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3 Tutorials that teach Egoism
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Author: Glenn Kuehn

Identify the characteristics and descriptors of egoism.

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Video Transcription

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Hello. I'm Glen, and this is the ethics tutorial on egoism. First, we're going to consider a couple of things to keep in mind for going through the tutorial, and then look at the topics that we will be addressing.

A key term for this tutorial is egoism, a relativist theory of ethics that maintains that right and wrong is relative to self-interest. In this tutorial, we're going to look at some of the basics of egoism. We will look at its foundation, its implications, and then some examples that come from considering this position in normative ethics.

All right, so egoism. Egoism is a normative theory of ethics. And within that, it is a relativist theory, which means it falls under the category of theories that hold to the idea that there are no universal ethical truths. Truths of ethics are relative to something. And for egoism, they are specifically relative to an individual's self-interest.

It is very specific. It's based upon my self-interest or your self-interest, what I want, what I think I need, what I like. It is relative to the individual. Good therefore, that which is ethically good is also relative to the individual. So if we put this all together, we can even give it a specific title and say that egoism is a subjectivist relativism.

There are two ways to break down egoism so that we can understand it better. One of these is descriptive and the other one is normative. Under descriptive, we have the subcategory of psychological egoism. And in psychological egoism, we are making statements of fact about how people actually are. And what the psychological egoist says is that people are inherently selfish. We do in fact act out of self interest. And this is evidenced by our behavior.

The normative understanding is called ethical egoism. And ethical egoism, since it's normative, operates with that word ought or the word should. And ethical egoists say that we should be selfish. We should act out of self-interest, so that which I ought to do is that which benefits me. This is the only ethical theory-- egoism is the only ethical theory that says that self-interest determines what is right.

However, it's useful to break it down in terms of these two categories of descriptive and normative understandings because we can see that, while we can accept psychological egoism and say, you know what, yeah, we all do act out of self-interest. We all do have a degree of selfishness. This is clearly exhibited in my actions.

However, that doesn't mean I necessarily have to accept ethical egoism. I don't have to say that, oh, therefore, this is the way it should be. I could operate by a different normative ethical system and still acknowledge that people are selfish and self-interested. So committing to one does not necessarily mean that you commit to the other.

And then we can see how this plays out in a few examples. The first couple examples are what is good for me may not necessarily be good for a group, even a group to which I belong. Here we can see that, let's say, I am working in a group as part of a project for a class. So if we're all each assigned a certain amount of duties, it's good for me to read my assigned materials. However, it's not good for everyone in the group to read my assigned materials. So what's in my interest to do for the best of the group is not for the whole group to do as well.

Another classroom related example could be that if I have a question for the professor, it's good for me to ask the professor and get an answer. That's in my interest. However, I don't necessarily have to do it in front of the whole class. The whole class may not need to hear this question and hear the answer. It might be just for me. So it's not necessarily good for the whole group, even though it's good for me.

And then one further case is where something that might be good for me, based upon self-interest, is not necessarily indicative of what's good for the whole or for good in general. So it's generally good for me to get five to six hours of sleep per night, but I can't use that as a basis for saying what everyone should get in terms of sleep every night because we are different. So it has no bearing on the overall moral goodness of quantity of sleep. And so we can see then that there are differences between acting upon self-interest and understanding what's good for me, and then the difficulties that come from extrapolating that into larger groups.

In summary, we looked at some of the basic ideas that accompany egoism. We saw its foundation, some of its implications, and then how it plays out in a few examples.

Terms to Know

A relativist theory of ethics that maintains that right and wrong is relative to self-interest.