Ethical egoism is the acceptance of society for people to pursue their own self-interests. No one has an obligation to promote what anyone else tries to do because their personal views are the only thing that matters. That makes this theory prescriptive and normative in its application because it becomes concerned about how people behave.
It is essential to remember that the ethical version of egoism is different than the psychological form of it. The latter theory suggests that every action we take is ultimately with our self-interest in mind. That makes it more of a descriptive approach because that is a basic fact of human nature.
The argument for ethical egoism because famous in the poem “The Fable of the Bees” by Bernard Mandeville and “The Wealth of Nations” by Adam Smith. Both works describe an environment where people who single-mindedly pursue personal gratification benefit society as a whole. The reason for this outcome is that individuals are more motivated to work hard when personal benefits come from the outcome.
List of the Pros of Ethical Egoism
1. Ethical egoism encourages self-awareness.
If you can know yourself and what you need, then it is easier to stay productive in modern society. The benefits of having this trait in one’s life include a higher level of emotional intelligence, greater listening and empathy skills, along with improved critical thinking. This combination of factors allows for better decisions to be made, which leads to stronger communication and better relationships.
Self-awareness enhances leadership capabilities so that your capacity for accomplishments becomes higher. You can have internal and external versions of this benefit, which involves how we see ourselves and how others see us.
2. There are more opportunities for personal improvement.
If you focus on a path involving ethical egoism, then your self-interests become the top priority. Instead of striving to push others forward, you’re working toward making yourself better in some way. There are six approaches that you can try with this advantage that can take your work to the next level, ranging from simple breathing exercises to delegating the work you hate to do to other people.
Everyone experiences this positive attribute of ethical egoism from a young age. You might be tempted to steal a candy bar from the store, but the external factor of getting into trouble with your parents or the police makes you decide to pursue greater needs instead. It is an approach that makes you think about your overall wellbeing first.
3. Everyone would have an opportunity to provide for themselves.
Ethical egoism is an approach that says what you think or feel are the best motivators to keep you productive. You’re effectively the salesperson of your own life, earning what you believe is your full potential every day. It eliminates the idea of a safety net because the only person you can depend upon is yourself, but then society restructures itself so that every individual has opportunities to pursue their definition of success.
That doesn’t mean we would eliminate poverty and hunger immediately by taking an approach that includes ethical egoism. Some people would choose to live a vagabond lifestyle where they would have few responsibilities placed on them. It does give each person a chance to take control of their lives so that they can do what they feel is right for themselves.
4. Ethical egoism allows people to implement self-care routines.
When you start putting yourself first, then the first word in your vocabulary becomes “no.” That makes it a lot easier for you to begin working toward the goals you have in life because others are not directing your footsteps. When you eliminate the control of others, then it becomes easier to prioritize your to-do list each take. Knowing what tasks are the most essential to complete helps you to achieve a goal faster.
Ethical egoism promotes consistency in the facets of this advantage by encouraging people to build new habits. When you make a decision, then you stick to it. You’re conditioning others to accept you for who you are without judging them for being who they are.
5. No one can manipulate you when practicing ethical egoism.
You become entirely immune to the idea of having someone take advantage of you when society practices ethical egoism. The people who use others to advance their personal agendas will no longer have the option to make others do favors for them that push their journey forward. Everyone will be taking that approach, so you stay in control of your circumstances at all times.
This advantage also means that others will no longer have the option to guilt you into taking actions that you don’t want to do. You’re spending more time on the things in life that you enjoy doing.
6. It eliminates the autopilot approach that people take in life.
Many people go through life without a cognitive awareness of their choices or themselves. This approach to life puts you on autopilot because you’re allowing the routine to take control instead of your desires. If you have ever zoned out during your commute to or from work, then you’ve experienced this effect. Those routines can encompass years of your life without a specific direction beyond paying your bills or making enough money.
Ethical egoism pushes you toward a higher level of success. The people who find themselves stuck on autopilot tend to feel miserable and disengaged. Self-awareness is the cure that can clear your mind of the fog, making you feel like you’ve woken up from a long nightmare. Since society trains us on what our routines should be, a shift to ethical egoism could cause everyone to stop living in their routines.
7. Productivity would rise in society when ethical egoism is in control.
When Adam Smith wrote “The Wealth of Nations” in the 18th century, he suggested that when individuals pursue gratification of their insatiable desires single-mindedly, then they unintentionally benefit society as a whole. It is as if they are “led by an invisible hand,” as he put it in his work. The idea is that people are usually the best judges of what is in their own best interest. Individuals have more motivation to work hard to benefit themselves than to achieve any other goal.
That means productivity levels rise because everyone has a focus on what their daily needs will be. When everyone is looking out for themselves, then the general good becomes achievable because most people are not going to let themselves be run over by others.
