Academic journal article Contemporary Readings in Law and Social Justice

The Morality of Gregarious Egoism *

Academic journal article Contemporary Readings in Law and Social Justice

The Morality of Gregarious Egoism *

Article excerpt


I will here defend ethical egoism or what I like to call the moral theory of benign selfishness. What matters to me is to show ordinary people that they should act so as to make the most of their human lives.

It is evident enough, not in need of proof, that most people are not altruists; they live their lives mostly by attempting to take decent enough care of themselves. They eat breakfast, wash up, get dressed, etc., most mornings instead of rushing out to help other people (unless these are members of their immediate family or those faced with some emergency). Most of us earn a living so that we can spend the funds from this on what we need and want, not on others. We pay for membership at a gym so as to work out and become fit. We try to eat right so we are reasonably healthy. We pay to go to the movies so that they'd entertain us. We go shopping for items we believe we need or we want.

When some people facetiously claim that we live in an age of "Me, me, me and me," they are largely right but the truth of what they say is not morally objectionable. We do care for ourselves, first and foremost - which includes our loved ones - without much doubt, but in a benign way. We do not operate as if we lived in a zero sum world, so our effort to promote our own welfare isn't some campaign conducted against other people and theirs.

This is what I have in mind by benign selfishness. It is not what many cynical folks mean when they say, "Well, isn't everyone selfish?" that is, that everyone is embarking on an aggressive, forceful, fierce campaign to come out ahead of others, as in some kind of (rat) race. (The idea brings to mind how millions of people drive throughout the globe, mostly pushing hard to get to a place ahead of others! But this tends to occur mainly in public places, which is a result of a version of the tragedy of the commons.1)

So I will be discussing how benign selfishness and the socio-political conditions that make it possible are desirable and nothing to lament or besmirch, the way many social philosophers appear to feel about them.

1.My Pitch for Some Solid Selfishness

Hardly anyone will dispute that most folks who chime in about ethics consider selfishness wrong. It is nearly axiomatic in movies, novels, sitcoms, etc. There have been exceptions in history and some of the most prominent ethical philosophers, such as Socrates and Aristotle, can even be said to have been ethical egoists or at least ones who championed the moral virtue of prudence as central for living a good human life. But after some significant changes in how human nature began to be understood, being selfish or selfinterested - or even prudent - began to be scoffed at, treated as a moral liability, not worthy of praise but of blame. But here is Socrates, in Plato's dialogue, Crito, being asked, "When you are gone, Socrates, how can we best act to please you?" Socrates replies: "Just follow my old recipe, my friend: do yourselves concern yourselves with your own true self-interest; then you will oblige me, and mine and yourself too."

Of course, using one's common sense shows that being benignly selfish is what most of us are, normally, and routinely. When folks awake in the morning they proceed to begin to take good care of themselves before reaching out to help others. (Just as that announcement would have it on airplanes, first help yourself and then others in case there's loss of oxygen.)

But apart from such common sense support, selfishness gets little respect (other than perhaps from psychotherapists who usually don't advise their clients not to care about themselves!). Moralists, however, often scoff at it. (Among them in our time are the famous ethics writers Peter Singer and Peter Unger.)

So while selfishness is widely opposed by such official moralists as philosophers, priests, ministers, politicians, and pundits, most people will normally choose to be selfish instead of selfless. …

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