Ethical Egoism & Altruism

DP Barrett - Ethical Egoism & Altruism

The word ‘egoism’ derives from the Latin ‘ego’ which means ‘I.’ Egoism is the idea of being selfish and always putting your own needs first without regard for the needs of others. Someone who is a complete egoist does not care at all about other people, but only about their own goals, interests, and their own benefit. An egoist will not necessarily be greedy and selfish in an obvious sense, for example, they may be polite and friendly, even happy to share and help others. However, their motive will always be their own gain, for example, they will help others in order to be helped in return at a later date, and they will obey laws because this helps to bring about peace and security in society, something which they will benefit from. Their motivation for seemingly thoughtful and caring actions will not be actual concern for others, but intelligent self-concern and prudence. There are two different kinds of egoism, so it is necessary to describe their differences: (i) Psychological Egoism; (ii) Ethical Egoism.
Psychological Egoism is not a moral theory, but aims to be a psychological theory about human motivation. Psychological Egoism holds that all of us are completely selfish and are hardwired to only think of our own needs. It is literally impossible for us to genuinely care about other people. Whenever we perform an action it is always with our own good in mind. When you help a friend it is so they will help you back. If a man gives money to a cancer charity this is not because he really cares about those who are suffering from cancer, but so that he can feel good about himself, or so that there will be good health care available for him to use if he is unlucky enough to get cancer. Ethical Egoism, on the other hand, states that it is possible for people to genuinely care about other people (to be altruistic), but that they should not bother caring about others. Instead people ought to be selfish and think only about their own needs. This article will focus purely on Ethical Egoism.

The word ‘altruism’ derives from the French ‘autres’ which means ‘others.’ A person who is altruistic cares about and is motivated by the needs of other people. Altruistic actions are selfless, they are done for the sake of other people and not for any personal gain, perhaps even sacrificing your own needs and desires for the sake of others. Many people argue that actions can only be moral if they are done for the sake of helping others rather than yourself. It is often thought that we have a natural inclination to be selfish, so that learning to think of others is an admirable thing to do. Mother Teresa is often seen as an example of altruism, she was a Catholic nun who dedicated her life to helping the poor in India. A Psychological Egoist would say that she really did this for her own benefit, to feel good about herself or get in to heaven. An Ethical Egoist may view her care for others as genuine, but see it as foolish, because she should have been looking after her own needs, not other people’s needs.
There is a common assumption that you are either selfish in your actions, or selfless. This is perhaps too simplistic, for most of us probably have a complicated mixture of selfish desires and selfless desires. Many philosophers argue that egoism and altruism do not totally exclude each other, you do not have to lose all care for yourself in order to care properly about other people. Jesus said “love thy neighbour as thyself” which is clearly demonstrating a balance between your own needs and those of others – yes you should care about and look after yourself, but you should also recognise the humanity in other people and care about them too: you should not hurt them and where possible you should help them.

Ethical Egoism
Ethical Egoism does not deny the possibility of altruism: Ethical Egoists would admit that it is perfectly possible to care about other people. However, according to the Ethical Egoist you ought not to care about the needs or welfare of others, you should only care about and act on your own needs and interests. This means that Ethical Egoism is a Normative Ethical theory stating how people should act, and stating that you should act selfishly. The theory turns conventional morality on its head by saying it is good to be selfish: people are capable of being altruistic but they should not bother caring for others. Of course it makes sense to help other people and not to be outwardly greedy, to share for example, but only because this is the best way of achieving what you want for yourself in the long term.
Ethical Egoism is a teleological theory according to which the correct action a person should take is the action that has the best consequence for that person themselves, regardless of the effects on other people. As Michael Palmer puts it:
"Egoism maintains that each person ought to act to maximise his or her own long-term good or well-being. An egoist, in other words, is someone who holds that their one and only obligation is to themselves and their only duty is to serve their own self-interest… If an action produces benefits for them, they should do it; if it doesn’t, then it is morally acceptable for them not to do it."
Michael Palmer, Moral Problems, page 34.

