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.
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.
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.
In a strange way, it's actually in the egoist's best interests that others are not egoists, too. For instance, an egoist could easily take advantage of someone else's kindness or weaker position if they're altruistic in their approach. This could lead to some very questionable behavior, says Rachels.
He rejects the idea that people should focus on always acting in their own self-interest. Here comes another powerful punch from Rachels: he points out that human beings are wired in more complex ways than just looking at their own needs. When we see a situation that includes other humans suffering, we have a response that goes beyond looking out for ourselves. Rachels says it is easy to forget just how fundamental to human psychological makeup the feeling of sympathy is.
So, should self-interest alone be the main goal of a person's existence, as Rand recommends? Or, are we drawn toward acting altruistically as a basic part of what it means to be human, as Rachels observes? Those who argue each point of view continue to duke out this topic.
In The Virtue of Selfishness, Ayn Rand argues that selfishness is not immoral. Selfishness is simply acting in one's own self-interest, a rational approach. She places blame on altruism for causing much of the moral corruption in the world. Her view is one of rational egoism, a view 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. This doesn't mean a person does only what they want, but that they uncover what is rational. This includes behaving in ways that help society to remain stable.
In Egoism and Moral Skepticism , James Rachels takes aim at egoism and suggests that it is actually a disturbing doctrine. He says that egoists are forgetting how fundamental sympathy is to the human condition. Encouraging people to act only in their self-interest ignores our natural response to the suffering of others, according to Rachels. In addition, taken to an extreme, egoism could lead to questionable behavior that takes advantage of others.
The major points of this lesson could prepare you to:
- Interpret rational egoism
- Recognize Ayn Rand's philosophy of selfishness as a good and honorable thing
- Understand James Rachel's opposing philosophy as highlighted in his essay, Egoism and Moral Skepticism