The Elements of Moral Philosophy on Ethical Egoism: A Critique

The Elements of Moral Philosophy - Sixth Edition CoverMany college philosophy classes today discuss ethical egoism. Many take as their main source the work of James and Stuart Rachels, in their book, The Elements of Moral Philosophy. The main philosopher referenced in the Rachels’ discussion of ethical egoism in Elements is Ayn Rand. But their account of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist ethical theory and their arguments against it are problematic. Their account of her theory is not entirely accurate, and their arguments against it miss important considerations.

Here, I will look at how they present ethical egoism, including the arguments they present for and against it. Where appropriate, I’ll use this discussion to show how their conception of Ayn Rand’s theory is faulty. (After this point, I will refer to “Rachels” in the singular. The reader can take it to refer to whichever Rachels is responsible for the essence of the content.)

Part 1: “Duty” and Ayn Rand’s Ethics

On page 63 of Elements (6th Ed.), Rachels says:

[Ethical Egoism] holds that our only duty is to do what is best for ourselves.

This is not a good way to talk about Ayn Rand’s ethical theory, because Rand doesn’t accept moral duties as legitimate. Rand only thought that there were moral obligations, not duties. This may seem like a minor issue of semantics, but it is actually a deeply revealing point about how Ayn Rand’s conception of ethics is different from most other philosophers’.

In the field of morality, a “duty” means a rule that one must allegedly follow, apart from one’s own interests or happiness. When we do something because we see that it will cause something else that we want for our own happiness, we do not call that “following our duty.” For example, if I work and earn money to buy a new gaming computer, my working is not following a duty. It’s doing something in order to get something else for myself. Or again, if I invest in a company to get a larger return on my investment later, we do not say that I am investing out of duty. If I help my wife because her happiness is important to my own, that is not following a duty, but doing something that improves my own life and promotes my happiness. I help her because I genuinely want to, not because I have a “duty” to.

Most Western moral philosophy has included duties of some sort, since the Stoics and the advent of Christianity, two thousand years ago. (Notably, major, earlier Greek philosophers–especially Plato, Aristotle and Epicurus–did not see themselves as prescribing “duties” in their ethics. They didn’t think ethics was about following duties.)

But in Ayn Rand’s morality, there are no duties. I never “need” to pursue something apart from a goal I have chosen: my life and happiness. I am always pursuing something that I want for myself. I want to live, prosper and be happy, rather than suffer, stagnate and die prematurely, and Rand’s morality helps me do that. In her essay, “Causality Versus Duty,” Ayn Rand writes:

Life or death is man’s only fundamental alternative. To live is his basic act of choice. If he chooses to live, a rational ethics will tell him what principles of action are required to implement his choice. If he does not choose to live, nature will take its course.

Reality confronts man with a great many “musts,” but all of them are conditional; the formula of realistic necessity is: “You must, if—” and the “if” stands for man’s choice: “—if you want to achieve a certain goal.” You must eat, if you want to survive. You must work, if you want to eat. You must think, if you want to work. You must look at reality, if you want to think—if you want to know what to do—if you want to know what goals to choose—if you want to know how to achieve them.

(Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 98)

So Rand holds that there is one fundamental, pre-moral choice: the choice to live or not. For someone who chooses to live, her morality will function to help them achieve that goal. For those who don’t choose to live, they will decay and self-destruct, and any morality is irrelevant to them. When those who choose to live follow Rand’s morality, they are always seeking something for themselves: their own life and happiness. So there is never any duty commanded in Ayn Rand’s ethics.

Any obligations, under Rand’s morality, are self-given. If I have chosen a self-interested goal that is possible to achieve, and the facts of reality indicate that I must do X to achieve that goal, then X is my obligation. The obligation is a means to my chosen goal. It stems both from my choice of the goal and the nature of reality that dictates the means. I follow Ayn Rand’s morality for the same basic reason I work, earn money and invest: to support my life and make it fuller, more prosperous and happier.

Rachels goes on to discuss psychological egoism. This section is not relevant to Ayn Rand, because she was not a psychological egoist. She held that individuals can sacrifice themselves for others.