An Ethical Egoist only cares about his own needs and desires, and would view himself as having value, whilst others are not of value to him. This is very similar to the way that a commercial company’s only concern is its own profits – these companies exist to expand as much as they can, to conquer as much of the market as they can, and to overtake their rivals or even put them out of business. If a company takes actions which benefit its rivals at its own expense then from an economist’s point of view we would automatically call it mismanaged and condemn its actions as foolish. This is what the Ethical Egoist does to all actions which are altruistic, he condemns them as foolish: people should look after number one and not be burdened with the needs of others. Of course, this doesn’t mean that people should go out looting shops, stealing cars, killing enemies and generally doing what they want, because as Thomas Hobbes pointed out, such actions would lead to anarchy and wouldn’t be good for anybody. Rather, Ethical Egoists should live in peace with one another, help each other, and work together, because that is the best way for the individual to get the good living conditions he is after. You do not steal from others so they will not steal from you, and so on.

Ethical Egoism & hedonism
In many cases Ethical Egoists are also hedonists, which means that they view pleasure or happiness as the ultimate goal of life, to be specific, their own happiness and pleasure. Generally Ethical Egoists will recommend acting with long term interests in mind rather than seeking short term advantages, for example, instead of going out with friends all the time in your teenage years it would be better to spend more time working for school in order to get good qualifications and a good job in the future, which will bring a happy life rather than just a happy couple of years. Hedonists view pleasure as an intrinsic good, something which is good in and of itself, and they view pain or discomfort as intrinsically bad, however, hedonists argue that sometimes pain or discomfort will have to be accepted in order to achieve a good pleasurable thing. Exercise may be hard work and sometimes painful, and dieting will mean missing out on pleasurable experiences, but the health benefits will make the effort worth it. This is what is know as an instrumental good, something which is not good in itself but which leads to something else which is good. Another example is work; many people find it unpleasant and boing, so work is a bad thing to them. However, work means that you to get paid and so it helps you to get the pleasurable things you want: food, clothing, a house, trips to the cinema, etc. This means work is an instrumental good. For the average Ethical Egoist the goal of life is their own personal long-term pleasure, and achieving this will mean treating others well, but not because they care for others, rather, because it is an instrumental good that will allow them to have a pleasurable life.

The Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BCE) was a hedonist and stated “pleasure is our first and kindred good. It is the starting point of every choice and of every aversion.” It is from his name that we derive the word ‘epicurean’ which means someone who revels in the delights of food, which is ironic because Epicurus himself had a very plain diet since he suffered from stomach problems. Taking a line somewhat similar to Buddhism, Epicurus argued that true pleasure was “the absence of pain in the body and trouble in the soul” and so he actually advocated a simple life where people try to give up desiring all the things they cannot have. He did not think that a life of sex, drink, and good food was a truly pleasurable life because he held that the greater the upside is the greater the downside will be also, for example, the more you drink the bigger the hangover is. Instead Epicurus advocated a life of sober reasoning and knowledge.

Epicurus also argued that a life cannot be truly pleasurable unless it is also “a life of prudence, honour, and justice”, which indicates an important idea – that the happiness of the individual is dependent on the happiness of his community, so we must therefore treat others well. Epicurus would have said that the best way to be happy is to have friends and to act honourably towards other people.

Adam Smith
Adam Smith (1723 – 1790) was a philosopher and economist, and was a champion of private property and free market economy. He took the view that intentionally serving your own interests will bring benefits for all. Philip Stokes gives the following example: “suppose that Jones, in seeking his own fortune, decides to set up and run his own business, manufacturing some common item of everyday need. In seeking only to provide for his own fortune, Jones’ entrepreneurial enterprise has a number of unintended benefits to others. First he provides a livelihood for the people in his employ, thus benefiting them directly. Second, he makes more readily available some common item which previously had been more difficult or more expensive to obtain for his customers.” Smith argued that a free market and competition would ensure that businesses kept their prices at competitive rates, helping to make customers better off as well as the business owners. Through selfish action everyone is better off, therefore, capitalist selfishness is the key to universal happiness and prosperity for all.

