The theory of Ethical Egoism asserts that the key to always doing the morally correct thing is simply to do the thing that best serves your own self-interest.
This may seem like an unsophisticated theory that is not worth much consideration. On the contrary, Ethical Egoism is a theory with a 2500-year history that is still very popular today. Some argue that in its simplicity, Ethical Egoism offers the best guide to the Good Life. Let's see if we agree with this assessment.
Psychological vs. Ethical Egoism
Often, the theory of Ethical Egoism is compared with and even confused with something called Psychological Egoism. It is very important to distinguish between Psychological Egoism and Ethical Egoism.
Psychological Egoism is a theory about human nature. This psychological theory states that human actions are always egoistic. That is, humans are incapable of altruism. The believer in psychological egoism thinks that we always behave in ways that we think (consciously or unconsciously) will serve our own interests. Often, the proponent of Psychological Egoism argues, we are not even aware that egoism is the motivating factor behind our actions. The person who devotes herself to charity work may think she is being altruistic, but the fact is, she is charitable out of self-interest. Perhaps she likes to feel superior to those in need, maybe she likes being praised as 'good' people, or possibly she is trying to get into heaven. Whatever the reason, according to the proponent of Psychological Egoism, she is being charitable because she wants to.
Psychological Egoism: All human actions are motivated by self-interest.
Ethical Egoism, on the other hand, is an ethical theory which says that a person's actions should be done out of self-interest. Clearly this is very different theory from Psychological Egoism. After all, Psychological Egoism states that altruism is impossible while Ethical Egoism only argues that we should never choose altruism. Ethical egoism is an ethical theory because it tells us how we should act.
Ethical Egoism: The moral thing is the thing that best serves one's own interests. Being a moral person simply means always doing what is best for you.
A Historical Perspective: Epicurus
The Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-271 B.C) was a proponent of Hedonism, the theory that the point of one’s actions was always to seek happiness. The main goal in life, then, was attaining happiness. Based on this belief, a hedonistic theory of ethics was developed. Actions, behaviors, and beliefs that led to one’s happiness were morally good while those that led to one’s unhappiness or pain were morally bad.
At its heart, hedonism is an ethical theory that considers only a person’s own interests to be inherently important in a moral sense. Other people only matter to the hedonist in as much as they affect him. It might seem that, on this basis, an ethical theory based on hedonism would be a very shallow one. This is not necessarily the case.
“Give me black bread and watered down wine. The simplest pleasures are the easiest to obtain, the least likely to be taken away, and the healthiest.”
This quote from Epicurus illustrates his view that a person who seeks happiness as their ultimate goal will attempt to live a long life of simple tranquility. Consider the costs of most of the things we normally associate with happiness. To afford the wardrobe necessary to keep up with ever changing fads, the expensive luxury car or SUV, and the 4000 square foot house on the golf course, a person has to work very hard. Does the superficial and ephemeral pleasure gained from this material wealth really counterbalance the effort taken to attain it? Epicurus thinks it doesn’t.
Another consequence of valuing one’s happiness and tranquility so highly is that a person will be very motivated to lead a peaceful life complimented with many good friends and as few enemies as possible. After all, fighting brings pain instead of pleasure and worrying about enemies causes stress; while the company of good friends brings considerable pleasure. Cultivating good friends, of course, requires that a person be honest, compassionate, and empathetic.
On this view, Epicurus’s hedonism is a sophisticated moral theory. In requiring a life of simplicity and nonviolence where extinguishing one’s desires was a virtue, hedonism is similar to other important philosophies. These core values are strikingly similar to those modeled by Jesus and The Buddha and the religious systems founded on their lives.
A Historical Perspective: The Ring of Gyges
In The Republic, Plato (428-347 BCE) presented a very different view of what a morality based only on self interest would look like. Plato presented his philosophical arguments in the form of dialogs using his teacher Socrates as the main character. In the relevant section of The Republic, we find Socrates debating the nature of Justice (ethics) with Glaucon.
The ethical life, Glaucon asserts, is a compromise between the life people really want to live and the life they want to avoid living. The best life is one of luxury, power, and privilege where a person could do whatever she wanted and never suffer any negative consequences. The worst life is one where a person is subjected to the tyranny of other people, where one can’t protect herself and the oppressors act with impunity.
Most people realize, Glaucon points out, that in a civilization based on such principles, it is much more likely that a person would be one of the oppressed than one of the elite. To avoid the likelihood of this terrible life, most people choose to adopt a system of laws and moral rules that restrain the powerful from taking advantage of the meek.
Of course, the powerful people realize that so-called "morality" is merely a set of rules designed to stop them from achieving the Good Life and so they constantly try to subvert the system. Weak people also realize, deep down, that what they would really like is to be courageous and talented enough to be one of the powerful people.
