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Egoism is the philosophy concerned with the role of the self, or ego, as the motivation and goal of one's own action. Different theories on egoism encompass a range of disparate ideas and can be categorized into descriptive or normative forms.[1][2] That is, they may be interested in either describing that people do act in self-interest or prescribing that they should.

The New Catholic Encyclopedia states of egoism that it "incorporates in itself certain basic truths: it is natural for man to love himself; he should moreover do so, since each one is ultimately responsible for himself; pleasure, the development of one's potentialities, and the acquisition of power are normally desirable."[3] The moral censure of self-interest is a common subject of critique in egoist philosophy, with such judgments being examined as means of control and the result of power relations. Egoism may also reject that insight into one's internal motivation can arrive extrinsically, such as from psychology or sociology,[1] though, for example, this is not present in the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche.


The term egoism is derived from the French égoïsme, from the Latin ego (first person singular personal pronoun; "I") with the French -ïsme ("-ism"). As such, the term shares early etymology with egotism.

Descriptive theories[edit]

The descriptive variants of egoism are concerned with self-interest as a factual description of human motivation and, in its furthest application, that all human motivation stems from the desires and interest of the ego.[1][2] In these theories, action which is self-interested may be simply termed egoistic.[4]

The view that people tend to act in their own self-interest is called default egoism,[5] whereas psychological egoism is the doctrine that holds that all motivations are rooted solely in psychological self-interest. That is, in its strong form, that even seemingly altruistic actions are only disguised as such and are always self-serving. Its weaker form instead holds that, even if altruistic motivation is possible, the willed action necessarily becomes egoistic in serving the ego's will.[2] In contrast to this and philosophical egoism, biological egoism (also called evolutionary egoism) describes motivations rooted solely in reproductive self-interest (i.e. reproductive fitness).[6][7] Furthermore, selfish gene theory holds that it is the self-interest of genetic information that conditions human behaviour.[8]

In moral psychology[edit]

The word "good" is from the start in no way necessarily tied up with "unegoistic" actions, as it is in the superstition of those genealogists of morality. Rather, that occurs for the first time with the collapse of aristocratic value judgments, when this entire contrast between "egoistic" and "unegoistic" pressed itself ever more strongly into human awareness—it is, to use my own words, the instinct of the herd which, through this contrast, finally gets its word (and its words).[9] — Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals

In his On the Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche traces the origins of master–slave morality to fundamentally egoistic value judgments. In the aristocratic valuation, excellence and virtue come as a form of superiority over the common masses, which the priestly valuation, in ressentiment of power, seeks to invert—where the powerless and pitiable become the moral ideal. This upholding of unegoistic actions is therefore seen as stemming from a desire to reject the superiority or excellency of others. He holds that all normative systems which operate in the role often associated with morality favor the interests of some people, often, though not necessarily, at the expense of others.[10][11]

Normative theories[edit]

Theories which hold egoism to be normative stipulate that the ego ought to promote its own interests above other values. Where this ought is held to be a pragmatic judgment it is termed rational egoism and where it is held to be a moral judgment it is termed ethical egoism.[1] The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states that "ethical egoism might also apply to things other than acts, such as rules or character traits" but that such variants are uncommon.[2] Furthermore, conditional egoism is a consequentialist form of ethical egoism which holds that egoism is morally right if it leads to morally acceptable ends.[1] John F. Welsh, in his work Max Stirner's Dialectical Egoism: A New Interpretation, coins the term dialectical egoism to describe an interpretation of the egoist philosophy of Max Stirner as being fundamentally dialectical.[12][non-primary source needed]

Normative egoism, as in the case of Stirner, need not reject that some modes of behavior are to be valued above others—such as Stirner's affirmation that non-restriction and autonomy are to be most highly valued.[13] Contrary theories, however, may just as easily favour egoistic domination of others.[14]

Relations with altruism[edit]

In 1851, French philosopher Auguste Comte coined the term altruism (French: altruisme; from Italian altrui from Latin alteri, meaning 'others') as an antonym for egoism.[15][16] The term entered English in 1853 and was popularized by advocates of Comte's moral philosophy—principally, that self-regard must be replaced with only the regard for others.[15]