However, arguably the consequences of businesses acting in a self-interested way is not necessarily benefits for all; we need only look at the appalling conditions of people working in factories during the Industrial Revolution to see that this is so. Today the people of industrialised countries have a much more comfortable lifestyle, but most of the rest of the world still languishes in poverty and exploitation, and it is precisely through their subjugation that we have our high standard of living: we have so much material wealth because we exploit those who are powerless and poor, we give them the choice of working in dire conditions to make us cheep goods or starving. Arguably, the factories have not improved, they have just moved.

James Rachels
James Rachels discusses Ethical Egoism, but he does not endorse it, and in fact gives reasons to reject it. None the less, his discussion of Ethical Egoism is very enlightening. He states that the idea that we have duties to others is a common assumption. We are often made to think that there is a natural obligation towards others because they are people and because our own actions could help or harm them. One argument for Ethical Egoism is that this simply is not so, we have no specific reason to think of others as important, we have no specific obligations towards them, whereas on the other hand, we have a self-evident duty to look after ourselves.
One argument for Ethical Egoism that he considers is that altruism is ‘self defeating.’ According to this perspective each individual person is in the best position to serve their own interests, whilst others are not. I know intimately what I need, whereas others, if they try to take an interest in my life and help me, may not know what is best and should therefore mind their own business and not interfere. There is a sense in which helping others is an intrusion on their privacy, and similarly, there is the view that charity towards others is degrading: “it robs them of their individual dignity and self-respect. The offer of charity says, in effect, that they are not competent to care for themselves.” Rachels rejects this argument as ridiculous as it is perfectly clear what a starving man needs, especially if he is actually asking for help. Also, arguing that we shouldn’t interfere because it invades another person’s dignity hardly seems like a valid egoistic argument, as it appeals to the needs of other people.

Next Rachels considers Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679). Hobbes believed that selfishness was natural (he was a Psychological Egoist), and therefore that Ethical Egoism was the only theory that made any sense. Rather than saying that Ethical Egoism runs counter to our common sense morality, Hobbes argued that it actually explains and underpins it. When we treat others well, help them, and do our best not to harm them, it is all done in order to create the kind of stable society which is best for our own personal needs. By not killing or stealing from others we ensure that we ourselves will not be killed or stolen from. By putting welfare measures in place we ensure that we ourselves will be helped in times of trouble. Hobbes takes the view that when we join society we make a promise not to hurt others and to help them when they are in need, and we make this promise so that we in turn are not hurt and so that we may be aided in times of need. What Hobbes has tried to do, then, is say that Ethical Egoism is not counter to our common morality, it is the foundation of our common morality.

Ayn Rand
Another famous egoist is Ayn Rand (1905 – 1982), however, her version of Ethical Egoism is very different from the average case of acting in self-interest. For Rand it is important to be a hardworking and creative person and to be as independent as you can. In her view people should work hard to satisfy their needs, they should not expect others to give them a hand-out or a free ride. If you work hard and achieve a good life for yourself, such as having wealth for example, then you have earned what you possess and no one should have the right to demand that you give it away to those less fortunate or successful than yourself. She views altruism as a moral philosophy founded on leeching, she sees it as a philosophy which tells people that they ought to give up all they have, and all their own interests, to satisfy the needs of others. In her view people should strive to fulfil their own needs and not be parasitical upon those who are more successful than themselves.

Interestingly, Rand also rejects those who get into positions of power and leech off of those below them, people such as tyrants and gang leaders. This is what marks her Ethical Egoism as different from that of the average Egoist; whereas the average Ethical Egoist will say that it is fine to abuse others to get what you want, all that matters is your own gain, Rand believes that this is wrong – you should work hard to get what you have, not steal it from others in some way. If you have worked hard and been creative then you have a right to be proud of yourself and to reap the rewards. In her view those who label this kind of independence and self-motivation as ‘selfish’ are doing so because they wish to force creative and useful people to share with them. The following quote is from her novel, The Fountainhead:
"The first right on Earth is the right of the ego. Man’s first duty is to himself. His moral law is never to place his prime goal within the persons of others. His moral obligation is to do what he wishes, provided his wish does not depend primarily upon other men…. A man thinks and works alone. A man cannot rob, exploit or rule – alone…. Rulers of men are not egoist. They create nothing. They exist entirely through the persons of others. Their goal is their subjects, in activity of enslaving. They are as dependent as the beggar, the social worker and the bandit. The form of dependence does not matter."
Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead

