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Egoism
Richard Fumerton

Introduction
There are a number of important and potentially interrelated theses associated with
the concept of egoistic action. In particular, it is useful to distinguish the psychological
claim that everyone always does act egoistically (sometimes called psychological
egoism), claims about the morality of acting egoistically, and claims about the rationality of acting egoistically. As we shall see, the nature of the connection, if any,
between these views is a matter of considerable controversy. At least some philosophers will argue that if it is virtually a law of human nature that people act egoistically,
then questions about whether they rationally or morally ought to act that way are
moot. Claims about what one rationally ought to do might be distinct from claims
about what one morally ought to do, but, again, as we shall see, there may be a serious price to be paid by the philosopher who lets morality and rationality come apart.
But before we try to say more about any of these issues we must define more clearly
the critical concept of acting egoistically.

Acting Egoistically
Let us define an egoist as someone who always acts egoistically, or at least does so in
contexts of deliberative choice. But what is it to act egoistically? We want to define
egoistic action in such a way that the issue of whether or not one acts egoistically is
not trivial. So, for example, we don’t want to say that people act egoistically whenever they do what they want to do (all things considered) or whenever they act so as
to maximize satisfaction of their desires. Paradigmatic altruists who strive to make
others happy and who want to avoid purely egoistic behavior are clearly in some
sense doing what they want to do. But their desire to avoid egoistic behavior is hardly
self-defeating (as it would be if we define egoistic action as any action the agent
wants to take). These same altruists may also be acting so as to maximize satisfaction
of their desires (many of which are altruistic desires), and it seems equally wrong to
suggest that they are for that reason acting egoistically.
To define an interesting distinction between egoistic action and other sorts of action
we should focus on the ultimate goal or end an agent has in acting. So on one view, we
might say that agents are acting egoistically when their sole goals or ends in acting are
their own happiness and avoidance of suffering (see happiness; suffering). We might
go on to define a person’s ultimate goals or ends in terms of what that person desires (see
desire) or values intrinsically. Many of the things we desire, we desire only as a means
to something else we desire (see instrumental value). So when the student wants that
The International Encyclopedia of Ethics. Edited by Hugh LaFollette, print pages 1572–1578.
© 2013 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published 2013 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
DOI: 10.1002/ 9781444367072.wbiee091

Egotists are people who have an exaggerated high opinion of themselves – unrealistically. some will object that the restriction of egoistic goals to happiness and avoidance of suffering is too narrow. but most everything said will apply mutatis mutandis to the more expansive characterization of egoistic action as action undertaken with the ultimate goal of maximizing the agent’s well-being. or fame gained by others. it is plausible to suppose that the job is desired only as a means to making some money. And we can say that a person’s ultimate goal or end is something that person desires or values for its own sake. So. power. of course. In an intuitively plausible sense my wealth. not in terms of successful achievement of those goals or ends. at least when they are making conscious. wealth.2 summer job in construction. for example. Some construe happiness as a sensation-like state. witty. The philosophical question of how to understand happiness is itself highly controversial. One can be an egoist and have a rather dim view of one’s attributes and a rather pessimistic view about the probability of one’s achieving one’s egoistic goals or ends. Many accept the Kantian doctrine that “ought” implies “can” (see ought implies can). The egoist characterized above desires or values for its own sake only his or her own happiness (and avoidance of suffering). On at least some conceptions of happiness. the thesis claims that it is a kind of law of human nature that people act egoistically. Conversely. and so on. then it might be pointless to ask whether or not we should be egoists. As suggested earlier. distinguish the egoist from the egotist. and fame are constituents of my well-being or self-interest. This last view. And we must. There must be some things that are desired or valued for their own sake. intelligent. But it cannot be the case that everything desired is desired only as a means. Others think of it in terms of enjoyment where enjoyment necessarily takes some object (one always enjoys acting in some way or being in some state). The Thesis of Psychological Egoism The thesis of psychological egoism is the claim that everyone always does act egoistically. deliberative choices. We want to allow for the possibility of incompetent egoists – egoists who almost never succeed in achieving their self-regarding ends. however. that agent might still be appropriately characterized as acting egoistically. they think that they are particularly attractive. The money in turn might be desired only as a means to acquiring various goods and services. one can be an egotist pursing altruistic goals. risks reducing an egoistic thesis stated in terms of pursuit of the agent’s own happiness to that less than interesting claim about pursuing the objects of one’s desire. but exclude the power. if it is a brute fact about our psychology that only egoistic goals motivate us. or my fame. For simplicity of exposition I’ll presuppose the hedonistic characterization of egoistic action. In its strongest form. and would prefer expanding the characterization of an egoist’s goals to include any sort of self-regarding well-being. Still others want to understand happiness in terms of satisfaction of desire. charming. if my ultimate goals include my power or my wealth. Notice that the proposal is that we define egoistic action in terms of the agent’s goals or ends. You cannot sensibly advise people either that they ought or ought not .

