Rational Egoism

Rational egoism (also called rational selfishness) is the principle that an action is rational if and only if it maximizes one's self-interest.[1] The view is a normative form of egoism. It is distinct from psychological egoism (according to which people are motivated only to act in their own self-interest) and ethical egoism (that moral agents ought only to do what is in their own self-interest).[1]


Rational egoism was embodied by Russian author Nikolay Chernyshevsky in the 1863 book What Is to Be Done?.[2] Chernyshevsky's standpoint was ultimately socialistic, and was criticised by Fyodor Dostoyevsky in the 1864 book Notes from Underground.[3][4]

English philosopher Henry Sidgwick discussed rational egoism in his book The Methods of Ethics, first published in 1872.[5] A method of ethics is "any rational procedure by which we determine what individual human beings 'ought' - or what it is 'right' for them - to do, or seek to realize by voluntary action".[6] Sidgwick considers three such procedures, namely, rational egoism, dogmatic intuitionism, and utilitarianism. Rational egoism is the view that, if rational, "an agent regards quantity of consequent pleasure and pain to himself alone important in choosing between alternatives of action; and seeks always the greatest attainable surplus of pleasure over pain".[7]

Sidgwick found it difficult to find any persuasive reason for preferring rational egoism over utilitarianism. Although utilitarianism can be provided with a rational basis and reconciled with the morality of common sense, rational egoism appears to be an equally plausible doctrine regarding what we have most reason to do. Thus we must "admit an ultimate and fundamental contradiction in our apparent intuitions of what is Reasonable in conduct; and from this admission it would seem to follow that the apparently intuitive operation of Practical Reason, manifested in these contradictory judgments, is after all illusory".[8]

Ayn Rand

The author and philosopher Ayn Rand also discusses a theory that she called 'rational egoism'. She holds that it is both irrational and immoral to act against one's self-interest.[9] Thus, her view is a conjunction of both rational egoism (in the standard sense) and ethical egoism, because according to Objectivist philosophy, egoism cannot be properly justified without an epistemology based on reason:

Her book The Virtue of Selfishness (1964) explains the concept of rational egoism in depth. According to Rand, a rational man holds his own life as his highest value, rationality as his highest virtue, and his happiness as the final purpose of his life.

Conversely, Rand was sharply critical of the ethical doctrine of altruism:

Do not confuse altruism with kindness, good will or respect for the rights of others. These are not primaries, but consequences, which, in fact, altruism makes impossible. The irreducible primary of altruism, the basic absolute is self-sacrifice - which means self-immolation, self-abnegation, self-denial self-destruction - which means the self as a standard of evil, the selfless as a standard of the good.

Do not hide behind such superficialities as whether you should or should not give a dime to a beggar. This is not the issue. The issue is whether you do or do not have the right to exist without giving him that dime. The issue is whether you must keep buying your life, dime by dime, from any beggar who might choose to approach you. The issue is whether the need of others is the first mortgage on your life and the moral purpose of your existence. The issue is whether man is to be regarded as a sacrificial animal. Any man of self-esteem will answer: No. Altruism says: Yes."[10]


Two objections to rational egoism are given by the English philosopher Derek Parfit, who discusses the theory at length in Reasons and Persons.[11] First, from the rational egoist point of view, it is rational to contribute to a pension scheme now, even though this is detrimental to one's present interests (which are to spend the money now). But it seems equally reasonable to maximize one's interests now, given that one's reasons are not only relative to him, but to him as he is now (and not his future self, who is argued to be a "different" person). Parfit also argues that since the connections between the present mental state and the mental state of one's future self may decrease, it is not plausible to claim that one should be indifferent between one's present and future self.

The "selfish gene" model of evolution suggests that human (and animal) behaviors that seem altruistic are actually selfish, if viewed from the perspective of genes/phenotypes. People help each other "selflessly" because copies of their own genes also exist in others, so behaviors that help the genes survive are selected for, with the altruistic drive decreasing with genetic distance.

See also


  1. ^ a b Baier (1990), p. 201; Gert (1998), p. 69; Shaver (2002), §3; Moseley (2006), §2.
  2. ^ Andrzej Walicki; Hilda Andrews-Rusiecka (1979). A History of Russian Thought: From the Enlightenment to Marxism. Stanford University Press. p. 196. ISBN 978-0-8047-1132-6. 
  3. ^ James P. Scanlan (July 1999). "The Case against Rational Egoism in Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground". Journal of the History of Ideas. 60 (3): 549-67. doi:10.1353/jhi.1999.0028. 
  4. ^ "SparkNotes: Notes from Underground: Context". SparkNotes. Retrieved . 
  5. ^ Sidgwick (1907)
  6. ^ Sidgwick (1907), p. 1
  7. ^ Sidgwick (1907), p. 95
  8. ^ Sidgwick (1907), p. 508
  9. ^ Smith (2006); Moseley (2006), §2a.
  10. ^ Ayn Rand, "Faith and Force: Destroyers of the Modern World," Philosophy: Who Needs it, 1982, New American Library, p. 74.
  11. ^ Parfit (1984), parts II and III

References and further reading

  • Baier, Kurt (1990). "Egoism" in A Companion to Ethics. Peter Singer (ed.), Blackwell: Oxford.
  • Brink, D. 1992, "Sidgwick and the Rationale for Rational Egoism," in Essays on Henry Sidgwick, ed. B. Schultz, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Gauthier, David (1986). Morals by Agreement. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Gert, Bernard (1998). Morality: Its Nature and Justification. Oxford University Press.
  • Kagan, S., 1986, "The Present-Aim Theory of Rationality," Ethics 96: 746-59. JSTOR 2381097
  • McKenzie, Alexander J. (2003). "Evolutionary Game Theory". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). link
  • Moseley, Alexander (2006). "Egoism". The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. J. Fieser & B. Dowden (eds.). link
  • Mueller, D. (1989). Public Choice II. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Parfit, D., 1984, Reasons and Persons, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Parfit, D., 1986, Reply to Kagan, Ethics, 96: 843-46, 868-69.
  • Paul, E. & F. Miller & J. Paul (1997). Self-Interest. Cambridge University Press
  • Shaver, Robert (1998). Rational Egoism: A Selective and Critical History. Cambridge University Press.
  • Shaver, Robert (2002). "Egoism". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). link
  • Sigwick, H., The Methods of Ethics. London, 1874, 7th ed. 1907.
  • Smith, Tara (2006). Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics. Cambridge University Press.
  • Sober, E. & D.S. Wilson (1998). Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior. Harvard University Press.

External links

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