Criticisms of Ethical Egoism
As you may imagine, there are many criticisms of Ethical Egoism, the most obvious simply being the insistence that selfish actions do not have moral worth. Read these criticisms and consider how an Ethical Egoist might respond to defend their view:

1) Anything can be justified, so long as you can profit from it and get away with it.
It is clear that if everyone were to adopt Ethical Egoism then, in general, life would function admirably well, people would help each other because team work produces the best results for every individual, and people would not harm each other because everyone is better off in a world where they feel safe and protected. However, what if the opportunity arises for a person to gain from harming another person and get away with it? Suppose, for example, that I am good with computers and know how to hack websites and hide my trail; why not commit some fraud and live a millionaire lifestyle? Or what if I was in a secluded place and came across a man asleep on a bench with a briefcase full of cash; why not kill him and take the cash and run? And why stop at one killing if I can profit from many, perhaps becoming a drugs baron, living in luxury safe and secure whilst people die to line my pockets? If Ethical Egoism is true then it becomes morally correct to hurt others when you can gain from it, just so long as you can get away with it. Surely it is the very point of morality to hold our selfish and violent urges at bay, and yet, Ethical Egoism gives them clear justification as and when you can get away with it.

However, James Rachels claims that this attack against Ethical Egoism is ineffective because it simply presumes that Ethical Egoism is false; the criticism assumes that it is wrong to hurt others for personal gain, but this is essentially just assuming Ethical Egoism is false. Surely an Ethical Egoist would just accept that it was right to hurt others for gain, as Hobbes put it, in a war or conflict the cardinal virtues are “force and fraud” – violence and trickery.

2) Ethical Egoism cannot provide answers for moral conflicts
Kurt Baier argues that the reason why we need morality is in order for it to settle conflicts of interest, however, Ethical Egoism does not provide a means to resolve these conflicts and actually exacerbates them, thus, it is an insufficient moral theory. Imagine, for example, that Kate and Bruce are getting divorced and are arguing over who should have custody of their children. Surely moral rules should be in place to establish who is the best parent to care for the children, who is most deserving of the custody, and so on: morality is there to resolve the problem. However, under Ethical Egoism a judge has no reason to care who the children end up with because neither option is particularly in his interests, unless one side offers a bribe of course. Moreover, Ethical Egoism would actually exacerbate the problem by encouraging both Kate and Bruce to argue all the more in pursuit of their own desires: each ought to do whatever they can to get their own way, without any care or concern for the effects on the other party, or even their children. So we see that rather than resolving the conflict Ethical Egoism will actually make it worse. Baier states that the Ethical Egoist solution to the conflict is for each side to up their game in their efforts to win custody, for Kate to seek to ‘liquidate’ Bruce (either kill him or somehow make him ineligible to win) and for Bruce to attempt the same with Kate. This escalates the conflict and so is the exact opposite of what morality is meant to do.

James Rachels argues that this attack is not completely successful against Ethical Egoism because it is based on the assumption that morality exists to resolve conflicts in order to create harmony, a view which and Egoist might not agree with. An Egoist might say that “life is essentially a long series of conflicts in which each person is struggling to come out on top.” For the Egoist morality is not about amicably resolving conflicts and compromising, the ‘good’ man is the one who wins and gets what he wants.