Part 2: “Short-Term Benefits” and The Argument that Altruism is Self-Defeating

On page 69, speaking again of ethical egoism, Rachels explains:

Nor does Ethical Egoism imply that in pursuing one’s interests, one should always do what one wants to do, or what gives one the most pleasure in the short run. Someone may want to smoke cigarettes, or bet all his money at the racetrack, or set up a meth lab in his basement. Ethical Egoism would frown on all this, despite the short-term benefits. Ethical Egoism says that a person ought to do what really is in his or her best interests, over the long run. It endorses selfishness, not foolishness.

This is essentially correct, and deserves emphasis. Egoism is not about doing whatever one feels like in the moment. It is about what will actually contribute to one’s life in the long term. There is a lot of behavior that people often call “selfish,” that is not compatible with Ayn Rand’s ethical egoism.

One quibble with the quote above is Rachels’s use of the phrase, “short-term benefits.” In Ayn Rand’s morality, there’s no such thing as a genuine “short-term benefit” that conflicts with the long-term and damages one’s life. Something is a benefit if it promotes one’s life, and one’s life extends over its whole extent. Thus, one’s life is the “long term.” Either something one pursues is a benefit to one’s life, or it is not. If it’s not, it can’t be called a “benefit” to oneself in any sense. It is then a detriment to oneself, period. There’s no genuine trade-off between “short term” and “long term” here.

Rachels goes on to describe three arguments for ethical egoism, and three arguments against it, as he understands them. The first argument for egoism is “The Argument That Altruism Is Self-Defeating.” In this section, Rachels is right to point out that this argument is not actually an argument for egoism, since it relies on “societal well-being” as the ultimate standard of what one should do, rather than individual well-being of the self. The standard of moral goodness the argument is based on is collectivist, rather than individualist.

Altruism–the moral policy of sacrificing oneself to others–is not self-defeating, because it does indeed achieve the result of sacrificing oneself to others. Now, whether self-sacrifice can actually achieve the result of helping others, overall, is quite another matter that I won’t go into here.

Part 3: Ayn Rand’s Argument

Ayn Rand, novelist and philosopher of Objectivism, a philosophy for living on Earth.

Ayn Rand

The second argument Rachels cites for egoism is “Ayn Rand’s Argument.” He summarizes her argument in four steps (p. 72):

(1) Each person has only one life to live. If we value the individual, then we must agree that this life is of supreme importance. After all, it is all one has, and all one is.

(2) The ethics of altruism regards the life of the individual as something one must be ready to sacrifice for the good of others. Therefore, the ethics of altruism does not take seriously the value of the individual.

(3) Ethical Egoism, which allows each person to view his or her own life as being of ultimate value, does take the individual seriously–it is, in fact, the only philosophy that does.

(4) Thus, Ethical Egoism is the philosophy that we ought to accept.

I think this summary is in the right general area, in terms of its approximation of some of Rand’s premises. But it makes it unfairly seem as though Rand is making quite a leap to the conclusion. An important idea of Rand’s that is left out is that the entire field of ethics is fundamentally about promoting human life in this world. This is a controversial premise in ethical philosophy that many philosophers–including such major figures as Augustine of Hippo and Immanuel Kant–have rejected.

Also, Ayn Rand considered the human mind very important in human survival and in ethics. And she regarded the mind as a faculty of the individual, rather than any group. She wrote:

The mind is an attribute of the individual. There is no such thing as a collective brain. There is no such thing as a collective thought. An agreement reached by a group of men is only a compromise or an average drawn upon many individual thoughts. It is a secondary consequence. The primary act—the process of reason—must be performed by each man alone. We can divide a meal among many men. We cannot digest it in a collective stomach. No man can use his lungs to breathe for another man. No man can use his brain to think for another. All the functions of body and spirit are private. They cannot be shared or transferred.

We inherit the products of the thought of other men. We inherit the wheel. We make a cart. The cart becomes an automobile. The automobile becomes an airplane. But all through the process what we receive from others is only the end product of their thinking. The moving force is the creative faculty which takes this product as material, uses it and originates the next step. This creative faculty cannot be given or received, shared or borrowed. It belongs to single, individual men. That which it creates is the property of the creator. Men learn from one another. But all learning is only the exchange of material. No man can give another the capacity to think. Yet that capacity is our only means of survival. (For The New Intellectual, p. 78)

So I would summarize Ayn Rand’s argument for ethical egoism like this:

  1. Human life, to continue long-term, (over its whole natural span) must be supported by the human mind–i.e. by thought.
  2. A rational (reality-based) ethics is a set of fundamental principles required to guide human thought in the promotion of human life.
  3. Human life and the human mind are fundamentally individual in nature: It is the individual who lives or dies, thrives or suffers, and thinks or fails to think.
  4. Only the thought of a given individual can promote (support, maintain and grow) that individual’s human life over its whole natural span.
  5. Therefore, a rational ethics must consist of the fundamental principles required to guide each individual in the promotion of his own human life over its whole natural span. This is called Objectivist Ethical Egoism.

