A primary assault on ethical egoism is that it does not fit into the package of society as a functional universal morality. Indeed, it is ethical egoism that is blamed for a plague of atrocities that are labeled as the disasters of self-interest, whether it is a stock market crash or a corrupt dictator’s brutality against his people, it is egoism that is the first note rung, i.e. that it was selfishness at the root of the world’s chaos. Furthermore, there are numerous assertions of psychologists who claim that ethical egoists are incapable of being a friend, or having friends, or harbor an unhealthy personality. This certainly seems a fact of the psychology of what is seen as an ethical egoist: a man (or woman) without empathy towards anyone else who seek only the ends of his or her own self-interest, i.e. a man or woman who would walk over corpses to achieve their end.
Ethical egoism appears to fail when it comes to dealing with the whole of mankind. How could a world full of individuals seeking only but their own gain be a moral, stable society? After all, it is altruism that seeks to help men to a better state collectively rather than promoting only the welfare of one individual above all else. This seems to be a proof of reality when looking at a world full of generosity, benevolence, and kindness towards the downtrodden or those who are in need. Altruism has shown to be a productive moral foundation in terms of society. It has also been seen as the foundation of family and friends: individuals who are willing to give up something to help out the family, or friends. Usually, this giving it is a sign of a stable psychology with the understanding of the human condition.
However, ethical egoism is not scoff at such an attack. It is also a miscarriage of reason to look at an ethical egoist as someone who would storm over bodies to achieve his ends because the argument avoids the issue of values in morality. In the instance in dealing with generosity, an ethical egoist does not have to contradict his morality in order to be generous and kind. Instead, he looks at generosity as scrupulous as a doctor does over a sick man. Are the causes he wishes to donate towards or give his time consistent with his values? Since values are some end which pertain to a person’s self-interest, an ethical egoist must decide which causes are good for him and which are a danger. This also coincides with his value in life; as such, an ethical egoist may also connect that since he values his own life and his own interest, so do others of themselves, and that each individual’s life must also be a value to his existence, whether in friendship or mutual benefit. Thus, “walking over corpses” to achieve his ends ultimately achieves nothing towards his values; furthermore, it can be argued that such people are not egoists at all, but rather someone who is selfless since his existence depends on the lives of others. If an egoist must be self-interest at all times, than dependence on others (especially through force) is anti-self, anti-selfishness, and anti-egoism. This also clears up the idea that there is a contradiction of an ethical egoist contradicting his morality when he might help others: mutual trade for mutual benefit (spiritually, or monetarily). It is easy, then, to see that the opponents of ethical egoism (or egoism at all) ignore the rest of an egoist’s values, but focus only on his morality of selfishness. An egoist sees his life as an end in itself, but does not exclude the rest of humanity.
This brings me to Laurence Thomas’ argument:
P1. A true friend could never, as a matter of course, be disposed to harm or to exploit anyone with whom he is a friend [definition of a friend].
P2. An egoist could never be a true friend to anyone [for the egoist must be ready to exploit others whenever it is in his or her interest]
P3 Only someone with an unhealthy personality could never be a true friend to anyone [definition of a healthy personality; that is, friendship is a necessary condition for a healthy personality].
P4. Ethical egoism requires that we have a kind of disposition which is incompatible with our having a healthy personality [from P1-P3]
Conclusion: Therefore, from the standpoint of our psychological makeup, ethical egoism is unacceptable as a moral theory.
It seems that Laurence Thomas has a foothold on an egoist and his psychology, indicating that an egoist, as a person who seeks his or her own self-interest, would seek to exploit anyone, including so called friends. However, let’s take each point and look at it critically:
- It can be agreed upon that true friends do not harm or seek to exploit each other. This is because friends are a value to each other, one serving a purpose to another; whether it is psychologically, spiritually, or monetarily is between them.
- This is where Thomas goes off and makes a broad-sweeping statement. It evades the issues of values in regards to morality and, specifically, egoists. An egoist may have the wherewithal to come to agreements with his friends if he needs something. This could be seen as a reciprocating, but this is also a form of self-interest and not of altruism. An egoist desires one thing from his friend, his friend gives said item to the egoist, and an egoist who has friendship as a value seeks to maintain that friendship through a return trade. Mutual trade for mutual benefit.
- Friendship plays an incredible role in an individual’s life, helping combat depression and loneliness, among other beneficial psychological impacts. But since his logic has already failed him with his disregard to an egoist’s value system, his claim that an egoist’s is psychologically unhealthy is unfounded. It could be said an individual who recognizes that self-interest is universal and has developed a morality or philosophy to explain how he lives his life has a much healthier mind than the constantly sacrificial mind of an altruist or of the selfless brute.
- See points above. An egoist understands the self-interest that is involved in trading value for value. This reciprocating is certainly in a egoist’s self-interest. He is neither an altruist who sacrifices values to indiscriminately follow the end of good will, nor is he a selfless brute who disregards his self-interest, and nor is he going to jump into a furnace when asked. He seeks to trade with those who will trade with him, and he befriends those who he sees value in and those who see value in him.
- Conclusion: Thomas’ argument offers up logic that is black-and-white thinking while evading what makes morality important: the pursuit of one’s values. Since morality is a code of values that help guide a man’s actions, it seems fruitless to look at morality without establishing what the values of an egoist may be outside of just self-interest. While selfishness is at the heart of an egoist, he has an hierarchy of values which determines his actions, and his psychology.
Ethical egoism is correct in showing that most of the other systems of morality fail at dealing with a man’s self-interest, especially in accordance to the whole of one’s values. An egoist may hold his life as the standard of value which guides his morality, but he also holds reason as the way to discover his morality. Unlike the selfless brute that destroys others without thinking of his values, only the ends, an ethical egoist sees that means must act according to the end, not that the means justify the end. If the end is immoral, he must take heed that the means are also immoral and can endanger his values, especially his life. Universally, ethical egoism functions as, seemingly, a constant check and balance on one’s values and gaining through mutual trade for mutual benefit, not through coercion or sacrifice. Instead of offering up a morality that asks individuals to sacrifice values for the gains of others in an never-ending chain of self-sacrifice, an ethical egoist offers up a morality that allows individuals to set their own life as the standard of value and to seek that which is rationally beneficial to his or her well-being while also trading value for value with others.