Excessive regard for oneself and deficient regard for others can lead to criminal behavior, from spousal abuse to serial murder. It can also motivate criminal justice practitioners to abuse their authority by engaging in graft or using excessive force when making arrests. Even so, some, but not many, ethical theoreticians advocate that individuals should focus primarily on promoting their own good. The view they defend is called ethical egoism. As this view presents a challenge to the other-regarding aspects of common morality, there is perennial discussion of the pros and cons of it.
Ethical Egoism and Psychological Egoism
According to ethical egoism, a person’s primary obligation is to promote his/her own self-interest. According to this view, whether an act is obligatory depends on whether it leads to one’s own greatest good, not on whether it leads to society’s greatest good. The consequences of the act for one’s self determine whether the act is obligatory, not the kind of act it is.
If ethical egoists see no personal advantage in giving to charity, for instance, they will opt to let the starving take care of themselves. However, this does not mean that ethical egoism always conflicts with helping others. In fact, in some cases it may actually be to the ethical egoist’s advantage to help the needy. Their guiding principle then is “I am not obligated to help others unless helping them is to my advantage.”
Ethical egoists may define their good or self-interest purely in terms of pleasure or instead take it to be a mixture of pleasure and other goods, such as philosophical contemplation or artistic appreciation. Whether or not they take their good as pleasure, they usually do not just seek their short-term good. Realizing that a focus on achieving short-term goods will often lead to long-term bad consequences, ethical egoists will most likely focus on their long-term self-interests.
That means as well that they are not likely to be trying to get their own way in every situation. Insisting on getting their way in every situation would most likely frustrate their long-term goals. Their long-term good would be better served by considering the needs of others. Ethical egoists may therefore appear to be very considerate people in their daily lives because they see that as to their advantage.
Ethical egoism should be distinguished from psychological egoism, which is the view that people do always act from a motive of self-interest and cannot but do so. Psychological egoism is saying what people do, not what they should do. It is ethical egoism that says what people should do.
Arguments for Ethical Egoism
Although psychological egoism and ethical egoism are different, ethical egoists often cite psychological egoism as support for ethical egoism. They say that because people cannot act except from a motive of self-interest, it is not that they should act in any other way. They conclude that it is right for people always to act from a motive of self-interest.
One major problem for this argument is that it is not so clear that people do always act from a motive of self-interest. There seems to be evidence against this view. Those engaged in selfless service in the slums of Calcutta do not seem to be out for themselves. Even if such a person is just doing it for his/her own satisfaction, it is hard to say this about a soldier who falls on a grenade in order to save his friends. In that case, he seems to seek their good not as a means to his own good. One may still say that he did it from self-interest because he would not have been able to live with himself if he had not done it. But one could equally well say that he sacrificed his self-interest for the sake of theirs.
Without reason to prefer the former description of his act to the latter description, critics maintain that psychological egoism is questionable. In that case, the argument from psychological egoism to ethical egoism is also questionable.
According to another popular argument for ethical egoism, if people will seek only their own self-interest, it will be better for society as a whole. Further, what people should do is what will be better for society as a whole. Consequently, so the argument goes, people should promote their own self-interest.
Critics raise questions about this argument as well. First, it seems clear that trying to promote one’s own good will not always promote society’s good. Suppose a district attorney is the only person who knows that a defendant is not guilty. Suppose also that the district attorney has political ambitions and is not very concerned about being a good person. It might be in his political self-interest to keep what he knows about the defendant to himself. But it would not be good for society because it is in society’s interest that faith be preserved in the legal system by making sure that justice is done.
Critics further point out that this argument also seems to undercut itself by citing the obligation to seek the good of society as the basis for the sole obligation to seek one’s own good. The problem is that if there is an obligation to seek the good of society, then the obligation to seek one’s own good is not the sole obligation, as ethical egoists claim that it is.
Criticisms of Ethical Egoism
One frequent criticism of ethical egoism is that the view in some way leads to a contradiction. For instance, one may say that if the ethical egoists advocate their view, they tell each person that they alone count. That amounts to saying that person A alone counts and person B alone counts. Ethical egoists can respond that they do not have to advocate their view; that in fact advocating it might interfere with the satisfaction of their own interests.
In this same vein, other critics maintain that if ethical egoists say that each person’s good is the sole good, then they’re contradicting themselves, in effect saying that more than one person’s good is the sole good. Ethical egoists may try to avoid this contradiction by saying that each one of them is only talking about his/her own good. But this raises the important question of why anyone should believe that his/her own good is the sole good.
What could make them so special that only their good counts? Without an answer to this question, their special status is not supported. But if they give a definite reason why they believe that they are special, for instance, their abilities, intelligence, family, or race, then others may also have that characteristic. In that case, the others will have just as much basis for saying that their good is the sole good. Critics conclude, therefore, that in such a case, the claim that someone’s good is the sole good seems either arbitrary or unsupported.
Other critics put the point as follows: If there are not significant differences between people, if people are so similar in their wants, needs, feelings, and level of consciousness, then there is no justification for saying that the good of only one counts. Fairness requires treating like cases in like ways. Because they are so similar, they should receive similar treatment.
Another major criticism of ethical egoism is that it has unacceptable consequences. If a person could get away with stealing a large pension fund, then according to ethical egoism, he/she should do it, even if thousands of elderly people would suffer a great deal as a result. Ethical egoists may say that it would not be in their best interest to do such things because they could be wracked by guilt or go to jail. They might add that it is in their interest to live in a stable society, and so they need to behave as if they respect the rights of others.
It is not so clear, however, that society would become unstable if ethical egoists did not always abide by its rules. After all, most people are not ethical egoists, and the ones who are ethical egoists need not always be breaking the rules. Also, some ethical egoists may not feel guilty at all. In cases where there is reason to believe one will not be caught, one will not feel guilty, and society will not break down as a result of one’s deed, what reason does an ethical egoist have for not defrauding elderly people out of their life savings just to support his/her own lavish lifestyle? In some cases, why would such a view not also provide reason for rape and murder for mere amusement as well? Most people find such consequences unacceptable, as contrary to their moral common sense, and as a result, reject ethical egoism.
Defenders of ethical egoism may respond that their view is put forward as a revision of common morality and so need not match common moral beliefs. But before rejecting or revising such beliefs, there is widespread agreement that there should be very good reason to do so and that thus far it is not clear that such reason has been given.
Ethical egoists may ask for the reasons that support common moral prohibitions against such acts as theft, rape, and murder. One popular answer to them goes as follows. The many ways in which people are alike in their feelings, needs, and level of consciousness make them valuable beings. Their value provides the basis for their rights, and their rights are the basis for restricting how they can be treated. As most ethical theorists see it, ethical egoism does not give sufficient recognition to the value of human beings, and as a result, does not give due consideration to their rights.
- Feldman, Fred. Introductory Ethics. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1978.
- Hinman, Lawrence M. Ethics: A Pluralistic Approach to Moral Theory. 5th ed. Boston: Wadsworth, 2013.
- Rachels, James. The Elements of Moral Philosophy.3rd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1999.
- Shafer-Landau, Russ. The Fundamentals of Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
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