Starting at about 11:00AM on April 20, 1999 at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, two masked students named Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold began shooting people.  Before they were done, they had killed 12 fellow students, one teacher, and themselves.  At the scene one panicked student told reporters about her encounter with the gunmen.  "Everyone around me got shot. I begged him for 10 minutes not to shoot me.  He just put the gun in my face and there was bleeding everywhere and he started laughing and was saying that it was all because people had been mean to him last year.”  Understandably, most of the people in the school rushed out in terror.  But some put their own lives in jeopardy to assist others.  A teacher named Dave Sanders did his best to help students and teachers to escape, and was shot more than once while doing so.  "Mr. Sanders was taking bullets for people," according to a student named Stephanie Lohrenz.  When the gunmen approached the school cafeteria, Sanders “ran into the cafeteria and warned everybody," according to English teacher Cheryl Lucas.  Then he moved off to warn others, and was shot.  Before help arrived, Sanders died.  Frank DeAngelis, the Principal, suggested that Sanders “was so unselfish, someone who brought out the best in people.”[1]

            Sanders’ appeared to be acts of supererogation:  he went beyond the call of duty, gravely risking—in fact, losing—his life, which is not something his students and fellow teachers could reasonably have demanded.  His example suggests that human beings are able to make extraordinary sacrifices on behalf of others.  But should we?  Or ought we to avoid personal sacrifices, and try to do the best we can for ourselves in all circumstances?  According to a view called ethical egoism, it is good and right to be entirely self-serving.  It defines our interests or our good in terms of the self, as follows:

for each individual,

1.                  That individual’s self is good for its own sake.

2.                  Nothing else is good for its own sake.

Then it defines rightful conduct as the pursuit of the good, as follows:

Each individual should do just what is in that individual’s greatest interest.

Notice that the egoist’s accounts of the good and the right are agent-relative:  they define what is right for me, and what is right for you, not what is right period, unlike an agent-neutral account.

            In this chapter, we will consider arguments for and against ethical egoism.  Along the way, we will examine a view we must carefully distinguish from ethical egoism; namely, psychological egoism, which says that, despite the behavior of people like Sanders, we care about ourselves for our own sakes and are unable to care about anything else for its sake.  Our mental and physical conditions are aspects of the self, and egoists emphasize that we tend to want to enjoy ourselves and be healthy and safe.  But other things--money, acquaintances, and so on--are merely useful tools at best.  Ethical egoism is a normative view:  it endorses self-serving behavior.  Psychological egoism, by contrast, is a descriptive stance concerning how people are motivated and what they seek; it makes no suggestion whatever concerning how people should be motivated.   Psychological egoism does not even say that we always act in our own interest.  Indeed—unlike ethical egoism, which defines an individual’s good as what enhances the individual’s self—psychological egoism takes no stand on the matter of what truly is in our interest.  Instead, it says we always do what we think will enhance the self. 



Sometimes ethical egoists take psychological egoism and their analysis of the good for granted in order to defend their analysis of the right.  Together, these assumptions seem to support ethical egoism, for they imply that the individual’s self-enhancement is the one and only good the individual seeks.  The idea is this:  if we cannot help but pursue our own good, and it is the only good we can pursue, isn’t self-seeking behavior right? 

What, after all, is the alternative?  Suppose someone tells you that you really ought to realize others’ good as best you can--and not simply to the extent that it is in your interest.  If your own good is the only thing you can seek for its own sake, it is pointless to tell you to act otherwise:  you cannot do so.  Surely we can be required to do only what we can do, and we cannot be required to avoid options we choose by necessity:  ‘ought’ implies ‘can’, and ‘ought not’ implies ‘can avoid’.  In sum, then, the incapacity defense of the egoist’s account of the right is as follows:

1.                  Psychological egoism is true, so we cannot stop trying to enhance ourselves, and we cannot seek anything else.

2.                  The ethical egoist’s account of the good is correct, so the individual’s self-enhancement is the individual’s only good.

