A Defense of Rational Egoism

Defining Rational Egoism

Wikipedia defines rational egoism as follows:

"Rational egoism is the pursuit of one's own, accurately perceived, self-interest. The term may refer either to the philosophical view that it is always in accordance with reason to pursue self-interest (a view closely related to ethical egoism) or to the behavioral postulate that people actually act in accord with their own, accurately perceived, self-interest (a particular version of psychological egoism)."

It goes on to more specifically define Ayn Rand's take on rational egoism:

"Ayn Rand's philosophy, Objectivism, links its rational values directly to egoism. Her book The Virtue of Selfishness explains in depth the concept of egoism. The version of rational egoism defined by Rand consists of the principle that pursuing personal interest is rational, and not seeking personal interest is irrational.

In Rand's view, there is no greater moral goal than achieving happiness. Rational egoism, however, is not an excuse to act on every whim or emotional impulse, because it is irrational to desire what one has not earned. Happiness requires objective principles, like moral integrity and a respect for the rights of others."

The Problem with Altruism

There is much trouble with the idea that one has a positive moral obligation to serve others, while doing things to benefit yourself is somehow an "evil" (this overlooks the fact that one engages in mutually beneficial relations with others and acts of benevolence precisely out of their self-interest; mutual self-interest). If I have a positive obligation to serve others, then those others are effectively my master, and I am their slave. If acting for the interest of my self-preservation and happiness is a sin, then I am effectively commanded to abstain from happiness and sacrifice my life. But the rational egoist does not proclaim that everyone should live in total social isolationism or do whatever they want, all they are saying is that everyone should engage eachother in a mutually beneficial manner out of mutual self-interest.

If altruism was consistantly applied, there would be no human beings left, since everyone would sacrifice themselves to eachother and do nothing for themselves. Altruism as a philosophy cannot be universally applied to all human beings, let alone one human being, unless we consider it a philosophy of mutual self-destruction. A selfless person is one that does not exist. So at the end of the day, while the logical implications of consistantly following altruism are horrid, perhaps the more important point is that there is no such thing as an altruist, since everyone possesses self-awareness (no matter how low-intensity this self-awareness may be) and inherently must act to benefit themselves. I do not know of any single human being in the past or present who acts in a purely self-sacrificing manner to serve others. And I do not know of a single act of genuine kindness or benevolence that is not done out of self-interest on a fundamental level.

The rational egoist does not oppose individuals giving to and helping eachother, what is opposed is the use of force to make people do so against their will and self-interest. What is opposed is parasitism, where one individual or group is forcefully coerced to sacrfice to the benefit of another individual or group. This is the exact opposite of social cooperation: it is the method of theft and phony philanthropy. The rational egoist clearly sees that the best way to benefit people is for them to work together voluntarily in their self-interest so that all parties gain. True philanthropy results from cooperation. If the methods to one's well-intended ends are not cooperative, if they are coercive, then this is not true charity, but rather a destructive act that disintegrates the social order.

The Universalism of Rational Egoism: Harmony of Interests

In short, it is impossible to separate voluntary social interaction or "social cooperation" from self-interest. "Social cooperation" stems directly from self-interest and could not exist without it. One may try to counter the arguements for rational egoism by claiming that people may act in their self-interest in a way that harms or unjustly controls others, but this would not actually be an action in one's self-interest. William Graham Sumner said it best: "If I want to be free from any other man's dictation, I must understand that I can have no other man under my control." Herbert Spencer also understood this when he stated that people respect the rights of others in direct proportion to their respect for their own rights. If one wishes no harm to be done to themselves, as a prerequisite, they must not harm others. This is simply the defacto result of universally applying the principles.

There in fact is no conflict between people's rational self-interest and remaining ethical. In a self-interested sense, I don't harm other people because I realize that it establishes a precedent that will return to haunt me. And my empathy for others stems from my regaurd for myself, so there is nothing contradictary between self-interest and charitable acts either. In either case, if the principle of individual sovereignty holds true, then it must be universally applied to all human beings. And if it is universally applied to all human beings, then each individual must effectively be shielded from invasion/aggression by the other. The non-aggression principle represents this quite well. For the non-aggression principle leaves each individual free to persue their self-interest without infringing on the liberty of anyone else.

Rational egoism and the non-initiation of aggression go hand in hand. The rational egoist does not steal from others because they wouldn't like to be stolen form. A parasite eventually destroys its host, which destroys itself. And the rational egoist is concious of the fact that they can actually benefit more in the long-run through voluntary trade. The rational egoist has no compeling reason to go around assaulting and murdering others who have not threatened their lives or property. They realize that they would be destroying the very social order that benefits them, which will diminish their utility in the long-run. Of course, if people are sovereign self-owners, then in order to be logically consistant the criteria once again applies universally. While the rational egoist refuses to recognize any positive obligations to others, they do not demand such obligations from others either. While they refuse to be enslaved by others, they also do not enslave others.

Rational Egoism Applied: The Ethics of Being a Solider

I reject the idea that soldiers are virtuous altruists who sacrifices themselves for the sake of my freedom. Put in plain, albiet uneasy to swallow terms, a non-drafted solider is someone who is willing to murder for the state. I do not respect this, nor do I find it virtuous in any way. This fact is often obscured with the idea that a non-drafted soldier is someone who is willing to sacrifice their lives for the state (which I find irrational to begin with), but it is never aknowledged that they are people who are willing to take the lives of others for the state as well. Let me make it plain and clear: you have no altruistic duty to sacrifice for me, and I do not want your sacrifice. Nor will I bow down and worshop you.

I empathize with soldiers only to the extent that they are forced into such a position against their will. This is especially true in the case of a draft, which is involuntary servitude and thus unethical at the root. But to the extent that soldiers may willingly choose to murder for the state, I do not empathize at all. This being said, I can relate to the idea that soldiers could be viewed as pawns for the higher-ups, since it is the generals and politicians who ultimately send them off to foreign lands and centrally plan such endeavors. But the old "I was just following orders" precedent will not fly with me. You could very well not follow immoral orders if you have the courage to. That's what takes true courage. There is nothing rational about sacrificing oneself to benefit rulers.


The consistant application of rational egoism may lead to some controversial yet absolutely logical implications. Rational egoism is a commonly misunderstood philosophical position in that it is often miscontrued as sanctioning hedonism and unbridled narcissism, but this is not the case if one actually understands what it means and implies. It should not be confused with the style of near-nihilistic egoism espoused by the likes of Max Stirner. It is not "might makes right". Properly understood, it is a philosophical basis for a voluntary ethic in human interaction. For there is ultimately nothing more rational and more beneficial to the individual then universally applied liberty.


# Economists » Blog Archive » A Defense of Rational Egoism said on 07 December, 2007 03:34 AM

Pingback from  Economists  » Blog Archive   » A Defense of Rational Egoism

# Best Books of the 20th Century: Non-Fiction » Blog Archive » A Defense of Rational Egoism said on 07 December, 2007 04:17 AM

Pingback from  Best Books of the 20th Century: Non-Fiction  » Blog Archive   » A Defense of Rational Egoism