The Categories of Egoism

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Egoism is a term used in philosophy to exemplify that one’s own self-interest should be the primary motivation of one’s actions. There are two categories of egoism; they are known as descriptive and normative. Philosophers have extensively studied these categories for centuries, and although they seem quite similar on the surface, they are not. By distinguishing between the two theories and identifying their primary dissimilarities, it will become clear just how different the two truly are.

Ethical egoism is the normative ethical stance that states people ought to act in their own self-interest above all else. The only moral duty that one who is acting ethically egotistic has is to uphold his own interest and do what puts himself at an advantage. Based upon this theory, one can only be truly moral if he is focused on self-love. Ethical egoism teaches, “Individual life is so precious that it is of the highest moral value and should not be used as a sacrifice to anything or anyone else” (MindEdge & WGU, 2008).

There are two versions of ethical egoism, strong and weak. The strong holds that one should only look out for his own good. It is always moral to act for the benefit of one’s own good but is never moral not to. In this version, it would then be acceptable to steal food from a grocery store in order to save money for a plasma television. The weak, however, holds that “although it is always moral to promote one’s own good, it is not necessarily never moral not to” (Moseley, 2006). Situations can always arise where it might be more moral to ignore your own personal interest.

In this version, one would pay for the groceries and not buy the plasma television because paying for the groceries would be more moral than stealing them. Psychological egoism is the descriptive ethical stance that states people always act in their own interest because it is human nature and cannot be helped. Psychological egoists believe that all actions are motivated purely by self-interest. Although we sometimes may do good for others, we only do so to make ourselves feel good.

This theory expresses that there are never and can never be any completely unselfish acts. The principle of psychological egoism depicts ethics, in general, as having no value. Because of this, the theory has been attacked and heavily criticized by well-known philosophers such as David Hume, who desired to prove that emotions such as compassion were as common as self-love, and Joseph Butler, who stated that it was impossible for self-interest to be our only motivation. Butler said, “I must desire things other than my own welfare in order to get welfare” (Shaver, 2002).

Psychological egoism cannot be true because it implies that all people always act from the single motivation of self-interest, when in actuality people are motivated by varying factors from love all the way to hate. Hume believed that self-interest contradicted other emotions that could motivate a person, such as a parent’s unconditional love for his child. Self-interest cannot be the only motivation for people who partake in activities that are harmful to their bodies, such as smoking or overeating. Hume said, “Men often act knowingly against their interest” (2007, p.

299). People frequently help someone in need out of compassion or because of religious beliefs. “Compassion is a call, a demand of nature, to relieve the unhappy as hunger is a natural call for food” (Butler, 1849, p. 23). Showing compassion is an aspect of goodness that occurs naturally in all people, just as eating when one is hungry is a natural instinct. Many people do what is right even though they will not benefit from it because it is simply the right thing to do. Joseph Butler once said, “Happiness does not consist in self-love” (1983, p.

48). Once cannot live a full life if he is only vested in self-love; he must also experience loving others to truly be happy in life. The exclusion of all emotions, outside of self-love, is the most prominent fallacy of psychological egoism. The Differences of the Categories One significant difference in the two theories is that ethical egoism is of a regulatory nature while psychological egoism is of an explanatory nature. Ethical egoism is based on how people ought to act, but psychological egoism is based on how people must act.

If psychologically egotistic people are always motivated based upon self-interest alone, then it can be said that they believe that completely unselfish behavior does not exist. Even if someone appears to be unselfish, only some form of personal gratification must motivate him. In contrast, ethical egoism is a theory about what our moral obligations should be; it provides a guideline of what is morally right. Ethical egoism does not necessarily imply a belief in psychological egoism. One can be ethically egotistic and be strongly against the theory of psychological egoism, without contradiction.

If psychological egoism is accurate, there can be no selfless act or motivation which contradicts ethical egoism altogether. The primary difference between the two theories is that with psychological egoism, the only possible motivation one could act upon is self-interest because no other exists, while ethical egoism acknowledges other forms of motivation but states that one should never act upon them. If the only human motivation were self-interest, one would always choose to act in his best interest. The motivations of the two theories also greatly disagree.

The primary human motivation of a psychological egoist is selfishness. They believe to be selfish is human nature. On the other hand, the primary human motivation of an ethical egoist is doing what they believe to be morally right. It is possible for the ethically egotistic person to perform a selfless act, as long as it is more morally sound than being invested in one’s own interest. Self-interest vs. Selfishness When determining which actions are purely selfish and which are merely invested in promoting one’s own self-interest, it is important to distinguish between the two.

Ayn Rand defines selfishness as “concern with one’s own interests” (Rand & Branden, 1964, p. viii). A selfish person believes that his own fulfillment is more important than that of others’ and often disregards the needs of others altogether. Being selfish often causes emotional, and possibly physical, harm to others. Perhaps a selfish person in need of money decided to mug an elderly woman because she was an easy target. The only money the woman had to live on for the month was in her purse.

Now, she has not only been physically harmed by a selfish act but must also suffer loss and grief. It is possible for someone to be selfish but have no self-interest at the same time. Take, for example, a chain smoker in a public place. He is clearly acting selfish, without regard for the individuals who are forced to breathe his second-hand smoke, but is in no way acting in his self-interest because he is damaging his lungs. It is also possible for someone to act out of self-interest but not be selfish at the same time.

James Rachels reveals, “actions in self-interest are not necessarily selfish actions” (Lander University, 2006). For example, it would be in one’s best interest to buy gas to go to work, but it would not be considered selfish. Self-interest is the whole point of egoism and is characterized by doing what is to one’s best benefit in order to prosper. It provides for the consideration of others’ well-being and calls for a lack of harm towards them. The barter system of years ago is a perfect example of people acting unselfishly but in self-interest.

When a cattle rancher needed wood for his winter survival and an axe man needed food for his, they would trade a cow to slaughter in exchange for firewood. Both men acted out of self-interest, yet both were better because of the act. Self-interest is necessary for one’s survival and success. Ethical egoism involves doing what one believes is morally right, while psychological egoism, in its complete disregard for others, involves always acting selfishly. While both theories are slightly similar in that they deal with human motivation, self-interest, and egoism, there clearly is no real comparison.


Butler, J. (1849). Butler’s Six Sermons on Moral Subjects: A Sequel to the Three Sermons on Human Nature. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. Butler, J. (1983). Five Sermons. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company Inc. Hume, D. (2007). A Treatise of Human Nature. Sioux Falls, SD: NuVision Publications. Lander University Philosophy Department. (2006). “Psychological Egoism. ” Ethics Home Page. Retrieved June 30, 2008, from http://philosophy. lander. edu/ethics/egoism. html Mindedge, Inc. , & Western Governors University.

(2008). “Ethical Egoism. ” Ethics. Retrieved June 28, 2008, from http://wgu. mindedge. com/p/onlineEd/courseBase. php? v=assignment&mI=20228&aI=208400&cr ID=730d4eb7a3fbb57a807e76b63b1f6f24 Moseley, A. (2006). “Egoism. ” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved July 2, 2008, from http://www. iep. utm. edu/e/egoism. htm Rand, A. , & Branden, N. (1964). Virtue of Selfishness. New York, NY: Signet Publishing. Shaver, R. (2002). “Egoism. ” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved June 30, 2008, from http://plato. stanford. edu/entries/egoism/

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