Ethical Egoism

6 June 2016

Imagine that you’re walking down a crowded street and an old woman with bags in her hand is walking towards you. The handles on her bags break, and all of her belongings go tumbling to the ground. People walk by, look at her, and keep walking. Unlike them, you stop and help her pick everything up.

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She simply looks at you and says, “Thank you”. You smile at her and then continue on your way, feeling much better about yourself because you cared enough to stop and help. Some people think we ought to only do what is best for ourselves, but I will present evidence that this is a misunderstanding of ethics and the incorrect way of approaching ethics. Ethical egoism doesn’t say that we have no choice but to act in our self-interest like psychological egoism.

Instead, it says that we ought to only do what is in our personal rational self-interest; this self-interest should be long term. For example, an ethical egoist realizes that I should go to the dentist to get a cavity removed even though it causes me pain because it can prevent even more pain in the future.

In this paper, I will explain what ethical egoism is, give examples why ethical egoism is incorrect, provide examples that support ethical egoism, and clarify why those reasons are inaccurate. We have “natural duties” to others “simply because they are people who could be helped or harmed by our actions” (FE p. 113). In other words, if a certain action on our part could help another, then this is a reason why we should help others.

The interests of others count from a moral point of view, even if ethical egoism claims that morality comes from doing what is in our self-interest; I don’t believe that true. So: other peoples’ interests are significant and count from a moral point of view. We can help others. Thus, we should help others.

This argument would be an argument for altruism. Some disagree with it, namely ethical egoists; according to ethical egoism, “one has a moral obligation to only serve and promote one’s own interests” (FE p. 107). The first argument I would like to bring to light is the argument from altruism.

It starts with three assumptions. 1.) We do not know the interests of others. Since we cannot know others’ interests, we are likely to fail in our attempts to help others. We are, however, in a good position to know our own interests. 2.) Helping others is invasive. 3.) Helping others can be degrading in the way it says that they are not competent to care for themselves.

From these assumptions, we get the following argument: 1.) We should do whatever will promote the interests of everyone alike. 2.) The interests of others are best promoted if each of us adopts the policy of pursuing our own interests. 3.) Thus, each of us should adopt the policy of pursuing our own interests exclusively.

However, retaliation is quite simple. The above argument is not an egoistic argument—it’s actually an altruistic one. Notice that although the conclusion says that we ought to act egoistically, the conclusion is driven by the motivation of altruism (in premise 1). So it really says, “In order to be successfully altruistic, everyone should act as an egoist.”

Thomas Hobbes’s argument says that common-sense moral intuitions can always be explained in terms of ethical egoism. We should do certain things (like tell the truth, don’t kill, etc.) because in the long run they serve our interests.

Examples of those would be if we make a habit of harming others, people will be reluctant to help us or refrain from harming us (thus it is in our own interests not to harm others), and if we lie to people, we will get a bad reputation so people won’t be honest with us as a result (thus it is in our own best interests to be truthful).

Hobbes’s argument looks something like this: 1.) If it serves my own interests to adopt some “altruistic principles,” then I should adopt some altruistic principles. 2.) It serves my own interests (as in the examples provided above) to adopt some “altruistic principles.” 3.) In conclusion, I should adopt some altruistic principles (Hobbes, EL, p. 120). Hobbes’s argument is the reverse of the argument from altruism.

(We start with egoistic motivations and goals, and end up acting like altruists.) A great example of why ethical egoism doesn’t work lies in racism. Why doesn’t racism work? Because it claims that one groups’ interests are more important than another’s yet fails to be able to show that the one group has properties which are salient in the sense of proving that they’re more important.

Now what about egoism? It requires that we believe that from each person’s perspective, his or her own interests are more important than everyone else’s. If this is so, we must be able to come up with some salient differences between the self and others to ground it.

Otherwise, it is no different than racism. However, an ethical egoist could simply say it is in fact in our best interest to put our own interests above everyone else’s. If everyone were to do that, we would all be of the same
importance. Now, I’m going to integrate an argument for ethical egoism that I learned in an economics class.

It’s called the invisible hand, which is an economic theory that claims that we should expect a prosperous society from rationally self-interested individuals motivated by profit who compete for business.

The invisible hand is an argument for ethical egoism because if the invisible hand argument is sound, ethical egoism within a capitalistic economy leads to prosperity. Ethical egoism is endorsed by the invisible hand argument as long as it requires people to act on the profit motive, have rational self-interest and has absolutely no need for empathy.

Ethical egoism could be used for practical reasons because everyday decision-making is not necessarily compatible with a completed moral theory. There might be some sort of ethical egoism that encourages us to have empathy, help others, and look out for the interests of others, but the egoism endorsed by the “invisible hand” is not that sort of egoism. Instead, it requires a more selfish and pure form of egoism.

This kind of egoism is impractical because we generally hurt others exactly when we think it’s in our self-interest to do so, and it seems false because it seems unlikely that hurting others would never be in our personal self-interest.

Whether you believe the moral thing to do is pursuing your own self interest exclusively or that doing the moral thing is simply doing the right thing in regards to others’ needs, morals are and always have been a complicated issue. We are raised with morals, told to obey the moral laws, we marry people with the same moral values that we posses, and then pass on our moral values to our children.

Although there are positives to ethical egoism, such as only being responsible for your own self-interests, I don’t believe it’s the correct approach to ethics. I believe in altruism, and it only takes one person doing a truly selfless act to disprove ethical egoism.

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