When given the chance, Glaucon argues, everyone would choose the life of the perfectly unethical person to that of the perfectly ethical person. Glaucon illustrates this important point by relating the story of The Ring of Gyges.
Gyges, a peaceful shepherd, was leading his sheep to new pasture in the mountains when he finds a deep chasm. After noticing a glint of metal, Gyges climbed down into the pit and found himself inside an ancient tomb. Gyges explored the room and discovered the body of giant dressed in ornate clothing and wearing a gold ring.
The next day Gyges attended a meeting of shepherds to discuss the details of the yearly tribute to the King. As he listened, Gyges absently rubbed the ring he now wore on his finger. After repeatedly failing to get the attention of a man standing right next to him, Gyges was amazed to realize that he was completely invisible and unnoticed. His ring was obviously magical.
After becoming visible again, Gyges volunteered to transport the yearly tribute to the King. Then, using the power of the ring, Gyges seduced the Queen, killed the King, and took over the nation. Once he had the power, Glaucon concluded, the laws of morality no longer applied to Gyges. Instead, Gyges followed his own morality based on self-interest.
This is not a story just about Gyges. Glaucon argued that anyone in Gyges situation would have done exactly the same thing. Further, Glaucon argued, anyone who says they wouldn't, Glaucon insisted, is either a liar or a fool.
Ms. Evil vs. Ms. Ethics
Before you decide whether Glaucon is right, consider the rest of his argument. Compare the perfectly ethical person and the perfectly unethical person. Ms. Ethics is the epitome of morality, thinking of others before herself, practicing compassion and kindness to all, turning the other cheek, tending the sick and feeding the hungry. Ms. Evil expresses all the traits normally associated with immorality, using others for her own purposes, cruelly manipulating people and events to her own ends, lying, cheating, stealing, and killing.
Which of these people would you choose to be?
Glaucon thought that people would only choose to be Ms. Ethics in order to enjoy the social benefits that such a life would bring – that is people don’t choose the ethical life because this life is inherently good, but because being ethical brings tangible benefits to a person. Generally good people are respected, have lots of friends, and so forth. Suppose however, that we remove these egoistic benefits from the scenario. Without the good consequences, would anyone choose to live the “so-called” ethical life?
Suppose Ms. Ethics, as described above, is accused of child molestation. Of course she is innocent and never convicted of any crime, but the stigma of suspicion hangs over her. Through a serious of similar mistakes and misunderstandings, people come to believe that Ms. Ethics is a terrible person. She loses her friends, her job, and all of her possessions. She is hated and shunned by everyone. She is perfectly moral but gain no tangible benefits from being good.
Now consider Ms. Evil. She is very intelligent and manipulative; enough to fool everyone into thinking that she is virtuous. She hides all of her crimes and cruelty behind a mask of benevolence. Her wickedness earns her material wealth and power as well as social acceptance, friends, and the rest.
Now, who would you choose to be?
Would you prefer to be the ethical person who gets no outward benefit from being good or the evil person who gets no outward deficit from being bad? Glaucon makes his point again that only a liar or a fool would say that they would rather be the Ethical person.
If you take Glaucon’s challenge seriously, I think you’ll see how hard Plato’s job really is. He has to provide reasons why someone should choose the life of the perfectly ethical person over the life of the perfectly unethical person. Take a few minutes to think about this. Why would anyone choose to be the ethical person?
A Modern Perspective: Survivor
The television show Survivor provides an excellent case study of Ethical Egoism. Remember, Ethical Egoism is a theory stating that the moral thing is always the thing that serves one's own interests.
On the original show, 16 contestants were dropped off on an island, each hoping to win the one million dollar prize. Each week the contestants had to vote a player 'off the island.' So, the object of the game was for each player to come up with a strategy that would keep her from getting voted off the island. Thus, every decision the players made was based on their self-interest.
Different players chose different strategies, some more and some less successful. Smart players formed temporary alliances and used their combined voting power to pick off the weaker castaways. Of course, these alliances had to be broken when all the weaklings were gone. Some players tried to rely on being honest and fair while others were almost brazen in their manipulation and trickery.
Was it better to be "ethical" or "evil"? Well, in the first season of Survivor it seemed that the nice people really did finish last. Richard Hatch, the most manipulative player of all, walked away with the prize. Season two of Survivor ended differently. Where Richard Hatch was abrasive, offensive, and blatantly manipulative, the woman who walked away with the million dollars was kind and caring, serving as a ‘mother figure’ to many of the contestants. Consider how an ethical egoist would analyze these two cases? What are the implications for the theory of ethical egoism?
Why Egoism Makes Sense
It should be clear that the theories of Psychological Egoism and Ethical Egoism are very different. It is worth noting, however, that if Psychological Egoism were a true theory, there would be serious implications for any ethical theory, including Ethical Egoism. Recall that Psychological Egoism argues that all human activities are motivated by one’s perception of their self-interest. This theory is really about human nature, postulating that egoism is hardwired into us, making it impossible for us to act otherwise.
