You may think you already know egoism; but you’re probably thinking of egotism—self-importance, or self-centeredness. In contrast, egoism is the philosophical view that human beings do, or should, always act for their own benefit. Both words are derived from the Latin word for “I” – ego.
Egoism and egotism are quite different. For example, egotists often talk about themselves a lot, not listening to others—which makes people dislike them. In contrast, egoists might act very humbly, and pay attention to others—because it’s in their best interests to make people like them and want to treat them well. Egotism is a character trait; egoism is a philosophy.
Even so, you might think that egoists must secretly be egotists—and a lot of philosophers would agree with you. But the point is that egoism does not necessarily violate our usual notions of what is right and wrong. We will return to this question—of whether egoism implies immorality—in other sections.
In fact, some of our highest ideals in the Western world—individual rights, freedom, and democracy—depend on ideas similar to egoism. All of these philosophies depend on the idea that humans normally do or should pursue their own welfare and happiness. The problem, of course, is when your welfare conflicts with someone else’s—another point we’ll discuss below.
But whether you think egoism is right or wrong depends a lot on what kind of egoism you’re talking about. The two main kinds of egoism are quite different; descriptive egoism just claims that human being do always act for their own benefit; while normative egoism claims that we should always act for our own benefit.
II. Types of Egoism
a. Descriptive, or Psychological, Egoism
The most popular variety of descriptive egoism is psychological egoism, which simply claims that whatever a human being does, the ultimate aim is self-benefit. If psychological egoism is correct, it means that even when people appear to act for others’ benefit, with no concern for themselves—which is called altruism—they’re actually doing it for their own sake. It doesn’t mean that anyone is necessarily trying to be deceptive, or pretending, to help others (although that’s a possibility of course). Psychological egoists would say that people may act altruistically because it will be good for them in the long run, or because it makes them feel good when they do it.
There are at least two main categories of psychological egoism—desire-based and ‘objective.’ The first says that humans are always doing what they desire. For example, even if you say you don’t want to do your homework, you do choose to do it; you have the option to not do it, and suffer the consequences. So, you do desire to do your homework—just not for its own sake.
But, this kind of psychological egoism seems to be trivially true; it doesn’t say why we make what choices we do.
Other kinds of psychological egoism are called ‘objective’ because they claim that we are always pursuing certain objectives. Some say we always act for pleasure. Others argue that we always pursue whatever we think will bring us the most benefit.
But most philosophers have rejected psychological egoism. For one thing it is probably unprovable because it is a theory about our deepest motivations—which are private. How could anyone prove whether you help an old lady across the street only for her sake, or because it makes you feel good about yourself? You may not be sure yourself which it is!
But that kind of example is another reason most philosophers reject psychological egoism—because human beings really do sometimes act for the benefit of others without expecting to any reward for themselves. Altruism; we’ll come back to this debate in section III.
b. Normative–ethical or rational–egoism
Normative egoism is not about what humans do, but about what they should do. Two kinds of normative egoism are well known:
- ethical egoism; which says “moral action is egoistic action” and one should always act morally / egoistically.
- rational egoism; which says “rational action is egoistic action” and one should always act rationally / egoistically.
Ethical egoists may argue that you cannot know what is best for anyone but yourself—and so it is immoral to try. If you try to act in reference to other people’s interests, rather than your own, you can easily do things those people wouldn’t want, mess up other people’s lives, or just violate their right to decide what happens to them, which would be immoral. Ethical egoists also might argue that human beings are dependent on one another for survival, so therefore, it is your moral obligation to take care of yourself first, so that others don’t have to—and so that you have the ability to take care of them. In other words, what’s in your best interests is ultimately in everybody’s best interests.
Which brings us to rational egoism, which assumes that we should act rationally, which is egoistically. The most famous rational egoist, the writer Ayn Rand, argued strongly against sacrificing one’s own interests for others. She argued that not taking full advantage of one’s own freedom is immoral because it opposes the natural fulfilment of human potential, which is the best thing for everyone in a society. For example, if I don’t work as hard as possible for my own personal success, then I might fail to accomplish many things that would be good for the world.
Nevertheless, many philosophers feel that rational egoism cannot provide a basis for ethical behavior—that it is, rather, a justification for amorality (no morality), which could be very dangerous.
