Maarten Maartensz:    Philosophical Dictionary | Filosofisch Woordenboek                      

 E - Egoism

Egoism: Selfishness.

To be selfish is quite human, and indeed quite beastly: "Stupidity and egoism are the roots of all vice" (Buddha). It is also quite necessary for one's own survival, at least to some extent - and it is quite false that it is a necessary fact of nature, though many who are greedy and selfish like to pretend or believe it is.

1. Egoism and altruism

People who believe themselves to be realists tend to believe that "all men are egoists", and tend to argue this on the basis of the fact that no men can feel another person's feelings or have another person's interests, for which reason it follows - according to these would-be realists - that one cannot be not egoistic, since one always must act on the basis of one's own interests, feelings and motives.

The fact is that this is a fallacy. It may be granted that most men are mostly egoistic most of the time, and it is true that no men can feel another's feelings or have another's interests.

Even so, not only in humans but in any animal species that takes care of its young, it is evidently true that parents do sacrifice quite a few of their own interests and needs out of concern for - what they believe or feel to be - the good of their offspring. Similarly, persons who love each other may sacrifice part of their own interests for the sake of someone else, and indeed human society involves a considerable amount of common kindness, that may be seen as acts of altruism in so far as they are not based on mere conformism.

The fact that this concern for another and the resulting small or large sacrifice of one's own present interests for the sake of those of another are based on a feeling one has oneself - which is the most telling argument for the thesis of universal egoism of all - proves nothing for egoism against altruism, since any concern one feels, however private and personal, is either for another or some thing else than oneself or else for oneself, and one may act in one's own or in another's interest from choice or from compulsion (as may be the case with the mothers of young rats, that walk over electrified grids to get to their young).

The point is not whose interest is felt (always only one's own, though perhaps that may consist of an imagination how it would be to stand in another's shoes), but whose interest is served. If a mother feeds her children at the cost of her own food during a period of starvation, this is in their interest and not in the mother's interest, even if she strongly feels she should do what she does. For one thing, without children she would not have this strong feeling to serve the interests of these others.

2. Mandeville

There is a theory by the English-Dutch doctor Mandeville, first published in the beginning of the 18th Century, according to which much of the good men do to other men is in fact based on their egoism, that moves them to cooperate with others for their own interests, to satisfy their own lusts for gain, status and power.

This may be said to be somewhat cynical, but also to be rather realistic, in that it does explain fairly well how people may do good to others without desiring to do so.

One addition this theory needs, though, is that it seems to require a fairly good and non-biased system of public law, that makes it for most men attractive to further their own ends by wheeling and dealing, and by thus doing meanwhile contributing to society and others' interests, while forcing them to do so while remaining within the framework of the law.


See also: Benevolence, Cooperation, Ego, Self, Specious present,


Chamfort, Leibniz, Hazlitt, Hume, Mandeville, Rochefoucauld

 Original: Sep 15, 2004                                                Last edited:3 July 2012.   Top