3.                  So our self-enhancement is the one and only good we can pursue, and we do so inevitably.

4.                  It cannot be right to do what we cannot, nor wrong to do what we must.

5.                  So it is right for each of us to act in self-interest.

Initial Difficulties

One problem with this argument is that it seems pointless to tell us that it is right to do things we will do by psychological necessity.  In fact, it seems confused:  doesn’t the claim that we are obligated to behave in a certain way imply that we are free not to behave in that way?  In response, egoists might weaken their conclusion; instead of saying that

(a)                acting in self-interest is morally required,

they might say that

(b)               acting in self-interest is not morally wrong (there cannot be moral objections to acting in self-interest).

This response has a significant virtue:  (b), and not (a), is supported by the incapacity argument. However, there is a problem:  (a), not (b), is what it takes to support ethical egoism as we have defined it.

Another problem with the incapacity defense is that premise 2 eventually will need justification,[2] but let us focus on the heart of the argument, which is premise 1, asserting the truth of psychological egoism.  Is this view defensible?

Main Difficulty:  Psychological Egoism

There are three main arguments for psychological egoism; let us consider them one by one.

1.         The hedonistic defense:  One way to defend psychological egoism is to base it on psychological hedonism, which we discussed earlier.  Psychological egoism is compatible with people caring about any aspect of the self, while psychological hedonism says that we care only about experiencing pleasure.  Thus psychological hedonism entails psychological egoism (but psychological egoism does not entail psychological hedonism), so by establishing the truth of the hedonist’s view, it would be possible to support psychological egoism. 

Unfortunately, however, we cannot defend psychological egoism on the basis of psychological hedonism, for the latter is in just as much need of justification as the former, as we saw in Chapter 5.

2.         The hidden motives argument:  Another defense says that whenever people seem to act from genuine concern for the well-being of others, they are really acting from a self-serving motive which remains concealed in the background.  Many people appear to put their well being aside for others:  the teacher Dave Sanders is a case in point.  There are war heroes who apparently sacrifice their lives to save their comrades-in-arms, and people like Mother Theresa, who devote their lives to helping the poor.  Before she died in 1997, she spent 50 years helping lepers and other extremely unfortunate people in Calcutta.  However, the psychological egoist will be quick to find self-centeredness behind the appearance of altruism:  perhaps Mother Theresa wanted to earn herself a place in heaven, or maybe she wanted fame and publicity.  She may have been tormented by feelings of guilt, which she eased by helping others.

But why should we give credence to this attempt to explain away apparent acts of altruism?  The fact that apparently altruistic actions might have been prompted by less generous intentions does not show that these actions really were self-seeking.  Psychological egoists cannot rest their case on the grounds that we cannot decisively refute the possibility of hidden motives, especially when the most straightforward view is that in cases like Sanders’ no such motives existed.  Offering the hidden motives argument is like showing that an imperceptible man is standing in the corner of the room by inviting us to prove otherwise.  It is difficult to meet that challenge, but why should we try when given no grounds whatever for the suspicion that prompted it, and when the suspicion lacks plausibility on its face? 

3.         The argument by extended self-interest:  A final defense of psychological egoism unfolds as follows: 

(a)                Acting voluntarily is attempting to do what we want.

(b)               Attempting to do what we want is trying to act in self-interest.

(c)                So acting voluntarily is trying to act in self-interest.

The conclusion here, claim (c), looks to be just another way to express psychological egoism, so this argument by extended self-interest, as we might call it, seems to provide strong support for psychological egoism.  But does it?

One minor objection to the argument by extended self-interest concerns premise (a).  Doesn’t duty sometimes prompt us to do things we don’t want to do?  For example, suppose that a child pays me too much for a toy I am selling, and I want to keep the extra money, but I give it back, because I believe keeping it would be wrong.  Then it would be appropriate to say that I have voluntarily done something I did not want to do.  Although persuasive, this objection will not deter people who are seduced by the argument by extended self-interest.  They will retort that we allow duty to override other considerations only when we want to do our duty!

