From the Archives (April 2012): Ayn Rand and Ethical Egoism

By Merrill Ring

The great popular heroine of the libertarian movement, Ayn Rand, espoused a doctrine called Ethical Egoism. It is not to be confused with Psychological Egoism which is the idea that we humans do, as a matter of our nature, act only for our own self-interest. Ethical Egoism finds, along with many other thinkers, that of course we can do things not generated by self-interest – but it insists that what we are morally required to do is only what is good for ourselves. Other people don’t count morally. They of course may help or hinder us in our self-centered projects and so must be taken into account but not as having any moral standing themselves.

To call the doctrine ‘Ethical’ is madly mistaken. Egoism is to be contrasted with morality – the moral perspective requires that it is the good of others that must be taken into account when working out the right thing to do. The name ‘Ethical Egoism’ is an attempt to claim the moral high ground when in fact it is a denial of morality. The word ‘should’ in the Ethical Egoists’ thesis that we should pay attention only to number 1 is not a moral notion. Rather it is like the ‘should’ in ‘The shortstop should be playing more to his left’: the shortstop who does not position himself to his left is not failing morally but is failing to be effective. To claim that people should act only in their own self-interest is to urge people only to be more effective as egoistic agents.