III. The History of Egoism
In the big picture, it’s worth noting that egoism has been a characteristically Western philosophy since at least Aristotle. Although there were a few ancient Chinese thinkers who had egoistic ideas, in general, egoism is much harder to justify in Eastern thought, where the ego (the personal self) is an illusion that one should try to get over!
In the west, Aristotle is cited for his early contribution to egoism, in the Nicomachean Ethics, where he points out that one must act for one’s own benefit in order to be a good friend, or a good citizen—because you can’t do any good for other people if you’re not in good condition yourself. However, Aristotle was not really an egoist, because he believed that it was the primary value of helping others that justified helping oneself.
The main ideas of psychological egoism started popping up in Europe during the Reformation (17th century) such as in the writings of philosopher, Thomas Hobbes (see next section for a quote). Hobbes (and others) argued that all voluntary actions are, by definition, egoistic—because they are voluntary. So, humans are always acting for their own sakes, whether they think so or not.
Many philosophers shared this view during the 18th century, supported by the rationalism of the time. But David Hume, in his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (Appendix II—Of Self Love), set forth some well-known arguments against it. Hume said that psychological egoism denied the reality of such important human feelings as friendship, love, compassion, and gratitude. He also argued that there was no reason to try to reduce the diversity of human motivations to one simple thing. And he pointed out, as many have, that both humans and animals have been observed to act, instinctively for others’ sakes.
Early normative egoism is often associated with the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche whose ideas about freedom, the will, and the “superman,” certainly seem to support egoism, and have been used that way, but Nietzsche himself rejected egoism because, he said, being an egoist would have the opposite of the desired effect; it would set other people against you, which is bad for your own success.
The first philosophers to consider themselves egoists were Max Stirner and Henry Sidgwick in the 19th Century. But probably the most popular and controversial spokesperson for egoism was Ayn Rand, who set forth her arguments in The Virtue of Selfishness, and in novels such as Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Adapting some of Nietzsche’s rhetoric, Rand focused on rational egoism as a rejection of the “sacrificial” ethics of Christianity; she argued that it is wrong to sacrifice one’s own interests for others because it is irrational: “the actor must always be the beneficiary of his action and that man must act for his own rational self-interest.” Thus, to her, ethical and rational egoism go together. Her perspective owes a lot to Nietzsche’s rejection of traditional morality and glorification of the individual will.
Over the past 30 years or so, egoism has faced stronger opposition than before because of scientific research showing that (a) humans and animals do have altruistic instincts, (b) selfish decisions are often not in your best interests, and (c) that altruistic behavior is consistent with evolution. When we were evolving, living in small tribes, most people lived around their many relatives, so doing things for others’ benefit—altruism–could actually spread one’s own genes!
Egoism has always been a controversial theory, and we have sketched some of its debates in the previous sections–such as whether it can be moral or not, and whether it needs to be.
Another challenge to egoism is whether it’s even logically possible. Several philosophers have pointed out that it leads to self-contradictions and irresolvable conflicts. For example, Joseph Butler writes that it may be necessary to act un-selfishly in order to receive benefits, which makes egoism self-contradictory. However, we can get around this paradox by just saying that egoism is acting for long-term benefit.
A bigger problem for psychological egoism is that some behavior just doesn’t seem egoistic in any sense. Say a soldier throws himself on a grenade to prevent others from being killed. It’s hard to say how that could be in the soldier’s selfish interests! He’s not going to benefit from it in the long run, or even be able to enjoy the feeling of being a good person. Egoists might argue that the soldier is deceiving himself if he thinks he acted selflessly; perhaps he was sub-consciously motivated to avoid feeling guilty if he didn’t sacrifice himself. But then again, feeling that kind of guilt depends on having non-egoistic motivations, doesn’t it? An egoist could also argue that since the soldier made a free decision to jump on the grenade, he was, by definition, following his own desires. However, that argument seems like a cop-out; it avoids resolving the question of why the soldier did it.
The major controversy about normative (ethical or rational) egoism is, of course, whether it can be truly ethical at all, since almost all people agree that an ethical system must encourage us to act for the benefit of other human beings. The main points of debate are whether it is desirable or possible to act selflessly, and whether rational selfishness is or is not really the best thing for others. The answers to these questions depend on answers to many other questions: how interdependent are human beings? Is individual freedom more important than social stability? Is individuality an illusion? So, this debate will doubtless not soon be settled!
