(Def.) Egoism = being selfish, i.e., pursing your self-interest primarily OR exclusively.  

“primarily”: you pursue other people’s interests also, but your self-interest always comes first.

“exclusively”: you ONLY pursue your own self-interest, never other’s interests.

There are actually different kinds of egoism:

Psychological Egoism [PE]: a claim about human nature and human psychology: each person, as a matter of fact, does pursue his or her self-interest or benefit. [descriptive]

Ethical Egoism [EE]: a claim about what we should do: each person, as a matter of what is morally right, should pursue his or her own self-interest or benefit. [prescriptive]

Why focus more on EE than PE? Firstly, PE is probably wrong, but probably also impossible to know this for sure.

Also: PE is a question for psychology (moral psychology), not for ethical normative philosophy [which focuses mainly on how we should live].

Also: just look at it from common sense point of view: humans seem both good and bad, selfish and generous!!

So PE probably wrong,

BUT not entirely wrong, of course: egoism is a strong human tendency, but so seems altruism!

So is EE correct? This is a more interesting question, from a philosophical point of view.

Once again, EE says: the only moral duty you have is to pursue your own self-interest: the only thing that makes an action right is whether it is to your own advantage.

The answer to whether EE is right, is a real mystery – no clear answer.

This question touches on one of the core issues in thinking about ethics and morality.

Arguments Supporting EE

Argument 1: Ayn Rand’s argument that EE respects the individual.

A famous female intellectual, champion of capitalism.

She argues that altruism leads to the denial of an individual’s value, worth and rights.

Altruism tells us to sacrifice our life for others (i.e., your time, resources, etc.). This is a fundamental disrespect to one’s own self.

Logical structure of argument:

P1: each person’s life has supreme importance and value.

P2: Ethical Altruism [EA] (the opposite of EE) says one should sacrifice one’s life (time, resources, etc.) for others. This fails to seriously value the individual’s life.

P3: EE treats each person’s life as of the highest value. This respects the individual’s life.

Conclusion: we should all accept EE, reject EA.

A Problem for Rand:

Fallacy of False Dilemma.

An alternative third choice exists, which is better than either of the two:

The common sense view: one’s own interests and the interests of others are BOTH important, and must be balanced (sometimes act selfishly, sometimes altruistically!).

Argument 2: EE is compatible with our common sense moral views.

Find the unity underlying our common moral rules. I.e., is there a basic fundamental moral principle that can explain all our rules?


A) Common sense Rule 1: Don’t harm others!

Others will harm us if we harm them.

We’ll be ostracized.

Lose friends.

Lose help from others.

Thus: it’s in our own interest to follow rule 1.

B) Common sense Rule 2: Don’t lie, be honest!

If we lie, we’ll get a “bad rep” and this will harm us.

Lose the trust of others.

Others will lie to us in turn.

Thus: it’s in our self-interest to follow Rule 2.

C) Common sense Rule 3: Keep your promises and your word!

If break my word/promises, no agreements.

If no agreements, I lose many social benefits.

Thus: it’s in our self-interest to follow Rule 3.

The bottom line: the principle of self-interest seems to be driving all these common sense rules!

In other words, it looks like what is underneath all of our common sense moral beliefs is what Hobbes called the “Golden Rule”: treat others how you want them to treat you!

A Problem with Argument 2:

What about situations where we can benefit from doing something wrong?       E.g., murder someone and get       away with it and benefit???

EE would say: we should go ahead and murder!

BUT our common-sense moral view would say: no, cannot murder!

What this shows: the principle of self-interest CANNOT explain ALL of our common-sense moral rules.

In other words, there may be other basic moral principles, in addition to the principle of self-interest, that we are commonly holding onto.

Thus: EE (which says the principle of self-interest is the ONLY moral principle) is wrong!

EE CANNOT explain all of our common-sense moral rules. So Argument 2 is wrong.


First: even though you have no duty to look after other peoples’ interests, you can still help them, as long as their interests coincide with your own interests (oftentimes this is actually true).

So EE is NOT the view that you should never help others!

The only thing that makes an action right is if it is in your own interest (to your own advantage). If it is in your interest to help others, then you should!

Second: you must generally pursue your long-term interests, NOT your short-term interests.

E.g., in your interest to take drugs? NO – even if it gives you short-term pleasure, it will most probably harm you in the long-term.

Arguments Attacking EE

Argument 3: EE is arbitrary and unfair. 

P1: everyone believes in the principle of equal treatment: treat like cases alike; i.e., treat everyone in the same way (in a fair & equal way), UNLESS you have a good reason not to. (Explanation: if two students study equally hard and do equally well, but one gets A and the other gets C = no good reason for differential treatment.

BUT: if one studies hard and gets A, the other parties all night and gets F = good reason for differential treatment.)

If you do have a good reason, then you can treat people differently.

P2: EE violates the principle of equal treatment: it divides world into 2 categories, and values one over the other for no good reason (thus arbitrary)! (Explanation: divides the world into “myself” and “everyone else.”

And then it treats people differently, it says I can treat myself in a special way and value my own interest as more important than everyone else’s interests.

BUT I have no good reason to value my own interest over everyone else!

Why? Because there is no morally relevant difference between me and everyone else. *From a moral standpoint, I am not special. Everyone’s lives are equally important, and we all equally deserve to live!)

C: EE is incorrect!

Thus EE tells me to treat myself differently (and more importantly) from other people for no good reason at all. And this is wrong.

It’s a violation of the principle of equal treatment.

Some Caveats:

(1) SIDE-NOTE about the principle of equal treatment:

Substantive Justice vs. Procedural Justice

Treating people in the same way does not always guarantee the same outcome for all.

Example: the Vietnam War Draft – some were selected to go fight (and die), some did not get picked – was a lottery.

Thus the result (substantively) was unequal.

BUT: the process of selection (of who goes to fight in the war) was fair – was supposed to be a fair lottery. Thus procedurally fair.

We call this the difference between substantial vs. procedural fairness/justice.

The Vietnam War Draft, some may argue, was substantially unfair (the result was unequal, some had to fight and some didn’t have to fight).

However, it was procedurally fair (the process of selection was fair).

Thus, the Draft still respected the principle of equal treatment (because it was procedurally fair).

In other words, it was procedurally just, even though substantially unjust, thus still compatible with the principle of equal treatment.

(2) What exactly is the difference between the principle of equal treatment, and the principle of impartiality (which we saw in both classical utilitarianism and in Kant)?

Principle of equal treatment: treat people in the same (equal) way unless you have good reasons not to.

Principle of impartiality: everyone is to count equally from a moral point of view.

Argument 4: EE leads to contradiction (Baier’s argument).

Imagine 2 people are running for President of the US: Trump and Jin.

It’s in Jin’s interest to win, so it’s in Jin’s interest to murder Trump!

Thus, EE says Jin ought to kill Trump.

BUT: it’s in Trump’s interest to stay alive, thus Trump ought to stop Jin from murdering him!

The problem: when Trump protects himself from me trying to kill him, his action is both right and wrong:

Wrong because it prevents me from doing my moral duty;

Right because it is in Trump’s moral duty to do it.

BUT: * same act CANNOT be both morally wrong and morally right – that would be contradictory.

Thus: EE leads to contradiction.

Kathleen Li


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