Such sacrifices might be relatively rare. If my motive was avoiding the guilt. one might fall back on the cliché that a coward dies a thousand deaths. I know that when I scratch my head I will displace various molecules. To be sure. Consider the ultimate sacrifice. that it certainly doesn’t follow from the fact that a person knew that he or she would get happiness from an action that such happiness was that person’s goal or end in acting. in desperation. it is hard to see why it would be necessarily true. Again. So I can quite consistently admit that I know I’ll get happiness from seeing my children succeed in life. that one could try to find out whether people would still do something if they no longer got pleasure from . but if you are a normal person you probably also got. one might reasonably wonder whether the sacrifices parents make on behalf of their children are ultimately designed to get precisely that feeling of satisfaction.3 to be egoists if they have no choice in the matter. One might suppose that when I give up my life for the well-being of others I implicitly act on the knowledge that I would feel enormous guilt (a kind of suffering) if I failed to act. matters are complicated when the agent believes in an afterlife replete with rewards and punishments. One might even insist (with Butler 1827) that the very reason I get happiness from seeing my children succeed is that I do desire their happiness intrinsically (see butler. One might suppose. it’s hard to see how one could definitively settle the controversy over what ultimately moves people to act. and knew you would get. Butler seems to argue. but that known consequence of my action has nothing to do with why I act. You might think that you gave your friend a gift on her birthday because you desired as an end your friend’s happiness. It would be like advising people that they ought to obey or violate the laws of gravity. one might also argue that there are obvious examples of sacrifice that defy any reasonable construal of the selfless behavior as egoistic. But why think that people always do act egoistically? It is often argued that the construal of human behavior as egoistic is simply the best explanation of why people do what they do. But it is surely less than obvious that this is the most plausible explanation of why the hero makes the sacrifice. why shouldn’t we think that your own happiness was your ultimate goal or end? Almost all parents get enormous pleasure from seeing their children succeed. But while Butler’s thesis could be true. In the final analysis. but they obviously occur. that yields the relevant happiness. however. It is the satisfaction of that desire. my behavior could still be egoistic. pleasure from seeing your friend happy. for example. the sacrifice of one’s life for another. One must immediately concede. But atheists have been known to sacrifice their lives in combat to save the lives of comrades. a hero but one. Why should one suppose that it is only the satisfaction of a desire for something other than happiness that can yield happiness (unless perhaps one embraces that view that happiness should simply be identified with satisfaction of desire)? Against the proponent of the thesis of psychological egoism. joseph). and again. It’s not even clear that one could in principle devise experiments. But if you knew you would get happiness from seeing your friend happy. while denying that I acted solely for that reason.

