1000-Word Philosophy: An Introductory Anthology

1000-Word Philosophy: An Introductory Anthology

Philosophy, One Thousand Words at a Time

Ethical Egoism: The Morality of Selfishness

Author: Nathan Nobis Category: Ethics Word Count: 999

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Selfishness is often considered a vice and selfish actions are often judged to be wrong. But sometimes we ought to do what’s best for ourselves: in a sense, we sometimes should be selfish.

The ethical theory known as ethical egoism states that we are always morally required to do what’s in our own self-interest. The view isn’t that we are selfish—this is psychological egoism [1] —but that we ought to be.

This essay explores ethical egoism and the main arguments for and against it.


1. Understanding Egoism

Selfish people often have nasty dispositions towards other people, but ethical egoism generally discourages that: such selfishness is rarely to our advantage, especially in the long run. And egoism does not suggest that we never help others: egoists might be quite generous.

Egoism does entail, however, that what makes acting like this right, when it is right, is that it’s for our own benefit: it makes us better off. So, if you must help someone else, this is only because doing so would be good for you; and if you should refrain from harming someone that’s also only because doing so is for your benefit.

2. Why Egoism?

2.1. individuals know themselves best.

Some egoists argue that, since we each know our own wants and needs best, everyone should focus on themselves: people meddling in other people’s lives tend to go badly.

2.2. The Unique Value of Your Own Life

Also, some claim that egoism uniquely recognizes the value of individuals’ lives and goals. Other ethical theories can require altruistic sacrifices of your interests for the sake of other people or abstract standards, whereas egoists maintain that each person has their own life to live for themselves , not anyone or anything else. [2]

2.3. Egoism’s Explanation of Right and Wrong

Finally, some egoists argue that their theory best explains what makes wrong actions wrong and right actions right. Kantians say it’s whether anyone is used as a “mere means”; consequentialists say it’s an action’s consequences; egoists say it’s really how someone’s actions impact their self-interest. [3]

Let’s respond to these arguments by reviewing some objections.

3. Why Not Egoism?

3.1. egoism and what’s good for everyone.

First, in response to the claim that egoism is desirable because everyone adopting it would be good for all, we should notice that this isn’t an egoistic argument since the motivating concern is everyone’s interests, which aren’t important if egoism is true: only you should matter to you.

And are we really always “meddling” with people when we help them—say by trying to help feed people who are starving to death or are living in dire poverty—as some egoists say we are?

3.2. Egoism and Contradictions

One objection assumes that ethical theories should help resolve conflicts: e.g., for consequentialists, who should win a presidential election? Whoever will produce the best consequences as president. Egoists, however, say that each candidate should do what’s in their best self-interest, which is winning the election. But, critics argue, they can’t both win, so egoism requires the impossible, so it can’t be correct. [4]

Egoists might respond that not everyone can do what’s right: if you win, you do what’s right; if you lose, you’ve done wrong.

They can also use this objection to refine egoism: you must try to do what’s best for you, not necessarily achieve that. Actual success is often difficult, but everyone can try.

3.3. Egoism and Wronging Others for Your Own Gain

Another objection takes us to the heart of the matter. Imagine this:

Your credit card bill is due tonight, but you won’t be able to pay the full amount until next month, so you will be charged interest and a late fee.

You just saw someone, however, accidentally leave their wallet on a park bench with a lot of cash hanging out of it. You saw where they went, but you could take the cash to pay the bill and nobody would ever know.

Also, you know of an elderly person who always carries a lot of cash on their evening walk. You know you could rob them, pay your bill, certainly never get caught and then buy dinner at a fancy restaurant.

If ethical egoism is true, not only can you permissibly take the wallet and rob someone, you must : not doing so would be wrong, since these crimes are in your self-interest. (If you’d feel guilty doing this, egoists respond that you shouldn’t since you’ve done nothing wrong on their view.)

Many believe that, since actions like these are clearly wrong, this shows that egoism is false and the argument at 2.3 fails: egoism does not best explain our moral obligations even if we sometimes must do what’s best for ourselves.

An egoist might respond that we are just assuming their theory is false: they don’t agree that we shouldn’t steal the wallet and refrain from assault. [5]

But we aren’t “assuming” anything: we just have better reason to believe that assault for personal gain is wrong than that egoism is true . Recall that racists and sexists do not agree that their forms of discrimination are wrong either, but this doesn’t justify racism or sexism. People sometimes hold false moral views; this might be true of egoists.

3.4. Egoism and Discrimination

Finally, racists and sexists think that people of their group are entitled to special benefits and are even justified in harming people not of their group. Egoists think something similar, but about themselves : harms they allow for and inflict on other people just don’t matter.