3) Ethical Egoism is arbitrary, like racism
James Rachels rejects Ethical Egoism on the basis that it makes unjustifiable and arbitrary distinctions between people. There are numerous ‘ethical’ perspectives which create distinctions between groups of people, for example, racism. Racism works by dividing the people of the world in to two groups, ‘those of my race’ and ‘those not of my race.’ Next it asserts that one group (your own) is superior in some way to the other group. This is then used to justify unequal treatments of those who are not of your race. In the past white racists have asserted that non-whites are intellectually inferior, or morally inferior, and this meant that it was acceptable for whites to get better treatment than non-whites, and it was acceptable for non-whites to do the menial jobs, or to be slaves, or to have their countries invaded. In reality there are no important genetic or cultural differences between the races which would justify saying that one group was superior to the other in any way. We reject racism, xenophobia, and other prejudices such as sexism because we see them as groundless: there is no valid reason to make a division between one ‘superior’ group and another ‘inferior’ group. Rachels argues that if we look closely at Ethical Egoism it makes the same mistake:
"Ethical Egoism is a moral theory of the same type [as racism]. It advocates that each of us divide the world into two categories – ourselves and all the rest – and that we regard the interests of those in the first group as more important than the interests of those in the second group. But each of us can ask, what is the difference between me and everyone else 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 or abilities of others? In short, what 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. And this, in addition to explaining why Ethical Egoism is unacceptable, also sheds some light on the question of why we should care about others."
James Rachel, Ethical Egoism

Rachels rejects Ethical Egoism because it takes the view that an individual is, from his own perspective, more important than others, even to the point where he might willingly sacrifice millions for his own needs, but there is no rational basis for an individual to think of himself as being any more important than any others. Thus, Ethical Egoism is baseless and we must recognise that others and their needs are just as important as ourselves and our own needs. Yes it is normal to seek your own happiness, but this cannot justify treating others like they have little or no value, because these other people are no different from ourselves.

Summary and Conclusion
Whether or not people have a duty to help others, or at least not to harm them, is a key question in Normative Ethics. Ethical Egoists argue that you should only care about yourself, and ignore the needs of others. This means that it would be acceptable to hurt other people for your own benefit, so long as you can get away with it. James Rachels argues that it is illogical to think of yourself as being more important than anyone else, indeed, that this is equivalent to racism. Is he correct, or is selfishness a good thing?


  1. March 7, 2013
    Thank you for your blog, I found it very interesting. I am currently enrolled in an ethical communication class where we are discussing the very topic of Ethics of care. I found it very interesting your comparison between ethics of care and egoism and although I do not agree it is always the case I can see situations where this is true. In addition to people just wanted to help certain people I see an aspect of egoism where people help people to deal with their own insecurities. I know people who have experienced this, as long as people are down or need help people are there for them but if they are able to turn things around those people do not associate with them anymore and go looking for other people.
    The text we are using, ‘Ethics in Human Communication” discuss Ethics of Care by stating, “the ethics of care considers the needs of both self and others not just the survival of one’s self and not just the avoidance of hurting others”(Johannssen, Valde, Whedbee, pg. 204-205). This form of ethic needs to be relevant not with just loved ones but people in general. Serving others so they too can serve others should be the ethical goal of all of us. The greatest thing is when we are able to be a part of something that is bigger than ourselves. It is a great feeling when we are able to help others who cannot repay the good deed but instead passes it on and helps someone else. This reminds me of that movie, ‘Pay It Forward”, great concept.

    Thanks again for your post, I really enjoyed it.

    Best Regards,

    Todd Graves
    Drury University
    Springfield, MO

    Works Cited:

    Johannesen, R. L., Valde, K. S., & Whedbee, K. E. (2008). Ethics in Human Communications (Sixth ed., pp. 203-217). Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.

  2. Hi, thanks for your comment. Sorry it took me ages to reply, I didn't ever receive an email saying you had made the comment. I'm glad you have found it useful! The quotation you have given is very helpful and explains the idea well. Personally I think it is very important for people to be altruistic and that the world would be a much worse place if people did not help each other out. I also think that altruism is bred into us by evolution as we are social beings and can only survive if we work together as a team and help each other out. Selection would favour those who were cooperative. The problem with modern society is that it makes individuals 'footlose' to borrow a term from geography. You don't need to depend on specific others, you can exist in a bubble. You can shop online and although this does involve others it doesn't involve specific people you are having relationships with. Once you would have known the people who produced your food, the local farmers, but now you can just pick it up from a supermarket shelf, and although it took hundreds of people to get it there you don't know any of them. I believe it can contribute to the feeling that others don't matter because so often they are nameless and faceless and distant from us as individuals.

  3. Can you provide detail references for the work?