Why Care About Other People?

James Rachels’ essay outlines possible points of arguments for and against the concept of ethical egoism– the theory that humans ought to behave in their own self-interest, and that they have no moral obligation to act otherwise (in a ‘selfless’ manner).

Although ethical egoism supposedly promotes the individuality of each human regarding his or her own goals as described in Rand’s argument, the apparent logical inconsistency makes this theory implausible in the universal realm. For example, if Julie is an ethical egoist, she would want to act in a manner that would best benefit her. However, simultaneously she has to persuade others to act unselfishly in order for her interests to be met. This sort of behavior is not appropriate for society as a whole to advance if the individual is constantly looking out for his or her own welfare first, in a way that would be detrimental to the welfare of others. Ethical egoists are therefore people who do not “care at all about anyone other than themselves” (Rachels 239).

Regarding the morality of ethical egoism, there can be no differentiation between right and wrong of an individual’s actions. Kurt Baier provides a reductio ad absurdum argument that regards the initial premise of egoism being true as false because of a conflict in the interests of two opposing parties (Kalin). What is right for one individual may be considered wrong for the other person. For example, if Connor’s duty is to steal an apple from Eric, but Eric’s duty is to not have his apple stolen from Connor, there lies a conflict of self-interest. Just as ethical relativists believe the concepts of just and unjust vary from individual to individual, so exists a dichotomy between individuals’ self-interest.

One thing that was interesting in the reading was the emphasis on ought in the definition of ethical egoism. What one ought to do could be regarded as the morally right thing to do (Prichard). In Rachel’s essay, he gives an example of Abraham Lincoln’s argument for ethical egoism where supposedly kind acts are ultimately for the benefit of the one who performs the act. If Bill were to help Kelly look for her lost dog, an ethical egoist would argue that perhaps Bill helped Kelly so that he could feel some sort of satisfaction in doing a good deed, not because of an inherent want to assist her. However, Rachels argues that people generally “derive satisfaction” after doing a good deed (235). The skeptical nature of questioning any act as being selfish ironically undermines the value of the human capacity to sympathize (Rachels 239).

Since ethical egoism is essentially an ethical theory, it should be maintained that the egoists are attempting to understand what constitutes what is morally right and wrong.  Ethical relativists believe that an action is right or wrong based on the cultural context of the individual, while ethical egoists conclude that the actions done in an individual’s best interest are what define its morality. Ethical egoists are too naïve in believing that what is best for the individual will maybe coincide with what is best for society. They do not evaluate the fact that their actions will ultimately influence others around them, and consequently that the behavior of others will impact their own pursuit of happiness in a never-ending cycle of interconnectedness.



Kalin, Jesse. “Baier’s Refutation of Ethical Egoism.” Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition. Vol. 22, No. 5/6 (Oct. – Dec., 1971) , pp. 74-78. Springer. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/4318686>

Prichard, H. A., 2002, Moral Writings, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rachels, James. “Egoism and Moral Skepticism.” The University of Morality (1971): 233-239. Blackboard. Web. 13 Sept. 2014.

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