But is there anything about one’s race or sex or oneself that justifies treating others badly? No, so egoism is a form of prejudice, in favor of your own group of one, you . [6] This objection agrees with the argument at 2.2, that everyone does have their own life, but corrects it with the fact that everyone’s life matters, not just the egoist’s.

4. Conclusion

Doing what’s right is sometimes in our self-interest. If the above discussion is correct, though, that an action benefits us is never the sole reason it is right. And, more importantly, if an action is not in our own self-interest, we might be obligated to do it, nevertheless. [7]

There are other arguments about egoism. Reviewing them might be in our self-interest. Should we?

[1] Psychological egoism presents itself as an empirical, scientific, observational, or descriptive claim about our motives: everything we do is an attempt to make ourselves better off .

The problem though is that there is no good scientific evidence for this claim. We are sometimes selfish, or seek our own best interest, but what kind of observations could show that we are always selfish? Our many motives have never been adequately examined to conclude anything like that: furthermore, it’s often hard to conclusively determine what anyone’s motives are, especially since motives are often mixed.

Advocates of psychological egoism simply don’t have any such evidence, and perhaps couldn’t have such evidence, so the view is usually proposed as a kind of dogma or unsupported hypothesis, and so should not be accepted.

It’s worthwhile, however, to note that if psychological egoism were true (and we always did what we believe to be in our own interest), and ethical egoism were true (and so we must do what’s in our best self-interest, or try), then we would always do what’s right and could do no wrong we would always do what’s in our best self-interest. Since it seems clear that we don’t always do what’s right, or even try, at least one of these theories is false, if not both.

Also, if psychological egoism were true, then, since most other ethical theories require some altruism (that is, actions that benefit others, for their own sake), these other theories demand the impossible. And since some of us sometimes seem to be altruistic, psychological egoism seems to be false.

Furthermore, since ethical egoists advise making choices that benefit ourselves, that acknowledges that we might fail at doing that, and not even try, which suggests that even ethical egoists recognize that psychological egoism is false.

[2] For a presentation of this and related concerns, see Rand (1964).

[3] For an introduction to these theories, see Deontology: Kantian Ethics by Andrew Chapman and Consequentialism by Shane Gronholz

[4] For a presentation of this and related arguments, see Baier (1973).

[5] Egoists might consider this a “question-begging” response to their theory. To “beg the question” is to offer an argument that in some way assumes the conclusion of the argument as a premise: it’s a type of circular reasoning. So here the charge is that this response assumes that egoism is false in arguing that egoism is false. In the main text of this essay, I respond to this charge and explain why this argument against egoism is not question-begging.

[6] This argument was developed by James Rachels (1941-2003). For its most recent presentation, see Rachels and Rachels (2019). Beyond racism and sexism, another potential form of discrimination that can be compared and contrasted with egoism is “speciesism”: see Speciesism by Dan Lowe for discussion.  

[7] Related, but more subtle ethical questions, beyond the egoism-inspired question of whether others’ interests must be given any moral consideration or moral weight, are whether, and to what extent, we can ever be justifiably “partial” to anyone’s interests: e.g., can I permissibly act in ways that favor the interests of my family and loved ones, over the interests of, say, strangers? For an introduction to these questions, see (Im)partiality by Shane Gronholz. 

Baier, Kurt. “Ethical Egoism and Interpersonal Compatibility.” Philosophical Studies , vol. 24, no. 6, 1973, pp. 357–368 .

Rand, Ayn. The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism . New York: New American Library, 1964.

Rachels, James and Rachels, Stuart. The Elements of Moral Philosophy , 9th Edition (1986, 1st edition). Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2019.

For Further Reading

Shaver, Robert, “Egoism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

Moseley, Alexander, “Egoism,” the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy .

Related Essays

Deontology: Kantian Ethics by Andrew Chapman

Consequentialism by Shane Gronholz

(Im)partiality by Shane Gronholz 

Why be Moral? Plato’s ‘Ring of Gyges’ Thought Experiment  by Spencer Case

Defining Capitalism and Socialism by Thomas Metcalf

Arguments for Capitalism and Socialism  by Thomas Metcalf

Happiness by Kiki Berk

Meaning in Life: What Makes Our Lives Meaningful? by Matthew Pianalto

Ethics and Absolute Poverty: Peter Singer and Effective Altruism by Brandon Boesch

The African Ethic of Ubuntu by Thaddeus Metz 

Speciesism by Dan Lowe

Evolution and Ethics by Michael Klenk

Social Contract Theory by David Antonini

John Rawls’ ‘A Theory of Justice’ by Ben Davies

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About the Author

Nathan Nobis is a Professor of Philosophy at Morehouse College, Atlanta, GA. He is the author of Animals & Ethics 101 , co-author of Thinking Critically About Abortion , a co-author of Chimpanzee Rights and author or co-author of many other articles, chapters, and reviews in philosophy and ethics. www.NathanNobis.com

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The Benefits of ‘Wise Selfishness’

We’re all a little self-serving. Here’s how to make that impulse work for you.

