To begin with, recall that all ethical theories are either objectivist or relativist. This means that all ethical theories must be committed to one of two things: either they say that there are some ethical evaluations that everyone must recognize as true, or they reject this and say there are no ethical evaluations that everyone must recognize as true. Egoism belongs to the latter.
Egoism is a specific type of relativist ethical theory called subjectivism. It is called this because it makes ethics relative to the individual. It should be noted that there are different views about the self-interested actions of humans.
Both views expressed in the above example would belong to egoism, despite their differences. For this reason, egoism is a family of ethical theories.
Before we go any further, we need to distinguish two approaches to the issue of self-interest. The first only describes human action as self-interested, without saying if it is good or bad. Consider the following example of a debate about the nature of human action.
When someone says that their description of people as self-interested is true (e.g. the person on the left in the above illustration), they are giving a theory that is sometimes called psychological egoism.
By contrast, ethical egoism isn’t about trying to give the best description of the way people are. Instead, it is trying to say how people ought to be. We call this a normative account because it is asking about the norms or standards we should be using to guide our actions.
The following illustration shows a debate between an ethical egoist (on the left) and someone against this position (on the right).
As you can see, this debate is different from the first. This time they are arguing about what we ought to be doing, not what we actually do. To make this point a bit clearer, an ethical egoist can accept that people actually do act in other people’s interest, but argue that they shouldn’t.
It’s important to keep in mind that you can recognize that certain things are good for individuals, without being an ethical egoist. In other words, you don’t have to think that what is good for the individual is the most important ethical consideration.
You can even admit that there are some things that are good for yourself, but you decide not to do them because you think that it is more ethical to consider others, as well as yourself.
Imagine that you want nothing to do with politics. Most of the time you find it boring. But you might still take part in some political discussions and vote in elections if you thought that society is better off when all, or most, of its citizens get involved.
Not only can you recognize that some things are good for individuals, you can also recognize that what is good for an individual can vary from person to person, without being an Ethical Egoist. For instance, you might think that we need to find a way to balance everyone’s different interests in order to have a good society.
A relativist theory of ethics that maintains that right and wrong is relative to self-interest.