Is Ethics Just Doing What I Want?
An Assessment of Egoism
by Paul Copan
Frank Sinatra sang, “I did it my way.” A familiar expression tells us: “Look out for Number One.” In the abortion debate we hear, “I can do what I want with my body.” Welcome to the world of the egoist!
The Russian-born philosopher Ayn Rand (1905–1982) was the author of such best-selling novels as “Atlas Shrugged” and “Fountainhead.” She popularized the philosophy of egoism, which comes from the Latin word ego, meaning “I.”1 The basic approach to morality is self-interest, Rand said. She argued self-interest should guide each person’s decision-making.2
We’re familiar with Jesus’ “Golden Rule,” which says we should do to others what we would have them do to us (Matthew 7:12). This is another way of phrasing the second great commandment, “Love your neighbor as [you already love] yourself” (Mark 12:31). Ethical egoism takes the view that we can do to others in the hopes that they will give back to us. If I scratch someone’s back, eventually someone will scratch mine. Or perhaps it can work in a slightly different way. Consider the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who confessed that he would give to the poor not so much to help them as to relieve him of any nagging guilt he might otherwise feel.
Egoism claims that each person has a moral duty to pursue his or her own self-interest exclusively. According to the egoist, I am the one who best knows what I need. So self-interest comes before the interests of others. This is what the good life is all about — pursuing what I want.
We previously reviewed and evaluated certain ethical perspectives, such as relativism (“what’s right for you may not be right for me”) and utilitarianism (“seek the greatest good/happiness for the greatest number of people”), and found them wanting. Even so, these viewpoints capture important ethical insights. Relativism reminds us that moral acts have a context to consider, while utilitarianism reminds us that moral actions should not ignore consequences. However, these approaches fail to capture the complete moral picture. As we’ll see, the same is true of ethical egoism. It offers the insight that we should properly care for ourselves by eating or washing our bodies (an appropriate kind of self-love). However, pure egoism is ultimately a hollow moral viewpoint that excludes God and eclipses others in its moral framework.
Understanding and Evaluating Ethical Egoism
Ethical egoism sounds a lot like the “true for you but not for me” of relativism we’re familiar with these days. Relativists aren’t interested in finding truth but in preserving their own autonomy. So the pursuit of relativism has less to do with good reasons or persuasive arguments for embracing it than the desire for self-rule. Trying to point out logical flaws in the thinking of the relativist does not deter him. He can simply shrug his shoulders and say, “Whatever!”
But what are the problems and challenges facing ethical egoism? Let’s explore some of them.
1. It’s helpful to distinguish between self-interest and selfishness. In the Disney movie “Ice Age,” two female sloths are discussing Sid the Sloth, who is a really nice guy. One sloth says, “He’s not much to look at, but it’s so hard to find a family man these days.”
The other replies, “Tell me about it. All the sensitive ones get eaten.”3
The implication is if you want to survive, look out for yourself, not others. Ayn Rand’s view suggests that if I am deeply concerned about others, I am less likely to preserve my own life. Of course, it doesn’t help that Rand was an atheist. It generally follows from an atheistic, death-ends-it-all view that the desire for self-preservation will be much stronger, since there is presumably nothing beyond this earthly existence. For the Christian, laying down one’s life for another makes sense. After all, life continues with God beyond this brief journey.
Self-sacrifice and self-preservation are not necessarily opposed to each other. Taking care of oneself isn’t the same as selfishness. The Scriptures assume we already love ourselves when they command, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” A normal, healthy self-love means that we’ll feed and take care of our bodies. Paul writes, “No one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body” (Ephesians 5:29).
Remember that self-love isn’t a goal to pursue; after all, Scripture condemns those who are “lovers of themselves” (2 Timothy 3:2). Rather, self-love is a fact to acknowledge.4 The fact that we love ourselves is to guide us in our love for others. Our knowledge of how we want to be treated should serve as a model for how we treat others (Matthew 7:12).
2. This view commits the naturalistic fallacy, illegitimately moving from is to ought. We all recognize that we can easily cater to our self-centered tendencies and wants. We are often inclined to look out for our own well-being at the expense of others, which is contrary to Scripture (Philippians 2:3,4). The problem with Rand’s view is that it makes an illegitimate jump from the way we are (self-centered) to the way we ought to be (“I have a duty to be self-centered”). This illogical move from what is to what ought to be — from description to prescription — is a naturalistic fallacy.”
