Ethical egoism

Ethical egoism is the normative ethical position that moral agents ought to do what is in their own self-interest. It differs from psychological egoism, which claims that people can only act in their self-interest. Ethical egoism also differs from rational egoism, which holds that it is rational to act in one's self-interest.[1] Ethical egoism holds, therefore, that actions whose consequences will benefit the doer can be considered ethical in this sense.

Ethical egoism contrasts with ethical altruism, which holds that moral agents have an obligation to help others. Egoism and altruism both contrast with ethical utilitarianism, which holds that a moral agent should treat one's self (also known as the subject) with no higher regard than one has for others (as egoism does, by elevating self-interests and "the self" to a status not granted to others). But it also holds that one should not (as altruism does) sacrifice one's own interests to help others' interests, so long as one's own interests (i.e. one's own desires or well-being) are substantially equivalent to the others' interests and well-being. Egoism, utilitarianism, and altruism are all forms of consequentialism, but egoism and altruism contrast with utilitarianism, in that egoism and altruism are both agent-focused forms of consequentialism (i.e. subject-focused or subjective). However, utilitarianism is held to be agent-neutral (i.e. objective and impartial): it does not treat the subject's (i.e. the self's, i.e. the moral "agent's") own interests as being more or less important than the interests, desires, or well-being of others.

Ethical egoism does not, however, require moral agents to harm the interests and well-being of others when making moral deliberation; e.g. what is in an agent's self-interest may be incidentally detrimental, beneficial, or neutral in its effect on others. Individualism allows for others' interest and well-being to be disregarded or not, as long as what is chosen is efficacious in satisfying the self-interest of the agent. Nor does ethical egoism necessarily entail that, in pursuing self-interest, one ought always to do what one wants to do; e.g. in the long term, the fulfillment of short-term desires may prove detrimental to the self. Fleeting pleasure, then, takes a back seat to protracted eudaimonia. In the words of James Rachels, "Ethical egoism ... endorses selfishness, but it doesn't endorse foolishness."[2]

Ethical egoism is often used as the philosophical basis for support of right-libertarianism and individualist anarchism.[3] These are political positions based partly on a belief that individuals should not coercively prevent others from exercising freedom of action.


Ethical egoism can be broadly divided into three categories: individual, personal, and universal. An individual ethical egoist would hold that all people should do whatever benefits "my" (the individual's) self-interest; a personal ethical egoist would hold that he or she should act in his or her self-interest, but would make no claims about what anyone else ought to do; a universal ethical egoist would argue that everyone should act in ways that are in their self-interest.[4][5]


Ethical egoism was introduced by the philosopher Henry Sidgwick in his book The Methods of Ethics, written in 1874. Sidgwick compared egoism to the philosophy of utilitarianism, writing that whereas utilitarianism sought to maximize overall pleasure, egoism focused only on maximizing individual pleasure.[6]

Philosophers before Sidgwick have also retroactively been identified as ethical egoists. One ancient example is the philosophy of Yang Zhu (4th century BC), Yangism, who views wei wo, or "everything for myself", as the only virtue necessary for self-cultivation.[7] Ancient Greek philosophers like Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics were exponents of virtue ethics, and "did not accept the formal principle that whatever the good is, we should seek only our own good, or prefer it to the good of others."[6] However, the beliefs of the Cyrenaics have been referred to as a "form of egoistic hedonism",[8] and while some refer to Epicurus' hedonism as a form of virtue ethics, others argue his ethics are more properly described as ethical egoism.[9]


Philosopher James Rachels, in an essay that takes as its title the theory's name, outlines the three arguments most commonly touted in its favor:[10]

