Toward a truer understanding of ethical egoism
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The conventional image of an egoist as an inconsiderate boor who takes advantage of or injures other people is premised on a number of faulty assumptions about the nature of egoism. In an attempt to bring the true nature of egoism to light, I address several of the most prominent objections to it, such as: egoism leads to conflicts with others and encourages injuring them; an egoist values others only instrumentally; egoism offers inconsistent advice by telling multiple agents each to pursue the same good that at most one of them can attain; a focus solely on one’s own concerns impoverishes an agent’s life; egoism lies outside the realm of genuinely moral prescriptions. Rejecting the common view that equates the pursuit of self-interest with desire-satisfaction, I attempt to extend our understanding of what self-interest truly encompasses. The orthodox rejection of egoism stems from the modern view of the purpose of ethics, which is to serve as a conflict-resolution device for agents’ interactions. I believe that this “social” view of ethics does not capture the full range of questions that ethics is needed to answer. The ancient view, which considered the fundamental question of ethics to be “how should one live one’s life?” rather than “how should one deal with others,” seems far more fruitful. Accordingly, the proper image of an egoist, I contend, is that of a value-seeker: an agent who strives to identify and gain values so as to enhance his well-being. Contrary to the usual image, then, egoism fundamentally concerns, not an agent’s dealings with others, but his approach to values: the egoist’s focus should be on gaining values, rather than on surrendering them.