Egoism is a teleological theory of ethics that sets as
its goal the benefit, pleasure, or greatest good of the oneself alone.
It is contrasted with altruism, which is not strictly self-interested,
but includes in its goal the interests of others as well. There are at
least three different ways in which the theory of egoism can be presented:
Psychological Egoism-- This is the claim that humans by nature are motivated only by self-interest . Any act, no matter how altruistic it might seem, is actually motivated by some selfish desire of the agent (e.g., desire for reward, avoidance of guilt, personal happiness). This is a descriptive claim about human nature. Since the claim is universal--all acts are motivated by self interest--it could be proven false by a single counterexample.
It will be difficult to find an action that the psychological egoist
will acknowledge as purely altruistic, however. There is almost always
some benefit to ourselves in any action we choose. For example, if I helped
my friend out of trouble, I may feel happy afterwards. But is that happiness
the motive for my action or just a result of it? Perhaps the psychological
egoist fails to distinguish the beneficial consequences of an action from
the self-interested motivation. After all, why would it make me happy to
see my friend out of trouble if I didn't already have some prior concern
for my friend's best interest? Wouldn't that be altruism?
Ethical Egoism-- This is the claim that individuals should always to act in their own best interest. It is a normative claim . If ethical egoism is true, that appears to imply that psychological egoism is false: there would be no point to saying that we ought to do what we must do by nature.
But if altruism is possible, why should it be avoided? Some writers suggest we all should focus our resources on satisfying our own interests, rather than those of others. Society will then be more efficient and this will better serve the interests of all. By referring to the interests of all, however, this approach reveals itself to be a version of utilitarianism, and not genuine egoism. It is merely a theory about how best to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number.
An alternative formulation of ethical egoism states that I ought to
act in my own self-interest--even if this conflicts with the values and
interests of others--simply because that is what I value most. It is not
clear how an altruist could argue with such an individualistic ethical
egoist, but it is also not clear that such an egoist should choose to argue
with the altruist. Since the individualistic egoist believes that
whatever serves his own interests is (morally) right, he will want everyone
else to be altruistic. Otherwise they would not serve the egoist's
interests! It seems that anyone who truly believed in individualistic ethical
egoism could not promote the theory without inconsistency. Indeed, the
self-interest of the egoist is best served by publicly claiming to be an
altruist and thereby keeping everyone's good favor.
Minimalist Egoism-- When working with certain economic
or sociological models, we may frequently assume that people will act in
such a way as to promote their own interests. This is not a normative
claim and usually not even a descriptive claim. Instead it is a minimalist
assumption used for certain calculations. If we assume only self-interest
on the part of all agents, we can determine certain extreme-case (e.g.,
maximin) outcomes for the model. Implicit in this assumption, although
not always stated, is the idea that altruistic behavior on the part of
the agents, although not presupposed, would yield outcomes at least as
good and probably better.
Copyright © 1997 Charles D.
Kay. All rights reserved.
rev. January 20, 1997