6.3 Ethical Egoism

So we have seen that human action might be unselfish in some cases, that genuine altruism is at least possible. This doesn’t mean that we are not often selfishly motivated, nor, as Ethical Egoists will argue, that we really have any good reasons to act unselfishly. Is selfishness ethically defensible? If we consider many peoples’ actions, it appears that human beings can be pretty selfish. Consider for example, the case of former CEO of Tyco, Inc., L. Dennis Kozlowski.11 He and another executive engaged in massive fraud, stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from investors and employees of his firm – all so he could live a life of excessive luxury, which included paying $6000 for a shower curtain with gold threads woven into it and spending well over $2 million on a birthday party for his wife.

Such behavior seems patently wrong. But on what grounds can we say this? Defenders of Ethical Egoism claim that in fact we have no real grounds for condemning such behavior, because the only duties we really have are to ourselves. If we had the opportunity and thought we could get away with it, we’d really act no differently than Kozlowski, and we needn’t feel guilty about it either.

Ethical Egoists claim that we should always put ourselves first and that we should refrain from helping other people. Ethical Egoism (EE) thus differs from Psychological Egoism since PE makes a descriptive claim – it describes what human actions are really like – while EE makes prescriptive claims – it tells us what we should do. Because of this, EE is not going to appeal to facts about human psychology, but is going to try to show why it is that selfishness is better than altruism in general. Of course, arguing that selfishness is better for me is easy, so defenders of EE will need to appeal to deeper reasons in order to show why it is that selfishness is ultimately better for everybody.

Implications of ethical egoism

Before we get to the reasons that might be offered in defense of selfishness, we should be clear on where this view leads us. Even more so than Psychological Egoism, Ethical Egoism would give us a license to act selfishly. So, for example, even though people in rich countries could very easily save the lives and end the misery of millions of people in poor countries just by sending a little extra cash to charitable organizations and not spending it on needless luxuries, relatively few people actually do this.12 According to EE, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this. If you want to send your money to people less well-off, by all means that is your right. But it is certainly not your duty to do so. This may sound pretty cold, and perhaps it is. But us philosophers really only care about whether it is a rationally defensible position. If it is, then we will just have to learn to live with the implications.

  1. Capital Flows, “Former Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski Was One of the Great All-Time Value Creators,” Forbes, accessed December 21, 2019, https://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2013/12/09/former-tyco-ceo-dennis-kozlowski-was-one-of-the-great-all-time-value-creators/↩︎

  2. See Peter Unger, Living High and Letting Die (Oxford University Press, 1996) for many details.↩︎