An illustration showing the side view of a person made of big, abstract shapes. The person has black hair, a red face and a purple shirt. His face is morphing into multiple other figures, who extend across the right side of the illustration.

By Dan Harris

Selfishness gets a bad rap — which, for the most part, is richly deserved. Nobody likes people who hog the ball or bogart the joint, perhaps because we see in those people a reflection of our own lurking capacity for greed. We say we care about others, but as the comedian George Carlin used to joke, we still take the bread from the middle of the loaf.

Aside from avoiding hypocrisy and public relations issues, there are many other reasons not to be selfish. Research suggests that compassionate, generous people are happier, healthier, more popular and more successful.

And yet, we all need to have some self-interest. If we lived in a state of perpetual altruistic concern, refusing to speak up for ourselves and generally being doormats, that would constitute what one Tibetan Buddhist teacher called “idiot compassion.”

So how do we strike a balance?

I recently flew to Dharamsala, India, to spend a few weeks in the orbit of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. This was a rare opportunity, given that he is now 87 years old and doesn’t grant interviews very often.

I am a huge fan of the Dalai Lama, which is perhaps unsurprising given that I write books and host a podcast about happiness. But I admit that I have a somewhat conflicted relationship with the man. On one hand, his biography is extraordinary. He was identified at age 2 as the spiritual and political leader of Tibet, and rapidly proved himself to be a meditative and academic adept. At 23, he was forced into exile after a Chinese invasion. Instead of fading into irrelevance, he became a global figure, meeting with world leaders, appearing in Apple ads and keeping the Tibetan cause in the headlines. And he did all of this while unflinchingly preaching compassion, even as the Chinese government repressed his people and desecrated their culture. He also used his influence and resources to help catalyze an explosion of scientific research into meditation.

On the other hand, I find that his unstinting advocacy for kindness and generosity provokes a kind of impostor syndrome for me. The Dalai Lama is considered an emanation of a Buddhist deity of compassion called Avalokiteshvara. This deity has a thousand arms, and on each hand there is an eyeball, scanning the world for suffering. In my low moments, I sometimes feel like I’m a thousand-armed being as well, except my palm-based eyeballs are seeking only self-centered gratification.

So that was the psychic baggage I carried into my interview with the Dalai Lama. During our encounter, however, I was reminded that His Holiness had a theory that elegantly exposed the false binary between selfishness and selflessness. He called it “wise selfishness.” We all have an inborn penchant for self-interest. It is natural, and nothing to be ashamed of. But, he said, a truly enlightened self-interest also means recognizing that acting in generous and altruistic ways makes you happier than solely being out for yourself does.

The concept of wise selfishness shows that the line between self-interest and other-interest is porous. Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist with the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania , has an apt term for the blending of selfless and selfish: otherish .

The Dalai Lama told me, “Thinking in a more compassionate way is the best way to fulfill your own interests.” He added that his own practice was to think about benefiting other people as much as possible. “The result? I get benefit!” he exclaimed, after which he stuck out his tongue at me and issued one of his trademark belly laughs.

Then, he got serious. “Altruism does not mean you completely forget your own interests — no!” he said, with a graceful yet dismissive flick of his wrist.

This was exactly what I needed to hear, given my penchant for self-criticism. Wise selfishness doesn’t mean I can’t pursue my own personal ambitions. Around 2,600 years ago, the Buddha himself spoke at length about what constituted a “right livelihood,” one that does not harm other beings, and this approach did not preclude material success; some of the Buddha’s most loyal followers were wealthy merchants.

The important thing for wisely ambitious people to remember is that other-oriented states such as altruism and compassion — which you can think of as simply our innate capacity to care — pull you out of the exhausting loops of self-involvement into which we are so often thrust by modern society, with its emphasis on individualism, consumerism and the frantic aggregation of likes for selfies.

Modern psychological research supports the Dalai Lama’s insight. In his book, “Give and Take,” Mr. Grant writes that, in a professional context, people who are generous with their time but who also keep their own interests in mind are often the most successful people at an organization. This is in part because generosity makes you more well-liked by your co-workers, and in part because it makes you happier and more energetic. It’s a virtuous spiral: Being kind to others makes you happier, which makes you nicer, which makes you even happier.

So if you want to do selfishness better, work to cultivate a compassionate mind-set. Research suggests that capacities such as compassion and altruism are not unalterable factory settings, but skills to develop. Here are four strategies for accessing this upward spiral yourself.

