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Egoism and Altruism as Ethical Theories Essay

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Updated: Sep 4th, 2020


Ethics is a branch of study which is mostly concerned with the proper actions that should be undertaken by man. Actions that are right are regarded as morally and ethically acceptable, while those that are perceived by the society as wrong are said to be ethically wrong. Ethics is concerned to a large extent, with the issues of morality and good conduct. Morality, on the other hand, is a code of conduct. It is what society depicts as right or wrong. Every individual is expected to be morally right by the society they live in.


Egoism holds that every individual should and ought to maximize their self good. This good, however, is for self-benefit and gain. Egoism theory asserts that one’s self-love is the only motive behind actions that individuals in society undertake (Rachel 1). This theory places more emphasis on the interests of oneself and disregards or puts less emphasis on other peoples’ self-interests. The theory tries to depict the morality behind actions that are geared towards oneself. According to this theory, the individual is of more importance than society as a whole. The individual counts first. Egoism is an ethical theory that can further be divided into psychological egoism, ethical egoism, and rational egoism.

Psychological egoism

The psychological theory of egoism asserts that any action undertaken by man is often driven by a desire which is selfish in nature. These actions that are motivated by self-interest have little to do with other people and do not consider their effects on other people. The actions are only geared towards benefiting the self.

According to this theory, any actions that we pursue and that we seek to engage in are accompanied and driven by a particular desire that will result from self regarding action (self-interest) (Zalta 1). For instance, one may choose to give money to a beggar in the street; the intentions though may be motivated by the desire to feel the joy of giving. In this case therefore, one is motivated by the desire to pursue his/her own benefit whether he/she is aware about it or not. One may help in the view of becoming a hero or to feel good or even to avoid being reprimanded by the society for not helping people who are in need.

Ethical egoism

Ethical egoism claims that individuals should pursue actions that have their own best interests. As such the individual and they should always act in his/her own best interest. Individuals should therefore act in their own best interests’ even if they infringe on the values of others within the society. One should pursue what he or she values most regardless of its consequences to the society.

Rational egoism

Rational egoism advocates for reason before declaring an action as either being ethical or unethical. According to rational egoistic theory, ethics cannot exist without proper reasoning. Individuals therefore seek to pursue their own interests based on their reasoning and judgment. Man has the capacity to act rationally if he chooses to, and also his/her ethical principles also depicts and requires the same from him. Those actions that are rational to individuals are morally right while those that are not are morally wrong.


Altruism can be defined as selflessness, which is having an unselfish concern as far as the interests of others are concerned. According to Branden (7), ethics on altruism places more emphasis on helping other people. It is involved more with individual sacrifice in order to assist others. While Singer (3) claims that helping as by the relief agencies in the world is morally relevant, the altruistic theory views the actions as merely sacrificial. Any action which is taken by an individual and that is aimed at the benefit of others is good and those that are aimed at ones own benefit are evil (Pojman 2). As such, the individual should be more geared towards helping others.

Differences between egoistic and Altruism ethical theories

While ethical egoism holds that individuals act in a way aimed at pursuing and fulfilling their own interests, altruism emphasizes on the need for others to act in the interest of other people as well as to their best desires. Egoism ethical theory claims that people ought to act in a way that they will be able to pursue their own interests entirely. Psychological egoism specifically points out that people are unable of acting unselfishly as they are always acting in a way to pursue their own best interests.

In altruism, people and individuals are seen to sacrifice in an effort to help others. Individuals are seen to be capable of looking out for the interest of others for their own benefit. For example, two students may devote their time after school to walk to a nearby children’s home in order to teach them some mathematics. The first student may be going to the children’s home simply because the kids there are les fortunate and therefore they need her help and therefore her acts are altruistic. The second student on the other hand may be going because she is motivated by the need to see the students excel, and also derives happiness from teaching the small kids mathematics Out of the motive she therefore acts egoistically.

Similarities between the egoism and altruism ethical theories

Both theories are similar in the sense that they help to explain the aspect of morality. Egoism and altruism ethical theories also try to explain the various actions pursued by individuals and how their interests are portrayed as a result of the actions, whether selfless or selfish.

Which theory is the most plausible and why

Egoistic ethical theory is the most plausible because, as stated from the above definitions it involves rationalism and reasoning of an individual before he/she undertakes a particular moral duty (rational egoism). It is always rational in life to pursue actions that promote one’s good. Every action that individuals pursue is always aimed at their own interests (realistically).


Both theories teach us about actions that are regarded as right or wrong in the society. This theory provides an understanding on the importance of the morality behind various decisions that we make in our daily endeavors. The motive behind our actions plays an important role in determining our ethical behavior. The motives should therefore be positive at all times. Altruism (selflessness) is vital and lays an important role in the society but it should not be seen as an end in itself as the actions may not always be regarded to be morally right.

Works Cited

Branden, Nathaniel. “Benevolence versus Altruism.” The Objectivist Newsletter, 1962: 7. Print.

Pojman, P. Louis. Egoism, Self-Interest, and Altruism. USA: Wadsworth Publishing, 1995. Print.

Rachel, James. Egoism and Moral Skepticism from a New Introduction to Philosophy. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. Print.

Singer, Peter. “The Singer Solution to Word Poverty.” The New York Times. 1999: 60- 63. Print.

Zalta, N. Edward. “Egoism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, USA: Kleingeld and Brown, 2002. Print.

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