But what about premise (b)?  Is it acceptable?  The reasoning in favor of (b) is probably this:  whatever we desire we consider an interest of ours and vice versa.  For example, if I desire to eat, I consider eating to be in my interest.  So when we do what we want we pursue our interests.  And the pursuit of our interests is the same thing as the pursuit of self-interest.  However, tempting as it is, this reasoning is bad, since it involves equating the following notions:

(i) doing what we want

(ii) pursuing interests of the self

(ii) pursuing self-interest.

The thought is that (i) is the same as (ii), while (ii) is the same as (iii), so (i) must be the same as (iii).  However, this reasoning fails, because (ii) is ambiguous—it has two different meanings.  When we refer to interests of the self, we might mean either of the following, and we often conflate (fail to distinguish) the two:

- things the self wants (or desires)

- things that are in the self’s interest

Things the self wants need not be things that are in the self’s interest.  Only things that enhance the self are in the self’s interest.  But the self might want all sorts of things, including things that are harmful to it.  Now, if we are going to refer to interests of the self in an argument, we must use it in one sense or the other, not both at the same time. However, we failed to do so.  When we equated (i) with (ii), we used interests of the self to mean things the self wants.  And when we equated (ii) with (iii), we used interests of the self to mean things that are in the self’s interest. 

            Why not accept premise (b) even though our reasoning for it was no good?  Suppose we simply stipulate that when we refer to acting in our own interest, we mean trying to do what we want.  Can’t we rescue the argument for psychological egoism this way?  No we cannot, for the argument by extended self-interest will not show what the egoist needs to show, namely that people are always self-seeking.  If we use the words ‘act in self-interest’ to refer to the same thing as the words, ‘do what we want,’ then very little is implied by the claim that we always ‘act in self-interest.’  In particular, it will not imply that we care only about the self.  In fact, it is entirely compatible with the suggestion that people like Sanders have a motive that is supposed to be ruled out by the egoist:  profound concern for the welfare of others for the others’ sake.


            All things considered, it looks as if we will have to abandon the incapacity defense of ethical egoism, since it is based on psychological egoism, which itself rests on shaky grounds. 

Let’s move on to a second argument for ethical egoism.



Why do we consider moral restrictions necessary?  Is it because collectively people are best off under these restrictions?  If so, then perhaps egoists can defend themselves by arguing that accepting ethical egoism will result in the greatest aggregate good. 

            Would they be right?  The answer is not obvious.  Ethical egoists might press their case by asking a series of questions.  Is anyone more motivated to further your well being than you?  Is anyone more familiar with your goals, or better able to work out the best ways to reach them?  Won’t everyone do best if each of us takes responsibility for her own well being?  And isn’t a policy that makes each person best off also one that maximizes the aggregate good?  If we answer ‘yes’ to these questions, we seem to have a decent argument for accepting ethical egoism.

However, the argument is far from decisive.  Ethical egoism doesn’t stop at encouraging us to take responsibility for our own well being.  It also tells us it would be all right to harm others if doing so were in our interest (although ethical egoists typically will deny that harming people ever is in our interest).  When we consider this side of egoism, we will be less confident that the egoist way is the best way. 

            In any case, there is a more pressing objection:  as stated, it is based on consequentialism, which is the requirement that we maximize the aggregate good.  Consequentialism does not specify what is good; it is neutral on that point.  It presupposes that we have identified what is good in itself, and tells us to bring about as much good as we can.  To make it clear that the egoist’s second argument is based on consequentialism, let us review it:

1.                  It is right to bring about the most good.

2.                  We will bring about the most good if everyone accepts the ethical egoist account of the right.

3.                  So everyone ought to accept the ethical egoist account of the right.

Obviously, the first premise is a statement of consequentialism.

But what is wrong with that?  Here’s the problem:  consequentialism says that we must maximize the aggregate good, not just our own.  Egoists have no business accepting this claim, since their view is precisely that our own good is the only good.  The aggregate good is a matter of indifference to egoists, so it is bizarre for them to defend their doctrine on the grounds that it maximizes the aggregate good.

            Still, nothing stops ethical egoists from using consequentialism against itself, and in all likelihood this is their intent.  “You consequentialists assume that we must produce as much good as we can.  For the sake of argument, we will grant this.  But the fact is that as a whole people are best off when they accept ethical egoism.  So consequentialism is self-defeating:  in effect, it tells us to reject consequentialism and become egoists!” 

