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Ethical egoism is a normative theory that revolves around consequentialism or in other words the morality of the action or source of an action depends on the outcome of that action. In the case of ethical egoism, the moral person is the self-interested person and thus, the moral-action is decided by its maximum utility for the self. Ethical egoism says that we have the moral obligation of to avoid looking out for other individual and parties’ self-interests if it does not further our own interests.
While this moral theory has its merits and certainly presents itself as a valid and plausible theory, I believe there are many flaws within ethical egoism that suggests it as an accurate predictor and source of understanding for human action and behavior.
Firstly, if ethical egoism were to be adopted by all humans, the existence of objectivity would be obsolete. If every single person were to practice ethical egoism, there would be no consideration of others’ opinions and thoughts.
Personal interests as the driver of all actions and decisions would lead to pure subjectivity in approaches to decision-making. The idea of fairness would not even be able to exist, and collective thought and decision-making become essentially impossible. Countries would essentially have to behave in oligarchical manners in order to achieve any sort of common agenda, but as commonly demonstrated in oligarchical coalitions, the occurrence of backstabbing is much too common thus, these common agendas become nothing more than just superficial agreements in appeal to the public.
Supporters of ethical egoism may argue that collective decision-making and actions are possible because sometimes in the interest of the self, the action that benefits the group will in the long run benefit the individual however, there are definitely scenarios where this type of “collective” decision-making is impossible. For example, we can draw upon the relatively extreme example of World War II where men within a certain age range were required to enter the draft and consequently, join the American military in its fight with the Axis powers. For many men, it was not within their self-interest to engage these enemy countries as it meant they would have to leave the comfortable living setting and their families in the face of potential death and terror. However, in the interest of America and the world’s balance, this was an objectively a very necessary war in terms of ensuring the quality of lives for all future generation Americans. This, of course, did not stop many men from trying to escape being drafted into the military from moving to different countries to committing fraud even though these acts in themselves were despicable.
One particular idea that is commonly illustrated in social mathematics that is especially relevant to ethical egoism is the Prisoner’s Dilemma. In the Prisoner’s Dilemma, we have two partner criminals who were caught for their misdeed however, law enforcement is struggling to get a confession from either party and presents a strategy in order to get confessions. In short, they tell each prisoner that if one prisoner confesses and the other does not confess, the once who confesses receives a sentence of only one years while the one who does not receive a sentence of 10 years. If both confess, they both end up receiving 7 years, and if both stay silent, they both receive 3-year sentences. Given that we know both prisoners are motivated by ethical egoism, we reach the dominant strategy equilibrium in which both prisoners receive 7 years each because it is favorable for both to confess no matter. Even with collusion, they would still confess and backstab the other as its most favorable to receive a one-year punishment instead of both 3-year punishments. This Prisoner’s Dilemma serves as a potential model for society and based on the progress we have made as a society, I would argue that ethical egoism is not a reliable indicator of the actions we take.
Human connections and relationships are considered to be one of the most defining characteristics that makes us “human.” Ethical egoism destroys the idea of human relationships. Imagine having a family member or friend who serves themselves or meeting their own needs first before spending time with you. Would the words “friend” or “family” even be applicable in this type of situation? And then say the friend or family member does decided to spend time with you to do something but because both parties practice ethical egoism, they have totally different ideas of what is “fun.” Aforementioned, a collective decision would never be made, and instead, conflict would ensue, damaging what friendship is left. As humans, many of us rely on others as a support system that we can fall back on. Ethical egoism destroys this idea.
James Rachels a prominent philosopher advocate of ethical egoism argues two very strong points that I feel must be addressed. ‘Each of us is intimately familiar with our own individual wants and needs. Moreover, each of us is uniquely placed to pursue those wants and needs effectively. At the same time, we know the desires and needs of others only imperfectly, and we are not well situated to pursue them. Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that if we set out to be ‘our brother’s keeper,’ we would often bungle the job and end up doing more mischief than good.’ This argument essentially says that we only know ourselves the best, and we are incapable of reaching a similar understanding of others. Thus, Rachels implies that by knowing someone perfectly, are we only justified in helping them. Otherwise, we end up doing a lesser job than that person and do more bad than good. While this argument is certainly not false, on the flipside, it is also never totally true. Rachels’ flaw in his argument is that he assumes that when one party helps another they are doing the full task, which is untrue. In fact, I would argue that it takes many people working in unison to complete tasks at the optimal level. For example, when building a skyscraper, an architect is not enough to make the building (in fact, there is probably a need for multiple architects), but you need thousands of builders and engineers in order to make sure the architect’s design comes to fruition.
Rachel has another argument regarding utilitarianism. “To give charity to someone is to degrade him, implying as it does that, he is reliant on such munificence and quite unable to look out for himself. ‘That,’ reckons Rachels, ‘is why the recipients of ‘charity’ are so often resentful rather than appreciative.” Again, Rachels makes a compelling argument. We do see charity cases today where the act of receiving essentially becomes an addiction that makes the person to be reliant on others. Nevertheless, Rachels ignores charity cases, where the party on the receiving end is able to use the help they receive to transform themselves and become a contributing member of society. We see cases like these every day. In fact, I know a heartfelt story regarding a homeless man who was gifted with a wonderful radio voice that received a lot of publicity as the result of a charitable act and began to thrive as a result. He has continued to thrive and has even given back to the homeless shelter that has accommodated him so many times despite tasting success for the first time in his life.
From Rachel’s arguments for ethical egoism is also the criticism of altruism. Ayn Rand, a famous author and philosopher, believed that acceptors of the ethics of altruism become more concerned with how to sacrifice with theirs lives than how to live it. However, in regard to altruism, I would argue that you can gain utility by helping others. If ethical egoism is righteous and should be followed, I believe it is possible for others to live their lives to the fullest by helping others. Ayn Rand treads a dangerous line by trying to define what humans living their lives means. Humans are variable human beings, and it is safe to say that we are all different from our backgrounds to our own thought processes.
While I believe ethical egoism is a meritable moral theory, I find other consequentialist theories to be equally meritable and more relevant to the society we see today. If anything, I do not believe anyone consequentialist theory is capable of gauging human actions, and it could actually be an amalgam of all and more. Human behavior is dynamic and infinite, and thus, it would be unjust for us to contain it within the small confines of ethical egoism.
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