“Egoism is the very essence of a noble soul”.- Friedrich Nietsche
In this article we will show what egoism is, the types of egoist beliefs, a history of the philosophy, and from this develop some key takeaways you can apply to your own life. If you would like to learn more, we have provided additional resources at the end of the post.
What is Egoism?
When referring to egoism in philosophy it states that the foundation of morality is self-interest. So as a result, those with egoist belief systems will argue that living for their own self-benefit is the purpose of their lives and is the most moral state of being. It is also important to distinguish this term from egotism, which describes a state where someone overvalues their own importance.
While egoism seems entirely selfish on the surface, not all egoism-based belief systems subscribe to this idea. For example, objectivism takes a complex stance and states self-interest requires you to take into account other’s needs in some cases since it is to your own benefit. So, instead of rooting for good and bad acts in traditional virtues like courage and justice, it frames all good and bad acts in an individualistic focus rather than a collective one. Regardless of the actions done the ultimate reasoning for doing anything morally charged is focused on individual hurts and benefits.
Types of Egoism
To explore the beliefs of an egoist properly the types of beliefs within the system need to highlight. Below are the common versions of egoism and what they argue:
Psychological Egoism: Human nature is described in its entirety as being selfish and self-focused by this form of egoism. It takes the hard stance and asserts that though we may try to hide our actions as being other-serving and virtuous, they ultimately are done for self-preservation.
Normative Egoism: This type of egoist belief states that people ought to act for their own self-interest since it is the most moral way to live. It does not give a hard description of human nature, but it asserts one should primarily act in ways that best serve self-preservation and development in order to be truly moral toward others. It is split into both rational and ethical egoism.
Rational Egoism: This belief posits that all promotion of self-interest is in accordance with reason and nature. Not pursuing your own interest as the core component of your reasoning is then considered irrational.
Ethical Egoism: This idea states that the promotion of self-benefit is the highest form of morality. While a strong stance on this would say this is always the case, a weak ethical egoist would believe it is not necessarily immoral to not act in self-interest. There is also an additional subsection of conditional egoism which determines the criteria for ethics.
Conditional Egoism: egoism is believed to be morally right if it is morally accepted as such. So in other words, if society accepts and your actions actually better society they are moral (I.E. common interest). If in any case, the results of your behaviors do not do so, they should be stopped.
Egoism vs. Altruism
Egoism at its core completely denies the idea of altruistic actions, which are done without an idea of benefiting more from it and rather are done simply because they are good. An egoist would say that even these types of actions are done for self-interest in their entirety. However, many counter this with the idea that excess sacrifice is done for another person’s benefit in love, friendship, and even with strangers.
There is also the idea that tries to merge the two concepts called egoistic altruism. This idea argues that altruistic acts in the long term serve a person’s self-interest more than the sacrifice at the moment of altruistic action. While there may be some grounds for this idea, the question of motivation still exists. In order for something to be altruistic, self-interest cannot be the frame and is therefore not defined as altruism.
Egoism vs. Utilitarianism
Egoism is not completely detached from utilitarianism, but self-interest is more diluted for utilitarians. The main difference is egoists are individualistic focused while utilitarians have a distinct focus on others since it requires the greatest benefit for the greatest number. Egoism can still be present for utilitarians if self-interest is the main motivator for this collective focus, but this typically is not the case as it often involves self-sacrifice.
A Brief History of Egoism
Egoism was first seen in Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes when he said, “No man giveth but with intention of good to himself.” From there, egoism spread to English popular culture. This was used by Herbert Spencer to develop evolutionary theory while applying it to philosophy, psychology, and the study of society. Spencer was highly influenced by his father’s individualist and anti-clerical views, leading him to advocate for actions to be valued based on their effect on individual pleasure or suffering they evoke. He championed a number of radical views throughout his life, but failed to keep with any as they inevitably came to conflict with his individualism. His work was a basis that helped Henry Sidgwick in defining Egoism.
Sigwick was an influential ethical philosopher of the Victorian era whose work continues to influence Anglo-American ethical and political theory. He was born in 1838 to a wealthy family in Yorkshire, England and went on to study at Cambridge, where he stayed for the rest of his life. Sidgwick based much of his philosophical work on arguing against the prevailing thoughts of the time. He primarily focused on dismantling the idea of greater good found in philosophies such as utilitarianism and Kantianism as he did not think there was a persuasive argument for one to sacrifice his own happiness for some unseen good.
Egoism: Key Takeaways
While egoism can seem like an entirely selfish type of belief system, this is not completely the case and there are some things to learn from it. Below we detail some core ideas to take away from egoist philosophy:
Working for the common good serves your self-interest: While it can be tempting to focus entirely on yourself and your core group of friends, working towards a common good is what holds society together. For example, global peace is a goal that serves all and if collectively pursued serves collective and individual interests. On a smaller scale, making sacrifices for others by listening, providing comradery, and helping people sacrifice time but also builds trust which serves everyone. So, it is best to find common ground and meet each other in the middle for the possibility at a just and good society.
Balance your self-interest with others' interests: There is an old saying that you can’t help others unless you first help yourself. There is truth in this statement and if you don’t have your priorities in order you can’t offer your best self when helping others. However, this does not mean being entirely focused on yourself would be best, and rather prioritization to be you first and then others is the goal. So, an orientation of both self-interest and focusing on others' needs is needed to achieve balance and as such the best result possible.
Egoism: Additional Resources
For additional learning we have provided some videos and articles for you to browse: