27. Ethical Egoism and Friendship

Ethical egoism is the view that people should always be motivated out of self-interest.  The word ‘ethical’ here doesn’t mean good; it simply means that this form of egoism is not just describing but prescribing a course of behavior.  So should we follow this moral prescription and always seek our own self-interest in all cases?   Here are two arguments in defense of a negative response:

Argument 1:

Premise 1:  To be a true friend to someone one needs to act, a lot of the time, for that person’s interest and needs to have such good will returned: genuine friends cannot always act out of purely selfish motives.

Premise 2: The ethical egoist believes everyone should always act out of self-interest (definition of ethical egoism).

Conclusion: Therefore, ethical egoists can’t have any real friends.

Argument II:

Premise 1: Having genuine friends is necessary for a healthy, fulfilling life.

Premise 2: But ethical egoists can’t have any real friends (conclusion of argument 1).

Conclusion: So ethical egoists can’t lead healthy, fulfilling lives.

Now it may be that people who advocate ethical egoism don’t want authentic friends.  But it seems plausible to suggest that even egoists want friends and real love in their life – if for no other reason than it will be good for them.  But now we see the catch: if they want these things then, according the arguments above, they have to act for others sometimes; and if they act for others sometimes then they can’t be ethical egoists since ethical egoists prescribe that we always act for ourselves.

It is when we act in the interest of others that we can develop real bonds with them.  These bonds are incredibly useful.  But we get this use value precisely by not seeing others as things to be used for our own interest.

  1. Jin on

    Ethical egoists can have friends. They themselves can be friends. Conclusion 1 is not truth.

    • Dwight Goodyear on

      Hi Jin

      You assert that the ethical egoist can have friends and be friends. But you give no reasons for this assertion and thus beg the question. Premise 1 of argument 1 states true friends must act, at least a lot of the time, for the sake of each other’s welfare not their own (Aristotle argues for this point in his account of perfect friendship). But ethical egoists prescribe that we never act for the sake of anyone but ourselves. Thus ethical egoists, and psychological egoists as well, can’t have authentic friendships. They can have friends of utility and/or pleasure that are about mutual use value grounded in selfish motives. But not authentic friendships. To be sure, this may be wrong. But what are the reasons why it is wrong?

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