  • "The first argument," writes Rachels, "has several variations, each suggesting the same general point:[11]
    • "Each of us is intimately familiar with our own individual wants and needs. Moreover, each of us is uniquely placed to pursue those wants and needs effectively. At the same time, we know the desires and needs of others only imperfectly, and we are not well situated to pursue them. Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that if we set out to be 'our brother's keeper,' we would often bungle the job and end up doing more mischief than good."[2]
    • To give charity to someone is to degrade him, implying as it does that he is reliant on such munificence and quite unable to look out for himself. "That," reckons Rachels, "is why the recipients of 'charity' are so often resentful rather than appreciative."[12]
  • Altruism, ultimately, denies an individual's value and is therefore destructive both to society and its individual components, viewing life merely as a thing to be sacrificed. Philosopher Ayn Rand is quoted as writing that, "[i]f a man accepts the ethics of altruism, his first concern is not how to live his life but how to sacrifice it."[13] Moreover, "[t]he basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification for his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue or value." Rather, she writes, "[t]he purpose of morality is to teach you, not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live."[14]
  • All of our commonly accepted moral duties, from doing no harm unto others to speaking always the truth to keeping promises, are rooted in the one fundamental principle of self-interest.
  • It has been observed, however, that the very act of eating (especially, when there are others starving in the world) is such an act of self-interested discrimination. Ethical egoists such as Rand who readily acknowledge the (conditional) value of others to an individual, and who readily endorse empathy for others, have argued the exact reverse from Rachels, that it is altruism which discriminates: "If the sensation of eating a cake is a value, then why is it an immoral indulgence in your stomach, but a moral goal for you to achieve in the stomach of others?"[15] It is therefore altruism which is an arbitrary position, according to Rand.


It has been argued that extreme ethical egoism is self-defeating. Faced with a situation of limited resources, egoists would consume as much of the resource as they could, making the overall situation worse for everybody. Egoists may respond that if the situation becomes worse for everybody, that would include the egoist, so it is not, in fact, in his or her rational self-interest to take things to such extremes.[16] However, the (unregulated) tragedy of the commons and the (one off) prisoner's dilemma are cases in which, on the one hand, it is rational for an individual to seek to take as much as possible even though that makes things worse for everybody, and on the other hand, those cases are not self-refuting since that behaviour remains rational even though it is ultimately self-defeating, i.e. self-defeating does not imply self-refuting. Egoists might respond that a tragedy of the commons, however, assumes some degree of public land. That is, a commons forbidding homesteading requires regulation. Thus, an argument against the tragedy of the commons, in this belief system, is fundamentally an argument for private property rights and the system that recognizes both property rights and rational self-interest—capitalism.[17] More generally, egoists might say that an increasing respect for individual rights uniquely allows for increasing wealth creation and increasing usable resources despite a fixed amount of raw materials (e.g. the West pre-1776 versus post-1776, East versus West Germany, Hong Kong versus mainland China, North versus South Korea, etc.).[18]

It is not clear how to apply a private ownership model to many examples of "Commons", however. Examples include large fisheries, the atmosphere and the ocean.[19][20]

Notable proponents

The term ethical egoism has been applied retroactively to philosophers such as Bernard de Mandeville and to many other materialists of his generation, although none of them declared themselves to be egoists. Note that materialism does not necessarily imply egoism, as indicated by Karl Marx, and the many other materialists who espoused forms of collectivism. It has been argued that ethical egoism can lend itself to individualist anarchism such as that of Benjamin Tucker, or the combined anarcho-communism and egoism of Emma Goldman, both of whom were proponents of many egoist ideas put forward by Max Stirner. In this context, egoism is another way of describing the sense that the common good should be enjoyed by all. However, most notable anarchists in history have been less radical, retaining altruism and a sense of the importance of the individual that is appreciable but does not go as far as egoism. Recent trends to greater appreciation of egoism within anarchism tend to come from less classical directions such as post-left anarchy or Situationism (e.g. Raoul Vaneigem). Egoism has also been referenced by anarcho-capitalists, such as Murray Rothbard.

