Ethical egoism is a philosophical belief stating that it is morally appropriate for an individual to act in their self-interest. It means that any action should be done solely to achieve something that benefits the individual rather than others.
The main tenet of ethical egoism is that whatever brings the most satisfaction or reward to an individual’s life is fulfilling their own moral obligations, regardless of how it affects anyone else.
It contrasts with altruism and utilitarianism, which suggest that there should be some concern for others in determining right and wrong.
For example, according to ethical egoism, an individual could lie to gain professional advancement, even though this may put their colleagues at a disadvantage.
So, while ethical egoism suggests that one should look out for their own interests above all else, it also acknowledges that these interests can conflict with the needs of others.
In such cases, it is up to the individual to decide how to act in a given situation.
Ethical Egoism Definition
Ethical egoism is a moral theory that states that individuals should always act in pursuit of their own self-interest.
It suggests that an individual’s greatest moral obligation is to maximize their own pleasure and satisfaction in life, regardless of the effects this may have on others.
According to Manjunath (2020), ethical egoism is:
“…the view that people ought to pursue their own self-interest, and no one has any obligation to promote anyone else’s interests” (p. 790).
Pandit (2022) states that:
“…ethical egoism in its narrow sense is exclusively self-regarding as here individual alone is the sole beneficiary of her own action” (p. 5).
Ethical egoism does not necessarily imply that people should only do what benefits themselves. Rather, it suggests that whatever action a person takes should be done out of self-interest.
For example, an ethical egoist might volunteer in their community because this action will bring them personal satisfaction and fulfillment.
This action is not necessarily selfish; it simply means that the individual has chosen to do something in their own self-interest.
Ethical egoism states that it is morally right for people to act in their own self-interest and that any action taken should be done to benefit the individual, not necessarily others.
Ethical Egoism Examples
- Choosing to invest in a company that serves your interests: People often invest in businesses that some may consider bad for the environment, yet also deliver excellent dividends. As this choice is most beneficial to the individual, it is seen as a morally acceptable choice.
- Pursuing career advancement: Ethical egoism encourages people to work toward reaching career goals, regardless of what impact this may have on those around them. It reflects a mindset that places one’s own desires above the needs and concerns of others when making choices.
- Taking the initiative on personal projects: Individuals may take the initiative and go above and beyond to make progress on personal projects, likely because they believe it will bring them rewards or pleasure. It is an example of ethical egoism in which one’s self-interest is put before any outside interests.
- Engaging in leisure activities: When people engage in recreational activities like sports or games, they often aim to have fun or win the game for themselves, demonstrating how ethical egoism can be present even when engaging with others.
- Refusing to help someone else: Saying no to helping another person could be seen as an example of ethical egoism if the decision was based solely on what would benefit the individual most, regardless of how it impacts anyone else’s life.
- Speaking out against wrongdoings: When individuals speak up about wrongdoings due to their beliefs or values, it could be argued that it is an example of ethical egoism. These people are advocating for what they believe to be right, regardless of potential repercussions on themselves personally.
- Purchasing luxury items: Buying expensive items despite their interdependent costs could be seen as an example of ethical egoism if done out of personal enjoyment rather than utilizing the money more wisely elsewhere for the greater good/benefit of others.
- Ignoring demands from authority figures: Individuals may disregard demands from authorities such as a supervisor if it does not align with what is best for them personally. Such an action could also be considered an example of ethical egoism if that is indeed the reason behind refusing said demands.
- Refusing medical treatment: Some people are against certain medical treatments on moral grounds and choose not to proceed with them even though this has potential consequences. It could be thought of as driven by ethical egoism, given its focus solely on personal judgment rather than consideration for other people’s well-being.
- Cheating: Cheating or taking shortcuts to gain something from a situation without giving anything back could also be an example of ethical egoism due to its selfish nature and disregard for adverse outcomes for those affected by it.
Origins of Ethical Egoism
Ethical egoism can be traced back to the ancient philosophers, who believed that the individual should always put their own interests first. Plato, Aristotle, and Epicurus argued for an “ethics of self-interest.”
Ancient Greek philosophers believed that an individual has the right to pursue their own interests without considering what is best for the community (Österberg, 1988).
However, it was not until the 19th century that the term “ethical egoism” was coined, when philosopher Henry Sidgwick introduced it in his book The Methods of Ethics.
This work argued that if people followed a moral code based on self-interest, all could benefit from it – even those with different values or goals (Sidgwick, 2007).
Sidgwick’s work sparked a debate that continues to this day, as some still see ethical egoism as the most rational way for individuals to make decisions.