First, one thing to notice about the above argument: It does not mention altruism at all. Altruism (i.e. sacrifice for others on Earth) is one other sort of moral stance among several in its class, including hedonistic egoism, sacrifice for the sake of gods, and Kant’s sacrifice for the sake of duty alone. An argument against altruism is not a direct argument for Ayn Rand’s conception of ethical egoism. When Rand discusses altruism, she is not giving the essential argument for her egoistic ethics. She’s either contrasting her ethical theory with conventional moral views, or pointing out the absurdities of the conventional views.

Also, in the summarized argument above, one may think that someone in a vegetative state or coma in the hospital is a counter-example to premise 4. But “human life” refers to the particular form of life distinctive to humans: a life of active, conscious, chosen pursuit of life-supporting goals. Someone whose biological functions are being maintained for the time being is not really “living” in the human sense. A “vegetative state” is named that precisely because it is a plant-like form of existence. For a human organism, this is an extremely fragile mode of existence. Death comes very easily, and it is not self-sustaining, but precariously dependent on others. It is not the sort of active, robust, conscious life that is relevant to morality.

Part 4: “Commonsense” Morality (Conventional Morality)

Rachels goes on to criticize the 4-step argument that he puts forward as Ayn Rand’s:

One problem with this argument, as you may have noticed, is that it assumes we have only two choices: Either we accept the ethics of altruism, or we accept Ethical Egoism. The choice is then made to look obvious by depicting the ethics of altruism as an insane doctrine that only an idiot would accept. The ethics of altruism is said to be the view that one’s own interests have no value and that one must be ready to sacrifice oneself totally any time anybody asks it. If this is the alternative, then any other view, including Ethical Egoism, will look good by comparison.

But that is hardly a fair picture of the choices. What we called the commonsense view stands between the two extremes. It says that one’s own interests and the interests of others are both important, and must be balanced against each other. Sometimes, one should act in the interests of others; other times, one should take care of oneself.

Crucifixion of Jesus PaintingOkay, let’s look at the “commonsense” or conventional view of morality in the modern Western world and see if Rachels is correct about its “moderation between extremes.” For nearly two thousand years, the dominant moral influence on Western civilization has been Christianity. Even where morality has been secularized, most secular thinkers have thought that the Biblical Jesus was a good moral model and teacher, and they didn’t attack his Sermon on the Mount, over its fundamental morality.

Christianity regards Jesus as God incarnate, and thus as the perfect man in his life on Earth. So what was it that Westerners took away from the Biblical account of Jesus’s life? Well, the central feature of Jesus’s life–the main reason he was born on Earth–was to die on the cross as a sacrifice to God for the sins of all of mankind. This horrifically painful death–the death of the worst criminal–willingly suffered by “the most virtuous man in the world” for the sake of any and every sinful human on Earth, is the most extreme sacrifice an individual can make. This is not a lesson in “moral moderation.”

And Christians are explicitly instructed by the Bible to metaphorically imitate Jesus in sacrifice:

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” –Jesus (Matthew 16:24)

“If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” –Jesus (Matthew 19:21)

“Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him.” –Apostle Paul (2 Timothy 2:3-4)

“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” –Apostle John (1 John 2:15)

‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.” –Jesus (Luke 14:26)

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” –Jesus (Matthew 5:3)

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.” –“Apostle Paul” (Colossians 3:22)

I think it’s clear that the Biblical Christian moral ideal is extreme sacrifice and extreme renunciation of this world. Indeed, according to Christian tradition, many early church fathers willingly went to Christ-like deaths for their faith. They have generally been regarded as saints–paragons of virtue–for their extreme devotion, renunciation of worldly pleasures and martyrdom.

But now, what about conventional morality today? Is it more “moderate”? Does it advocate a mixture of self-sacrifice and self-interest?

Let’s examine some conventional moral attitudes and judgments.