Philosopher Max Stirner, in his book The Ego and Its Own, was the first philosopher to call himself an egoist, though his writing makes clear that he desired not a new idea of morality (ethical egoism), but rather a rejection of morality (amoralism), as a nonexistent and limiting "spook"; for this, Stirner has been described as the first individualist anarchist. Other philosophers, such as Thomas Hobbes and David Gauthier, have argued that the conflicts which arise when people each pursue their own ends can be resolved for the best of each individual only if they all voluntarily forgo some of their aims—that is, one's self-interest is often best pursued by allowing others to pursue their self-interest as well so that liberty is equal among individuals. Sacrificing one's short-term self-interest to maximize one's long-term self-interest is one form of "rational self-interest" which is the idea behind most philosophers' advocacy of ethical egoism. Egoists have also argued that one's actual interests are not immediately obvious, and that the pursuit of self-interest involves more than merely the acquisition of some good, but the maximizing of one's chances of survival and/or happiness.

Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche suggested that egoistic or "life-affirming" behavior stimulates jealousy or "ressentiment" in others, and that this is the psychological motive for the altruism in Christianity. Sociologist Helmut Schoeck similarly considered envy the motive of collective efforts by society to reduce the disproportionate gains of successful individuals through moral or legal constraints, with altruism being primary among these.[21] In addition, Nietzsche (in Beyond Good and Evil) and Alasdair MacIntyre (in After Virtue) have pointed out that the ancient Greeks did not associate morality with altruism in the way that post-Christian Western civilization has done. Aristotle's view is that we have duties to ourselves as well as to other people (e.g. friends) and to the polis as a whole. The same is true for Thomas Aquinas, Christian Wolff and Immanuel Kant, who claim that there are duties to ourselves as Aristotle did, although it has been argued that, for Aristotle, the duty to one's self is primary.[22]

Ayn Rand argued that there is a positive harmony of interests among free, rational humans, such that no moral agent can rationally coerce another person consistently with his own long-term self-interest. Rand argued that other people are an enormous value to an individual's well-being (through education, trade and affection), but also that this value could be fully realized only under conditions of political and economic freedom. According to Rand, voluntary trade alone can assure that human interaction is mutually beneficial.[23] Rand's student, Leonard Peikoff has argued that the identification of one's interests itself is impossible absent the use of principles, and that self-interest cannot be consistently pursued absent a consistent adherence to certain ethical principles.[24] Recently, Rand's position has also been defended by such writers as Tara Smith, Tibor Machan, Allan Gotthelf, David Kelley, Douglas Rasmussen, Nathaniel Branden, Harry Binswanger, Andrew Bernstein, and Craig Biddle.

Philosopher David L. Norton identified himself an "ethical individualist", and, like Rand, saw a harmony between an individual's fidelity to his own self-actualization, or "personal destiny", and the achievement of society's well being.[25]