Comte argues that only two human motivations exist, egoistic and altruistic, and that the two cannot be mediated. That is, one must always predominate the other. For Comte, the total subordination of the self to altruism is a necessary condition to social and individual benefit.[15] Friedrich Nietzsche, rather than rejecting the practice of altruism, warns that despite there being neither much altruism nor equality in the world, there is almost universal endorsement of their value and, notoriously, even by those who are its worst enemies in practice.[10] Egoism commonly views the subordination of the self to altruism as either a form of domination that limits freedom, an unethical or irrational principle, or an extension of some egoistic root cause.[1]

In evolutionary theory, biological altruism is the observed occurrence of an organism acting to the benefit of others at the cost of its own reproductive fitness. While biological egoism does grant that an organism may act to the benefit of others, it describes only such when in accordance with reproductive self-interest. Kin altruism and selfish gene theory are examples of this division.[7][8] On biological altruism, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states the following:

Contrary to what is often thought, an evolutionary approach to human behaviour does not imply that humans are likely to be motivated by self-interest alone. One strategy by which ‘selfish genes’ may increase their future representation is by causing humans to be non-selfish, in the psychological sense.[8]

This is a central topic within contemporary discourse of psychological egoism.[2]

Relations with nihilism[edit]

Max Stirner's rejection of absolutes and abstract concepts often places him among the first philosophical nihilists.[17] Furthermore, his philosophy has been disputedly recognised as among the precursors to nihilism, existentialism, poststructuralism and postmodernism.[12][13][18] The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, states:

Characterisations of Stirner as a "nihilist"—in the sense that he rejects all normative judgement—would also appear to be mistaken.

... Stirner is clearly committed to the non-nihilistic view that certain kinds of character and modes of behaviour (namely autonomous individuals and actions) are to be valued above all others. His conception of morality is, in this respect, a narrow one, and his rejection of the legitimacy of moral claims is not to be confused with a denial of the propriety of all normative or ethical judgement.[13]

Russian philosophers Dmitry Pisarev and Nikolay Chernyshevsky, both advocates of rational egoism, were also major proponents of Russian nihilism.[19][20]

Egoism and Nietzsche[edit]

I submit that egoism belongs to the essence of a noble soul, I mean the unalterable belief that to a being such as "we," other beings must naturally be in subjection, and have to sacrifice themselves. The noble soul accepts the fact of his egoism without question, and also without consciousness of harshness, constraint, or arbitrariness therein, but rather as something that may have its basis in the primary law of things:—if he sought a designation for it he would say: "It is justice itself." — Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

The terms nihilism and anti-nihilism have both been used to categorise the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche.[21] His thought has similarly been linked to forms of both descriptive and normative egoism.[22]

Nietzsche, in attacking the widely held moral abhorrence for egoistic action, seeks to free higher human beings from their belief that this morality is good for them. He rejects Christian and Kantian ethics as merely the disguised egoism of slave morality.[5][10]

Egoism and postmodernity[edit]

Max Stirner's philosophy strongly rejects modernity and is highly critical of the increasing dogmatism and oppressive social institutions that embody it. In order that it might be surpassed, egoist principles are upheld as a necessary advancement beyond the modern world.[13] The Stanford Encyclopedia states that Stirner's historical analyses serve to "undermine historical narratives which portray the modern development of humankind as the progressive realisation of freedom, but also to support an account of individuals in the modern world as increasingly oppressed".[13] This critique of humanist discourses especially has linked Stirner to more contemporary poststructuralist thought.[13]

Relations with political theory[edit]

Since normative egoism rejects the moral obligation to subordinate the ego to a ruling class, it is predisposed to certain political implications. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy states:

Egoists ironically can be read as moral and political egalitarians glorifying the dignity of each and every person to pursue life as they see fit. Mistakes in securing the proper means and appropriate ends will be made by individuals, but if they are morally responsible for their actions they not only will bear the consequences but also the opportunity for adapting and learning.[1]

In contrast with this however, such an ethic may not morally obligate against the egoistic exercise of power over others. On these grounds, Friedrich Nietzsche criticizes egalitarian morality and political projects as unconducive to the development of human excellence.[10] Max Stirner's own conception, the union of egoists as detailed in his work The Ego and Its Own, saw a proposed form of societal relations whereby limitations on egoistic action are rejected.[23] When posthumously adopted by the anarchist movement, this became the foundation for egoist anarchism.

