Egoism is a position where the prime consideration is the effects of one’s actions on oneself. This sort of analysis can be seen to stem from the traditional philosophical dichotomy between one’s self (the subject) and the rest of the world (the object). It is argued that, since one is inevitably bound up with one’s own interests, happiness, desires, hopes, etc., then how one ought to behave will, also inevitably, be centred on the effects that make a difference to us directly.
The ethical egoist’s approach, broadly speaking, says that the good action is the one which is best for me as an individual. Thus, if I am hungry but have no food and take your chips to eat, this is good for me and hence good to do.
This approach, perhaps surprisingly at first glance, has some respectable philosophical roots. Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) observed that human nature is fundamentally self-interested, that it is natural that I as an individual am most concerned with what is best for me. From this observation he argued that we cannot expect an individual to do things which promote the interests of others above the interest of that individual since this goes against human nature. So, it should be no surprise that I help myself to your chips when I’m hungry. Of course, Hobbes thought this through and realized that if everyone freely helped themselves to what is not theirs we would all end up worse off which wouldn’t be good for anyone. His conclusion was that we all agree to rules (such as property rights) where our immediate self-interest (my taking your chips) is replaced by a longer-term self-interest (by observing the rule about property rights I can rest assured that someone won’t steal my jacket, say). The theory that develops out of this analysis is that obeying the rules is what is good because this is what is best for all the individuals’ self-interests.
This seems persuasive but if we don’t like the conclusion about simply being obedient, we have to start picking it apart. One place to start is what precisely Hobbes’ observation about human nature really amounts to.
Imagine you see that I am hungry and you offer me your chips to eat (even though you are quite hungry yourself). Is it that we cannot help ourselves acting out of self-interest? Is what you do as inevitable as growing a fingernail or digesting your food? If your answer to this is ‘yes’ (i.e. in a strongly deterministic way) then the consequence is that no-one is responsible for what they do since they have no choice in the matter, just as we cannot decide against growing a fingernail or digesting a meal. And from this we cannot praise or blame people for what they do, just as we don’t praise people for their ability to grow their nails or blame them for being unable to digest fibre. This interpretation of human behaviour is consistent with that set out in the biologist Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene: social animals share food because they are genetically programmed to do so since this optimizes the chances of survival of each individual in the group. What reinforces the ‘right’ thing to do is a feeling of satisfaction that comes with the optimal survival-strategy action. Thus, you give me chips now in the expectation that I will behave like you at some future time when I have the chips and you don’t. This interpretation seems unpromising to say the least since ethics disappears altogether leaving behind a mere psychological theory about human nature.
Further, even if it is initially proposed as a psychological theory, it threatens to be unscientific in that it is untestable and hence merely a dogma:
- “You offered me your chips because it gives you a feeling of satisfaction.”
- “No, it’s because I thought it was the right thing to do.”
- “It was the thought that ‘it was the right thing to do’ that gave you the satisfaction then.”
- “But I didn’t think that!”
- “No, but your subconscious made you do something that would give you a feeling of satisfaction.”
- “But Freddie was here at the same time and also has chips. Why didn’t he offer you any of his?”
- “His subconscious made him do something that gave him a feeling of satisfaction by keeping his chips for himself”
- “So whatever someone does is caused by their subconscious desire for a feeling of satisfaction?”
- “You’ve got it.”
- “So if I offer you chips the explanation for that action is the same as if I don’t offer you chips?!”
- “Er... yes.”
- “But that’s preposterous!”
- “Live with it – that’s the way it is.”
- “All that is is an assertion. You have no evidence – and no way of getting evidence – to prove it. I prefer to be more thoughtful and look for reasonable explanations for things. And you won’t get any more of my chips.”
‘People only do what makes them satisfied’ argument
The exchange above is an example of a very common way of arguing about our behaviour, ethical or otherwise. I hope that it illustrates that ‘doing the satisfying thing’ isn’t really an argument at all – it only looks as if an explanation is being offered. In reality, all we are being offered is an assertion about how we are – perhaps on a par with ‘we behave this way as a result of an internal feud between a devilish entity and an angelic one. Oh, and by the way, these angels and devils are entirely undetectable except by the results which show up in a person’s behaviour.’ The latter ‘argument’ means that we can refer any behaviour to undetectable entities (e.g. ‘He behaved badly because the devil gained the upper hand’). The former argument about ‘doing what satisfies you’ is equally inadequate. What if a person gave up all the pleasant trappings of life to live in great hardship, pain and ill-health to work among the poor who, in return, abused and despised them? Such a person could justifiably claim to be dissatisfied. But by this ‘argument’ we would have to say that they are doing it because they are satisfied – by being dissatisfied! This absurdity really points up the weakness of the ‘explanation’.
A philosopher, committed to reasoned explanations for things, will want to consider alternatives to this thoughtless approach. Perhaps we are not just ‘lumbering robots’ behaving in a strictly programmed fashion, perhaps it is more complicated (and more interesting) than that.
A candidate a step forward would be to claim that what is good is what is good for me as an individual. This is usually referred to as individual ethical egoism. However, it is not much of a step forward once you consider the implications. Let’s take Tony Stuart as an example. Since the Holocaust had no discernible effect on him then the moral rightness or wrongness of the killing of millions of Jews is morally irrelevant. Similarly, morality only came into being when he was born and will disappear when he dies. Apart from this idea appearing to be just plain wrong (and rather silly), it is also of no help to anyone other than Tony Stuart in a guide to moral behaviour. And what’s so special about him, we might ask.
A more promising advance is universal ethical egoism which is the idea that what everyone ought to do is what is best for them as individuals – even if this harms other people. The reason why this is more promising is that seems to call on individuals to weigh up options about their behaviour so as to optimize what is best for them. Weighing in the balance might be things like cooperation with others to achieve this; considerations of long-term as well as short-term interests; toleration; charity; compassion... Suddenly we find ourselves in the thick of heavyweight ethical notions. The first one to address, however, is whether it is feasible to rest these weighty notions on the fulcrum of self-interest.
The point worth emphasizing here is that, in ethical egoism, the individual need make no effort to give any considerations to what might be best for others, or what might be best for society. The idea is that, simply by doing what is in their own interest will lead directly to what is best for all. (There is a parallel theory in Economics: having a free market which allows all individuals to act out their selfish interests will necessarily lead to the best outcome including, through greater competition, cheaper goods and better products.)
However, there are several criticisms leveled at ethical egoism. Some of these appeal to intuitions about the consequences that would follow rather than pointing out flaws in the theory itself. So, for example, there is the ‘posterity argument’. To an egoist, it would make no difference if, as a result of their actions, all life on Earth were ended in 100 years time. This appeals to an intuition – that we should find this position appalling: we ought to care about the future even though we won’t be in it and won’t benefit from it. But if the egoist shrugs and says that, in fact, they do not find this appalling, then other grounds are needed to argue them out of their position. Another is the ‘helpful neighbour argument’. If someone helped you (the egoist) out, then you would have to say that what they did was morally wrong. This is another intuitive appeal: we ought not to feel this way about charitable people. The egoist might give another shrug and point out that they (the egoist) are not a neighbour to rely on for help and they are never going to rely on neighbours being there to help out anyway.
A more philosophical tack to try is the ‘friendship argument’ which aims to expose an absurdity at the heart of egoism. Obviously (the argument goes) a deep friendship brings great satisfaction so an egoist should make friends since this will be better for them. But wait, a deep friendship is only possible if both parties in it suspend or sacrifice their self-interest from time to time. But this is impossible for the thorough-going egoist – they cannot give up egoism to achieve egoism! Again, the egoist can reply to this that, on the contrary, deep friendship is not more desirable than satisfying self-interest; that time spent developing friendships is wasted time; that friendships are possible where one of the parties (the egoist) never sacrifices self-interest so long as the other party does. These are all empirical replies and so are open to testing to see if they are true or not. Surveys of how people respond to the egoist position nearly always undermine it.
To sum up, ethical egoism has some appeal in that it appears to be consistent with a very plausible interpretation of human nature and that there are few, if any, powerful arguments that point to flaws in it as a theory. On the other hand, it also appears not to be a wholly satisfactory account of the full complexity of human behaviour which would include the notions of compassion, charity, love and friendship – all of which require us to consider the interests of other people as well as our own. Such things seem to cry out for a more comprehensive account of how humans ought to behave than egoism offers. As you might expect, there are lots of attempts which claim to do just this and we will consider some of them below.