List of the Cons of Ethical Egoism
1. It is an approach that would create a self-centered society.
One of the principal tenets of ethical egoism is that no one else looks after your personal needs except you. That means everyone, including people in families, is pursuing a reflection of their self-interest. Marriages wouldn’t be warm or compassionate places – they would become a means to an end. Relationships with children would become the same way.
The idea that communication would improve to create stronger relationships is plausible, but ethical egoism always focuses on self-interest. If those bonds that people form no longer help to push someone forward, then society would say in this structure that you can abandon those people without a second thought.
2. There would be a loss of empathy in society with ethical egoism.
Implementing a society focused on ethical egoism would cause us to lose sight of our current culture of empathy. The benefits of understanding how others think or feel are numerous, and its absence is one of the hallmarks of psychopathy. We need this trait to establish friendships, have satisfaction in our intimate relationships, and see reductions of aggression in society. Increases in empathy reduce incidents of domestic violence.
If people pursue their self-interests more than they support each other, then society would become violent. Our loss of empathy would lead to more errors, worse health outcomes, and people would feel less satisfied because each effort would become more difficult to complete.
3. It would lead to a breakdown in workplace relationships.
Ethical egoism suggests that employee relationships would become problematic in a society with this structure because the business would only serve its purpose as a means to an end. The relationships formed throughout a career are focusing on what others can do for you instead of being a mutually beneficial place where a rising tide lifts all boats. Everyone would forgo what others could accomplish because their benefits are always the top priority in this structure.
4. Ethical egoism eliminates the concept of objectivity from society.
If each person in society were to follow the theory of ethical egoism, then there would no longer be objectivity. No one would care about what anyone else thought with regards to their actions or pursuits. The only drive toward thoughts, feelings, and decisions would be self-interest.
That doesn’t mean altruism would disappear entirely. People would still help others if there was a beneficial reason to do so, such as helping a charity because it promotes a higher level of fame. The issue here is that caring for others would often become the action of last resort instead of being a top priority.
5. It would only work if everyone was practicing this theory.
Ethical egoism is a theory that only works when everyone practices it. Since people will not associate with someone for long if your words or actions are a reflection of only caring for yourself, the need to be loved by others would eventually cause this approach to malfunction. If the first priority of everyone is to profit from someone else without regard to their status in life, then those effects will eventually fail. There is nothing wrong with the approach of wanting to live life on your own terms, but the idea is to treat others in the same way that you want to be treated.
6. There are no solutions offered when conflicts of interest arise.
Ethical egoism doesn’t provide a solution when issues arise that involve a conflict of interest. Since most ethical issues involve this sort of problem, the approach at a societal level could cause productivity to grind to a halt. Imagine that a sewage treatment facility wants to dump raw waste into the local river. The people who live downstream from the facility would naturally object to that behavior. This approach would cause both parties to actively pursue what they want.
Ethical egoism doesn’t suggest any sort of compromise to the situation. It does not encourage you to arrive at a place of common-sense resolution. You are going to win or lose because there is nothing in between those options
7. Ethical egoism goes against the principle of impartiality.
The basic assumption made by most moral philosophers is that we shouldn’t discriminate against people for arbitrary reasons. That means a person’s gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, or race shouldn’t become part of the discussion because our diversity is what makes us stronger. Ethical egoism suggests that we shouldn’t even try to be tolerant because it is more important to distinguish between ourselves and everyone else. Then we focus on offering preferential treatment internally or to our external factors.
Immanuel Kant argued over 200 years ago that the fundamental principle of morality is that we shouldn’t make exceptions of ourselves. That’s what ethical egoism wants us to do. We shouldn’t perform actions if we can honestly wish that everyone would behave in the same way under similar circumstances.
8. It isn’t always in a person’s best interest to pursue their own self-interest.
Game theory uses the prisoner’s dilemma as an example of why ethical egoism is problematic. If you are in a hypothetical situation where a crime was committed and the police ask you to confess, the terms of the deal say that you get 6 months and your friend gets 10 years in prison. If your friend confesses and you do not, then the opposite result occurs. When both people confess, then you get five years, but if no one confesses, then you both get two years.
Regardless of what your friend does, the best thing to do is to confess because you’ll get a lighter sentence. Ethical egoism says both should pursue rational self-interest, but then the outcome is not the best possible one. It is an idea that shows how sacrificing your own interests for the good of others somethings denies the fundamental value of your own life.
The pros and cons of ethical egoism lead us to a place where morality becomes an individualized definition instead of a societal constraint. If killing someone was the action to take to improve one’s status in society, then a refusal to commit violence would become the definition of an immoral act.
That’s why this approach, although theoretically a way to increase production and satisfaction, would ultimately create a place where no one would feel safe. It would be a chaotic environment where everyone focused on what their needs were first at the expense of everyone else.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.