13: Egoism


  • Define and appropriately use important terms such as altruism, psychological egoism, and ethical egoism
  • Demonstrate knowledge of major arguments for and problems
    with ethical egoism
  • Apply ethical concepts and principles to address moral concerns

I. What Are Our Duties to Others?

Is it Wrong to be Selfish?

Key Terms

Ethical Egoism
Psychological Egoism

  • Duty to help the starving
    • Millions die each year due to malnutrition
    • Luxuries vs. Charity
  • Inaction
    • Physical distance leads to mental distance
    • Statistics have little emotional effect
    • Lack of a “crisis” situation
  • Should we care?
    • Common sense response
    • Other people matter
    • It is better to help than hurt
    • Help should be balanced
    • Criticism: naïve

II. Ethical & Psychological Egoism

Dale Carnegie (1936)
How to Win Friends and Influence People

Every act you have ever performed since the day you were born was performed because you wanted something.

  • Egoism
    • Psychological: it is this way
      • Psychological theory
    • Ethical: it ought to be this way
      • Ethical theory
  • Is altruism possible?
    • Altruism on a grand scale: hiding the Jews during the Holocaust, donating millions of dollars
    • Altruism on a small scale: donating blood, visiting the elderly, doing favors
    • Psychological Egoism says we do these things to trick ourselves into believing we are selfless people
  • A. Arguments for Psychological Egoism
    • Argument: We always do what we want to do
      • Flaw: Sometimes we don’t want to do things, but we feel we ought to
      • Flaw: It matters what desire your action is based on
    • Argument: We do what makes us feel good
      • Flaw: Just because a selfish motive exists, doesn’t mean there isn’t a selfless motive as well
      • Flaw: Sometimes purely altruistic acts exist
  • B. Conclusions about Psychological Egoism
    • Human nature is complex
    • Flaws to the argument do exist
    • Keep the differences between Psychological and Ethical Egoism in mind
      • Ethical Egoism claims people ought to exclusively pursue their own self interests
      • Psychological Egoism says people do pursue their own interests
        • Difference between our nature and what we ought to do
      • Ethical Egoism doesn’t state you should avoid helping others, just that helping yourself is the primary goal
      • Ethical Egoism isn’t the uninhibited pursuit of our desires, long term goals are critical

III. Three Arguments for Ethical Egoism

Objectivism vs. God

  • A. The argument that altruism is self-defeating
    • It is arrogant to presume I know the desires of another
    • Altruism is intrusive
    • Altruism tells people they are an object and becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy
    • Objections to the argument
      • Whose privacy is invaded to donate money to feed starving children?
      • If the interests of society and others are important, this contradicts Ethical Egoism
  • B. The argument from Ayn Rand
    • Altruism is destructive because it leads to the denial of the value of an individual, and turns people into parasites of no value to society
    • Altruism does not value the individual
    • Objections to the argument
      • Presents an extreme version of altruism and an extreme version of Ethical Egoism
      • No room for balance
  • C. The argument that Ethical Egoism is compatible with common sense
    • Ethical Egoism is usual revisionist: common sense is wrong/Ethical Egoism is right
    • Moral laws should be followed because it’s in our best interests to do so
    • Objections to the argument
      • Moral rules in most situations are to our advantage, but not all
      • Just because something is in your best interests doesn’t mean that’s the only reason it should be done

IV. Three Arguments Against Ethical Egoism

  • A. The argument that Ethical Egoism endorses wickedness
    • Actions we find repugnant are not wrong if they are in the person’s best interests
    • Does not disprove Ethical Egoism because Ethical Egoism does not acknowledge common sense morality as a standard of judgment
  • B. The argument that Ethical Egoism is logically inconsistent
    • Kurt Baier’s Presidential Hypothesis
    • Hidden assumption that it is wrong to prevent someone from doing his duty is not valid
  • C. The argument that Ethical Egoism is arbitrary
    • Based on the Principle of Equal Treatment
    • No good reason exists that one individual should receive markedly unique treatment from the rest of the world