How does it follow that we have a duty to pursue self-centered living? Of course, Rand has no conception of a fallen human condition. Even so, why should anyone accept Rand’s untenable conclusion? Why not resist our self-centeredness rather than give in to it?
3. When we speak about how we ought to live, we are speaking of impartial, universally-applicable ideals that fly in the face of egoism. The egoist’s argument that selfishness is a virtue worthy of pursuit is ironic. If we’re talking about ethics, then we have in mind an impartial view. That is, our ethical view does not favor one person, group, gender, or skin color over another. Also, ethics is concerned about universal relevance — a stance all persons everywhere should embrace. But this stance works at cross-purposes for the egoist.
Presumably, Ed the Egoist wants others to embrace the view he follows since it is intellectually superior to other viewpoints. And presumably Ed would want them to act on this. The problem here is that Ed would be recommending that others cater to themselves rather than to Ed! So as egoism becomes universalized and practiced, it actually undermines itself. It tells others to live for themselves rather than to live for me. This suggests that egoism is a deficient view. Why would egoists want their ethical view universalized? Instead of publicizing their perspective, they should keep quiet about it!
4. Why would we ever trust an ethical egoist? The ethical egoist can’t be relied upon when offering moral advice to others since following it will ultimately be to his own advantage — not another’s. The advocate of egoism only creates a climate of suspicion around himself. This, of course, renders egoism suspect. It turns out to be a very counterintuitive notion, undermining marriage, friendship, and a host of other relationships.
5. The egoist’s desire to get what he wants turns out to be an empty or trivial concept — or worse. The egoist says that what he (or anyone else) “wants” is the primary drive to all that he does. People usually don’t betray their friends — even if doing so under severe pressure or possibly torture would give them considerable relief. They want to be loyal. If some cave in to pressure, it’s because they want relief more strongly than loyalty. And, assuming there can be just wars, a person may not desire to go to war, but he still feels duty-bound to protect his family and country from invaders.
There are at least four problems with the egoist’s notion of want or desire:
a. The term “want” becomes unhelpful. When anyone acts, the egoist tells us that this action was in response to the strongest desire someone had — that is, what the person really wanted to do. But the term “want” then comes to mean nothing more than whatever supports egoism. No matter what potential counter-example one gives, the egoist appeals to some stronger “want” lurking in the background, and there is nothing that could falsify this. That, however, leads to another problem.
b. What I decide to do is nothing I have control over since all my choices and actions are necessarily determined by my strongest desire. But why should I assume that I have no control over my choices? In fact, wouldn’t the choice to believe in egoism over another viewpoint be determined by one’s own deepest desires rather than freely or rationally choosing it? Again, this approach simply assumes that egoism is right rather than offering any good arguments for it.5
c. People may want all kinds of things that are self-destructive. Alcoholics want more alcohol; drug addicts want to continue their habit; pedophiles want to engage in illicit sex. But surely simply wanting something is not justification for egoism.
d. What if people want to live lives of self-sacrifice and devotion to others? Persons like Mother Teresa and the abolitionist William Wilberforce are examples of those wanting to help others. Why should the egoist dispute such other-centered dedication as wrong-headed? Why insist that Mother Teresa was doing something wrong in dedicated service to others? That seems quite odd.
6. Even if egoists lay claim to self-interest rather than selfishness, the problem of arbitrariness remains. Why only this virtue and no others? Some philosophers make the distinction between being selfish and being an egoist. To be selfish means we show no concern for others. An egoist, on the other hand, may show concern for others, but his actions arise from his own feelings of pity, not the condition of the poor or unfortunate, as we saw with the philosopher Thomas Hobbes.
Yet it seems that self-interest is only part of the moral picture. Even if pursuit of self could be considered virtuous, why think that this is the only moral virtue? While a person may legitimately consider her own concerns as an object to pursue, this need not be the only one.
The ethical egoist reminds us of the truth that we already love ourselves, and that there can be a healthy, non-idolatrous self-love. We are right to set boundaries for ourselves so we can get, say, necessary rest and exercise. This will better enable us to serve and get along with other people. Getting sleep and exercise benefits us as well as those around us. There is more to the moral world than our own self-interest.