Ethical Egoism vs. Psychological Egoism vs. Rational Egoism
While egoism, in general, focuses on the individual striving for self-benefit, its several nuanced forms – ethical, psychological, and rational – can be distinguished.
- Ethical egoism is a philosophical idea that states that an individual should act in their own self-interest, regardless of the consequences to others. It is based on the idea that people should prioritize their own well-being and not be influenced by external factors such as altruism or morality (Sidgwick, 2007).
- Psychological egoism is a psychological theory that suggests that all people are inherently selfish and motivated only by self-interest. This theory contrasts with ethical egoism in that it does not consider any moral codes when making decisions (Haiming, 2020).
- Rational egoism is the idea that rational behavior is always in one’s self-interest, meaning that acting rationally will maximize personal gain for oneself instead of for others. Unlike ethical egoism, however, rational egoism does not suggest necessarily acting unethically or immorally; rather, it simply implies looking out for one’s own interests while remaining moral and ethical (Haiming, 2020).
Forms of Ethical Egoism
Ethical egoism can be categorically broken down into three distinct forms: individual, personal, and universal. Each form differs in its degree of focus on the individual’s interests.
- Individual ethical egoism promotes making decisions based on one’s own opinions and values. It encourages individuals to prioritize their well-being and interests, regardless of consequences for others (Marcum, 2008).
- Personal ethical egoism promotes that individuals should focus on what is best for their immediate circle of family and friends, prioritizing this over any external consideration. Personal ethical egoism holds that people should take whatever actions are most likely to benefit themselves in the long run, even if it means sacrificing the needs of strangers or outsiders (Marcum, 2008).
- Universal ethical egoism holds that individuals strive for the maximal benefit for both themselves and others in all situations; it is also called “enlightened self-interest.” This form acknowledges the importance of helping others. Still, it puts one’s interests first by aiming to achieve the greatest amount of good overall while giving at least a small increase in benefit to oneself (Marcum, 2008).
Arguments in Favour of Ethical Egoism
Ethical egoism has been defended by philosophers for centuries, stating that it is the only rational way for individuals to make decisions (Kernohan, 2015).
Proponents of ethical egoism claim that it provides a consistent moral system as it applies to all people regardless of the situation, allowing for easier decision-making without considering external factors or opinions.
Besides, ethical egoism encourages individuals to prioritize their self-preservation and well-being and not necessarily have to take into account the needs of others when making decisions (Kernohan, 2015).
Such behavior is beneficial in certain cases where looking out for oneself would be the most beneficial outcome.
Furthermore, by taking care of oneself and prioritizing one’s own needs, desired objectives can be achieved quickly and wisely since external influences won’t come into play when making decisions.
Arguments Against Ethical Egoism
Despite its benefits, ethical egoism has been widely criticized for its assumed immorality, harm to society, and encouragement of selfish behavior (Kernohan, 2015).
Ethical egoism has been met with criticism, as it does not offer a reliable moral framework that can be applied to all situations.
Instead, it promotes individuals making decisions based solely on what will bring them the most gain in any given circumstance (Kernohan, 2015).
Besides, ethical egoism proposes that individuals should only act in accordance with their own self-interests regardless of the outcomes for others.
Such behavior can potentially result in people taking actions that are morally wrong or detrimental to the welfare of those around them without considering any ramifications at all.
Since one of the primary premises of ethical egoism is acting in one’s own best interest, this philosophy could lead to individuals failing to take into account the needs and interests of other people, thus eroding social bonds over time.
Ethical egoism is a moral philosophy that advocates for individuals to prioritize their own interests above all else.
It proposes that acting in one’s best interest is the most rational decision-making process as it applies to all people and situations.
Though ethical egoism has been defended by some, it has also been criticized for its assumed immorality, harm to society, and encouragement of selfish behavior.
At the end of the day, it is up to each individual to determine whether ethical egoism accurately reflects their moral beliefs.
Nonetheless, when making this decision, one must take into consideration both their own and others’ potential repercussions that could result from applying such a philosophical outlook in practice.
Haiming, W. (2020). The principles of new ethics II. New York: Routledge.
Kernohan, A. (2015). Business ethics: An interactive introduction. Los Angeles: Broadview Press.
Manjunath, R. (2020). Understanding the universe. New York: Manjunath.R.
Marcum, J. A. (2008). An introductory philosophy of medicine : Humanizing modern medicine. Amsterdam: Springer Netherlands.
Österberg, J. (1988). A short history of ethical egoism. Self and Others, 11–34. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-009-2879-4_2
Pandit, P. (2022). The moral quest for a more credible principle of beneficence. New York: Ethics International Press.
Sidgwick, H. (2007). The methods of ethics. London: Gardners Books.