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Problems with Egoism

Problems with Egoism

Author: Glenn Kuehn

Identify potential problems with egoism.

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Hello. I'm Glen. And this ethics tutorial is on the problems of egoism. Let's keep in mind the definition of egoism as we go forward, and look at the content for this tutorial.

In this tutorial, we'll be covering two main topics which raise problems for egoism, or we can think about them as issues. One is that, while self-interest is natural, so is the interest in caring for others. And two, generally, ethics is not all about me, it does involve others. So we will address both of these in this tutorial.

When we base something like an ethic on what comes natural to us, of course, one of the primary things that occurs to us is that my self-interest is paramount, and it is natural for me to care for myself. However, we also can see that it does appear to be natural for us to care for others, and this runs contrary to egoism. Egoism says my self-interest comes first, yet many of us experience the feeling that caring for others is also something that is innate.

We just spontaneously feel things like sympathy, and empathy, we feel compassion, we have what seems like a natural desire to assist people to help. Many people are called into professions, they don't simply choose them, they are called into them-- things like nursing, or ministry, or teaching. And all of these are based upon caring for others and helping others.

And a couple more examples of natural self-interest and the well-being of others is that the care and concern that parents have for their children or contrary, children to their parents. We naturally care for our friends. We care for people we cook for. I have a lot of experience in the service industry and restaurants, and cooking for a customer in a restaurant is not just simply cooking for a customer.

I'm providing food for them that's going to sustain their health and well-being, and I care about what I'm doing for this person. I'm not just slinging fries and throwing a burger on and not thinking anything more of it. I care about what I do because someone else is going to be eating this food. So these feelings spontaneously erupt and help us in our motivation. And all of them do run contrary to the position of ethical egoism.

Another problem or issue that arises when talking about egoism is that, in general, ethics is an area that does seem to be inherently other-oriented. It's not, again, all about me, even though that may be a starting point. Ethics, it is generally agreed, goes beyond self-interest, things like narcissism, solipsism, and egotism generally don't hold much weight in society, in philosophy, in our dealings with people, and they aren't much admired.

They're also not terribly productive in the long-term, because they provide a poor basis for ethics. If I operate under simply the motivation, and solely the motivation of my own interest, I'm going to have a really hard time getting along with other people. I'm going to have a really hard time obeying the laws that are in place to promote the well-functioning of a society. Ethics is primarily about how to get along with other people, how to get along in the world.

So first I need to acknowledge that there are, in fact, other people in the world. And they have needs just like mine, and if we're going to get along, we need to work on this. So a couple of examples of this-- let's say I'm polluting a river that's going behind my house, and I'm just dumping raw sewage instead of having it go through filtration or a septic system or something. I'm just dumping it into the river. Because it's in my self-interest.

Then I don't have to pay for the sewage, and I don't have to pay for the septic tank upkeep, and all of that, I just dump it in the river. Well, that's acting out of self-interest. And as long as I'm not caught or fined or publicly humiliated, egoism as an ethical stance, says I should continue doing this. And this seems counter-intuitive. It doesn't make sense. No. You shouldn't pollute the river. This is bad, but as long as I don't get caught, it's in my self-interest.

This can also be seen in the case of lying. If I lie all the time and don't get caught and it serves my needs because, through lying, I'm able to manipulate and control situations and people, then egotism says I should continue to so. So it's a good for me. It does, again, seem counterintuitive, but egotism is clear on this one. So when we consider egoism, we need to consider these issues and see that there are other ways of looking at it, and there are problems that do arise.

So in this tutorial, we have seen that there are problems or issues with egoism. While it is natural to act out of self-interest, it is also natural to care for others. And generally speaking, ethics is not 100% about me, it is other-oriented as well as self-oriented. And these both need to be taken seriously into consideration when we explore ethical egoism.