During her lifetime, Mother Teresa was so highly regarded as a moral figure by your average person, that her name became virtually synonymous with pure goodness. Was she so admired because she was thought to have achieved a “wonderful balance” of self-interested behavior with self-sacrificial behavior? No, she was regarded as especially noble because she was considered the ultimate example of selflessness possible to humankind.

The great capitalists and entrepreneurs of the late 19th Century, like J.D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan, pursued self-interested deals in their business lives, while also donating large sums of their money to charities and philanthropic organizations. (Rockefeller, for example, reduced the price of kerosene by 69% between 1870 and 1885, making it possible for many more people to light their homes with kerosene instead of whale oil. He paid his workers higher than average wages for the time. He also donated massive amounts of money to educational institutions and founded the Rockefeller Foundation with $250 million of his own money–about $6 billion in today’s dollars. The foundation was dedicated to medical research, medical training, and the arts.)

Andrew Carnegie Quote on Property Rights in front of a steel mill

“If you want to be happy, set a goal that commands your thoughts, liberates your energy, and inspires your hopes.” –Andrew Carnegie

Most of these entrepreneurs were both highly successful in business and highly charitable. Yet, are they conventionally looked upon as models of “balanced morality”? No, they’re conventionally frowned upon and vilified as “greedy robber barons.” They’re basically considered “bad guys,” conventionally. Successful businessmen are the villains of countless novels and movies. Yet they are protagonists of just a small handful, (including Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.)

Now let’s ask what sort of actions are conventionally described as especially “moral” or “noble.” Is doing an excellent job at work every day typically called out as “highly moral” or “truly noble”? Not in my experience. What about saving, investing and being prudent with one’s money? No. What about building a business as an entrepreneur and developing a revolutionary product that millions of people buy? No. What about marrying an intelligent, capable and loving partner, and building a childless life together? Not really.

What about caring for one’s own children? Here we start to see a shade of moral praise. But if it’s just one’s own biological children, it’s nothing too praiseworthy. But what about taking in foster children? That’s a little better, but one still gets paid by the state, so it’s not super noble. Giving an interest-free loan to a neighbor in need? Okay, good, but to be really moral, you should just donate the money. Donating to help starving kids one doesn’t know in Africa? Now we’re talking! This is “moral” or “noble.” It’s the kind of thing many people do to make themselves feel better about their own moral status. Risking your life to save a stranger from a burning building? That’s highly noble. It’s what’s routinely called “being a hero.” Devoting your life to ministering to suffering and extreme poverty, while enduring poverty yourself? This is pretty much the ultimate in morality, and it is what made Mother Teresa’s name synonymous with moral purity.

So, do we see a trend here? The more “other-oriented” an action is–the more it expresses concern for others, and the less it seems to reward oneself–the more conventionally “moral” it is. The more the action is oriented toward self-sacrifice, the higher its moral status, and the more moral praise it receives. Thus, we can say that conventional morality is almost entirely self-sacrificial. Its standard of right action is nearly pure altruism.

Where then does people’s self-interest come into the picture? What actually happens is that most people conceptually segregate most of their lives from morality. Most of people’s everyday lives are conventionally considered amoral. There’s the moral realm of charity, service and self-sacrifice for others, then there’s the practical realm of making a living by pursuing self-interest. So long as one doesn’t “go to extremes” in pursuit of self-interest, one can mostly avoid being in the moral category of “evil people.” But one isn’t being morally virtuous, either. One is just being “practical.”

So, contra Rachels, the conventional “balance” is not between self-interest and self-sacrifice within morality, but between self-sacrificial morality and practicality. It’s still true in a sense that the “commonsense philosophy” says that “one’s own interests and the interests of others are both important, and must be balanced against each other. Sometimes, one should act in the interests of others; other times, one should take care of oneself.” But this is only because the conventional philosophy holds that morality does not encompass all of life. It’s important to be practical much of the time, and it’s important to be moral some of the time.

But one question for this stance is: How is one to judge when to act practically and when to act morally? These are two opposite choices between self-interest and self-sacrifice. Without a higher standard or goal by which to judge when to choose one or the other, what are we left with in terms of a decision procedure? What we are left with is sheer emotion or “gut feeling.” Without an intellectual reason to choose one or the other at a given time, it is only the whim of the agent that is left to decide.

