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.

6 replies on “27. Ethical Egoism and Friendship”

  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?

  2. Hugo Dahlström on

    genuine friends cannot always act out of purely selfish motives – Justify this belief.

    You’re assuming that someones selfish interest would be harmful to someone’s friend. What if this interest is to make other people happy which is the case for the great majority of people?

    • Dwight Goodyear on

      Thanks for your comment Hugo. I am not assuming self interested motives will cause harm. Such motives, while they can obviously lead to harm in many cases, are certainly compatible with helping others in other cases. As you say, someone could have a self-interested motive to make one’s friend happy. Perhaps in making another happy she benefits you in many ways. So my justification for premise 1 of argument 1 isn’t focused on whether or not we are harming someone. Rather, it builds on an insight which I take to be important: that friendship and love are in large part about making contact with others as they are rather than as we want them to be. Aristotle, while he understood that all friendships have a degree of self-interest, also argued that authentic friendship requires that we care about our friend’s interests for their own sake. We don’t care about them only for some contingent use value or pleasure value they bring. Rather we care about them essentially for who they are. This care allows us to act, at least some of the time, altruistically. In doing so we can avoid, to use Kant’s language, using them as a means to an end only: we can treat them as inherently valuable because we see they have such value. I think this care can be given a phenomenological analysis in that it begins with a disinterested appreciation of virtue in which all our attention is on the person we admire not on ourselves. Rather than leading us to bring the other into the orbit of our own concerns, this admiration leads us undertake plenty of actions that facilitate the flourishing of the friend’s virtue simply because virtue is admirable. We come out of ourselves so to speak, can really make contact with another, and find ourselves able to really grow as a result. Naturally, when we act for the sake of others and have such altruistic acts returned we do receive many benefits. But we need not say that we always act for the sake of those benefits. To be sure, this analysis rests on the difficult notion of inherent value, the perception of it, and how such perception can lead us to contemplation and altruistic deeds. I have experienced these things myself as have many others. But arguing in defense of them is not easy. Nonetheless, at the moment this is how I would go about justifying the premise.

  3. Hello Sir!
    Apologies for my curiosity,

    Is it right to think that ethical egoists cannot be good friends unless you are an ethical egoist yourself? The friendship then wouldn’t be genuine.

    • Dwight Goodyear on

      Hi Lou

      A lot rides on what we mean by friends. Aristotle claims there are three forms of friendship. Friendships of pleasure and utility are selfishly motivated despite offering mutual pleasure or use value. As such, ethical egoists can certainly enter into such friendships. But if we take up his third form of friendship, a perfect friendship of virtue, we see that it requires friends to act for the sake one another in the mutual pursuit of virtue. Since ethical egoists prescribe everyone act out of self-interest, then this third form of friendship would not be available to them. But this lack of availability, so the above argument goes, is not in their interest given what we know about the centrality and indispensability of virtuous friends to the acquisition of virtue. Thus ethical egoists should drop their commitment to self-interested motives and learn to act for the sake of others at least some of the time.

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