The moral theory that states that everyone should act in their own self-interest.

There are three types of ethical egoism:

  • Personal Ethical Egoism: "I'm going to do what's in my best interests." Problem: This isn't a true moral theory because it only states what one person is going to do. It doesn't apply to everyone. (and it only states what I'm going to do, not what I should do.)
  • Individual Ethical Egoism: "Everyone should act in my best self-interest." Problem: Seems ridiculous. What makes me so special?
  • Universal Ethical Egoism: "Everyone should act in their own best self-interest." Problem: Explained later in the writeup. (arguments against EE are focused on this type but most should work for Individual Egoism too.)

There are several distinctions of ethical egoism:

  • Act vs. Rule: Act Ethical Egoism says we should consider the consequences of each individual act, Rule Ethical Egoism says we should follow basic rules (don't lie, or whatever) that generally increase our self-interest.
  • Maximizing vs. Non-maximizing: Maximizing says we should always do what's in our own self-interest while the non-maximizing version says that if it's hugely beneficial to other people and only slightly detrimental to yourself you should do that instead. Altruism is allowed only when the benefits to others much outweigh the cost to your own self-interest.
  • Hedonistic vs. Rational: Hedonistic Ethical Egoism says we should seek immediate pleasure. Rational Ethical Egoism says we should look ahead and seek not just pleasure but also power, wealth, fame or whatever isn't detrimental to our self-interest. Sort of short-term vs. long term.

What's this self-interest thing I keep talking about, eh? Well there's the hedonistic self like in Hedonistic Ethical Egoism and then there's the Calculating self like in Rational Ethical Egoism.

And why, for God's sake, would anyone believe this junk?

So why doesn't everybody believe it?

  • Is it Consistent? Act in your own self-interest and tell others to act in their own? That's not in your own self-interest. Reply: Hey, who said a moral theory can't have you tell others to act immorally? Yeah it's in your self-interest to convince others to act in your self-interest, not theirs but, well...okay, maybe this is a problem, but I think not. One analogy is a game of chess: you want to win but you also want your opponent to play well.
  • Public vs. Private Morality: In our society altruism is considered good. You want people to think you're altruistic. So you gotta hide the fact that you're an ethical egoist. Reply: So what? Since when does a moral theory have to allow you to announce your belief in it?
  • Friendship: We think friendship is a good thing. Ethical Egoism precludes the possibility of friendship. Reply: Guess we were wrong about that "friendship is good" thing. You got a problem with that?
  • Morally Insensitive: People are starving and the moral thing to do is to just let them die. Ethical Egoism is contrary to our basic intuitions about morality. Because there's no empirical knowledge about morality we have to reply on our basic intuitions, and those usually tell us that murdering people in our way is not only rude, but immoral too. Reply: Good point. However, I believe our own moral intuitions contradict each other so much that no moral theory can satisfy them all.

Ethics: A Pluralistic Approach to Moral Theory, Second Edition by Lawrence M. Hinman -- nearly everything I know about Egoism came from this book.
Paul Albert Woodward ( - my ethics teacher at ECU.
Me - Yup! This whole writeup was hand-typed by your's truly. Much of the stuff was expanded upon by my magnificent mind.