Proponents of Psychological Egoism point out that all living things are egoists. It is this basic instinct for survival that drives the process of evolution. The drive for survival of the individual and the individual’s genetic heritage underlies all actions and behaviors. Humans, like all other life, are also subject to this egoistic nature. The complexity of human intellectual and cultural life makes our egoistic natures equally complex. For instance, a belief in a particular notion of the afterlife might lead a person to become a suicide martyr. This person believes he is trading the rest of his finite physical existence for an infinite spiritual existence in paradise. Such considerations show that committing suicide could be explained in terms of psychological egoism.
If it is true that all human actions are necessarily driven by an egoistic nature, then theories of ethics are nothing more than rationalizations. If people always do the thing that they feel is in there best interest, then they can’t do otherwise. Ethical theories are intended to help people make good choices, but psychological egoism says that real choices are illusionary since people always act egoistically.
Probably the strongest attack on the theory of Psychological Egoism is that it is an ugly theory; in explaining all human behavior so perfectly, the theory is impossible to test. We need to take a moment to consider some of the basic tenets of the scientific method to fully understand this attack. Science works by a negative process of disproving hypotheses. Scientists propose many possible explanations for a phenomenon and then set about making predictions and performing experiments in an attempt to disprove these explanations. Explanations that are falsified are set aside and more efforts are made to falsify those that remain. This process whittles the list of potential explanations down to a few live possibilities. Hopefully the end result of this method is that scientist end up with one theory that they can’t prove wrong no matter how hard they try. Maybe this is the true answer! Of course, it might not be right since it is always possible that someone will come up with a new test that will show the theory to be wrong.
Psychological Egoism is called an ugly theory because it is impossible to test. The theory argues that altruism is impossible and that all human actions are motivated by self-interest. But, in defining self-interest so broadly, any and all actions can be defined in terms of self-interest. The example offered above illustrated how the act of suicide, which seems at first glance to go against one’s self interest, can be explained in terms of egoism. In fact, any action can be explained this way. The theory is so plastic that it ends up being meaningless.
Further discussion of Psychological Egoism will have to be left for another time. However, what if we look at a more modest version of the theory? Let’s suppose that it is possible for people to do things that are not in their self-interest but that our human natures drive us towards egoism. So, while there are a few people (Jesus, Gandhi, Mother Theresa, etc.) who seem to be capable of living lives of altruism, most people are egoists driven to be selfish. If this is true then the theory of Ethical Egoism might be one that works well for the vast majority of people. Perhaps this is why game shows like Survivor are so popular and why the United States, fueled by its capitalist economic system, is the most powerful nation on Earth.
Who Knows You Best?
A real selling point of Ethical Egoism is that it is a theory that allows people to focus on what they really know about; their own interests. After all, we are intimately aware of our own wants and needs and are in the best position to make plans to achieve these goals. Theories that ask a person to concern themselves with the interests of other people require an omniscience that just doesn’t exist. Thinking about others forces us to guess or presume what they really want. Is it arrogant to stick our noses in other people’s business by trying to figure out what their interests are? Some thinkers, such as Ayn Rand, argue that egoism is the only acceptable moral theory since anything else demeans everyone. Being charitable to people, for instance, devalues them because it assumes that they want your help. Further, it creates a class of people without self-esteem, who end up believing that they are worth less than those that are giving things to them. While we don’t have time to fully consider these arguments here, they are well worth thinking about.
Why Egoism Doesn't Make Sense
One argument against the theory of Ethical Egoism is that it fails to offer a solid basis for resolving disputes. Imagine that two ethical egoists confront each other at a party as they both reach for the last piece of pizza at the buffet table. Both people are hungry and so each finds it to be in her interest to eat the pizza. The moral thing to do then, for each, is to take the last piece of pizza. Each has a hand on the pizza and neither wants to let go. How will the two settle their ethical dispute? Maybe the physically stronger person will simply snatch the pizza away, but this hardly seems to suggest a workable foundation for ethical problem solving. You might suggest that they share the pizza and while this might make each somewhat happy, the larger issues remains unsolved. Very often people’s interests conflict and the theory of Ethical Egoism doesn’t spell out how to solve these conflicts.
The philosopher James Rachels raises another criticism of Ethical Egoism. Rachels argues that the flaw in Ethical Egoism can be understood by comparing it with the practice of racism. When pressed to justify their stance, the racist will end up arguing that their ethical judgments that people from certain races are less valuable in a moral sense than are people from other races are based on some sort of criteria. The extrinsic racist might argue that the ‘fact’ that people of Race X are less intelligent than people from Race Y, justifies valuing the interests of one more than the interests of the other. The intrinsic racist might argue that the fact that those people are not my people makes those people’s interests less important than the interests of my people. In either case, Rachels argues, racism is wrong because the differences between the races used by the racist to justify his stance are not morally relevant differences.
