6.4 In Defense of Ethical Egoism

OK, so what reasons might be given to support the idea that we have not only have no real duties towards others, that we can and even should always put ourselves first? There are three main arguments to consider here, which I’ll call “Rand’s argument,” “The capitalists’ argument,” and “The revisionist argument.”

The first argument we’ll examine was developed by the Russian emigre philosopher and novelist named Ayn Rand (1905-1982). Rand was a staunch opponent of communism who dramatized her ideas in the best-selling novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, as well as in essays with titles such as “The Virtues of Selfishness.” Her argument for EE goes like so,

What makes human life valuable is its individuality.
Fulfilling yourself as an individual requires putting your own needs and interests first.
Altruistic behavior involves sacrificing your own interests for those of other people.

So acting ethically should be avoided since it undermines what makes human life valuable.

That is, we should be wary of the ethical demand for self-sacrifice since this undermines what is truly valuable about human lives. This is exactly what happened in communist countries – individuals were asked to sacrifice their own selfish desires and interests for the good of the whole and in the end they got nothing for their sacrifices, while the leadership who demanded these sacrifices accumulated power and privileges it denied to everyone else.

The second argument for EE is an argument that you have probably heard before. It is commonly used in defense of cutting government social spending, privatizing governmental institutions and getting rid of welfare programs. I call it “the capitalists’ argument” and it goes like so:

If we help others we are undermining competition and all of the good that competition produces.
Market forces, what Adam Smith called “the invisible hand” of free markets, act in such a way as to determine the best possible distribution of social goods.

Interfering with such forces may seem to be benevolent, but in the end it will only lead to some people taking advantage of benevolence and everybody losing out from the loss of the benefits of competition.

The last argument in favor of Ethical Egoism alleges that when properly understood, all ethical rules really express appeals to our self-interest. Ethical rules make sense because they work for each of us. I call this a “revisionist” argument because it reinterprets or revises the content of ethical rules so that they look just like rules any self-interested agent would accept. Ethics is not a challenge to self-interest, but an expression of self-interest. The argument might run like so:

Ethical rules can be rephrased in terms that appeal to self-interest.
For example, “Lying is wrong,” really means “It is in your best interest not to lie;” “Murder is wrong” really means “Life is better for you if you refrain from murdering people.”

So defending ethical rules is really defending selfishness.

This argument equates ethics with the pursuit of self-interest, so that whether you happen to defend acting ethically or not, you are still always defending acting in a self-interested way.

What are we to make of these arguments? Do they really present a convincing case that we should turn our backs on the demands of others, that we should guiltlessly pursue our own interests? Let us consider them more carefully one at a time.

Rand’s argument is essentially that ethics in the traditional sense of a set of commands that require us to put others first is incompatible with genuine concern for human individuality and with individuals’ truly achieving their personal goals. That is, to the extent that we contribute to the welfare of others, we are required to give up our own welfare. But is this really true? It would be true if human social life were a “zero sum game” where my gain is only possible if others lose an equal amount. Poker is a good example of a zero sum game in which it makes no sense to act benevolently towards others. If I am playing poker I am playing to win money from others – their loss is my win and vice versa. But is life in society really like a poker game in which I have to take from others in order to win? Aren’t there ever any benefits to all (and each) from cooperating, from setting aside immediate gains for the sake of a greater collective good? Of course there are. For example, a number of investors might pool their resources to open up a business that benefits all of them much more than if each had simply stolen the others’ contributions. This is possible since valuable goods can be created when we work together. Unlike in poker, where there is a fixed pool of money that is divided among the players in the end, in society we can use our given resources to make more things of value than we started with. Thus Rand’s argument proves in the end to be unsound, since the second and third premises are just false – fulfilling yourself as an individual does not require putting your own needs and interests first, and altruistic behavior might not have to require a complete sacrifice of your own interests.