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Introduction | Criticisms of Egoism
Introduction Back to Top

Egoism (or Ethical Egoism) is the ethical position that moral agents ought to do what is in their own self-interest. This is quite different from Psychological Egoism (the claim that people can only act in their own self-interest) and from Rational Egoism (the claim that it is rational to act in one's self-interest). Egoism as a normative position makes claims about what one ought to do, rather than describes what one does do. A belief that one should be honest, just, benevolent, etc, because those virtues serve one's self-interest is Egoistic; a belief that one should practice those virtues for reasons other than self-interest is not Egoistic.

Egoism is a form of Individualism (an outlook that stresses human independence and the importance of individual self-reliance and liberty), and can be the philosophical basis for support for some forms of Libertarianism or Anarchism (political positions based partly on a belief that individuals should not coercively prevent others from exercising freedom of action).

Individual Egoism holds that all people should do whatever benefits the individual. Personal Egoism holds that the individual should act in his own self-interest, but makes no claims about what anyone else ought to do. Universal Egoism holds that everyone should act in ways that are in their own interest.

Egoism contrasts with ethical Altruism, which holds that moral agents have an ethical obligation to help or serve others. However, it should be noted that Egoism does not actually require moral agents to disregard or oppose the well-being of others; it merely holds that satisfying the self-interest of the agent is the prime consideration - the action may turn out to be incidentally detrimental to, beneficial to, or neutral in its effect on, others. It may sometimes be necessary to sacrifice one's short-term self-interest in order to maximize one's long-term self-interest. Noted egoist Ayn Rand (1905 - 1982) contended that there was a harmony of interest among humans, so that a moral agent could not rationally harm another person anyway.

The German Young Hegelian Max Stirner (1806 - 1856) was perhaps the first philosopher to call himself an Egoist. However, as Friedrich Nietzsche pointed out, the ancient Greeks did not associate morality with Altruism in the way that post-Christian Western civilization has done, and Aristotle's view, for example, is that we have duties to ourselves as well as to other people and to society as a whole.

Criticisms of Egoism Back to Top

Some contend that the view is implausible in practice, and that those who advocate it seriously usually do so at the expense of redefining "self-interest" to include the interests of others (although that in itself would not necessarily negate the position).

Others, including Thomas Jefferson maintain that one can owe no duties to oneself, because obligation requires two parties, and therefore Egoism is by definition a type of immorality, not morality.

Most religions hold that Egoism is the product of a lack of genuine spirituality, and shows an individual's submersion in greed and selfishness.

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