See also


  1. ^ Sanders, Steven M. "Is egoism morally defensible?" Philosophia. Springer Netherlands. Volume 18, Numbers 2–3 / July 1988
  2. ^ a b Rachels 2008, p. 534.
  3. ^ Ridgely, D.A. (August 24, 2008). "Selfishness, Egoism and Altruistic Libertarianism". Archived from the original on December 2, 2008. Retrieved 2008-08-24.
  4. ^ Waller (2005), p. 81.
  5. ^ Waller (2005), p. 83.
  6. ^ a b Floridi, Luciano; Craig, Edward. "Egoism and Altruism". Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Taylor & Francis. pp. 246–47. ISBN 9780415187091.
  7. ^ Senghaas, Dieter (2002). The clash within civilizations: coming to terms with cultural conflicts. Psychology Press. p. 33. ISBN 978-0-415-26228-6.
  8. ^ Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Cyrenaics
  9. ^ Evans, Matthew (2004). "Can Epicureans be friends?". Ancient Philosophy. 24: 407–24.
  10. ^ He notes, however, that "the theory is asserted more often than it is argued for. Many of its supporters apparently think its truth is self-evident, so that arguments are not needed." (Rachels 2008, p. 534.)
  11. ^ That is, that regarding and pursuing the interests of others is a self-defeating policy. Rachels quotes Alexander Pope in support of this: "Thus God and nature formed the general frame/And bade self-love and social be the same."
  12. ^ Rachels 2008, p. 534, where it is pointed out that, in the strictest egoistic terms, this is an inconsequential argument. Ethical egoism does not bother itself with how others receive charity, irrespective of how degraded it makes them feel. The same reasoning applies to the previous two bullets, which use self-interest as a means to the end of beneficence, rather than for its own purposes, as the theory would dictate.
  13. ^ Rachels 2008, p. 535, where this argument is attributed to Ayn Rand, "a writer little heeded by professional philosophers but who nevertheless was enormously popular on college campuses in the 1960s and 1970s".
  14. ^ Rand, Ayn, "Faith and Force: Destroyers of the Modern World," Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 74; Atlas Shrugged, 1957, Random House, p. 1014; "Faith and Force," p. 74.
  15. ^ Rand, Ayn, Atlas Shrugged, 1957, Random House.
  16. ^ "Ethics" Britannica
  17. ^ Block, Walter (1998). "Environmentalism and Economic Freedom: The Case for Private Property Rights". Journal of Business Ethics. 17 (16): 18871899. ISSN 0167-4544. JSTOR 25074025.
  18. ^ Julian Simon. "The Ultimate Resource II: People, Materials, and Environment (1996)". Retrieved 2014-03-14.
  19. ^ " The Challenge of Common-Pool Resources" Environment Magazine
  20. ^ "Ten Real-life Examples of the Tragedy of the Commons" Environmental Science for Dummies
  21. ^ Schoeck, Helmut, Der Neid. Eine Theorie der Gesellschaft (Envy. A Theory of Social Behaviour), 1966, 1st English ed. 1969.
  22. ^ Wheeler, Jack, "Rand and Aristotle," in Den Uyl and Rasmussen, The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand, 1986.
  23. ^ Rand, Ayn, The Virtue of Selfishness (1964).
  24. ^ Peikoff, Leonard, "Why Should One Act on Principle?," The Objectivist Forum, 1988, originally delivered at the Ford Hall Forum.
  25. ^ Norton, David, Personal Destinies: A Philosophy of Ethical Individualism, 1976, Princeton University Press.


External links


Consequentialism is the class of normative ethical theories holding that the consequences of one's conduct are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness or wrongness of that conduct. Thus, from a consequentialist standpoint, a morally right act (or omission from acting) is one that will produce a good outcome, or consequence.

Consequentialism is primarily non-prescriptive, meaning the moral worth of an action is determined by its potential consequence, not by whether it follows a set of written edicts or laws. One example would entail lying under the threat of government punishment to save an innocent person's life, even though it is illegal to lie under oath.

Consequentialism is usually contrasted with deontological ethics (or deontology), in that deontology, in which rules and moral duty are central, derives the rightness or wrongness of one's conduct from the character of the behaviour itself rather than the outcomes of the conduct. It is also contrasted with virtue ethics, which focuses on the character of the agent rather than on the nature or consequences of the act (or omission) itself, and pragmatic ethics which treats morality like science: advancing socially over the course of many lifetimes, such that any moral criterion is subject to revision. Consequentialist theories differ in how they define moral goods.

Some argue that consequentialist and deontological theories are not necessarily mutually exclusive. For example, T. M. Scanlon advances the idea that human rights, which are commonly considered a "deontological" concept, can only be justified with reference to the consequences of having those rights. Similarly, Robert Nozick argues for a theory that is mostly consequentialist, but incorporates inviolable "side-constraints" which restrict the sort of actions agents are permitted to do.


Egoism is an ethical theory that treats self-interest as the foundation of morality.

Ethical solipsism

Ethical solipsism is relative to Ethical egoism; however, the difference is in that while the ethical egoist thinks that others should abide by the social order while it is in his/her best interest to do what best suits him/her as an individual, the Ethical Solipsist is of the belief that no other moral judgment exists or matters outside of his own individual moral judgment.

Index of ethics articles

This Index of ethics articles puts articles relevant to well-known ethical (right and wrong, good and bad) debates and decisions in one place - including practical problems long known in philosophy, and the more abstract subjects in law, politics, and some professions and sciences. It lists also those core concepts essential to understanding ethics as applied in various religions, some movements derived from religions, and religions discussed as if they were a theory of ethics making no special claim to divine status.


