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Ethical Egoism vs. Altruism Theory Essay

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Updated: Aug 22nd, 2021


The term ‘ego’ refers to an inflated feeling of pride in one’s superiority to others (Princeton, 2008). In philosophy, egoism is the theory that one is self is or should be; the motivation of one’s action (Moseley,2008). Egoism has two variants, descriptive and normative. The descriptive variant conceives that people are motivated by their interests and desires. The normative variants on the other hand propose that people should be so motivated regardless of the absence of motivators. Ethical egoism is a normative theory.

Ethical Egoism

It is usually assured morally that each person must help others when they can and avoid hurting them when they can, Ethical egoism on the other hand states that we ought to pursue our self-interest exclusively. It further holds that helping others and avoiding hurting them should be done when it is within one’s best interests (Rachels chapter 6). According to Rachel, ethical egoism acts within their interests to help or avoid hurting others since it makes others more likely to do the same.

Ethical egoism is therefore a doctrine that advocates for people to act in their self-interest. Other moral theories require that one has to give thought to the interests of others. This divergence can be explained further using the following features of the concept of ethical egoism:

  1. One should help others when it is in his or her interests to do so.
  2. One should avoid hurting others when it is in their interest to do so.
  3. What is important is pursuing one’s long-term interests.
  4. When one acts in his or her interest to help or avoid hurting others, then it is likely that they will act similarly.

According to the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Psychology, each person needs the cooperation of others to obtain goods such as defense and friendship. If one acts as if they give no weight to others, others will not cooperate with him or her. Therefore one does best by acting as if others have weight (provided that they also act in the same way). It is unlikely that looking at ethical egoism this way then we will say that it dispenses duties to others. This is because it depends on the ability of others to cooperate or fail to do so should one cooperate or let them down respectively.

Evaluation of Ethical Egoism

The theory of ethical egoism strongly ranks one self-interest over that of others, as we have already seen. What brings the highest payoff to an individual will not necessarily do the same for others. For instance, I may find it profitable to tarmac a small section of the highway leading to my neighborhood, whilst moralists may find it more profitable to use the same funds to settle displaced people in my country. The profitability of everyone should be borne in mind during decision-making, and due to this, we can argue that this feature of ethical egoism is unsound.

The fact that ethical egoism advocates for an exchange in cooperation cannot be used to justify large sacrifices. Ethical egoists hold short-term loss to be of great importance like performing a task that is somehow undesirable that one does not have to perform and in return obtaining some long-term compensation. If there is no solid justification to probe one to make great sacrifices, then the person will be content with making small sacrifices and not feel obliged to go the extra mile in solving a problem. This argument is therefore not cogent.

In trying to determine whether ethical egoism is plausible or not he will address its strengths and shortenings, from which he will be in a position to give a general overview. The theory has the following arguments for it which make ethical egoists justify their belief.

Altruism is the selfless concern for the needs of others. An altruist performs actions for the sake of others rather than for himself. Rachel’s ethical egoism argues that altruism is self-defeating. He affirms that ethical egoists strongly argue that everyone will be better off if each one of us looks out for ourselves and our interests. This is supported by the premise that only a person understands and knows his or her needs best, looking out for other people is an intrusion of one’s privacy and charity may on many occasions degrade the recipient or bruise their ego. Going by this argument, we can say that ethical egoists are justified to pursue their interests.

Rachel’s however sees this argument as unrealistic since a charity does not always degrade the recipient and help is not always an intrusion of one’s privacy.

Ayn Randy’s Argument (Rachels, 2008)

The argument states that we each ought to regard this one life to be of supreme importance or ultimate value to us. Only ethical egoism allows an individual’s life to be of great value to them. For this reason, Ayn Randy feels that we should all be ethical egoists. However, on the other hand, Rachel argues that altruism does not require one to see their life a one of no importance and due concern for oneself does not need one to see himself as the ONLY important being. Further, he counter-argues that given one life to live, it would be wasteful to live it in self-indulgence.

The only egoists have argued that their theory is compatible with common-sense morality: If we do good unto others, they are most likely to do the same for us hence the concept of altruism is fulfilled hence we need to acknowledge the egoistic principle.

Looking at the above three arguments from the point of view of ethical egoists we can say that indeed we need to recognize ethical egoism as a plausible theory, but to what extent can we safely do this? As much as we would love to embrace the theory, there are aspects of it, as argued by Rachel that bring out its limitation.

  1. Ethical egoism cannot handle conflicts of interest: Morality should help individuals to resolve conflict of interest, but ethical egoism simply clouds this by advocating an individual to resolve conflicts of interest, but ethical egoism simply clouds this by advocating an individual to focus on his interests when faced by a conflict of interest; therefore ethical interest is not an acceptable morality.
  2. Ethical egoism is unacceptably arbitrary: The argument according to Rachels’ is that we can justify treating people differently only if we can show that there is some factual difference between them that is relevant to justifying the difference in treatment. Ethical egoism advocates different treatment of others from ourselves. However, there is no factual difference between us and others that can justify the different treatment and this makes ethical egoism unacceptably arbitrary.
  3. Ethical egoism is self-defeating. Pursuing one’s interests is contrary to their interest. An ethical egoist expects others to treat him similarly as he treats them. If he pursues his interest, then others will follow suit and soon we will have a society of one against all. They also argue that one ought not to do what is contrary to their interests hence in other words since they would not want others to similarly pursue their interests, hence they should do the same and not focus on themselves exclusively.


We have looked closely at the theory of ethical egoism and other morality theories, which contrast the former due to altruism. To co-exist peacefully in a society, I would recommend that people need to find a good balance between the two by incorporating the strengths of both theories. By doing this, there will be nothing short of peace, cohesion, and personal and communal growth. By focusing on the needs of others as well and not just those of oneself, we shall be doing our moral duty.


Moseley A, (2008) Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. Web.

Rachels J. The Right Thing To Do: Basic Readings in Moral PhilosophY, New York: Random House, Mc Graw- Hill.

Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, 2008. Web.

Princeton, 2008. Web.

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