Perhaps people have some sort of intuitive grasp of what ultimately moves them to act. The two theses are obviously distinct. that are exactly alike in terms of all of their color. Both the strong and the weak version of ethical egoism have come under considerable criticism.” . But as we saw above. If we discover that philanthropists stop giving when they no longer receive pleasure from doing so. One might. you might change the psychological fact that I desire as an end my friend’s happiness. but goes on to insist that b is beautiful while a is not. and imagine someone who admits all this. The distinction between being good in itself and good as a means precisely parallels the distinction made above between being desired as an end and being desired as a means. The strong version says that everyone morally ought to act egoistically. for example. a and b. Of course the above argument presupposes a certain conception of goodness. one might wonder with Moore (1903) what could make my happiness good in itself that would not also make your happiness equally good (see moore. but there is surely nothing immoral about wearing a red sweater. but controversial. view in ethics. one might insist that something is intrinsically good only in virtue of its properties. Now if one thinks that there is an objective property of being good in itself (a property something has quite independently of anyone’s attitude toward it). g. try to define “being good in itself for S” as “being desired as an end by S. one ought to pursue all and only those states of affairs that are intrinsically good (see intrinsic value. Why would one think that everyone ought to act egoistically? On one common. but not for you. My happiness is good for me. The much weaker version states only that there is nothing immoral about acting egoistically. It is tempting to reject the intelligibility of the above claim by insisting that a particular is only beautiful in virtue of its properties. shape. we can conclude that it really was the philanthropists’ pleasure that was their ultimate goal in acting.4 doing it. would be that what a given person ought to do is a function of what is good for that person. When pressed. My being happy cannot be better than your being happy just in virtue of the fact that the happiness is mine rather than yours. Consider two flowers. So the egoist might think we ought to be egoists because our own happiness is intrinsically good. Similarly. the pleasure people get from acting in a certain way might be lawfully correlated with their desire that the act benefits someone else. So by changing the psychological fact that I get pleasure from helping my friend. impartiality).. It is obviously false that everyone ought to wear red sweaters. The ethical egoist will probably introduce the notion of something being good for a person. Such a view requires that one come up with a plausible analysis of the critical relativized property of being good for a person. but I rather suspect that most of us often aren’t sure why we do the things we do. The idea. consequentialism). the person explains this odd conclusion by insisting that it is the fact that b has the relevant properties that makes for the difference. then. and so on. e. Ethical Egoism There is a strong and a weak version of ethical egoism.

reasons for action. rationality. For one thing. It looks as if my universalized ethical egoism requires me to conclude both that I ought to do X and that you ought to stop me from doing X. In the same fashion. Medlin 1957) also accept the view that there is an intimate connection between judging that someone ought to do something and wanting them to do it. might enable one to reject all agent-relative moralities. Some philosophers (Hume 1888. The weaker claim is that there is nothing necessarily irrational about acting egoistically. There is nothing odd about thinking both that it would be rational for me to do X while it would be rational for you to stop me from doing X. about myself in a way in which I simply don’t care about anyone else. On this view. Many moral philosophers accept some version of the view that moral judgments are universalizable (see universalizability). r. The egoist can abandon morality and focus instead on rationality (see practical reasoning. But now imagine a situation in which I conclude that my doing X is in my interest while your stopping me from doing X is in your interest. And that psychological fact generates an obligation to myself that I don’t have toward anyone else. david. relies again on assumptions about the nature of moral judgments. that commits me to acting in impossible ways (doing X while allowing you to stop me from doing X)? All of the assumptions made by the proponent of the above argument are controversial. there is a fallback position for the egoist. or worse still. Notice that as soon as one moves to claims about what it is rational to do. or even acquiescing in their doing it (see hume. even if the needed assumptions are accepted. for example. Think about competitive games. the argument. in either its strong or its weak form. egoistic or not – a conclusion that would be unwelcome to many. if successful. Rationality Theses of Egoism Just as we could distinguish a strong and a weak version of ethical egoism. prescriptivism). I realize that your weakness in tennis is your backhand and that when playing you I (rationally) ought . one might reject the idea that we should understand claims about what one ought to do in terms of the goodness or badness of outcomes.5 Alternatively. morality and). Many. m. would argue that I have certain obligations to family or friends that I don’t have to strangers. one might argue. so also we can distinguish a strong and a weak rationality thesis endorsing egoism. But do we want an ethical theory that commits me to wanting the impossible. Another class of objections to ethical egoism. The strong claim is that the only rational way for a person to act is egoistically. Any such view needs to identify a source of moral obligation. the alleged problems concerning universalizability might seem to disappear.. someone might argue that I have a special obligation to benefit myself in virtue of the intimate relation I bear to myself – one that I don’t bear to anyone else. Hare 1963. I care. Furthermore. and that these obligations derive from intimate relations I bear to family and friends (see agent-relative vs. I can only accept the view that I ought to act in a certain way if I also concede that anyone else relevantly similar to me ought to act that way as well. agent-neutral). hare.