7. The pursuit of power or self-interest isn’t an end in itself but a means to something else. But how is that goal to be determined? Perhaps the best example of egoism in the field of philosophy is Friedrich Nietzsche’s emphasis on “the will to power.” Nietzsche despised Christianity, which he claimed sprang from a kind of doormat theology. For Nietzsche, the pursuit of power mattered. However, we’re left wondering why this is the supreme value. And isn’t pursuing power a means to something else rather than an end in itself? Power is just an arbitrary value, like wealth or status.
8. Even if I end up getting some benefit from a charitable act (for example, someone recognizes my service), it doesn’t follow that this was my motive for acting charitably. The egoist says that we all inescapably act from self-centered motives. He will even charge the Christian with acting from self-centeredness. It’s true that we are often selfish and thus need to examine our own motives and actions so that we are increasingly living by God’s kingdom priorities. But is it self-centered to desire the reward of eternal life with God? Was the apparently self-sacrificing Mother Teresa simply seeking to escape God’s judgment and receive a reward in the afterlife?
This is an unfair accusation. When human creatures show love for God and others, this doesn’t mean such actions are motivated by nothing more than punishment-avoidance and reward-mindedness. Indeed, the sheer enjoyment of the ultimate relationship — of God’s presence in the midst of His redeemed people — is the very greatest human good possible, and it is the final and appropriate goal of our deepest longings (Revelation 21:3).
C.S. Lewis offers this wise insight: “Money is not the natural reward of love; that is why we call a man mercenary if he marries a woman for the sake of her money. But marriage is the proper reward for a real lover, and he is not mercenary for desiring it…. Those who have attained everlasting life in the vision of God know very well that it is no mere bribe, but the very consummation of their earthly discipleship.”6
We could add that the very selfless Jesus himself would take a break from the crowds to rest and be refreshed in prayer. Jesus cared for himself for the purpose of other-centered service to His Father and others. Jesus taught that those who seek their life will lose it, but those who lose their life for Christ’s sake will find it (Luke 9:24; 17:33). The egoist begins with the assumption that God does not exist and that his own agenda is the ultimate pursuit. By contrast, Jesus reminds us that God’s perspective and agenda are ultimate. As we realize this and submit to it, we find that life as it is meant to be lived comes to us as a by-product (Matthew 6:33).
9. What happens when there is a conflict of interests (or egos)? How do we adjudicate or decide between conflicting personal agendas? Or what happens when an ethical egoist becomes a powerful dictator? At this point, the egoist doesn’t want to have his or her viewpoint embraced by another (despotic) egoist. Egoism cannot properly address this conflict.
10. Humans may be ignorant of what is in their best interests. Egoism assumes that individual humans aren’t ignorant of what their real or best interests are. Of course, think of a child who is always grabbing another’s toys or insisting on his own way. He doesn’t have the insight to realize that what he wants is often wildly out of touch with what is best for him.
11. Any “obligation” to self-interest is merely a matter of convenience for the egoist. Since the egoist’s moral rules are really ones of convenience or expediency, the “duty” to self-interest will only exist as long as it is convenient. When it isn’t, such as an egoistic dictator with power at his disposal, the oppressed egoist can’t appeal to higher moral principles without inconsistency.
These then are some problems with the mindset of “looking out for Number One.” The call to an other-centered life is rooted in our other-oriented triune God, who is self-giving. Rather than waiting for humans to seek Him, He takes the initiative to rescue and redeem and to share His eternal life with us. And God has designed us to live self-giving lives that are much more attractive than the empty existence of the “ethical” egoist. We were made to relate to God and to one another, and we ultimately flourish when living this way. God’s design and commands have our best interests in mind. They are for our good (Deuteronomy 10:13; 8:16; 30:9). We only harm ourselves when we fly in the face of God’s design and try to carve out our own hollow, egoistical reality.
1. This essay adapted from Paul Copan, When God Goes to Starbucks: A Guide to Everyday Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008).
2. Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: New American Library, 1961).
3. Ice Age, 20th Century Fox (2002), directed by Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha.
4. John Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1985), chapter 11.
5. Gordon Graham, Eight Theories of Ethics (London: Routledge, 2004), 23–24.
6. C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: Macmillan, 1965), 4–5.