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Egoism and altruism

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L126-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 16, 2024, from

Article Summary

Henry Sidgwick conceived of egoism as an ethical theory parallel to utilitarianism: the utilitarian holds that one should maximize the good of all beings in the universe; the egoist holds instead that the good one is ultimately to aim at is only one’s own. This form of egoism (often called ‘ethical egoism’) is to be distinguished from the empirical hypothesis (‘psychological egoism’) that human beings seek to maximize their own good. Ethical egoism can approve of behaviour that benefits others, for often the best way to promote one’s good is to form cooperative relationships. But the egoist cannot approve of an altruistic justification for such cooperation: altruism requires benefiting others merely for their sake, whereas the egoist insists that one’s ultimate goal must be solely one’s own good.

One way to defend ethical egoism is to affirm psychological egoism and then to propose that our obligations cannot outstrip our capacities; if we cannot help seeking to maximize our own well being, we should not hold ourselves to a less selfish standard. But this defence is widely rejected, because psychological egoism seems too simple a conception of human behaviour. Moreover, egoism violates our sense of impartiality; there is no fact about oneself that justifies excluding others from one’s ultimate end.

There is, however, a different form of egoism, which flourished in the ancient world, and is not vulnerable to this criticism. It holds that one’s good consists largely or exclusively in acting virtuously, and that self-interest properly understood is therefore our best guide.

Citing this article:
Kraut, Richard. Egoism and altruism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L126-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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