Ethical egoism theory provides a normative position that encourages people from a moral standpoint to do what is in their own best self-interest. This process differs from only acting upon items of self-interest or creating a rational explanation behind the need to pursue one’s own self-interest.
In ethical egoism, actions which have consequences that will benefit the individual can be considered ethical, even if others hold a different definition of ethics.
The concepts of ethical egoism were first introduced by Henry Sidgwick in a book published in 1874 entitled The Methods of Ethics. Sidgwick introduced the idea of ethical egoism to counter the idea of utilitarianism, or the desire to maximize personal pleasure at all times. Egoism, Sidgwick argues, focuses on maximizing the pleasure of the individual.
The Categories of Ethical Egoism
Ethical egoism can be divided into three general categories.
- Individualistic Egoism. This form of ethical egoism would promote the self-interest of each individual, encouraging everyone to make the best possible choices for themselves at all times
- Personal Egoism. This form of ethical egoism promotes personal self-interest without attempting to influence others to do the same.
- Universal Egoism. This form of ethical egoism would promote that everyone should act in a way that is in their own self-interest.
Although it might seem to imply otherwise, ethical egoism theory does not require individuals to harm the interests of others when making a moral decision. That harm may occur as a consequence of pursuing one’s own interest, but it does not promote foolishness. It does not promote always doing what one wants to do either.
That is because short-term decisions that might seem good at the time may be detrimental to a person’s long-term outlook. Eating potato chips, drinking 5 sodas each day, and having cake for dinner every night might provide short-term pleasure, but ethical egoism would say such actions are not in the person’s self-interest because of the threat those short-term decisions would have on long-term health.
Justifications for Ethical Egoism
The primary justification for ethical egoism is that each person has a natural desire to fulfill their own wants and needs. Each person is also placed into a position where they can pursue those wants and needs with whatever energy they desire. Some may choose wants over needs and suffer, while others may not be able to meet even basic needs, but that does not change the ethics in pursuing what is desired.
A popular expression in society comes from Christianity, specifically from the book of Genesis. God asks Cain where his brother happens to be. Cain’s response is defiant. “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” In ethical egoism, the idea is that each person knows what is best for their short-term and long-term wants and needs. Others must make assumptions about what they are, which makes the acquiring process inefficient.
It may be a reasonable belief to assume that individuals can support one another, but it would also be a reasonable belief to assume that we would cause more harm than good when trying to meet those wants and needs for someone else.
Ethical Egoism also eliminates the concept of altruism. This is usually exampled by hunger. If you eat a sandwich in front of someone who is hungry, it would be considered an immoral indulgence because you are meeting your needs, but ignoring the needs of someone else. Yet it would be a moral indulgence to solve hunger in someone else, but creating hunger in oneself. Ethical egoism solves that problem by directing each individual to solve their own hunger problem instead of relying on someone else to do it for them.
It could be argued that every moral duty that has been accepted by various human societies over the centuries has been based on principles of ethical egoism. Whether that means “love one another” or “always tell the truth,” the goal is to improve one’s own wants and needs in some way.
Are There Problems with Ethical Egoism?
Ethical egoism is only as beneficial as the moral code of the person implementing this theory. A murderer could say that it is morally right to kill others because it provides them with satisfaction, especially if there is no fear of imprisonment, being caught, or having a death warrant issued after a conviction. Thieves could steal in good conscience. Husbands or wives could cheat on their spouses because concerns are for the self only.
Ethical egoism theory has its proponents and its critics. By understanding its concepts, it becomes possible to see how each person implements them in their daily lives.