Rachels argues that Egoism is equally untenable because it calls for ethical discrimination on irrelevant grounds. The Egoist values her own interests above the interests of other people, she thinks that her own interests are worth more than the interests of others. But what is the morally relevant difference between the Egoist and the other people? Isn’t Egoism the equivalent of extreme intrinsic racism? Rachels argues that, from an objective viewpoint, it is clear that each person's interests are equally important. While it could certainly be reasonable to discriminate against people based on morally relevant criteria, it is not reasonable to do so just because their interests are theirs and yours are yours.
Defining Self Interest
It is very important to keep one thing very clear when thinking about Ethical Egoism. It can be a very sophisticated theory. An ardent egoist will not necessarily do the thing that serves her immediate interests. If she wants money and is intelligent, she might well decide that getting a MBA and earning her millions as the CEO of a powerful company best serve her interests. Similarly, and egoist might devote his life to charity and good works if he reasons that such actions are in his best interests. On the other hand, an egoist might calculate that robbing banks or swindling people in stock scams is in his best interest.
Ethical Egoism and Just War Theory
We are a nation at war against terrorism. According to our President, we are at war against “Evil Doers.” A war, potentially, against an “Axis of Evil.” Any sort of comprehensive discussion about the War on Terrorism is far beyond the scope of our class. We can, however, address one specific aspect of this war.
Is the War on Terrorism a Just War?
Probably as long as people have fought wars, philosophers and ethicists have been concerned with the idea of Just War. When is going to war an ethical decision? What sort of justification is needed, if any? What sorts of tactics are ethically acceptable in war? What is it that distinguishes killing in a war from murder? These are only a few of the specific issues that fall under Just War Theory.
Might Make Right?
Some Egoists would argue that the notion of Just War Theory is nonsense. If Justice and Ethics are simply defined by those in power, then any war they decide to engage in will be Just because they will say it is. From a pure egoist position, any war that is in the best interest of a nation is a just war.
Generally, ethicists have rejected this sort of “Might Makes Right” criteria and instead have looked for some sort of objective criteria to justify war. Our current conception of Just War Theory is based largely on Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas and has been codified by organizations like the United Nations.
Egoism and National Interests
As we have seen before (in thinking about ethical dilemmas for instance), the real test of one’s ethical principles comes only when they are tested in an extreme situation. It is easy to behave ethically when things are going well and equally easy to ignore ethical principles when in a tough situation.
This dilemma is well illustrated when we consider the ethical acceptability of torture. Before September 11th, few if any of us would have argued that torture was a morally acceptable practice. Now, however, when torturing detained Al Qaeda fighters might elicit information that could save thousands of American lives, our views have clearly shifted.
Most nations have accepted the tenets of Just War Theory during times of peace. Nations are also quick to refer to Just War Theory in criticizing the behavior of other nations. When actually at war, however, it is much more difficult to stick to the ethical principles of Just War Theory. The reason is obvious. Just War Theory restricts a nation’s ability to go to war and, once engaged in war, Just War Theory restricts the tactics a nation can use to win the war.
For a case in point consider World War Two. Most everyone agrees that the Allies were indeed engaged in a Just War against Germany and Japan. It is far less clear whether the Allies restricted themselves to ethical tactics. A key tenet of Just War Theory is that it is always immoral to specifically target civilians with a military attack. To win the war in Europe, Allied bombers targeted cities populated with civilians with incendiary explosives – these cities were not military targets (no troop concentrations, factories producing tanks or planes or ammunition, etc). In one attack on the German city of Dresden, for instance, more than 130,000 German civilians were killed. Some estimates put the civilian death toll from that single attack at nearly a quarter of a million people.
At the time, this sort of tactic was deemed necessary to “destroy the German will to fight” and, like the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki which each killed more than 100,000 Japanese civilians, fire-bombing German civilian populations is often credited with shortening the war and saving Allied lives.
When Egoism and Just War Theory Collide
Clearly the tenets of Just War Theory sometimes contradict the moral imperative of a straightforward understanding of Ethical Egoism. When concerned only with its own self-interests, why would any nation choose to follow a set of rules that limit its ability to win the war or which force a nation to fight a longer war requiring the deaths of more of its citizens? It might be argued with a “Do unto Others” rationale that following the rules of the Just War makes sense even to an Egoist. If we follow the rules of the Just War, so will our enemies. It might also be argued, from a more sophisticated understanding of Egoism that adhering to Just War Theory really is in the best interests of a nation. Perhaps living with the aftermath of a war fought with no rules would leave a nation morally bankrupt and, thus, lead to its ultimate demise. Or, perhaps, there is some higher good that can only be achieved by being better than we have to be.