Individualism is the moral stance, political philosophy, ideology, or social outlook that emphasizes the moral worth of the individual. Individualists promote the exercise of one's goals and desires and so value independence and self-reliance and advocate that interests of the individual should achieve precedence over the state or a social group, while opposing external interference upon one's own interests by society or institutions such as the government. Individualism is often defined in contrast to totalitarianism, collectivism, and more corporate social forms.Individualism makes the individual its focus and so starts "with the fundamental premise that the human individual is of primary importance in the struggle for liberation." Classical liberalism, existentialism, and anarchism are examples of movements that take the human individual as a central unit of analysis. Individualism thus involves "the right of the individual to freedom and self-realization".It has also been used as a term denoting "The quality of being an individual; individuality" related to possessing "An individual characteristic; a quirk." Individualism is thus also associated with artistic and bohemian interests and lifestyles where there is a tendency towards self-creation and experimentation as opposed to tradition or popular mass opinions and behaviors, as with humanist philosophical positions and ethics.

Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek

Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek (born 7 August 1975) is a Polish utilitarian philosopher and an assistant professor at the Institute of Philosophy at University of Łódź.She has also taught at a summer seminar on utilitarian ethics at the European Graduate School and Spring School for PhD students at the Dutch Research School of Philosophy. She is best known for her collaborations with the Australian philosopher Peter Singer.

In their 2012, 2014 and 2016 collaborations she and Singer set out to explain and defend act utilitarianism and suggest a resolution to what the late 19th century British philosopher Henry Sidgwick called “the profoundest problem of ethics”, the apparent rationality of both ethical egoism and utilitarianism. She and Singer use an evolutionary debunking argument to damage egoism but leave utilitarianism unscathed. In On What Matters Vol 3. Oxford philosopher Derek Parfit (1942–2017) expressed the view that their argument against the rationality of egoism carried "some force" though, as Lazari-Radek and Singer themselves acknowledge, it is not "decisive".


A libertine is one devoid of most moral principles, a sense of responsibility, or sexual restraints, which are seen as unnecessary or undesirable, especially one who ignores or even spurns accepted morals and forms of behaviour sanctified by the larger society. Libertinism is described as an extreme form of hedonism. Libertines put value on physical pleasures, meaning those experienced through the senses. As a philosophy, libertinism gained new-found adherents in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, particularly in France and Great Britain. Notable among these were John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester and the Marquis de Sade.

Objectivity (philosophy)

Objectivity is a philosophical concept of being true independently from individual subjectivity caused by perception, emotions, or imagination. A proposition is considered to have objective truth when its truth conditions are met without bias caused by a sentient subject. Scientific objectivity refers to the ability to judge without partiality or external influence, sometimes used synonymously with neutrality.

Onkar Ghate

Onkar K. Ghate (born 1965 or 1966) is a Canadian philosopher. He is an Objectivist and a senior fellow and chief content officer at the Ayn Rand Institute.

Psychological egoism

Psychological egoism is the view that humans are always motivated by self-interest and selfishness, even in what seem to be acts of altruism. It claims that, when people choose to help others, they do so ultimately because of the personal benefits that they themselves expect to obtain, directly or indirectly, from doing. This is a descriptive rather than normative view, since it only makes claims about how things are, not how they ought to be. It is, however, related to several other normative forms of egoism, such as ethical egoism and rational egoism.

A specific form of psychological egoism is psychological hedonism, the view that the ultimate motive for all voluntary human action is the desire to experience pleasure or to avoid pain. Many discussions of psychological egoism focus on this type, but the two are not the same: theorists have explained behavior motivated by self-interest without using pleasure and pain as the final causes of behavior. Psychological hedonism argues actions are caused by both a need for pleasure immediately and in the future. However, immediate gratification can be sacrificed for a chance of greater, future pleasure. Further, humans are not motivated to strictly avoid pain and only pursue pleasure, but, instead, humans will endure pain to achieve the greatest net pleasure. Accordingly, all actions are tools for increasing pleasure or decreasing pain, even those defined as altruistic and those that do not cause an immediate change in satisfaction levels.

