Hauptli's Lecture Supplement Introducing Ethical Egoism

     Copyright 2013 Bruce W. Hauptli

As Louis Pojman and Fieser note, we need to distinguish between several different “egoistic” positions.[1] We will begin our study of ethics by reading Joel Feinberg’s “Psychological Egoism” which will help clarify the egoistic theses, and then we will turn to a selection from Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan. 

Pojman and Fieser’s discussion raises an important distinction between the questions:

“Why should people (in general) be moral?” and 

“Why should I be moral?” 

Answers to the first question do not automatically provide an answer to the second question—especially when egoism is under consideration.  If moral considerations are generally assigned weight, then the problem of the free-rider can well arise for individuals who are egoistic!  That is, as long as people generally behave morally and social structure is maintained in a manner which avoids the chaos of an unrestrained egoistic war of all against all, then why couldn’t (and shouldn’t) an egoistic individual take advantage of the situation by behaving without moral constraints? 

As Pojman notes, in his Republic Plato endeavors to address this issue by having his characters Glaucon and Adeimantus challenge Plato’s Socrates to show that it is not the “appearance” of justice which people should strive for, but, instead that a just character is what individuals should endeavor to attain.  Plato’s extended argument that individuals who lack a just character will lack the harmony which justice provides to the psyche (and that the unjust individual, even if she appears just to others) will, effectively, have a “psychological illness” which is far worse than any bodily infliction.   

The editor’\s’ discussion continues by summarizing the contributions from Richard Taylor, and David Gauthier which respond to Plato’s core argument.  Together these readings seem to leave us with different answers to the above two questions might be necessary. 

     When you have completed our readings in this section of the course, you may want to take the other readings offered by the editors.  You may also find Kai Nielsen's “Why Should I Be Moral Revisited?” (in the American Philosophical Quarterly v. 21 (1984), pp. 81-91) most interesting. 

Note: (click on the note number to return to the text for the note)

[1] Cf., Louis Pojman, “Ethical Egoism,” in Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings (sixth edition), ed. Louis Pojman and James Fieser (Belmont: Wadsworth, 2011), pp. 67-69. 

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Last revised: 08/29/2013