            In brief:  the second defense is worrisome because unlike consequentialists ethical egoists are indifferent about the aggregate good.  However, if consequentialism supports the adoption of ethical egoism, then ethical egoists will have a partial defense of their view, since they will have silenced one of their critics.



Ethical egoists might try to argue that their account explains common sense ethical principles such as ‘killing and robbing innocent people is wrong.’  They could suggest that a proper understanding of ethical egoism would lead us to accept virtually the same moral principles as common sense.  If their theory explains common sense judgments, then common sense supports their theory, and it will be reasonable to conclude that egoists have captured the truth about morality after all.

To align their account with common sense, ethical egoists such as Epicurus and Hobbes begin with two assumptions about common sense morality.  One is that moral requirements are conventions, meaning by this that we conform to these requirements in the expectation that others will, too.  We are willing to play by the rules, but only because we expect that others will do the same.  Still, not every convention we can imagine would be an acceptable moral rule.  (Imagine a convention directing us to steal whenever possible.)  Why are some potential conventions accepted as moral rules while others are not?  This brings us to the second assumption:  we adopt conventions when doing so makes each and every person better off.  Each person is better off (or at least no worse off) with the convention than she would be without it; the conventions are, as we might say, collectively advantageous.  In brief, then, common sense morality consists in conforming to social conventions that are collectively advantageous. 

Epicurus offers this conception of rightful conduct (or justice) in the following passage:

Natural justice is a symbol or expression of expediency, to prevent one man from harming or being harmed by another.  . . .There never was an absolute justice, but only an agreement made in reciprocal intercourse. . . , providing against the infliction or suffering of harm.[3]

Consider, for example, the convention of honoring promises, which ordinarily is judged morally requisite by common sense.  The egoist can easily explain why breaking a promise is wrong.  If all of us keep our word, each is much better off, and so normally we keep our promises in the expectation that others will do likewise.  Many of the things that improve the human condition are possible only through complex, coordinated tasks that people undertake with the understanding that others will do their part.

Having aligned common sense rightful conduct with adherence to social conventions that are collectively advantageous, ethical egoists then suggest that conforming to collectively advantageous social conventions is always in our interest.  This claim seems plausible since a convention can be collectively advantageous only if it is in each person’s interest.  And now the egoists’ case is complete:  if the enlightened pursuit of self-interest is the same as adherence to collectively advantageous social conventions, and adherence to these conventions is rightful conduct as judged by common sense, then morally proper conduct as judged by ethical egoism coincides with morally proper conduct as judged by common sense.  Here is a summary of the argument:

1.                  The conduct endorsed by common sense is simply conformity to social conventions that are collectively advantageous.

2.                  Rightful conduct as judged by ethical egoism is conformity to social conventions that are collectively advantageous.

3.                  So rightful conduct as judged by ethical egoism is the same as rightful conduct as judged by common sense.

Is this reconciliation argument a sound defense of ethical egoism?

Some will urge that its second premise is false, since there are circumstances in which an individual will violate collectively advantageous conventions if she follows the ethical egoist’s policy of always doing what is in her greatest interest. To see why, consider a puzzle called the Prisoner’s Dilemma.  Imagine two (or more) people—say Bill and Jill—who always try to get what is best for themselves.  Suppose that they plan to set up some sort of cooperative arrangement, such as the practice of helping each other harvest their crops every year.  As an ethical egoist, Bill will think through the possible outcomes of his interaction with Jill and rank those outcomes as follows (giving preference to 1 then 2, and so on):