Rational egoism

Rational egoism (also called rational selfishness) is the principle that an action is rational if and only if it maximizes one's self-interest. The view is a normative form of egoism. It is distinct from psychological egoism (according to which people are motivated only to act in their own self-interest) and ethical egoism (that moral agents ought only to do what is in their own self-interest).

Rule egoism

Rule egoism is the doctrine under which an individual evaluates the optimal set of rules according to whether conformity to those rules bring the most benefit to himself. An action, therefore, is right if it promotes his welfare at least as well as any alternative rule available to him. It is associated with foundational egoism, which maintains that normative factors must be grounded in consideration of the agent's well-being - something that rule egoism does but in a way that avoids factoral egoism.


Self-interest generally refers to a focus on the needs or desires (interests) of one's self. A number of philosophical, psychological, and economic theories examine the role of self-interest in motivating human action.

Self-refuting idea

Self-refuting ideas or self-defeating ideas are ideas or statements whose falsehood is a logical consequence of the act or situation of holding them to be true. Many ideas are called self-refuting by their detractors, and such accusations are therefore almost always controversial, with defenders stating that the idea is being misunderstood or that the argument is invalid. For these reasons, none of the ideas below are unambiguously or incontrovertibly self-refuting. These ideas are often used as axioms, which are definitions taken to be true (tautological assumptions), and cannot be used to test themselves, for doing so would lead to only two consequences: consistency (circular reasoning) or exception (self-contradiction). It is important to know that the conclusion of an argument that is self-refuting is not necessarily false, since it could be supported by another, more valid, argument.


Selfishness is being concerned excessively or exclusively, for oneself or one's own advantage, pleasure, or welfare, regardless of others.Selfishness is the opposite of altruism or selflessness; and has also been contrasted (as by C. S. Lewis) with self-centeredness.

The Elements of Moral Philosophy

The Elements of Moral Philosophy, by James Rachels and Stuart Rachels, is an ethics textbook. It explains a number of moral theories and topics, including cultural relativism, subjectivism, divine command theory, ethical egoism, social contract theory, utilitarianism, Kantian ethics, and deontology. The book uses real-life examples in explaining the theories.

Tibor Machan

Tibor Richard Machan (; 18 March 1939 – 24 March 2016) was a Hungarian-American philosopher. A professor emeritus in the department of philosophy at Auburn University, Machan held the R. C. Hoiles Chair of Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business & Economics at Chapman University in Orange, California until 31 December 2014.

He was a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, a research fellow at the Independent Institute, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, and an adjunct faculty member of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Machan was a syndicated and freelance columnist; author of more than one hundred scholarly papers and more than forty books, among them Why is Everyone Else Wrong? (Springer, 2008). He was, until spring 2015, senior contributing editor at The Daily Bell. He was senior fellow at the Heartland Institute in Arlington Heights, Illinois.

Machan rejected any division of libertarianism into left wing and right wing. He held that, by its nature, libertarianism is about political liberty for all individuals to do whatever is peaceful and non-aggressive. Machan was a minarchist.


Yangism (Chinese: 楊朱學派; pinyin: Yángzhūxuépài) was a philosophical school founded by Yang Zhu, existent during the Warring States period (475 BCE – 221 BCE), that believed that human actions are and should be based on self-interest. The school has been described by sinologists as an early form of psychological and ethical egoism. The main focus of the Yangists was on the concept of xing, or human nature, a term later incorporated by Mencius into Confucianism. No documents directly authored by the Yangists have been discovered yet, and all that is known of the school comes from the comments of rival philosophers, specifically in the Chinese texts Huainanzi, Lüshi Chunqiu, Mengzi, and possibly the Liezi and Zhuangzi. The philosopher Mencius claimed that Yangism once rivaled Confucianism and Mohism, although the veracity of this claim remains controversial among sinologists. Because Yangism had largely faded into obscurity by the time that Sima Qian compiled his Shiji, the school was not included as one of the Hundred Schools of Thought.


Zamanfou, also known as "ochaderfismos" (Greek "Ωχαδερφισμός") is a counterculture phenomenon in Greece which involves social loafing as its principal characteristic.

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