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Philosophy 101: Ethical Egoism vs Altruism

In the last 101 series, we looked at the omnipotence of a perfect being in the Paradox of The Stone. Ethical Egoism is the focus of this series. It is one of many moral theories that consider self-interest to be at the heart of all moral and ethical concepts.

“Egoism is the very essence of a noble soul" - Friedrich Nietzsche

Is there a duty to carry out altruistic acts such as Famine Relief or caring for the vulnerable?

According to the philosopher Ayn Rand, the answer to this question is, absolutely not. The famous philosopher is of the belief that “if a man accepts the ethics of altruism his first concern is not how to live his life, but how to sacrifice it.” And Rand doubles down on this view by adding that those who promote this idea are beneath contempt. Harsh to say the very least. One should point out what ethical egoism is or, perhaps, to be clearer, what it is not. Ethical egoism does not say one should not help the needy or vulnerable. It says that one is free to do what will benefit oneself in the long term. If that means giving aid to starving children in third-world countries, then one is free to do that but only if it serves oneself. For example, if one wanted to give aid to a third-world country, and by doing so, gained financial rewards by attracting big companies to follow suit, this would be perfectly fine. Ethical Egoism is not concerned with solely helping others. It is concerned with self-interest only, and if self-interest just happens to include the outcome of others benefitting, then, that is fine.

Ethical Egoism. (n.d.-b). [Illustration]. Ethical Egoism.

Author, James Rachels summarises Ayn Rand’s view on Ethical Egoism like this:

1. A person has only one life to live. If one places any value on the individual - that is, if the individual has any moral worth- then one must agree that this life is of supreme importance. After all, it is all one has, and all one is.

2. The ethics of altruism regards the life of the individual as something one must be ready to sacrifice for the good of others.

3. Therefore, the ethics of altruism does not take seriously the value of the human individual.

4. Ethical Egoism, which allows each person to view his or her own life as being of ultimate value, does take the human individual seriously - in fact, it is the only philosophy that does so.

5. Thus, Ethical Egoism is the philosophy that ought to be accepted.

There are millions of children that die each year due to malnutrition or health-related conditions. People who are fortunate enough to live in parts of the world where there is easy access to clean water and fresh food might take for granted just how privileged one is. Even people on average salaries can afford to spend money on luxury items like a trip to the cinema, a sports bag, or a musical instrument. So, do we have a moral duty to help? It is easy to distance oneself from the harsh and brutal reality when the devastation is happening thousands of miles from home. And when highlighted to most, there is usually a sense of embarrassment. People are well aware of the suffering that occurs in the poorest parts of the world yet many are guilty of turning a blind eye to it. Ayn Rand's argument for Ethical Egoism is at the extreme end and does not consider the middle ground. A person on an average salary could easily give a relatively small sum of money a year to a charity, that would be of immense help to someone in need, without sacrificing one's own lifestyle. Extreme Ethical Egoists might argue that if one is giving and is not being full-filled or not gaining in some way one would be better off keeping the money for themselves. However, more moderate Ethical Egoists would argue as long as one is not putting themselves at financial risk, then giving is likely to make one feel good about oneself which is a reward in and of itself. This is a more palatable view but there are some who are against the theory completely. In his book The Moral Point of View (1958), Kurt Baier argues that the theory cannot be correct because it does not or cannot provide solutions for conflicts of interest. Here is an example of how Baier argues against Ethical Egoism:

Ethical Egoism. (n.d.-a). [Illustration]. Ethical Egoism.

There are two candidates, B, and K. They are both up for the presidency of a particular country and let it be granted that it is in the interest of either to be elected. However, only one can succeed. It would then be in the interest of B, if B was elected, but not in the interest of K and vice versa; and therefore in the interest of B, but against the interest of K, if K was assassinated by B and vice versa. However, from this, it would mean that B ought to assassinate K and that it would be wrong not to do so. It would also mean that B is not doing his duty until he has assassinated K; and vice versa. Similarly, K, would not be carrying out his duty, knowing that B was trying to assassinate K and not doing anything to prevent this from happening. And vice versa. This is obviously a far-fetched example but it does highlight that if morality is to be a system used in such cases of conflict then there would never be any moral solutions because the self-interest approach would always cause conflict to arise.

Altruism Concept Person Ethical egoism Good, Creative people hold up planet, globe, people, computer Wallpaper png. (n.d.). [Photograph]. Altruism Concept Person Ethical Egoism Good, Creative People Hold up Planet, Globe, People, Computer Wallpaper Png.

In conclusion, if people are to live in cohesive and prosperous societies, it is surely the correct view that one should consider the needs of others, if for the very fact that one can understand how it would be if one was born into a life of poverty and hardship. It is the essence of being human, to understand and empathize with the human condition. One might argue that to raise the very question of whether one has a duty to help the starving is absurd. Of course, it is the duty of all to help each other, where possible. It is for this reason that I believe Ethical Egoism fails as a moral theory.


Egoismis the very essence of a noble soul. (n.d.). Quotemaster.Org. Retrieved 24 September 2021, from

Kalin, J. (n.d.). Baier’s Refutation of Ethicasl Egoism. Jstor.Org. Retrieved 24 September 2021, from,egoism%20cannot%20make%20moral%20judgments.

Rachels, J. (1993). The Elements of Moral Philosophy (second edition). McGraw-Hill Education.

1 Comment

Feb 25, 2023

Baier's argument is logically inconsistent, as he supplements the argument with his own assumption- that it is wrong to prevent someone from doing their duty. In response to this argument, the Ethical Egoist would argue that they never claimed this, and thus Ethical Egosim is not refuted.

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Peter Terrence

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