As members of society, we gravitate toward certain decision-making based on our emotions as well as our surroundings. Physiological egoism argues that the reason we do all things is for ourselves. That is, everything we do is out of self-interest. On the other hand, ethical egoism makes a moral claim about how life ought to be lived. “According to ethical egoists, a person is always justified in doing whatever is in his own interests, regardless of the effect on others’ (Cahn, 72). Each of these theories poses issues dependent from person to person, and also may contradict the theory absolutist ethics in which all actions are intrinsically right and wrong. I will explore these two philosophical theories and how they pertain to our decision making and what problems and challenges each of these theories face.
It is difficult to argue that at least some of the time, people act out according to their own interest; making decisions that will suit them best. Physiological egoism goes a step further and will argue that all actions are motivated in this way. Even if it may seem that the person is making a sacrifice for others, in some way or another they are benefiting as well, which is the driving force behind their decision. A simple example would be someone saving another person from a burning building. Though they are risking their own life, the physiological egoist would argue that weather this person is conscious of the reasoning or not, they are driven by their own benefit such as gaining a heroic feeling. In the context of this theory, this is just how we as human beings are, aware or not.
Acting in your own self-interest should not be confused with acting selfishly. These are two different concepts. The text easily explains the difference between the two. You wouldn’t think of me as selfish if I am feeling ill and need to see a doctor. However, that can be seen as acting in my own self-interest (Cahn, 76). Selfish acts may be considered to have a negative effect on those around you. If you are doing something that only benefits you, but does not hurt anyone else, people may not consider that as selfishness. So, when physiological egoism argues the driving force of our decisions in through self-interest, we are not to confuse that with selfishness.
Physiological egoism has its flaws. Some may argue that the driving force behind their decision making is simply, doing the right thing regardless if there is any personal gain or not. Say a soldier has an opportunity to throw himself on a grenade to save many lives of those around him. Maybe he did so because he couldn’t bear to live with the guilt he would carry if he didn’t. This is an argument a physiological egoist would make. Though this is a possible explanation, there is no way this is can be true for all cases. If you were faced with the dilemma in which you must sacrifice yourself for the sake of many others, our modern society here in America would argue that it is the “right” thing to do. It makes you ask the question, what makes my life better than those of lives around me?
Ethical egoism believes that your decisions are justified based off of what it is you believe is right for you. “A person is under no obligation to do anything except what is in his own interest’ (Cahn, 77). Many people may believe that we as people are entitled to make decisions based on what we want for ourselves and that is the most important driving factor. However, this can lead to issues of itself. Is this justifying a murder because the murderer thought it was a good idea to take the life of another individual? Though the ethical egoist argument can get radical, most people don’t gain any self-interest by impeding on the freedoms of others. A major proponent of this philosophy is Ayn Rand. “Ayn Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism, begins by embracing the basic fact that existence exists. Reality is, and in the quest to live we must discover reality’s nature and learn to act successfully in it”. This leads to personal responsibility of the individual. If each of us make decisions based on our own self-interests, society would be thriving because each individual will ensure they are doing what they have to do to ensure that their lives contain their needs and wants.
It is important to understand that ethical egoism should not necessarily focus on you wants and feelings. It is more important to focus on a reasoned assessment that will serve you long-term interests best. Some of your pleasures and desires may align with this, but that is certainly not always the case. Because of the competitive nature of this world, we do have the responsibility in taking action in providing for ourselves. If we don’t look out for ourselves, how can we expect anyone else to? Though I can see the importance in this and can agree, Ayn Rand’s views on this can get extreme. This is where the theory starts to become faulty. “The purpose of morality to teach you, not suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and love’ (Rand). While all that sounds good and dandy at face value. Let’s go back to the example used above about the person who jumped in front of the grenade to save others. Ayn would obviously be against this because it is not of that person’s greatest interest. It ends their life. But why do we still feel torn as to what the “right thing to do” is? The theory of ethical egoism would seem more effective when everyone is on the same page with this. In reality, this is not the case.
The biggest issue I face with ethical egoism is the narrow view it takes with the factors going on around us in life. What about our friends, family, children, and pets? If we orient all the decision-makings around the individual, the deep connections we have with each other may go ignored. It ignored cross cultures and communities in which I can argue are paramount to overall happiness. To me, happiness and community are paramount to sustaining a prosperous life.
Even after exploring both of these theories, how can we decipher what is correct or not. That’s what makes this complicated. Though we can take arguments from both and disagree or agree with them, the world in which we live does not accept one or the other. We cannot accept ethical egoism in full if we accept physiological egoism. Because as I stated above, making decisions based on your self-interest doesn’t necessarily mean you gain from that decision at the moment. For example, I don’t necessarily love writing this paper right now. But I am doing it to obtain my degree, which will help sustain my future.
The biggest takeaway from this conversation about egoism, both physiological and ethical is to really grasp the relationship that you have with yourself and those around you. Because there is no way in knowing what theory holds more merit. I feel that both of these theories are on a spectrum that is up for interpretation. What is the relationship you have with yourself? What is the relationship you have with your community? When faced with decisions, what is the most important reasoning in which you base your decision making off of? Yes, the common denominator here is yourself, but does that mean that your self-interest is behind your decisions? I don’t think that is true in all cases. Certainly, if I lived during the World War II and found myself in concentration camps trying to save those being starved, I don’t imagine that would be because it’s going to make me feel good about myself. It’s because if I were in that position, I would desperately want that help from another individual as well.
Physiological egoism is a strong argument, but I don’t believe it is how all people are, so I discredit the theory as a whole. However, I do think that many decisions are made out of self-interest. I also discredit ethical egoism as a whole as well. Because I find it necessary to look out for those around you and incorporate service and community in your life. Sure there are some personal benefits from doing that, but what should be most important is the affect those decisions have on those you are serving.