Try loving-kindness meditation

Sit quietly, close your eyes and call to mind a succession of people. Start with someone who’s easy to love, like a pet or a child. As soon as you have a mental image of that person, silently send four kind thoughts their way: May you be happy; may you be safe; may you be healthy; may you live with ease . Then move on to yourself, a mentor, a neutral person, a difficult person and then all beings everywhere. Research on this practice is still emerging, but studies have shown that loving-kindness meditation can increase feelings of social connectedness and decrease depression . This is classic wise selfishness: You cultivate the capacity to care, and you get healthier and happier in the process. I suggest you start small, with one to five minutes a few days a week, and build from there.

I initially resisted this kind of meditation because, in addition to being selfish, I am also a skeptic and anti-sentimentalist. But once I incorporated it into my practice, it helped me ease up on myself. Warmth and compassion are omnidirectional. You can’t leave yourself out.

Over time, as I’ve practiced sending loving-kindness to myself, I have realized that my selfishness is motivated by fear. In the old days, I used to revert to self-laceration every time I, say, tuned out of a conversation because I was compulsively checking where my show sat in the podcast rankings. Now, I can sometimes see this kind of reflexive selfishness as a natural, if unskillful, impulse. It’s the organism trying to protect itself, but I don’t have to automatically obey it. Having a friendlier attitude toward myself has, in turn, helped me be less judgmental of other people, which has improved my relationships, which makes me happier.

Talk to other people

Focus on increasing the number of positive interactions you have throughout the day, including with strangers at coffee shops and in elevators. Studies have shown that these “micromoments” are a powerful driver of happiness . This practice is a powerful corrective to the lack of social connection that so many of us experience.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, loneliness was on the rise. We know from psychological research that the strength of our relationships is perhaps the most important variable when it comes to human flourishing.

Dedicate your everyday tasks to other people

Before starting any activity, take a second to dedicate whatever you’re about to do to the benefit of all beings. Seriously. Before you brush your teeth, take a nap or eat a sandwich, silently say to yourself something like: I’m doing this so I can be strong and healthy — not just for myself, but so that I can be helpful to other people. As with loving-kindness meditation, I found this a bit treacly at first, but now I see it as a useful way to elevate my quotidian activities and activate my latent altruism. So, before I exercise or meditate, I try to remind myself that ‌I’m doing it not only for selfish reasons, but also so I can be a healthier, happier‌‌ and more helpful dad, husband‌‌ and co-worker. Crucially, it is OK to begin this, and all of the other practices I’ve listed here, with selfish intent. It’s likely that your motivation will start to shift over time.

Take advantage of small opportunities for generosity

Science tells us that being generous benefits both the recipient and the giver. FMRI scans show that being generous activates the same parts of the brain as dessert. It’s called the “ helper’s high .” And the gesture doesn’t have to be grand. You don’t have to rush into a burning building. It can be as simple as holding the door open for someone, giving a compliment or texting someone who is having a hard time.

Change can be a slow process. Our conditioning toward individualism and materialism runs deep, which is why it was useful for me to sit with the Dalai Lama and be reminded of wise selfishness. I’ve been working on these skills for years, and I still forget and lapse into grabbiness and then subsequent rounds of self-criticism. But over time, I’ve learned to turn the dial toward altruism.

One example is this article you’re reading. Sure, part of me is motivated by a desire to promote my work and have my mother see me in The New York Times. But another part of me is motivated to share this information because I know from research and personal experience that it is likely to improve your life. I have come to see that there’s nothing wrong with deriving pleasure from selfish gratification, especially when it fuels other-oriented work. Why can’t selfishness and selflessness exist in a beneficial double helix?

Perfection is not on offer. Some days, your Avalokiteshvara arm may have bursitis. Instead of measuring ourselves against the Dalai Lama, we can use him as a useful polestar — a reminder that we can all train our minds to make marginal but meaningful strides. Even people like me who fear they’re irreparably black‌-hearted. And even you.

Dan Harris is host of the Ten Percent Happier podcast.

A Guide to Meditation

Find a comfortable spot and get ready to relax..

Meditation is a simple practice available to all that can reduce stress, increase calmness and clarity, and promote happiness. Here is how to get started .

Building a routine doesn’t have to be hard — it can take as little as five minutes as soon as you wake up .

This weeklong plan of five-minute meditations  won’t solve all your problems, but it can help you through life’s challenges.

Closing your eyes and focusing on breathing can be hard for those who are easily distracted. But it is possible .

Want to expand your knowledge of meditation? We asked mindfulness experts and scientists to share their favorite beginner-friendly books on the subject .

To jump-start your practice, you might be tempted to download a meditation app . Here are the best options , according to Wirecutter.

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Selfishness Essay Examples

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