Stirner's variant of property theory is similarly dialectical, where the concept of ownership is only that personal distinction made between what is one's property and what is not. Consequentially, it is the exercise of control over property which constitutes the nonabstract possession of it.[23] In contrast to this, Ayn Rand incorporates capitalist property rights into her egoist theory.[24]

Egoism and revolutionary politics[edit]

Egoist philosopher Nikolai Gavrilovich Chernyshevskii was the dominant intellectual figure behind the 1860–1917 revolutionary movement in Russia, which resulted in the assassination of Tsar Alexander II eight years before his death in 1889.[20][25] Dmitry Pisarev was a similarly radical influence within the movement, though he did not personally advocate political revolution.[19]

Philosophical egoism has also found wide appeal among anarchist revolutionaries and thinkers, such as John Henry Mackay, Benjamin Tucker, Emile Armand, Han Ryner Gérard de Lacaze-Duthiers, Renzo Novatore, Miguel Giménez Igualada, and Lev Chernyi. Though he did not involve in any revolutionary movements himself, the entire school of individualist anarchism owes much of its intellectual heritage to Max Stirner.

Egoist philosophy may be misrepresented as a principally revolutionary field of thought. However, neither Hobbesian nor Nietzshean theories of egoism approve of political revolution. Anarchism and revolutionary socialism were also strongly rejected by Ayn Rand and her followers.

Egoism and fascism[edit]

The philosophies of both Nietzsche and Stirner were heavily appropriated by fascist and proto-fascist ideologies. Nietzsche in particular has infamously been misrepresented as a predecessor to Nazism and a substantial academic effort was necessary to disassociate his ideas from their aforementioned appropriation.[14][26]

At first sight, Nazi totalitarianism may seem the opposite of Stirner's radical individualism. But fascism was above all an attempt to dissolve the social ties created by history and replace them by artificial bonds among individuals who were expected to render explicit obedience to the state on grounds of absolute egoism. Fascist education combined the tenets of asocial egoism and unquestioning conformism, the latter being the means by which the individual secured his own niche in the system. Stirner's philosophy has nothing to say against conformism, it only objects to the Ego being subordinated to any higher principle: the egoist is free to adjust to the world if it is clear he will better himself by doing so. His 'rebellion' may take the form of utter servility if it will further his interest; what he must not do is to be bound by 'general' values or myths of humanity. The totalitarian ideal of a barrack-like society from which all real, historical ties have been eliminated is perfectly consistent with Stirner's principles: the egoist, by his very nature, must be prepared to fight under any flag that suits his convenience.[14]

Despite this, the influence of Stirner's philosophy has been primarily anti-authoritarian.[27] More contemporarily, Rand's thought has lent influence to the alt-right movement.[28]

List of philosophers of egoism[edit]

See also[edit]

  • Altruism, the selfless concern for the welfare of others
  • Enlightened self-interest, a philosophy in ethics which states that persons who act to further the interests of others (or the interests of the group or groups to which they belong), ultimately serve their own self-interest.
  • Individualism, a focus on the individual as opposed to society
  • Individualist anarchism, anarchism that exalts the supremacy of the individual
  • Machiavellianism (psychology), a tendency to deceive and manipulate others for personal gain
  • Selfishness, denoting the precedence given in thought or deed to the self, i.e., self-interest or self concern
  • Selfism, a pejorative term referring to any philosophy, doctrine, or tendency that upholds explicitly selfish principles as being desirable
  • Suitheism, the belief in self as a deity


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