Should I be amoral and spend my extra money on a video game I’ve been wanting, or be moral and donate it to Doctors Without Borders? So long as morality is considered not to encompass all of life, the only way to decide is: How guilty do I feel today? Do I feel guilty enough that I feel an urgent need to do something moral, or do I feel like having the video game more? [1]

Ayn Rand didn’t think that the vast majority of people go around practicing consistent, extreme altruism all the time. What she said, correctly, was that conventional morality holds self-sacrifice as the standard of moral goodness. This means that it only really praises acts of self-sacrifice, while ignoring or demonizing the acts of self-interest one needs to undertake to survive and thrive. Thus, altruism destroys morality’s proper role in human life as an overarching guide to the whole project of living one’s life.

On pages 73-74, Rachels goes on to discuss the idea that ethical egoism can provide a foundation for conventional morality. He discusses the examples of “The duty not to harm others”, “The duty not to lie,” and “The duty to keep our promises.” It’s true that Ayn Rand’s Objectivist Ethical Egoism holds that one generally has obligations not to coerce other adult human beings and to be honest. But these are not the same thing as “the duty not to harm others” or “the duty not to lie.” These are moral principles in a moral framework that does not include sheer moral duties. Ayn Rand’s ethics does not seek to support conventional moral opinions, but to provide an original, reason-based moral system.

Part 5: The Argument That Ethical Egoism Endorses Wickedness

Rachels goes on to present three arguments against ethical egoism. The first is “The Argument That Ethical Egoism Endorses Wickedness.” He lists a bunch of what he regards as wicked actions, such as, “Parents fed a baby acid so they could fake a lawsuit, claiming the baby’s formula was tainted,” and “A 73-year-old man kept his daughter locked in a cellar for 24 years and fathered seven children with her, against her will,” and so on. He then says, “Suppose that someone could actually benefit by doing such things. Wouldn’t Ethical Egoism have to approve of such actions? This seems like enough to discredit the doctrine.”

Since all of the actions Rachels lists as “wicked” violate principles of Objectivist Ethical Egoism, Ayn Rand’s answer would be that these actions literally can’t benefit the agent. Human nature, and the nature of reality generally, make it impossible for someone to derive net benefit from these sorts of actions. It’s like if someone said, “Suppose it were possible to give every single person on Earth amazing, unlimited healthcare throughout their lives, forever, just by setting fire to twelve black churches. This would save millions of lives and untold suffering. Wouldn’t conventional morality have to approve of the arson of black churches? This seems like enough to discredit conventional morality.”

It’s completely outside the bounds of reality to suppose that burning black churches can bring about great healthcare for all. It’s not a possibility now or in the future, and so is not worth considering in morality. Ayn Rand’s ethics are for real life, not some fantasy world where people can achieve any goal by any random means. If you want a systematic summary of why, according to Ayn Rand’s philosophy, people cannot achieve their self-interest by using coercion against other people, I recommend the section on Objectivist Ethical Egoism in my essay, “Ethical Theories Summarized & Explained: Consequentialism, Deontology, Virtue Ethics, and Objectivist Ethical Egoism.”

Rachels then says, “However, this objection might be unfair to Ethical Egoism, because in saying that these actions are wicked, we are appealing to a nonegoistic conception of wickedness.” If any of the actions Rachels listed had been consistent with Ayn Rand’s egoism, this would have been a problem in using them to argue against it. One can’t show that one moral system is wrong by simply taking for granted moral judgments derived from another. One must actually show that one ethical system is consistent with reality and reason, while the other is not.

Part 6: The Argument That Ethical Egoism Is Logically Inconsistent

Following up on this, Rachels next looks at “The Argument That Ethical Egoism Is Logically Inconsistent.” He looks at Kurt Baier’s argument that, where the self-interests of two individuals conflict, there is a contradiction, since one individual doing the right thing according to his self-interest prevents the other from doing the right thing according to his own. Rachels observes that this argument fails, because it requires the premise (unstated by Baier) that “it is wrong to prevent someone from doing his duty.” The egoist can just reject this premise and avoid the contradiction.

Rachels is correct for instances where self-interests conflict: an egoist such as Ayn Rand would reject that premise. But I think it is quite important to note here that, outside of extreme emergencies, Ayn Rand held that the rational or genuine self-interests of individuals never do conflict. This is because, first, rational self-interest means accepting all the circumstances that make the achievement of one’s goals possible. Rational self-interest isn’t a matter of out-of-context whims. It doesn’t include wishing for effects without causes. And second, that self-interest is a long-term phenomenon, and human beings maintain and enrich their lives long-term (properly pursue self-interest) by producing values from pre-existing materials. This production is a creation, not a theft. It is not “zero-sum”: It is not achieved at the expense of other human beings.