1.  Bill does not cooperate but Jill does.  (That is, Jill helps Bill but Bill does not reciprocate.)

2.  Both cooperate.

3.  Neither cooperates.

4.  Bill cooperates but Jill does not.


Cooperates                  Doesn’t cooperate


Cooperates      2nd best                        Bill’s best,

                                    for both                        Jill’s worst


            Doesn’t            Jill’s best,                     3rd best

            Cooperate        Bill’s worst                   for both


Bill prefers 1 above all other outcomes because it allows him to receive Jill’s help without doing anything in return.  Bill ranks 4 below all other outcomes because it puts him through the ordeal of helping Jill without gaining anything in return.  He ranks 3 over 4 because he wants to avoid the ordeal of helping Jill.  And he ranks 2 over 3 because he can harvest more of his crop in cooperation with Jill than he can alone.  Jill will think through the possible outcomes of her interaction with Bill and rank the outcomes in an analogous way (interchanging 1 and 4).  But now Jill realizes that Bill prefers 1 over 2, and predicts that he will refuse to help her harvest her crops after she helps him.  Bill realizes that Jill will refuse to help him, too.  So neither will help the other, because each is afraid of ending up with his or her worst outcome.  Instead, they end up with their second worst outcome, outcome 3. 

The upshot seems to be that ethical egoists cannot act cooperatively.  They cannot conform to social conventions such as promise keeping even though for each and every person the situation in which everyone conforms is better than the situation in which no one does.  The problem is that the best situation for a given egoist is the one in which everyone except her conforms, and egoists will try to put themselves in the situation that is best for them.  Paradoxically, by attempting to put themselves in the best situation, egoists prevent themselves from reaching even their second-best situation, the situation in which everyone cooperates.  Contrary to premise 2, the pursuit of self-interest backfires, and prevents us from conforming to collectively advantageous social arrangements.

In response, egoists might deny that it is rational to exploit cooperative arrangements.  The very fact that universal cheating prevents anyone from cooperating with others is itself reason enough for us not to cheat.  The prisoner’s dilemma does not show that the universal pursuit of self-interest backfires; instead, it shows that universal cheating backfires, and the rational response is therefore universal cooperation. 

But this reply is too quick, since universal cooperation and universal cheating are not the only options.  Why not cheat only on rare occasions when I can do so without detection and a great deal is at stake?  Of course, leading ethical egoists, such as Epicurus (341-270BC) and Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), will say that a policy of selective cheating is irrational, and that a policy of not cheating is rationally preferable, since I am likely to get caught cheating, whereupon I will be punished in a wholly unacceptable way, and will acquire a reputation that will lead others to shun me.  Epicurus makes this point succinctly in the following passage:

It is impossible for the man who secretly violates any article of the social compact to feel confident that he will remain undiscovered, even if he has already escaped ten thousand times. . . .[4]

And Hobbes develops a similar view:

He. . .that breaks his covenant, and consequently declares that he thinks he may with reason do so, cannot be received into any society, that unite themselves for peace and defense, but by the error of them that receive him; nor when he is received, be retained in it, without seeing the danger of their error; which errors a man cannot reasonably reckon upon as the means of his security. . . .[5]

But are Epicurus and Hobbes correct?  No; unfortunately, we can imagine circumstances in which selective cheating would be rational.  In his Republic, Plato described a magical ring that can make people invisible.  Wearing this ring--the ring of Gyges, it is called--you could walk into a bank in broad daylight and make off with a billion dollars, and no one could stop you.  If you owned the ring of Gyges, it would be absurd to argue that you should refrain from stealing a billion dollars on the grounds that you might be caught and punished.  (Perhaps there is some other reason to avoid theft, but punishment is easily avoided by wearers of the ring.)[6] 

So why not have our cake and eat it too?  When we stand to gain a great deal and the chances of detection are low, isn’t it in our interest to violate practices that are in the collective interest?  If so, then premise 2 is false, and ethical egoism as we have defined it implies that on some occasions it is right for us to press our interests against others—namely, when we can do so with impunity.  Can we really accept this implication?  If not, the reconciliation argument fails.



We have examined the arguments for ethical egoism, and found them worrisome, which casts doubts on the idea that we ought to care about ourselves exclusively.  Perhaps we now know what not to believe about the importance of our interests.  But what should we believe? 