V. Famous Quotes about Egoism
“Ethics has to recognize the truth, recognized in unethical thought, that egoism comes before altruism. The acts required for continued self-preservation, including the enjoyments of benefits achieved by such arts, are the first requisites to universal welfare. Unless each duly cares for himself, his care for all others is ended in death, and if each thus dies there remain no others to be cared for.” – Herbert Spencer
In this argument for ethical egoism, Herbert Spencer, a 19th century British philosopher, seems to echo Aristotle’s original justification for some degree of egoism—that a person needs to take care of their own needs and happiness before they can take care of others. Often accused of inconsistency, Spencer was an egoist who also believed that human beings have a natural sense of empathy and should care for each other, although at the same time, he believed that altruism was a relatively recent development in humans.
“What interest can a fond mother have in view, who loses her health by assiduous attendance on her sick child, and afterwards languishes and dies of grief, when freed, by its death [the child’s], from the slavery of that attendance?” – David Hume
Hume, a famous opponent of psychological realism, here gives an example that demonstrates several of his arguments against egoism. Hume pointed out that human beings have certain innate non-egoist instincts, such as the compulsion of a mother to sacrifice herself for her children. And even if she does so, selfishly, in order to feel good herself, that doesn’t explain why she dies of grief after her child dies.
VI. Egoism vs. Altruism
Altruism is the opposite of egoism – the motivation or practice of doing things to benefit others, without expecting any benefit for oneself. However, most of the debates about egoism and altruism are not about whether it’s good to benefit others or not, which almost everyone agrees on, but whether egoism or altruism are actually beneficial, or even possible.
Just as psychological egoism could be rejected on the basis that it’s impossible to prove people’s motivations, many philosophers have questioned whether it is possible to prove altruistic motivations either. As descriptions of human nature, egoism and altruism seem to compete on equal grounds; you can pretty much always argue that any action was really motivated by egoism or really altruism, but you can’t prove it.
As normative philosophies, about what people should do, most philosophers agree that ethical behavior is behavior which is good for people in general—so you might assume that altruism should win automatically. But there are some pretty good arguments that altruistic action depends on egoist motivations; you might not help that old lady cross the street if you didn’t care about feeling good about yourself. And egoists may argue that it’s immoral to decide what’s in other people’s best interests.
On the side of altruism is the universal belief that morality means being good to others and the evidence that empathy, compassion, and altruism are natural instincts.
VII. Egoism in Popular Culture
Example 1: The Joker’s “Prisoner’s Dilemma” in The Dark Knight
Many popular films feature egoist villains—sociopaths who pursue their own gain without regard for others. But Heath Ledger’s Joker in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight goes further. Late in the movie he actually sets up a version of “The Prisoner’s Dilemma”—a scenario from game theory which philosophers have used to explore the egoism versus altruism debate. The Joker intends to prove to all that his view of human nature–psychological egoism—is true. He believes that one or both boats will try to blow up the other one in order to save their own lives, according to the Joker’s rules—but they refuse to cooperate, seemingly proving that humans are not entirely egoistic. Throughout the film, the Joker represents the egoist view as he repeatedly exploits his enemies’ egoism. But in the end, Batman supposedly demonstrates that altruism is real by taking the fall for a politician he doesn’t even like–for the good of the people of Gotham.
Example 2: Star Trek’s Kirk versus Khan
Both of the Star Trek films featuring Khan, Captain Kirk’s worst enemy, explore the consequences of egoist versus altruist views. In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, we learn that Khan’s murderous anger towards humanity is partly a result of Captain Kirk’s earlier action of marooning Khan and his people on a then hospitable planet—which later suffered an environmental disaster killing most of Khan’s people. This is a clear illustration of the ethical egoist’s claim that trying to act in others’ interests may be immoral. Furthermore, Kirk’s failure to check up on Khan on the planet suggests that Kirk was not really acting altruistically, but rather egoistically, supporting the views of psychological egoism. Meanwhile, Khan believes that he has a natural right to dominate, based on his superior intellect and strength, a view commonly associated with rational egoism and Ayn Rand. Of course in the end, Mr. Spock demonstrates altruism by sacrificing himself to save the rest of the Enterprise crew, repeating an idea clearly meant to prove that altruism is more rational than egoism—“the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”