An Argument Against Egoism

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PHIL 1320 Brant
September 23, 2010
An Argument against Egoism
I shall argue that the ideas of both psychological and ethical egoism are fundamentally flawed and should not be practiced. Egoism is flawed because it ignores the fact that people have a predisposition for compassion toward others that cannot be completely expelled from their motives of action. Egoism is also flawed due to the fact that altruism cannot coexist with egoism; therefore, because there is altruism in the world, egoism cannot be practiced logically. Egoism is also flawed in that it contradicts itself within its own definition and consequently cannot hold true through the tests of real life situations. Psychological egoism is a descriptive type of egoism that states that a person’s main goal in life is to maximize his or her own welfare, not the welfare of others (Shaver 2010). This type of egoism does permit performing acts that do not attribute to personal welfare, but it does not approve of selfless acts motivated by a sense of duty to another person. However, actions in the interest of another’s welfare may still be psychologically egotistic if the corresponding action results in one’s personal welfare (Shaver 2010). For example helping an old woman cross the street because you know she will give you money is an acceptable act according to egoism because, although it benefits the woman, it also invokes a reward attributing to the doers personal welfare. This viewpoint is based on the egotistical oxymoronic idea that altruism is really a self motivated attribute, meaning that, according to egoism, people only act unselfishly in order to make themselves appear honorable when in reality this makes their actions unrighteous, self motivated, and therefore, egotistical (Nickels 2006). Reverting back to the example about helping an old woman cross the street, someone watching from a distance may think that person is being altruistic and is a person of wonderful character, but in reality he or she is not because they receive a reward afterward. Egoists consider every act of kindness as being motivated by some type of reward whether it is physical, like receiving money, or social like appearing to be a good person in order to potentially gain social benefit down the road. Ethical egoism is normative, meaning it proclaims how its followers should act and what they should do. Ethical egoism declares that in order for an act to have virtue it must consider only the value of the effects on the agent of action (Shaver 2010). Ethical egoists hold most important those things that will yield the biggest reward for themselves. This type of egoism, similar to psychological egoism, does consider doing things that appear to be in the interests of others if and when the reward for doing so outweighs the rewards for not doing so. An influential philosopher in Europe during the eighteen and nineteenth century, Anthony Ashley Cooper, the third Earl of Shaftesbury (1671 to 1713), argues against psychological egoism. He argues that psychological egoism does not adequately explain the actions that people engage in a regular basis like civility, hospitality and humanity. Lord Shaftesbury proclaims that people are often called to action by characteristics such as “passion, humor, caprice, zeal, faction and a thousand other springs, which are counter to self-interest” (Shaftesbury 1999). Shaftesbury’s argument supports the notion that people have a predisposition to act out of kindness and that people are not solely motivated by self interest. People have an internal desire to do good that, despite the comparison of risk and reward, shines through in their actions in some way or another. For example, people hold doors open for others every day. This act is done out of kindness, and despite the fact that it may make the doer a few seconds late, he or she still does this for others. The ideas of psychological and ethical egoism do not hold up because there are...
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