There is some danger that we will embrace the opposite of egoism—on the rebound, so to speak.  But if it is unreasonable to care only about ourselves, is it reasonable to care only about others?  No; it would be a mistake to take this attitude, too.  It generates the paradox of altruism:  Suppose that I, and everyone else, say that my only good is serving others.  Then there is nothing I can do to help you!  I cannot even help you by letting you help me, for there is nothing you can do to help me!  Unless some of us have interests apart from the good of assisting people, helping others is impossible.  The fact is that unless people have interests of their own, it is hard to see how to be concerned about them.  Indeed, morality itself would have no role to play, to the extent that morality is a matter of responding to the interests of others in a reasonable way.  But if we do have these independent interests, it is absurd to take the attitude that the only thing that is important to us is serving others.

(But isn’t it better to serve than to be served?  Suppose that a woman named Ann is the only person capable of independent interests, and everyone else is only interested in serving, not in being served.  All the rest of us would fall over ourselves trying to help Ann—without her, our lives would be senseless.  And imagine our distress if Ann announced one day that she was going to serve-and-not-be-served, like the rest of us, say because she felt ashamed at having her own projects.  Wouldn’t we tell her that the most important thing she could do was to continue her projects—and allow the rest of us to help?) 

            Both our own good as well as the good of others should matter to us.  We should adopt neither a narrow and exclusive focus on the self nor an extreme form of altruism.  But exactly how should we respond to the interests of others?  Is it acceptable to help others only when they are in grave need and our help is not an undue burden for us, thus leaving ourselves free to pursue our own interests in ways that do not harm others?  On this suggestion everyone is considered responsible for her own life, and others must assist only when she cannot meet that responsibility.  Or should we pursue everyone’s interests alike, contributing in a positive way to the welfare of each person no less than we contribute to our own welfare?  On this suggestion we are as responsible for others as we are for ourselves. 

To say that we are as responsible for others as we are ourselves is to say that we should treat the interests of people in a strictly impartial way, ignoring completely the fact that some of the interests are ours and some are not.  The suggestion is that morality requires us to further all concerns and all interests on a wholly impartial basis, putting aside loyalty to specific people with whom we have special ties.  Consider an example devised by William Godwin (1756-1836), a political theorist.[7]  Suppose I can save only one of two persons from a burning building, one of whom is a chambermaid and the other a philanthropic archbishop.  If I must make my selection on an impartial basis, then I might, as Godwin suggested, decide to save the archbishop on the grounds that he does more good for the world than does the chambermaid.  But in any case I must ignore the fact that the chambermaid turns out to be--my mother!  If I save her on the grounds that she is my mother, I am being partial, which is unacceptable, supposing that we must further all interests on an impartial basis.

Bernard Williams, a contemporary philosopher, raises a forceful objection to this demand:  if the suggestion were correct, then morality could require that we detach ourselves from the self in a way that undermines our very grounds for thinking that life is worth living.[8]  Surely, Williams urges, it is absurd to say that morality requires anything of the sort.  The suggestion that we must pursue everyone’s interests impartially is mistaken.

Williams’ argument rests on a point borrowed from the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) who co-founded existentialism with Friedrich Nietzsche.  In a significant sense we define who we are in terms of our most fundamental commitments and projects.  For example, our relationships to loved ones and our devotion to creative projects are central to who we are.  Our continuity with them enables us to see ourselves as individuals whose existence reaches forward into the future and back into the past.  If they were somehow destroyed, we would feel that we might as well have ceased to exist.  If we suffered their loss, we would be unable to judge our lives as worthwhile.

If fundamental projects and commitments give us our very reason to live, it would be unreasonable to expect us to ignore their compelling urgency and pursue them alongside the projects of other people.  As well, it would be absurd to expect us to remain impartial when selecting which of two people to save when one is someone we know and love.  So Williams provides grounds for saying that each of us is responsible for his or her own life.



