What Is Ethical Egoism?

Should people always pursue only their own self-interest?

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Ethical egoism is the view that people ought to pursue their own self-interest, and no one has any obligation to promote anyone else’s interests. It is thus a normative or prescriptive theory: it is concerned with how people ought to behave. In this respect, ethical egoism is quite different from psychological egoism, the theory that all our actions are ultimately self-interested. Psychological egoism is a purely descriptive theory that purports to describe a basic fact about human nature.

Arguments In Support of Ethical Egoism

Scottish political economist and philosopher Adam Smith (1723 - 1790).
Scottish political economist and philosopher Adam Smith (1723 - 1790). Hulton Archive/Getty Images 

Everyone pursuing his own self-interest is the best way to promote the general good. This argument was made famous by Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733) in his poem "The Fable of the Bees" and by Adam Smith (1723-1790) in his pioneering work on economics, "The Wealth of Nations." 

In a famous passage, Smith wrote that when individuals single-mindedly pursue “the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires” they unintentionally, as if “led by an invisible hand,” benefit society as a whole. This happy result comes about because people generally are the best judges of what is in their own interest, and they are much more motivated to work hard to benefit themselves than to achieve any other goal.

An obvious objection to this argument, though, is that ​it doesn’t really support ethical egoism. It assumes that what really matters is the well-being of society as a whole, the general good. It then claims that the best way to achieve this end is for everyone to look out for themselves. But if it could be proved that this attitude did not, in fact, promote the general good, then those who advance this argument would presumably stop advocating egoism.

Prisoner's Dilemma

Another objection is that what the argument states is not always true. Consider the prisoner’s dilemma, for instance. This is a hypothetical situation described in game theory. You and a comrade, (call him X) are being held in prison. You are both asked to confess. The terms of the deal you are offered are as follows:

  • If you confess and X doesn’t, you get six months and he gets 10 years.
  • If X confesses and you don’t, he gets six months and you get 10 years.
  • If you both confess, you both get five years.
  •  If neither of you confesses, you both get two years.

Regardless of what X does, the best thing for you to do is confess. Because if he doesn’t confess, you’ll get a light sentence; and if he does confess, you’ll at least avoid getting extra prison time. But the same reasoning holds for X as well. According to ethical egoism, you should both pursue your rational self-interest. But then the outcome is not the best one possible. You both get five years, whereas if both of you had put your self-interest on hold, you’d each only get two years.

The point of this is simple. It isn’t always in your best interest to pursue your own self-interest without concern for others. Sacrificing your own interests for the good of others denies the fundamental value of your own life to yourself.

Ayn Rand's Objectivism

This seems to be the sort of argument put forward by Ayn Rand, the leading exponent of “objectivism” and the author of "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged." Her complaint is that the Judeo-Christian moral tradition, which includes—or has fed into—modern liberalism and socialism, pushes an ethic of altruism. Altruism means putting the interests of others before your own. 

This is something people are routinely praised for doing, encouraged to do, and in some circumstances even required to do, such as when you pay taxes to support the needy. According to Rand, no one has any right to expect or demand that I make any sacrifices for the sake of anyone other than myself.

ussian-born American author and philosopher Ayn Rand, smiles and stands outdoors with her arms folded, in front of the Grand Central building, midtown Manhattan, New York City.
Ayn Rand, 1957. New York Times Co./Getty Images

A problem with this argument is that it seems to assume that there is generally a conflict between pursuing your own interests and helping others. In fact, though, most people would say that these two goals are not necessarily opposed at all. Much of the time they complement one another. 

For instance, one student may help a housemate with her homework, which is altruistic. But that student also has an interest in enjoying good relations with her housemates. She may not help everyone in all circumstances, but she will help if the sacrifice involved is not too great. Most people behave like this, seeking a balance between egoism and altruism.

More Objections to Ethical Egoism

Ethical egoism is not a very popular moral philosophy. This is because it goes against certain basic assumptions that most people have regarding what ethics involves. Two objections seem especially powerful.

Ethical egoism has no solutions to offer when a problem arises involving conflicts of interest. Many ethical issues are of this sort. For example, a company wants to empty waste into a river; the people living downstream object. Ethical egoism advises that both parties actively pursue what they want. It doesn’t suggest any sort of resolution or commonsense compromise.

Ethical egoism goes against the principle of impartiality. A basic assumption made by many moral philosophers—and many other people, for that matter—is that we should not discriminate against people on arbitrary grounds such as race, religion, sex, sexual orientation or ethnic origin. But ethical egoism holds that we should not even try to be impartial. Rather, we should distinguish between ourselves and everyone else, and give ourselves preferential treatment.

To many, this seems to contradict the very essence of morality. The golden rule—versions of which appear in Confucianism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—says we should treat others as we would like to be treated. One of the greatest moral philosophers of modern times, ​Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), argued that the fundamental principle of morality (the “categorical imperative,” in his jargon) is that we should not make exceptions of ourselves. According to Kant, we shouldn’t perform an action if we cannot honestly wish that everyone would behave in a similar way in the same circumstances.