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egoism is a philosophical theory that holds that one’s own self-interest is the ultimate and only moral standard. Egoists believe that they should act in ways that maximize their own benefit, regardless of the consequences for others. egoism can be divided into two main types: psychological egoism and ethical egoism.

egoism is often contrasted with altruism, which is the view that one should act for the benefit of others, even at the expense of one’s own self-interest.

Psychological egoism

Psychological egoism is the view that all human actions are motivated by self-interest, even when they appear to be altruistic or benevolent. According to psychological egoists, people always act in ways that they perceive as beneficial to themselves, either directly or indirectly.

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For example, a person may donate money to a charity because they expect some reward in return, such as social recognition, tax deduction, or personal satisfaction. Psychological egoism is different from ethical egoism, which is the normative claim that people ought to act in their own self-interest.

History of psychological egoism

The history of psychological egoism can be traced back to some ancient philosophers, such as Epicurus and Hobbes, who argued that human nature is essentially selfish and that people seek pleasure and avoid pain. However, psychological egoism became more prominent in the modern era, especially with the rise of empiricism and utilitarianism.

One of the most influential proponents of psychological egoism was Jeremy Bentham, who based his ethical theory on the assumption that human beings are driven by their desires for pleasure and happiness. Bentham also tried to provide a scientific basis for his view by appealing to psychological observations and experiments.

Challenges to psychological egoism

Psychological egoism has been challenged by many philosophers and psychologists, who have offered various arguments and evidence against it. One of the most famous critics of psychological egoism was Joseph Butler, who argued that human beings have natural and disinterested affections for others, and that self-love and benevolence are not incompatible. Butler also pointed out the logical flaw of inferring a universal claim from particular instances of selfish behaviour.

Other objections to psychological egoism include the possibility of irrational or self-destructive actions, the diversity and complexity of human motives, and the existence of empathy and moral emotions.

Ethical egoism

This is a normative theory that holds that each person should act in their own self-interest, even if this conflicts with the interests of others. Ethical egoists believe that they have no moral obligations to anyone else, and that their own happiness or well-being is the only thing that matters. It can be contrasted with other ethical theories, such as utilitarianism, which holds that one should act to maximize the happiness of all sentient beings, or deontology, which holds that one should act according to certain universal moral rules or duties.

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History of ethical egoism

The history of ethical egoism can be traced back to ancient times, but it was not explicitly formulated until the 19th century.

One of the earliest proponents of ethical egoism was the Greek philosopher Thrasymachus, who argued in Plato’s Republic that justice is nothing but the advantage of the stronger. He claimed that it is rational and natural for the powerful to pursue their own interests, regardless of the consequences for others. Thrasymachus’ view was challenged by Socrates, who defended a more universal and altruistic conception of justice.

Another influential figure in the history of ethical egoism was Thomas Hobbes, who developed a social contract theory based on the idea that human beings are naturally selfish and violent. He argued that in a state of nature, where there is no government or law, everyone would be in a constant war of all against all. To avoid this miserable condition, people would agree to form a commonwealth and obey a sovereign who would protect their lives and property. Hobbes maintained that this agreement was not based on any moral obligation, but on prudence and self-preservation.

Henry Sidgwick

The term ethical egoism was coined by Henry Sidgwick in his book The Methods of Ethics, published in 1874. Sidgwick compared ethical egoism to utilitarianism, which seeks to maximize the overall happiness of all sentient beings. He argued that both theories faced serious difficulties and paradoxes, and that neither could be rationally justified. Sidgwick himself advocated a dualism of practical reason, which combined egoism and utilitarianism as two independent and irreconcilable principles.

Ayn Rand

One of the most famous and controversial advocates of ethical egoism in the 20th century was Ayn Rand, who developed a philosophical system called Objectivism. Rand rejected altruism as a form of self-sacrifice and slavery, and championed rational self-interest as the only moral standard. She argued that each individual has a right to pursue his or her own happiness, as long as he or she does not violate the rights of others. Rand also defended capitalism as the only social system that respects individual rights and fosters human flourishing.

Objections to ethical egoism

Ethical egoism has been criticized by many philosophers and moralists for being selfish, immoral, irrational, and inconsistent. Some of the objections raised against ethical egoism are:

  • It is arbitrary and unjustified to privilege one’s own interests over those of others, especially when they are equally important or more urgent.
  • Also, it is impossible to define one’s own interests without reference to some objective values or standards, which ethical egoism cannot provide.
  • It is self-defeating and contradictory to prescribe ethical egoism as a universal rule, since it would lead to conflicts and chaos if everyone followed it.
  • It is incompatible with human nature and social reality, since human beings are not isolated atoms but interdependent and cooperative beings who need each other for survival and wellbeing.
Further reading

Here are some weblinks that discuss this topic in more detail:

egoism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy):

egoism (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy):

egoism and altruism (The Basics of Philosophy):

Ethical egoism (Ethics Unwrapped):

Psychological egoism (ThoughtCo):

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