Part I History of Ethics
Life of Socrates
Part II Concepts and Problems
Normative Ethics and Applied Ethics
Part III Applied Ethics
Field of Applied Ethics
Excerpts from Richard Kraut's entry on Egoism in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (General Ed. Edward Craig)
Egoism and altruism
Henry Sidgwick conceived of egoism as an ethical theory parallel to utilitarianism: the utilitarian holds that one should maximize the good of all beings in the universe; the egoist holds instead that the good one is ultimately to aim at is only one's own. This form of egoism (often called "ethical egoism") is to be distinguished from the empirical hypothesis ("psychological egoism") that human beings seek to maximize their own good. Ethical egoism can approve of behaviour that benefits others, for often the best way to promote one's good is to form cooperative relationships. But the egoist cannot approve of an altruistic justification for such cooperation: altruism requires benefiting others merely for their sake, whereas the egoist insists that one's ultimate goal must be solely one's own good.
One way to defend ethical egoism is to affirm psychological egoism and then to propose that our obligations cannot outstrip our capacities; if we cannot help seeking to maximize our own well being, we should not hold ourselves to a less selfish standard. But this defence is widely rejected, because psychological egoism seems too simple a conception of human behaviour. Moreover, egoism violates our sense of impartiality; there is no fact about oneself that justifies excluding others from one's ultimate end.
Definitions of "egoism"
The term "egoism" was introduced into modern moral philosophy as a label for a type of ethical theory that is structurally parallel to utilitarianism. The latter theory holds that one ought to consider everyone and produce the greatest balance of good over evil; egoism, by contrast, says that each person ought to maximize their own good. Both theories are teleological, in that they hold that the right thing to do is always to produce a certain good. But the utilitarian claims that the good that one is to maximize is the universal good - the good of all human beings and perhaps all sentient creatures. The egoist, on the other hand, holds that the good one is ultimately to aim at is only one's own.
This way of classifying ethical theories is due to Henry Sidgwick, who regarded the choice between utilitarianism and egoism as one of the principal problems of moral philosophy. In The Methods of Ethics (1874), Sidgwick frames the issue in terms that assume that the good is identical to pleasure (a doctrine called "hedonism"). He uses "utilitarianism" for the view that one is to maximize the amount of pleasure in the universe, and holds that the only form of egoism worth considering is hedonistic egoism. Since few philosophers now accept the identity of pleasure and the good, the terms of the debate have changed. "Egoism" is applied to any doctrine, whatever its conception of the good, that advocates maximizing one's own good.
Often this doctrine is called "ethical egoism", to emphasize its normative status. By contrast, the term "psychological egoism" is applied to an empirical hypothesis about human motivation. It holds that whenever one has a choice to make, one decides in favour of the action one thinks will maximize one's own good. It is possible to agree that we are inevitably selfish in this way, but to regard this as an evil element in our nature. Conversely, it is possible to hold that although people ought to maximize their own good, they seldom try to do so.
Arguments for and against
Philosophers have sometimes tried to refute egoism by showing that it contains a contradiction or is in some way self-undermining. The best known attempt is that of G.E. Moore in Principia Ethica (1903), but he has had few followers. Instead, Sidgwick's opinion that egoism is rational is generally accepted. But even if one agrees, one may ask whether there are good reasons for choosing egoism over other alternatives. Why must it always be a mistake to sacrifice one's good for the greater good of others? If a small loss in one's wellbeing can produce great gains for others, what is wrong with accepting that loss?
The egoist might at this point take refuge in psychological egoism. Although it is possible to affirm psychological egoism and reject ethical egoism - to agree that by nature we are ultimately self-seeking, and to condemn such behaviour as evil - few philosophers regard this as an appealing mix of theories. For what plausibility can there be in a standard of behaviour that we are incapable of achieving? The egoist may therefore respond to our question "Why should we not sacrifice our good for the sake of others?" by urging us not to impose impossible standards upon ourselves. We do not in fact make such sacrifices, and should not blame ourselves for being the way we are.
The problem with this strategy is that psychological egoism has come under heavy attack in the modern period. Hobbes (1651) and Mandeville (1714) have been widely read as psychological egoists, and were criticized by such philosophers as Hutcheson (1725), Rousseau (1755) and Hume (1751), who sought to show that benevolence, pity and sympathy are as natural as self-love. Kant held (1788), against psychological egoism, that the rational recognition of moral principles can by itself motivate us and overcome self-love. Perhaps the most influential critique of psychological egoism is that of Butler (1726), who argued that by its nature self-love cannot be the only component of our motivational repertoire. He also pointed out that even if we feel gratification when we satisfy our desires, it cannot be inferred that such gratification is the object of those desires. The combined force of these attacks has left psychological egoism with few philosophical defenders.
At this point, an important challenge to ethical egoism should be noticed: although my circumstances, history, or qualities may differ from yours in morally significant ways, and these differences may justify me in seeking my good in preference to yours, the mere fact that I am myself and not you is not by itself a morally relevant difference between us. That my good is mine does not explain why ultimately it alone should concern me. So, if my good provides me with a reason for action, why should not your good, or the good of anyone else, also provide me with a reason - so long as there are no relevant differences between us? The ideal of impartiality seems to support the conclusion that we should have at least some concern with others. In fact, egoists implicitly accept a notion of impartiality, since they say that just as my ultimate end should be my good, yours should be your good. So they must explain why they accept this minimal conception of impartiality, but nothing stronger. There is nothing morally appealing about excluding all others from one's final end; why then should one do so?
References and Further Readings (excerpts):
Butler, J. (1726) Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel, Sermons I, II, III, XI, XII; repr. in S. Darwall (ed.) Five Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel and A Dissertation Upon the Nature of Virtue, Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1983, esp. Sermon XI.(Argues that self-love cannot be the only human motivation.)
Gauthier, D. (ed.) (1970) Morality and Rational Self-Interest, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.(Selections by historical figures, contemporary essays and a bibliography.)
Hobbes, T. (1651) Leviathan, ed. E. Curley, Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994, part I, chaps 6-16.(Often read as a work of psychological egoism.)
Hume, D. (1751) An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, ed. J.B. Schneewind, Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1983, sections 5, 9. (Seeks to show the naturalness of sympathy.)
Kant, I. (1788) Critique of Practical Reason, trans. L.W. Beck, New York: Macmillan, 1993, 36-8. (Argues that recognition of moral principles can overcome self-love.)
Nagel, T. (1970) The Possibility of Altruism, Oxford: Clarendon Press. (A difficult but widely discussed attack on egoism.)
Plato (c.380-367 BC) Republic, trans. A.D. Lindsay, revised by T.H. Irwin, London: Dent, 1992.(The most elaborate attempt to show that it is in oneās interest to be just.)
Sidgwick, H. (1874) The Methods of Ethics, London: Macmillan; 7th edn, 1907. (Argues for the plausibility of both egoism and utilitarianism.)
Copyright: Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Version 1.0, London: Routledge