For more explanation of Ayn Rand’s principle of the “harmony of rational interests,” I again recommend my essay on ethical theories, Ethical Theories Summarized & Explained, as well as Ayn Rand’s essay, “The ‘Conflicts’ of Men’s Interests,” in her book, The Virtue of Selfishness.

Part 7: Egoism’s “Arbitrariness” and the “Principle of Equal Treatment”

The last argument against egoism that Rachels considers is “The Argument That Egoism is Unacceptably Arbitrary.” On page 77, Rachels writes,

There is a whole family of moral views that have this in common: They divide people into groups and say that the interests of some groups count more than the interests of other groups. Racism is the most conspicuous example. Racism divides people into groups according to race and assigns greater importance to the interests of one race than to the interests of other races. All forms of discrimination work this way: anti-Semitism, nationalism, sexism, ageism, and so on. People in the grip of such views will think, in effect, “My race counts for more,” or “Those who believe in my religion count for more,”…

Can such views be defended?…

There is a general principle that stands in the way of any such justification. Let’s call it the Principle of Equal Treatment: We should treat people in the same way unless there is a relevant difference between them.

Rachels cites violation of this “Principle of Equal Treatment” as the most convincing reason to reject ethical egoism, along with racism, sexism, nationalism, etc. He apparently thinks that conventional morality, along with theories such as utilitarianism and Kantianism, do not violate this principle, while egoism and racism do.

So, if we’re going to reject whole classes of moral theories on its basis, it’s important that we examine this “Principle of Equal Treatment.” Rachels seems to examine it a bit, but he doesn’t go very far.

The principle is: “We should treat people in the same way unless there is a relevant difference between them.” What counts as a “relevant difference” here? Does a difference in someone’s relationship with myself count as a relevant difference? Apparently not in Rachels’s interpretation, since he holds that “self-centered” moral theories violate the principle. Treating people differently, just because they’re my friends, or my whatever, supposedly violates this principle.

By a “relevant difference,” Rachels appears to mean a difference in moral status. The Principle of Equal Treatment would then say that we can treat those who are less moral, worse than those who are more moral. We should treat those of equal moral status to ourselves exactly as we treat ourselves. (And, presumably, we should treat those who are more moral than we are, better than we treat ourselves.)

So, according to conventional morality, how many people in the world have approximately the same moral status that a given, decent person has? A conservative estimate would put the number in the tens of millions. And these people are presumably distributed all over the world.

So now there are millions of people, all over the world, whom I must treat exactly as I treat myself? If I brush my teeth every night, must I brush the teeth of all those millions of people every night? If I pay for my meals every day, must I pay for the meals of every one of those millions every day? If I kiss my girlfriend, must I then kiss all women of the same age and moral status? If I happen to save one child from drowning, must I then spend all my time travelling all over the world to save every child of equal moral status who is in danger of drowning?

Even if this principle is only applied to some sort of delimited “moral contexts,” as Rachels suggests some philosophers argue, it is utterly absurd, and no one really thinks it’s a practical way for anyone to live. It is blindingly obvious that people generally do, and must, live in a self-centered way, if they are to live at all. They must treat others in different ways, depending on their relationship with themselves. Attempting to live by this Principle of Equal Treatment is basically the same as practicing the “extreme” self-sacrifice that Rachels says reasonable people would reject. It would completely destroy the life of the practitioner, for the alleged sake of others. [2]

What Rachels is actually getting at is a different principle, with which he is confusing his “Principle of Equal Treatment.” This other principle is actually reasonable and practical, but it is one that Ayn Rand’s ethical egoism does not violate. This principle is Ayn Rand’s principle of Justice, which implies that one must morally judge two people the same, when one knows that their moral statuses are the same. More broadly, one should only judge others based on factors about them that are relevant to that judgment.

But one’s judgment of others is not the same as one’s treatment of them. I may judge two ski instructors as equally good at teaching skiing, but if one teaches at the slopes near me, while the other is on the other side of the world, there’s no reason why I have to treat both as my instructors, while I take classes from the nearest one. Judging the qualities of the instructors tells me about the potential good things I can gain, (or bad things I may suffer) by having a student-teacher relationship with them.