perhaps we uncritically take whatever goals or ends you have. categorical and hypothetical). But it doesn’t seem even the slightest bit plausible to suppose when I judge that it is rational for you to do X. But what ought we to do if morality and rationality can come apart in this way? It might seem that the question is equivocal just because there are two “oughts. To be sure. On the Humean view. for example). The rational thing for England to do was to prevent that invasion in whatever way they could. There may however be different conceptions of rationality. then it (trivially) won’t be rational to act egoistically. having a given goal might frustrate one’s ability to satisfy another goal. But at least some philosophers think that we can rationally evaluate goals or ends themselves. In judging that it is rational for me to act in a certain way. then one is back in business distinguishing the instrumental rationality of a person’s actions from the categorical rationality of that person’s actions. My tennis backhand isn’t the best and I assure you that I don’t want people to hit to it.6 to hit high lobs to that backhand. The rejection of ethical egoism might be consistent with allowing that perfectly rational people might still act egoistically (if considerations of morality don’t somehow trump considerations of rationality) (see why be moral). Or consider the situation at the outset of World War II. Claims about rationality might be just as universalizable as claims about morality. then the only intelligible judgments about rational action are instrumental – judgments about means to ends. some philosophers would argue that it makes no sense to characterize someone’s ultimate goals or ends as intrinsically irrational. Inspired by Hume (1888). are brute psychological facts about people. The judgments about what we ought rationally to do that seem so utterly disconnected from what we want people to do or what we think we should let people do might be best construed as what Kant (1981) called hypothetical imperatives (see imperatives. and make a judgment about the most effective means for you to achieve those ends. Trivially. but that doesn’t show that there is anything intrinsically problematic in the mere having of either goal. I might be committed to the view that anyone relevantly similar to me ought to act that same way.” the “ought” of morality and the “ought” of instrumental rationality. if one has only egoistic goals. all rationality for the Humean is instrumental. that commits me to wanting you to do X or acquiescing in your doing X. . if one can criticize ultimate goals as themselves irrational (perhaps because what is desired is intrinsically bad. By contrast. And this is perhaps one of the most important disputes lying at the center of controversies concerning the rationality of egoism. If one doesn’t have egoistic goals or ends. if I can. not susceptible to rational criticism. If one’s ultimate goals. But where does that leave us? Philosophers like Medlin (1957) make clear that the target of their criticism is the ethical egoist. it is trivially rational to act so as to achieve those goals. I also realize that the rational thing for you to do is employ whatever strategy might be effective in preventing me from hitting to your backhand. and. In judging that it is rational in this sense for you to do X. defined in terms of what one values intrinsically. I’ll stop them from doing it. The rational thing for Germany to do after the fall of France might have been immediately to invade England. Again.

7 we morally ought to do what we morally ought to do.” in Reason and Responsibility. A Treatise of Human Nature. Ellington. A. prescriptivism. K. CA: Wadsworth. rationality. morality and. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Reasons and Persons. 35. ought implies can. Essays on Henry Sidgwick.” in Broad’s Critical Essays in Moral Philosophy. r. universalizability. 1903. Gauthier. Sidgwick. Schultz (ed. happiness. E. 1970. e. “Ultimate Principles and Ethical Egoism. R. reasons for action.). D. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. Raphael (ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Englewood Cliffs. D. C. vol. “Psychological Egoism. Moore. 1999. London: Oxford University Press. Parfit. M. trans. D. R. Principia Ethica. NJ: Prentice Hall. Indianapolis: Hackett. J. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Brink. D. imperatives. Brian 1957. butler. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Shaver. British Moralists 1650–1800. Hume. Freedom and Reason. Medlin.” in B. g. hume. consequentialism. Hobbes. practical reasoning. T. Hobbesian Moral and Political Theory. Selby-Bigge. Immanuel 1981. Oxford: Oxford University Press.). Kavka. in D. joseph. Rational Egoism. James W. David 1888. London: Allen & Unwin. david. G. why be moral REFERENCES Butler. . The Methods of Ethics. D.. 1971. hare. 1958. and we rationally ought to do what we rationally ought to do. intrinsic value. ed. agent-neutral.. “Sidgwick and the Rationale for Rational Egoism. 1981. categorical and hypothetical. H. Indianapolis: Hackett. Morality and Rational Self-Interest. 1992. FURTHER READINGS Baier. The Moral Point of View. 1984. moore.” Australasian Journal of Philosophy. Human Nature. G. 1963. 1986. 111–18. Feinberg. impartiality. Hare. Kant. instrumental value. Joseph 1827. Broad. m. Belmont. Indianapolis: Hackett. “Egoism as a Theory of Human Motives. 1991 [1650]. desire. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals. Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel. L. Cambridge: Hilliard & Brown. But we are left in the awkward position of wanting to ask a question that surely seems significant but that doesn’t have any nontrivial interpretation: Should we do what we morally should do or what we rationally should do? see also: agent-relative vs. 1978. suffering.