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The Best Criticism of Ethical Egoism
Stephen Leach gives you an unbiased reason why you shouldn’t be selfish.
At least sometimes we ought to do what is in our own best interest. However, ethical egoism makes the radical claim that our only duty is to do what is in our own best interest. In other words, we ought to be selfish!
Ethical egoism doesn’t say that we ought to avoid all actions that help others. It says that what makes these actions right, when they are right, is that they are to our benefit. So, if I should help someone else, this is only because doing so would be good for me; and if I should refrain from harming someone, again, that is only because doing so is to my benefit. So, for example, if I find a dropped wallet, then if I am an ethical egoist, I would have good reason to keep it, even if I know to whom it belongs. That person may well be harmed by my action; but that, in itself, is no good reason not to keep the wallet, since I will benefit from keeping it. The same is true of anything else: Help people in poverty? Feed the starving? “Only if there’s something in it for me,” the egoist responds. (Note that the theory says that we should be guided by self-interest, not that we always are.)
I am sure that the response of many people to this will be that the stance of ethical egoism is obviously wrong. But why is it wrong? The ethical egoist would argue that we only think it’s wrong because of our unquestioning acceptance of other, more established theories of morality. However, that’s not a good enough reason to reject egoism (the argument goes), since these rival theories are all weaker than ethical egoism, at least in terms of my own survival and prospects for thriving. Rival theories all require me at times to sacrifice my own well-being for some abstract non-personal ‘good’, but without any justification, says the egoist. Ethical egoism, by contrast, requires no such sacrifices. My guiding star should be my self-interest, and your guiding star should be your self-interest. After all, asks the ethical egoist, why should I sacrifice my self-interest for someone else’s? It makes no sense to do so, for I will always know more about what makes me happy than about what might make someone else happy. If I do happen to get a kick from helping someone else, okay, fine; but, make no mistake, whatever my choice, I should act first and foremost for the sake of my own self-interest.
Ayn Rand Ready for her Close-Up by Stephen Lahey, 2023
Conflicts of Interest & Contradictions
You might intuitively recoil from this theory, but it is surprisingly difficult to refute.
It has been criticised on the grounds that it cannot handle conflicts of interest. If x is in the interests of Tom and y is in the interests of Jane, and x and y conflict, how is the ethical egoist to choose between x and y? They cannot.
But the ethical egoist can easily swat this objection aside, not even recognising it as an objection. The reply would be that Tom should follow the guiding star of his self-interest, and Jane should follow the guiding star of her self-interest. Okay, sometimes their interests may conflict – resulting in either clash or compromise – but there is no impersonal standpoint from which one must (or could) judge between them.
A second criticism that might be made is that ethical egoism is logically contradictory. The same action cannot be both morally wrong and not morally wrong (to Tom and Jane respectively). But again, the ethical egoist can deal with this objection easily, and in much the same way as before. There is only a contradiction between Tom’s intention and Jane’s if it is assumed that there is an impersonal standpoint from which to judge them together – and this is just what the egoist denies.
There is, however, one criticism of ethical egoism that does not assume an impersonal standpoint. It was first formulated, to the best of my knowledge, by the moral philosopher James Rachels (1941-2003). This criticism is that ethical egoism is unacceptably arbitrary : Is there really a significant moral difference between myself and other people that justifies me getting (or giving myself) special treatment? What makes me so special?
Yes, I know myself better than other people; but why should that be morally relevant? The same with the idea that what happens to me has more immediate relevance to me than what happens to others. So what? The egoist’s moral distinction between myself and others seems arbitrary. It’s like a racist distinction drawn between one group of people and another, with the racist giving preferential treatment to the group to which he or she belongs, just because they belong to that group. That Ayn Rand (1905-1982) – undoubtedly the single most influential ethical egoist – was herself a critic of racism does not undermine this criticism. The ball is back in the egoist’s court.
This third criticism is perhaps the strongest criticism that can be made of ethical egoism. It’s not made from the perspective of an impersonal, universal standard of morality, but it is stronger for all that. It is a criticism available to anyone who, however vaguely, feels, about any other creature, that, in James Rachels’ words, “we are on a par with one another.” It is, for example, open to anyone whose moral sentiments, for all their vagueness, might on a dark night, cause them to quake at the accidental crunch of a snail.
© Stephen Leach 2023
Stephen Leach is an honorary senior fellow at Keele University, UK. He is co-editor, with James Tartaglia, of Consciousness and the Great Philosophers (2017) and The Meaning of Life and the Great Philosophers (2018).