Ethical egoism is a philosophy most notably associated with Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) and Ayn Rand (1905-1982). Most simply, ethical egoism suggests enlightened self-interest is a reasonable basis for morality; good decisions emerge from self-interest. If, as philosopher, Dr. Randal Marlin, says, for the ethical egoists, the answer to the question of why be moral is "Because it's in my best interests."
The key, says Marlin, is "enlightened." Raw selfishness, such as barging ahead of others in line or snatching the largest piece of cake, leads to sanctions, such as a speed ticket or the rebuke of others. Enlightened selfishness defines self-interest in a social sense: how much good can I do myself, without evoking the rebuke of others or formal sanctions.
Ethical egoism, to be sure, does not equate acting out of self-interest with purposely opposing or presenting obstacles to others. Nonetheless, conflict among opposing interests is organic to ethical egoism. Eventually, proponents of ethical egoism promote the uniquely radical (sic) idea that acting out of self-interest is acceptable and, more important, moral; altruism, acting for the good the many, not the one, is immoral.
The basic idea of ethical egoism is that somehow every facet of social life must benefit every one, in some way. That is, selfish goals work. Ethical egoism rests on the idea the core goal of each person is to live long and prosper, and self-interest couldn't possibly include obstacles to that purpose. In other words, following self-interest precludes any action that would have a negative affect on that crowning goal. Committing a crime that could conceivably end with your own execution is not in your self-interest. On the surface, ethical egoism has some potential. If only proponents of ethical egoism didn't have to deal with the inconvenience of living in the real world.
Several obstacles stand in the way of ethical egoism working in the real world. Two obstacles stand out. First, ethical egoism assumes a person will always act out of self-interest in a logical, that is, enlightened, manner. It makes no allowance for deviance and more or less ability to decide, it also ignores 535,000 years of non-logical human acts. Thousands have died in wars predicated on sensed insult, love often overrides self-interest and the weariness of working three part-time jobs to make ends almost meet leads to poor voting decisions.
Another problem is ethical egoism begins with the assumption that self-interest isn't attainable through lying, stealing, or cheating. In other words, self-interest moulds to a context; enlightenment is essential. A workable ethical egoism calls for awareness of what's possible.
Another real world obstacle to ethical egoism is that what is best for the individual is seldom best for the larger community, as a whole. It's convenient for people to drive their cars from home to work and back, and bypass public transport. In the privacy of their own car, comforted by air-conditioning or heat at their control, they can listen to what music or radio station they wish and eat what they wish, without concern for others. If everyone decided this way, it would result in excessive traffic, as it does, and increase the risk for global warming, as it does. Providing and preserving roads for excessive traffic places a heavy load on taxpayers; global warming overloads the medical system. Individual self-interest and societal best interests conflict; what is in the best interest of one person, at times, is not necessarily in the best interest of society.
If these obstacles were surmountable, another argument prevents ethical egoism from being more than a theory. Although agriculture dominates the economy of some countries, industrialism is more and more prevalent. Whether capitalistic (USA) or not (China), industrialism forces the many to comply with the interests of the few.
Industrialism, no matter the form, puts some ahead of others, unless sanctioned. The producer benefits first and then, perhaps, the needy. Until recently, without medical insurance or personal resources didn't get essential, often life sustaining, drugs. The situation was ethical egoism at it's finest. Social pressure forced drug makers to use some of their supra-ordinary profits to make essential drugs available to those without insurance or the ability to pay. The practicality of social life nullifies often ethical egoism.
The automobile and oil and gas industries, in the USA, are another example of how the good of the many outweighs the claims of the few, and nullifies ethical egoism. These industries made enormous profits, while retarding research into more efficient technology and forms of public transport. Faced with stubborn voter resolve to correct the sins of these industries, lawmakers acted (sic) to ensure use of more efficient technology that encouraged use of public transport. Cynically, it's only when the ethical egoism of USA car makers met the more altruistic perspective of Japanese car markers did the widespread benefits of technology go into fullest use.
As long as industrial interests dominate the global economy, ethical egoism in pursuit of profit will be the guiding principle. There's some hope Asian interests may be more altruistic, the family is dramatically more important in Japan than in the USA, but that may be self-interest in disguise. Only hopefully, we can ask about an invisible guiding hand to protect the interests of Joe and Jane Doe, and help spread the extenuating benefits of technology to all. Still, the notion that Nietzsche and Rand may be right, nags.
Dr. Randal Marlin (2002), "Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion," is published by Broadview Press. Pp. 139-140.
Tim Sexton is a writer, living in Florida, at last report.
Click above to tell a friend about this article.