Obstacle to Ethics: Egoism
by Gordon L. Ziniewicz

ALTRUISM: Concern for others, other-centeredness, interest in the well-being of others, unselfishness. What counts is the pleasure or well-being of others. The common or public good is more important than the private or individual good.

EGOISM: Concern for oneself, self-centeredness, self-interest, selfishness. What counts is my own pleasure or well-being. I am the center of the universe. The private or individual good is more important than the common good.

PSYCHOLOGICAL EGOISM: We have no choice but to put ourselves first. We are self-interested by nature. We seek our own pleasure necessarily. Altruism is but disguised self-interest: we help others because and insofar as it makes us feel happy or good about ourselves. Thomas Hobbes' notion of state of nature is one example of a philosophy based on psychological egoism. For Hobbes, all human beings naturally seek honor and profit, gain and glory -- as well as safety -- even at the expense of other persons. For Hobbes, all human life is a competitive struggle for personal satisfaction or happiness which is thwarted and frustrated by the demands of living together in society. See also Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents. Contrast these views with that of Rousseau's "noble savage," who is born innocent.

ETHICAL EGOISM: We are free to do otherwise, but we ought to put ourselves and our own interests first. We should deliberately choose to do what is best for ourselves, despite what might happen to others. Altruism is possible, but not desirable. The philosophies of Nietzsche and Ayn Rand are often cited as examples of ethical egoism. For these views, not looking out for oneself is a sign of weakness.

EGOISTIC HEDONISM: What is most important, what ranks above all other goods, is one's own pleasure. Ethical deliberation is a calculation of what I must do to obtain the greatest amount or quality of pleasure and the least amount or quality of pain. What is most important is to seek pleasure and to avoid pain. A second type of hedonism, SOCIAL HEDONISM, still regards the highest good as pleasure; but it breaks away from the self-centeredness of egoism. For SOCIAL HEDONISM, what is most important is pleasure, but not just my own pleasure. Rather, what counts is the greatest amount of pleasure of the greatest number of persons taken together (pleasure is a collective or "common good").


1. Genuine altruism seems possible.
2. Human beings seem to have natural social tendencies.


1. Ethics seems to require some notion of consideration for others.
2. Ethics seems empty without empathy or the capacity to "put ourselves in the shoes of others," to appeciate their actions and ends, to imagine what it would be like to be them.


1. There are problems associated with self-sacrifice (e.g., The Giving Tree)

POSSIBLE SOLUTION: Cultivate individual good consistent with common good. Our own well-being may be inseparable from the well-being of others.

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