One of the ethical theories to build on the insights of sociobiologists about reciprocal altruism in nature and to focus on emergent cooperation is ethical egoism. While some question whether ethical egoism is a serious form ethics at all, as it often seems just a teaching on prudence, it has become a widely taught social theory and offers a view of why individuals ought to choose to cooperate with others and embrace some tenets of traditional morality at least in many circumstances.
Here I shall offer a short overview of psychological and ethical egoism. A psychological egoist maintains that human beings by nature are psychologically predisposed to pursue their own self-interest. According to psychological egoists we cannot but act this way. While some ethical thinkers who accept this maintain that we should try to overcome our such egoism, proponents of ethical egoism construct a prescriptive moral theory on the basis of their understanding of human nature. That theory states that individuals are not only so constructed that they naturally are oriented to act on their own interest — or “to maximize their own utility” — they go on to claim that this is also precisely how people should act. Each individual, according to ethical egoism, should act to benefit him- or herself.
Reflections on this position raise some immediate questions. For example, how precisely does one best act to benefit oneself? Is it through pursuing whatever preferences one happens to have? Does it require first gaining knowledge of one’s long-term interests? It might at first appear that an individual is acting in his interest when pursuing his immediate preferences. Yet we know that many who do this conclude later in their lives that their early preferences were not really aligned with their long-term interest at all but were harmful to them.
Take a young person with a penchant for poker, for example. He may start out thinking it is in his own interest to follow his preferences and devote himself to gambling. Yet if he loses all his money, he may later wonder whether he truly acted in sync with his own interests. Life is full of cases of individuals looking back at their lives and concluding that they were not acting in their own best interests early in their lives. They change their lives and chalk it up to learning from past mistakes.
Given various such reflections, ethical egoists tend to argue that it is at times in an individual’s self-interest to discipline himself and not to give into each immediate desire. They also tend to argue that it is often in an individual’s self-interest to cooperate with others, not to be narrowly selfish. In both cultivating self-discipline and cooperating with other people we often have to overcome our initial inclinations or short-term preferences. Ethical egoists conclude that denying short-term preferences in many such cases aligns with long-term interests. Ethical egoists thus often speak of the need to act in accord with one’s “enlightened self-interest.” A prerequisite for acting in accord with this enlightened self-interest, on might clearly argue, is that one has reflected on her values and needs and did not simply act in accordance with whatever desires she happened to find herself with. It is rational, in accord with such a view, to decide which values one wants to embrace. Otherwise, one risks living one’s life in accord with values of others — something that might not be in one’s self-interest at all.
Ethical egoists do come in various stripes. Most contemporary ethical egoists maintain that it is not always in one’s egoistic interest to act morally or cooperatively but that it only sometimes is. Such egoists are especially prone to recommend individual morality or individual cooperation in cases when it looks like there will be heavy social costs to not cooperating or to giving into short term desires. In interactions with others, they often recommend cooperation especially when reciprocal altruism can be expected or has been shown to work in the past. Though ethical egoists of this ilk will not get the full palate of ethical responsibilities of traditional morality or ask for a commitment to self-purification in the way that some ethical traditions do, they still will recommend cooperative, collection action in many cases, as well as a lot of self-discipline such as that recommended by traditional moral theories. Such action, they point out, will often contribute to one’s individual well-being. For an individual’s long-term well-being, it simply is required that individuals act, not on their narrow understanding of their self-interest but on an enlightened understanding of it. Reflective ethical egoists recognize that a certain amount of self-discipline (suppressing immediate wants for long-term one’s) and a certain amount of cooperation with others will contribute to one’s personal well-being. How much self-discipline and cooperation is enough? Unfortunately, there are no formulas for this, as the right dose tends to be viewed as situationally dependent.
On tendency of contemporary forms of ethical egoism is to view humans generally as quite individualistic, not as communal. The views of Hobbes on human nature have been important for many contemporary ethical egoists. Like Hobbes, they see us as by nature naturally competitive, egoistic and vainglorious. They do not tend to view us as primarily empathetic or social.
Various ancient forms of ethics that still maintain that being ethical is in our individual self-interest generally have a very different view of human nature than this. Thinkers as diverse as Socrates and Thomas Aquinas in fact maintain that it is in our true self-interest to be virtuous. But that is against a backdrop of extremely different views of metaphysics and human nature than those of contemporary ethical egoists.