The Kierkegaardian view of the self does something else for us.  It calls into question the ethical egoist’s assumption that we have a clear idea of self-interest, and the altruist’s notion that we have a clear idea of what “selfishness” is.  In defining their doctrines, egoists (and altruists) take for granted the concept of the self, and define ‘self-interest’ as the enhancement of the self.  By doing so they think they are getting down to brass tacks, and defining ‘self-interest’ in terms of such concrete concerns as existence, safety, and pleasure.  But now we see that the concept of self-interest is malleable, because the concept of the self is malleable.  In particular, our identities can overlap with the identities of other individuals or groups; we can take others into our identities, so that their interests are ours, and our lives are the richer for it.  For example, my relationship with my wife is part of who I am; our identities overlap to a large extent.  Without her, I would feel incomplete.  If we bring loved ones into our identities, we profoundly alter what acting in self-interest means.  It simply cannot involve harming the people with whom we align.  When they flourish so do we; enhancing their lives is as much in ‘our’ interest as anything else we can do.

            We can also define the self, at least in part, in terms of altruistic projects by which we help strangers or animals, or all sentient beings.  These can be so important to us that we take them into our identities, and when we do, acting in self-interest loses its narrow thrust.  (But are persons who define themselves this way “egoistic”?  Or is this like saying that ancient perfectionists were egoists because they emphasized that improving our interpersonal relationships makes us better and in that way better off?)

            Once we take these points about the malleability of identity into account, we see that ethical egoism has a valuable contribution to make.  Ethical egoists get into trouble when they claim that the self is the only thing with value in its own right, but their approach is helpful insofar as it suggests that developing ourselves is one morally important concern, especially when we take an expansive view of the self, and construct identities that overlap with others’ in generous ways.  Ethical egoism is strongest when understood to be a theory of the good that equates the good with self-development.  Seen this way, it can be linked to a central strand of existentialist thought, for both tend to suggest that people are self-creating beings who are at their best when they accept their creative freedom and invent an individual identity for themselves.  It can also be linked to the contemporary virtue ethics approach, for both tend to view the good life as a kind of self development, and both are suspicious of the idea that duty is prior to self-development.



1.         Some people associate the term ‘ethical egoism’ with the view that it is right to be selfish.  Is this fair to egoists?  Or is selfish behavior by definition wrong? Compare murder, which is by definition wrong, since no killing qualifies as a murder unless it is impermissible.  Is selfishness by definition a kind of morally objectionable behavior?  Are we selfish when we neglect or harm the interests of others in impermissible ways?  Or should we define selfishness in one of the two following ways:

- An act is selfish when we do it because we want to.

- An act is selfish when we do it because it is in our interest.

(Consider that if either definition were correct, then eating my breakfast would be selfish, and so would nearly everything Daniel Defoe’s character Robinson Crusoe did while marooned.)

2.         Critically assess the following argument given by J. S. Mill in Utilitarianism: 

The only proof capable of being given that an object is visible is that people actually see it.  The only proof that a sound is audible is that people hear it; and so of the other sources of our experience.  In like manner, I apprehend, the sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable is that people do actually desire it.  No reason can be given why the general happiness is desirable, except that each person, so far as he believes it to be attainable, desires his own happiness.  This, however, being a fact, we have not only all the proof which the case admits of, but all which it is possible to require, that happiness is a good:  that each person’s happiness is a good to that person, and the general happiness, therefore, a good to the aggregate of all persons.

3.                  Is the ethical egoist account of the good correct?  Consider just one of the goods recognized by common sense:  friendship.  When are two people genuinely friends?  Don’t both of them have to consider the welfare of the other to be intrinsically valuable?  And can the ethical egoist endorse this kind of regard for others?  Epicurus attempts to persuade us that egoism recognizes the good of friendship, for friendship enhances our security.  But does this show that friendship is good for its own sake? 

4.                  If you had the ring of Gyges, would you refrain from stealing and from other forms of harm to others?  If so, would your motive for refraining be fear of the consequences of being caught?  What would your motive be?

5.                  Do you agree with the claim (made in the last section of the chapter) that in Godwin’s case (where we can save only one of two persons in a burning building) we are not required to choose on an impartial basis?  If not, would it be all right to make our selection by tossing a coin? 

6.                  Which describes the situation in Godwin’s case more accurately:  (a) you may not save mother rather than the archbishop; (b) it is morally permissible to save your mother rather than the archbishop; or (c) you are morally required to save your mother rather than the archbishop? 

