, his act is bad because he was not acting in his objective self-interest. He sacrificed his self-interest… and this is especially clear if he is an atheist and does not believe in a self-interested afterlife. According to ethical egoism, we should not think such an act is morally praiseworthy because we believe everyone should act according to their self-interest. The atheist soldier probably did not act according to his self-interest since he is sacrificing/killing himself. The egoist has to inflate the meaning of self-interest to argue he is seeking his self-interest by killing himself, by killing all his interests.
- Can ethical egoists be good friends?
Perhaps. It depends on what you mean by friendship. However, the answer is no if you believe true friendship means caring about your friend’s good for her own sake, not simply for the self-interested benefit you receive from her. This type of true friendship seems to be “beyond the reach of the egoist” (Hinman) because it requires one to sometimes transcend self-interest.
Indeed, the logically consistent ethical egoist should view true friendship as bad because it causes a person to act in non-self-interested ways. Furthermore, a logically consistent ethical egoist may even seek to harm his friends if it suddenly becomes in his self-interest to do so.
So, as Lawrence Hinman states, ethical egoism may be good in a world where people are like individual atoms colliding with each other, but it is not so good if you believe in true friendship and love. Ethical egoism is not the philosophy for you if you CHOOSE true friendship and true love.
- What is the difference between selfish and self-interest?
These words are ambiguous, and it is helpful to know how people distinguish them.
Some define selfish as that which is in your short term pleasure (e.g. smoking cigarettes), and self-interest as that which is in your objective long-term interest (e.g. not smoking cigarettes).
Some define selfish as seeking your own good without regard for others, being excessively concerned with yourself (e.g. killing my way to the top). They then define self-interest as seeking your own good, but not at any cost to others. A self-interested person values “justness” and “fairness.”
Some use selfish and self-interest in equivalent ways.
Finally, others equivocate between all of these meanings, which makes for difficult reading.
As always, define your terms clearly before you begin a discussion on this topic.
- Should you tell others you are an ethical egoist?
Perhaps not, it depends on whether it is in your self-interest. It might not be in your self-interest to tell others (or even yourself) that you are an egoist. This may be a problem for egoism because it seems to imply that nobody should reveal their egoism.
- How does the Prisoner’s Dilemma effect ethical egoism? This section is a bit more difficult, but brings up deeper defenses and criticisms of ethical egoism.
Merrill M. Flood and Melvin Dresher created The Prisoner’s Dilemma in 1950. Think of it as a puzzle that has moral implications.
Imagine you and Mr. Jones have been arrested. The jailor gives you the following options:
- If you and Jones both confess, you will both get 5 years in prison.
- If you confess but Jones does not confess, Jones gets 10 years in prison and you are immediately set free.
- If you do not confess but Jones does confess, Jones will be set free immediately and you will get 10 years.
- If neither confess, you will both be set free after 1 year.
Jones doesn’t confess
5 years for both of us
Jones gets 10 years, I am free
I don’t confess
Jones is free, I get 10 years
1 year for both of us
The jailor tells you that Mr. Jones is being offered the same deal, but you cannot communicate with him.
Now, the point is to think like an ethical egoist. When you think like an egoist, it becomes clear that you should confess. Here is how James Rachels explains it:
- Either Smith will confess or he won’t.
- Suppose Smith confesses. Then, if you confess you will get 5 years, whereas if you do not confess you will get 10. Therefore, if he confesses, you are better off confessing.
On the other hand, suppose Smith does not confess. Then you are in this position: If you confess you will go free, whereas if you do not confess you will remain imprisoned for a year. Clearly, then, even if smith does not confess, you will still be better off if you do.
Therefore, you should confess because you would get out of jail the soonest, regardless of what Smith does. Notice then that wanting everyone to pursue their own self-interests is not in your self-interest. Rather, you should want others to sometimes give up their interests. But to achieve that, it seems you should give up self-interest as well (so they will trust you). Paradoxically, pursuing your self-interest involves sometimes giving up your self-interest. You should cooperate.
- A Few random notes: I sought the bird of bliss, she flew away; I sought my neighbor's good and bliss flew my way. Lous Pojman adds the “paradox of egoism is that to reach the goal of egoism one must give up egoism and become (to some extent) an altruist, the very antithesis of egoism” (94). So, it seems that you could be a second order egoist while being a first order altruist since it is in your interest to sometimes not act in your interest. But, is this sort of calculation what you want to call moral thinking? The amoralist and egoist calculate what is in their self-interest and act accordingly. In one situation, it may be in their interest to take advantage of the altruistic sheep and they will accordingly do so. In another situation, it will benefit them to act altruistically and they will do so. It also seems many people have moral beliefs that are inconsistent with egoism or a pure application of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Most people feel it is wrong to kill, lie, and cheat, even when it is in their self-interest to do so. But, again, an egoist could take a second order position and seek to slowly mold their character (and their child's character) to be less self-interested. That is, it may benefit them to train themselves to believe some acts are good regardless of whether they serve their self-interest. Humans are interesting partly because we can desire to desire, we can wish to change our character. In theoretical moments, an ethical egoist may even, somewhat paradoxically, have a self-interested second order desire to have a character with altruistic first order desires. But even with these distinctions, the fundamental question is whether you should always act in a self-interested way. The first ten criticisms argue no, your morality is not founded solely on self-interest.
Nor should you choose to live as an ethical egoist for you will miss out on the best experiences in life like experiencing a love, friendship, or sense of wonder and beauty that destroys all conceptions of self and self-interest. The best experiences in life ecstatically transcend self-interested thinking.
Sources: Many primary and secondary texts. The clearest and most logical overview is in Russ Shafer Landau's The Fundamentals of Ethics.