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Support for Egoism

Support for Egoism

Author: John Lumsden

Identify common arguments in support of egoism

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In this tutorial we will be looking at the role and impact of actions done in our own interests and actions done in the interests of others. The possible support this gives to egoism will be considered. Our discussion will break down like this:
  1. The Naturalness of Self-Interested Action
  2. Self-Interested Action and Society
  3. Other-Interested Action and Society

1. The Naturalness of Self-Interested Action

To begin with, recall that egoism is a relativist theory of ethics that maintains that right and wrong are relative to self-interest. One way to support egoism is to argue that self-interest is central to our lives in various ways. If it is central to our lives, then you might think that this makes it a good candidate to evaluate ethical action.

One way that self-interest is central is that we all must act in our own interests just to survive.

You must eat food in order to live, and so making sure you get food is an activity that’s in your self-interest. The same is true of avoiding pain, for instance when you move your hand away from an open flame.

The fact that we do act in our own interests (at least some of the time) can be offered as a reason for why we should act in our own interests. But you need to be careful with this kind of argument. All it says is that acting self-interestedly comes naturally to us. But just because something comes naturally to us doesn’t mean we should do it.

If all humans naturally ate each other, would that make it right? Or you can think about it this way: Just because we don’t naturally fly, does this mean we shouldn’t fly?

The fact that we act self-interestedly does offer some support for the egoist, though. It at least shows that its ethical ideal (of acting in your own interests) is possible for humans since we do it anyway. What’s more, if your ideals or goals are self-determined, then you’re also more likely to achieve them.

You are more likely to not exploit people if you decide it’s wrong to do so, than if someone else just tells you that you shouldn’t exploit people.

2. Self-Interested Action and Society

Let’s consider another way that self-interest might be central to our lives. There are points in history where self-interested action has brought about development in society.

Many scientists are motivated by their love of the subject and the desire they have to satisfy their curiosity about the world. By following their own interests, they have contributed some of the most important advancements to society.

Of course, a scientist could also be motivated by their desire to help humanity. After all, if you’re trying to find cures for diseases, then you probably care about other people. But you might also get a kick out of your work or enjoy your achievements being recognized.

Arthur Leonard Schawlow, the winner of the 1981 Nobel Prize in Physics, argued that the most creative scientists were the ones motivated by their own pleasure in doing their work.

We can see the importance of self-interested action in areas other than science as well. For instance, slaves weren’t helped out of their condition purely by the charity of other people (such as the Abolitionists). In parts of the world, slaves liberated themselves.

The Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) was the first time slaves overthrew their colonial owners in order to establish a modern nation governed by people of African descent.

The slaves must have been at least partly motivated by their own interests: their interest in being free and no longer suffering at the hands of their oppressors. The actions of these self-liberated slaves not only produced social progress by getting rid of slavery in Haiti, but by influencing the rest of the world.

For instance, their actions disproved the racist idea (common at the time) that black people weren’t capable of organizing and ruling themselves. What’s more, this would go on to inspire many more movements against slavery and oppression, especially in the Americas.

3. Other-Interested Action and Society

Another reason to think self-interested action is desirable is that action done in the service of others sometimes stops societal progress. For instance, think back to our example about the scientist that works for the love of the subject. Throughout history, scientists working freely according to their interests produced groundbreaking insights and important innovations. But when they’re forced to work in the interests of others, their work often stagnates.

The drugs produced by scientists for pharmaceutical companies are mostly shaped by other peoples’ interests, rather than the scientists’ interest in doing research. That’s because these companies develop drugs in the interests of the stakeholders.

A consequence of this is that less development goes into radical new drugs that progress society, and more development goes into less risky drugs, which are more likely to make money (e.g. variations and rebranding of existing drugs).

The majority of radically novel drugs (75%) are developed by scientists that get to do self-interested research that’s publicly funded. The remaining 25% are produced by the pharmaceutical companies that push their researchers to work in the interests of other people (the stakeholders).

Here’s a very different example of social stagnation being produced by working in the interest of others. Many communist states became obsessed with the interests of the country or the collective. They ended up spending their resources on detaining and spying on their own people, who they suspected of being enemies or traitors to their country.

Their paranoia and pride about the perception of their country meant they wasted time and money on gathering private information about its citizens and censoring them. Thus energies were taken away from more productive activities.

We started this tutorial by looking at the naturalness of self-interested action, highlighting that our tendency to act in our own interests gives some support to the egoist. Then we looked at the relationship between self-interested action and society, noting that people who work in their own interests have sometimes contributed to social development. This was complemented by an account of the relationship between other-interested action and society. We saw some instances where working in the interests of others held back society.

Source: For drug development statistics see