7.                  Suppose we alter Godwin’s case slightly:  now you are a professional firefighter, paid by the city.  Does this affect whether or not you must be impartial when selecting whom to save?  (Would the fact that you are a governmental official affect whether you may offer a job to your daughter rather than to an equally qualified applicant?)

8.                  Some acts are in our interest but do not affect the interests of others at all.  For example, my decision to eat vanilla rather than chocolate cake will not affect others one way or another.  Does this show that the enlightened pursuit of self interest is one thing, while conforming to collectively advantageous social conventions is another?  (Do these actions violate an applicable social convention)?

9.                  In his Notes from Underground, Part I, Section VII, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s character claims that “a man, always and everywhere, prefers to act in the way he feels like acting and not in the way his reason and interest tell him, for it is very possible for a man to feel like acting against his interests and, in some instances, I say that he positively wants to act that way. . . .”[9]  Is this correct?  How might the psychological egoist respond?\

10.              What is the self?  What are the interests of the self?  Are these interests limited to such things as safety and pleasure?  Why or why not?

11.              Point out the flaws in the following argument:

a.                   Acting voluntarily is doing what we want.

b.                  Doing what we want is pursuing our interests.

c.                   Pursuing our interests is pursuing interests of the self.

d.                  Pursuing interests of the self is pursuing interest in the self.

e.                   Pursuing interests in the self is acting in self-interest.

f.                    So acting voluntarily is acting in self-interest.

g.                   So psychological egoism is true.

12.              Should we understand ethical egoism to be the view that everyone should act solely to enhance her self however she has constructed it?  (Given the malleability of identity, it seems unlikely that egoists will want to prescribe one view of the self for everyone.)  If so, then is ethical egoism correct?  (Consider that some people will define the self narrowly, in terms of such things as their own pleasure and aggrandizement and little more.)

13.              Try playing the following game.  Divide a group into 3 teams, A, B, and C, and ask each to appoint a leader, who makes the final choice on behalf of the team.  Each team can vote X or Y.  If all three teams vote Y, each makes 2 points.  If all three vote X, each loses 5 points.  If team A votes X and the others vote Y, A wins 4 points, while B and C lose 2 points.  If teams A and B vote X and C votes Y, A and B each lose 2 points, while Y loses 5 points.  After 12 rounds, the team with the most points “wins.”



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Mandeville, B.  The Fable of the Bees, ed. F.B. Kaye, Indianapolis, IN, 1714.

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Sober, Elliott.  “Did Evolution Make Us Psychological Egoists?”  In From a Biological Point of View.  New York:  Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp. 8-27.

-----.  “Psychological Egoism.”  In LaFollete, Hugh, ed.  The Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory.  Oxford:  Blackwell Publishers, 2000, pp. 129-149.

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[1]These incidents are related at the web site

[2]Taking our lead from the hedonist’s argument from psychological necessity offered in Chapter 5, we might defend the egoist’s account of the good using the following argument:

1.  By nature each individual cares about one and only one thing for its own sake:  her self.

2. What we naturally care about is (more or less) what is good.

3.  So for each individual one and only one thing is intrinsically valuable:  his self.

But at step 1 this argument assumes the truth of psychological egoism; as we indicate in the next section, psychological egoism is questionable.

[3]Principal Doctrines, in Saunders, p. 56 (Doctrines 31 and 33).

[4]Principal Doctrines, in Saunders, p. 56 (Doctrine 35).

[5]Leviathan, in Luper, p. 51.

[6]Nor is it any use to argue that the theft is irrational on the grounds that your conscience will eat away at you if you steal the money.  Suppose that like about one percent of the general population, you are a psychopath, and hence completely lacking in empathy for others.  Or suppose you had a pill that prevented your feeling guilty just this once.  (Actually, the billion dollars itself might be a pretty effective balm!)  Clearly, then, selective cheating could be rational.

[7]An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793).  Harmondsworth:  Penguin, 1985, Book II, ch. 2.

[8]Bernard Williams, “Persons, Character, and Morality,” reprinted in Moral Luck (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 1-20.

[9]Reprinted in Existing:  An Introduction to Existential Thought (Mountain View:  Mayfield Press, 2000), p. 419.