Egoism, Ayn Rand & James Rachels

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  • 0:01 Two Views of Eogism
  • 0:33 Rand and Rachels
  • 1:32 Rational Egoism
  • 3:42 Human Sympathy
  • 5:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies, the study of American history/society/culture. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer.

In this lesson, we look at two opposing views of the topic of egoism, including one that has generated a great deal of controversy for advocating selfishness.

Two Views of Egoism

Some topics in philosophy are a bit like a boxing match. You have one particular point of view in one corner of the ring, taking aim at the point of view of their opponent in the other corner. Jabs can go back and forth between two opposing fighters with drastically different arguments. In this lesson, we'll look at a philosophical boxing match on the topic of egoism. You'll learn what this term means and what two thinkers named Ayn Rand and James Rachels had to say about it.

Rand and Rachels

In the first corner of our imaginary boxing ring, we have Ayn Rand, a writer famous for both her novels and her philosophical views. Even the title of one of her books sounds controversial: The Virtue of Selfishness. You might immediately wonder, how can selfishness be proposed as a good thing? How can being selfish be ethical?

In the other corner, we have James Rachels, who's ready to fight Rand on her views. His essay Egoism and Moral Skepticism describes the view of those like Rand's as a disturbing doctrine. Both Rand and Rachels do have two major things in common. First, they're both interested in what is ethical. Secondly, and in line with the R's in their names, Rand and Rachels both want to identify what is ethical in a rational way.

Rational Egoism

But this is where their similarities end. As she takes her first punch in our boxing ring, Ayn Rand writes something that might sound shocking. She makes the case that altruism, also known as selflessness, is actually a cause of moral corruption and resentment. She says that it is not an ethical way to live. This is a bit like a punch to the face of most moral philosophies, which claim that selfless acts, like helping others, are the very definition of moral behavior.

Rand points to how a person acting always in the interests of others can end up having little guidance for what to do in life aside from trying to meet the needs of others. She says altruism permits no view of men except as sacrificial animals. Instead, her approach of rational egoism offers an alternative, in which a person's self-interest must be uncovered by the guidance of rational principles and a person must then act in this self-interest. You can remember the term egoism by thinking of how ego refers to a person's own self.

Rand has another philosophical punch to land as well: just because a person acts in their own self-interest doesn't mean they do whatever they want, regardless of the consequences. An egoist who thinks through their actual interests rationally can see that they want to live in a society that is stable. This requires that they behave in ways consistent with a stable society. So, going out and stealing, destroying property, or otherwise causing problems in society is therefore not in one's self-interest.

At this point, it might appear that typical moral philosophies have suffered a major blow from Rand. Her argument suggests that selflessness is actually harmful rather than helpful to an ethical society. Selfishness to Rand is simply acting in one's self-interest, and not the evil, unethical way of life you might first imagine when hearing this.

Human Sympathy

But wait. Ready to fight back against this perspective is James Rachels with his own powerful combination of rational arguments. In his essay, Egoism and Moral Skepticism, Rachels rejects the idea that an egoist will behave in ways that ultimately benefit society and keep it stable. He points out that an egoist will know that others are not egoist. This knowledge affects their behavior.

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