Ethical Egoism and Its Rules for Making it Work

Categories: Moral

Hobbes suggested that this reasoning leads to the Golden Rule; it is in our own advantage to ‘do unto others’ because they will be more likely to ‘do unto us’. This is a more convincing argument for a moral code of self-interest but doesn’t prove as much as it needs to, suggesting that is it only mostly to one’s advantage to avoid harming others. It also doesn’t show that altruistic concern is always warranted; if I know I can get away with murder this view could not explain why I should refrain, thus at least some of our moral obligations cannot derive from self-interest.

Secondly, Ethical Egoism suggests that self-interest is the only reason why we should help; even if altruism were in my best interest, there may be other reasons why it’s good, perhaps simply in and of itself. Numerous arguments exist against Ethical Egoism, and more specifically, whether it can count as moral theory. The main problems will be outlined before concluding that it cannot provide a moral foundation – to act ‘morally’ one must recognise the needs of others and weigh their interests accordingly.

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In The Moral Point of View, Kurt Baier objects that Ethical Egoism provides no moral basis for the resolution of conflicts of interest; for him, the “only justification” for a moral code. He believes it fails to provide the moral adjudication it necessitates; instead of resolving conflict it often creates it. As Rachels has shown however, the Ethical Egoist may object that he cannot admit a construct of morality whose aim is merely to prevent conflicts of interest.

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“On his view,” he writes, “the moralist is like the Commissioner of Boxing, urging each fighter to do his best.

“Baier also argues that Ethical Egoism is logically inconsistent in that it can judge an act both morally wrong and not wrong; for example if one were an Ethical Egoist in sales, you would be committed to the customer both paying full price (your best interest) and not paying full price (their best interest). However a more serious charge falls against Ethical Egoism, one in which nepotism, sexism and racism can be morally justified, and is outlined as follows;

  1. Ethical Egoism would have each person assign greater weight to his/her own interests
  2. There is no difference between oneself and others to justify this differential treatment
  3. Therefore Ethical Egoism is an arbitrary doctrine.

According to Rachels this comes closest to outright refutation of Ethical Egoism as well as providing insight into why the interests of others should matter. It violates, like racism, what Rachels calls “The Principle of Equal Treatment”; that, ‘We should treat people the same way unless there is a relevant difference between them’.

Thus, we should care about the interests of others because their needs and desires are comparable to our own. It is the realisation that we are all equal that morality must recognise the needs of others, which is why Ethical Egoism ultimately fails as a moral theory. The conflicts arising when all exclusively pursues self-interest can be resolved through the idea of a Social Contract, in which edicts attempt to promote “the greatest good for the greatest number of people”, and all sacrifice some of their rights in order to ensure others.

A version of Psychological Egoism (differs from Ethical Egoism; we are motivated by self-interest, not that we ought to be) can be found in both Hobbes’ Leviathan and Plato’s Republic; both are convinced that, even in what seem to be acts of altruism, we are ultimately indifferent to everything except that of direct benefit to ourselves. Hobbes argued that in the State of Nature all mechanistically and exclusively pursue self-interest; the result is a life “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”, in effect a war of all against all where none have the capacity to ensure long-term satisfaction and no long-term cooperation is possible.

Given Hobbes’ reasonable assumption that most want foremost to avoid their own deaths, he concludes that this is the worst possible situation. The conflicts appearing when each individual exclusively pursues self-interest can be resolved, as suggested by Hobbes and Rousseau, only if all voluntarily forgo some of their ‘rights’; in effect a Social Contract; in which, to avoid the natural state, all agree to live together under common laws enforced by a sovereign. Since the sovereigns authority to impart punishment for breaches is better than living in perpetual fear, all have self-interested reason to adjust to the pretence of morality.

Society (and thus morality) becomes possible as, whereas in Hobbes’ State of Nature there was no power able to “overawe them all”, now there is an artificially and conventionally superior agent to enforce cooperation. Ultimately, a world ruled by social contract seems the most logical answer to questions of a moral code of self-interest – all forgo a small amount of freedom to ensure freedom in other ways. “It is not simply that morality requires self-interest, but that self-interest requires morality; we need a conceptualised code of values and virtues to enable us to plan the achievement of self-interest over the long run”

Ethical Egoism ultimately fails as a moral doctrine because of the realisation that we have natural duties to others simply because they are people who could be helped or harmed by our actions.


  1. Baier, Kurt; The Moral Point of View: A Rational Basis of Ethics, Cornell, 1958  Baier, Kurt; “Egoism” in A Companion to Ethics, P. Singer (ed. ), Blackwell, Oxford 1990.
  2. Hobbes, Thomas; Leviathan, E. Curley (ed. ), Hackett Publishing Chicago1994. Kalin, Jesse; Two Kinds of Moral Reasoning: Ethical Egoism as a Moral Theory in The Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 5, No. 3 (Nov., 1975), pp. 323-356.
  3. Kohlberg, Lawrence; T. Lickona, ed. , “Moral stages and moralization: The cognitive-developmental approach” in Moral Development and Behaviour: Theory, Research and Social Issues. Holt, NY: Rinehart and Winston, 1976.
  4. Rachels, James; ‘Ethical Egoism’ from The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 6th Ed. McGraw-Hill Publications, New York 2008.
  5. Rachels, James; “Ethical Egoism” in Ethical Theory: An Anthology, Russ Shafer-Landau (ed. ), Blackwell, Oxford, 007  Rand, Ayn; The Virtue of Selfishness, Signet 1964.
  6. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques; The Social Contract, or Principles of Political Right, 1762, translated by G.D. H. Cole, http://www. constitution. org/jjr/socon. htm
  7. Smith, T; Viable Values, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000 Word Count (excluding bibliography) – 1, 576 1 James Rachels, pp 214 in Schafer-Landau
  8. Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, pp39
  9. James Rachels in Shafer-Landau pp. 538.
  10. A view refuted by Rachels in The Elements of Moral Philosophy
  11. Lawrence Kohlberg in “Moral stages and moralization: The cognitive-developmental approach”
  12. Hobbes’ Leviathan, Chapter XIII 7 Smith, Viable Values pp. 164-167
  13. Rachels pp124 in Schafer-Landau PY1105 Essay 1 No. 100013701.

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Ethical Egoism and Its Rules for Making it Work. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

Ethical Egoism and Its Rules for Making it Work

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