In the Objectivist ethics, the same situation applies on a more general level in moral judgment. Moral judgment applies to the whole sum of a person’s fundamental choices about how he lives his life. If he lives his life morally, I can generally expect good things from a close relationship with him. If he is immoral, I can generally expect to suffer bad things in such a relationship. My judgment should be made objectively, on the basis of facts. The same basic facts about two different people should lead me to judge them equally. But there is no obligation on my part to form the same relationship with everyone of any given moral status. It would in fact be impossible for me to do so.

The problem with moral viewpoints like racism is not that they permit self-centered treatment of people, but that they permit moral judgment of people on the basis of factors that are not relevant to morality. Racism assigns a moral value to skin color or ethnicity. But actually, a person’s morality depends entirely on his basic choices, and skin color and ethnicity are not chosen. Thus, Ayn Rand’s ethics holds that racism perpetrates injustice.

In his concluding paragraph on ethical egoism, Rachels writes:

Thus, we should care about the interests of other people because their needs and desires are comparable to our own. Consider, one last time, the starving children we could feed by giving up some of our luxuries….If we can find no relevant difference between us and them, then we must admit that, if our needs should be met, then so should theirs.

Their needs “should be met”? By whom?

Whose moral responsibility is it to feed these children? How about the parents who decided to have them? Or is every decision every individual makes the moral responsibility of everyone on Earth? Ayn Rand’s individualistic ethics says that the decisions of an individual are the responsibility of that individual. Others are not entitled to share the rewards of that choice, nor obligated to share the burdens of it.

Under Rachels’s ethics, we must look for “relevant differences” between people, in order to justify treating them differently than ourselves. But how are we supposed to find relevant differences between us and complete strangers? Individually, we can only go on our own limited knowledge.

The only solution to this, as far as I can see, is to have a huge, omnipresent government over the whole world that evaluates the moral details of every individual’s life. This government will then tell us who is our equal, with whom we have solidarity, who is our moral superior, and who is our moral inferior. No one in my moral class may have any luxury until everyone’s basic needs are met. We rise or fall as one unit. The government will ensure that the more moral people have the highest standard of living, while the least moral have the lowest.

Of course, this leaves open the standard by which the state will judge morality. Similar governments have existed in the past, on smaller scales, and they have typically gone by the label, “fascist.” The standard way they judged morality, (when they weren’t racist) was by the degree of the person’s “service to the state.” Basically, by “party loyalty.” [3]

Ayn Rand’s ethics has a very different logical consequence, which is the opposite of fascism. Because each individual has a mind by which he must survive, and he is regarded as responsible for his own choices and well-being, each individual has the right to life, liberty and property.

The result is laissez-faire capitalism, where the government’s only major function is to protect these individual rights. The government does not sit over everyone, micromanaging their activities as a totalitarian state. Nor does it try to ensure everyone of equal moral status has an equal material situation. It lets each individual make their own choices about their own lives and the valuable things they create, to the extent possible, consistent with the same freedom of others. They then bear the natural consequences of their own choices, individually.

Part 8: Conclusion

Unfortunately, not only does Rachels’s section on ethical egoism fail to present a solid reason to reject Ayn Rand’s ethics, it distorts it in the process: It presents it as a duty-based morality and implies that it is potentially sympathetic to fraud, rape and child abuse.

World Poverty Graph 1970-2006

Graph of World Poverty Rate, (absolute) 1970-2006

Rachels’s manner of presentation often seems to prioritize strong emotional pull against egoism over logical explanation of egoism as a theory, with reasons for and against it. He starts the chapter with the plight of starving children around the world, rather than facts that all individuals deal with in their everyday lives. This immediately weights the discussion against egoism with the implication he hopes people will draw: “Egoists are rotters who would just let these poor helpless people starve! But our morality of self-sacrifice will save them!” (He doesn’t mention that extreme poverty in the world dropped by 80% between 1970 and 2006, due, not to international aid, but to a greater degree of capitalism, and people using that freedom to produce for themselves.)

