Chapter Five: Teleological Theories : Egoism
Section 3. Ethical Egoism

I cannot help but conclude that Mother Teresa
would have done much more good for the poor
had she become something useful,
like a prostitute or a drug dealer, or better still,
a banker or the head of a multi-national corporation.

--Robert White, in The Diabolical Works of Mother Teresa

Ethical egoism is a normative theory.  As previously indicated, it recommends, favors, praises a certain type of action or motivation, and decries another type of motivation. It has two versions: individual ethical egoism and universal ethical egoism. In the first version one ought to look out for one's own interests. I ought to be concerned about others only to the extent that this also contributes to my own interests.  In the second version, everybody ought to act in their own best interest, and they ought to be concerned about others only to the extent that this also contributes to their own interests.

Should's and shouldn'ts
Every ethical theory recommends certain actions, and prohibits others. In this case, ethical egoism recommends looking out for one's own (long-term) self-interest. It also says that we are morally obligated to avoid being concerned for others if by doing so it does not further out own interests.

Take any ethical situation you can think of -- any moral dilemma. View it from the perspective of the ethical egoist -- how different does it look than from the perspective of ordinary ethical principles?

Think of the standard ethical principles -- truth-telling, generosity, non-maleficence (this means: do no harm), do not insult, fulfill your promises, etc. From earlier documents, we know that ethical theories ground, or explain, or provide a theoretical explanation for principles. One very important question we will continue to ask throughout this semester is: do the theories we are looking at do a good job of accounting for these principles?

Take "truth telling" as an example. The principle suggests that we should tell the truth, that we ought not deceive others. Ethical egoism explains why this principle holds -- it explains the ground of our obligation. It explains the true meaning (I don't like that phrase, but I'll use it here for the moment) of the principle. It suggests, ultimately, that the reason why we ought not lie is because if we do lie, that has a high probability of negatively impacting my personal happiness. From the perspective of ethical egoism, that and that alone is the ground for the principle of "truth telling."

Is this satisfying? Does this match up with your own sense of the reason for telling the truth to people? Is this the only moral reason why you ought to tell your friends the truth? Or are their other reasons, too? Are there perhaps better reasons why one ought to follow the principle of truth-telling?

Required Internet Readings

In this approach to ethics it is the consequence of the act that is the basis for determining its worth.  One of the most basic of consequences is the impact on people and one of the most basic of all values for determining whether something is good or not is the pleasure that it brings to someone.  Some think that emotional and physical PLEASURE is the ONLY basis for determining what is GOOD

Theories of the GOOD based on pleasure are termed HEDONISM

There are two popular theories of the GOOD based on pleasure.  One is based on pleasure to one self.  EGOISM

The other is based on the pleasure that results for all humans in the world. UTILITARIANISM.

A famous Egoist was Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes

 Ethical Egoism and EGOISTS


Catholic Encyclopedia

Here is a Powerpoint slide presentation on Ethical Egoism .

Literature on Egoism-links to sites

Overview and Arguments for and against Egoism



An action is morally right if and only if it is to the advantage of the person doing it.


1. An altruistic moral theory that demands total self-sacrifice is degrading to the moral agent.

Objection: This is a false dilemma: there are many non-egoistic moral theories that do not demand total self-sacrifice.

2. Everyone is better off if each pursues his or her self-interest.

Objection: (a) This probably is not true in practice; and (b) True egoism isn't concerned with what will make everyone better off.


1.         Provides no moral basis for solving conflicts between people.

2.         Obligates each person to prevent others from doing the right thing if it is not in accord with the subject's thinking..

3.         Has the same logical basis as racism.

4.         The egoist cannot advise others to be egoists because it works against the first egoist's interest.

5.         No one person can expect the entire world’s population to act in such a way as to produce the most benefit (pleasure) for that one person. 

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© Copyright Stephen O Sullivan and Philip A. Pecorino  2002. All Rights reserved.

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