Then, later, he dwells on all the horrible things that Ayn Rand explicitly rejected, but that egoism might condone in a bizarre fantasy world: theft, fraud, murder and child abuse. (p. 75) Then he discusses Baier’s argument, which blithely takes for granted that the self-interests of Democrats and Republicans competing for the presidency involve killing each other to win. (“Those murdering egoists, again!”) He then tries to associate egoism with racism, tying it to the whole history of slavery and Jim Crow in the US. Then he ends the chapter by coming back to the starving children. (“But if we just accept our altruistic duty to sacrifice our lives, we can save all of them!”)

He never really discusses Ayn Rand’s distinctive theory of ethics. He never even mentions the values and virtues that she argued for, like rationality, honesty, justice and integrity. He just presents an inadequate and distorted summary of her argument for the general idea of ethical egoism.

A Companion to Ayn Rand, (Blackwell) edited by Allan Gotthelf and Gregory SalmieriFor those who would like to learn more about about Ayn Rand’s ethical theory, I recommend starting with my essays, such as “Other People as Egoistic Values…” and “Ethical Theories Summarized & Explained…” as well as Ayn Rand’s own fiction and nonfiction, such as Atlas Shrugged and The Virtue of Selfishness. To achieve better understanding, these should be followed up with Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, and his course, Understanding Objectivism.

For academics, Blackwell’s A Companion to Ayn Rand should be of considerable help.


[1] This conventional view can thus be said to lead to an unacknowledged sort of “second-order morality,” where the question is, “Should I be moral in this situation or not?” The “should” here is one that stands above the “should” of “first-order morality.” Because this “should” is not accounted for intellectually by a moral theory, its determination is left to the sheer emotions or intuitions of the agent.

[2] If Rachels were to respond that his conception of morality is not all-encompassing, but merely one element of “the good life,” there to serve as a counterweight to self-interest, then he again has the problem I raised in regard to conventional morality: What is it that will guide us to decide when to act “morally,” according to our obligations, and when to act “amorally,” forgetting our obligations? Our feelings? Should we only act morally when we feel like it? To avoid supporting sheer emotionalism, we would need at least one principle of “shoulds” higher than morality. What could this be called, if not a part of morality itself?

[3] If we apply this same logic of “equal treatment” (self-sacrifice), while abandoning moral judgment of the beneficiaries of that sacrifice, then we arrive at a world-wide communist government, rather than a fascist one. In theory, instead of dividing people into moral classes, the communist government will ensure that everyone lives in the same basic condition. No one will be allowed luxuries until all of mankind has necessities, and highly productive, responsible individuals will be forced to subsidize the unfortunate, lazy, and/or irresponsible ones, all over the world.

Such a government leaves no room for individuals to be motivated by the pursuit of their own individual lives and happiness. They are forcibly held back, effectively shackled to the least productive and the least responsible in society. When they work extraordinarily hard, they get no extraordinary rewards, only the constant demand that they work harder to fill the needs of others. (“From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”)

[Edited: 8-1-21: Added second-to-last paragraph in Part 4.]


Related Posts:

Bernie Madoff: Not Rationally Selfish, But Self-Destructive

Values Are Relational, But Not Subjective

Other People as Egoistic Values Versus Other People as Objects of Self-Sacrifice in Ayn Rand’s Philosophy

Why “Selfishness” Doesn’t Properly Mean Being Shortsighted and Harmful to Others

A Dialogue on Metaethics, Moral Realism and Platonism from an Objectivist Perspective

A Refutation of G.E. Moore’s Critique of Ethical Egoism: A Dialogue

1 thought on “The Elements of Moral Philosophy on Ethical Egoism: A Critique

  1. I did read Rachel’s book and I agree with the criticism. I’d like to highlight that term ethical egoism is not an objectivist term. From Objectivist point of view this is a tautology. Ayn Rand used term rational egoism which connects the ethics with Objectivist epistemology. Understanding of this connection would prevent misinterpretation of Objectivist ethics. The fundamental question of any ethical system is who is a beneficiary of man’s actions? Therefore first we need to define what is beneficial and what is not. That brings us to the Objectivist theory of values . According to Objectivism no value could be achieved by irrational means. Therefore any ethical system should be rational. The only rational ethical system based on the objective reality of man’s existence is egoism. Man can survive as an autonomous living being only if he’s a primary beneficiary of his actions. That doesn’t mean that others can’t benefit. They surly will if the principle of just trade is applied. The treatment of others should be not equal but fair according to the hierarchy of values. But Rachel didn’t mention an Objectivist theory of values and without it to discuss Objectivist ethics , let alone to criticize it is a useless exercise

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