There are two objections against ethical egoism, one refuted and the other not.

The first refuted objection against ethical egoism is that, given a situation with limited resources, it is in the self-interest of the ethical egoist to take as much as he can for himself, even though this kind of thinking makes the situation worse for him. However, this is refuted by noticing that because it is objectively the case that being selfish results in him losing everything, it is actually not in his best interest, so being selfless is actually being selfish, because he is being selfless because he knows he would be setting himself up for something worse if he hadn't.

The objection that isn't refuted is that the egoist wouldn't like it if the whole world operated on ethical egoism, so ethical egoism is parasitic on other people being altruistic. Is there any way to refute this type of objection, or is it truly lethal for ethical egoism as a correct theory of ethics?

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    John Rawls differentiates between a first-person dictatorship/free-rider version of egoism, and general egoism as a "no-agreement point." The latter kind of egoist would be inclined to accept everyone else being a general egoist, too. Note that we could also "refute" altruism, politically, by noting (with Rawls) that if everyone voted merely to do what others wanted to be done, then nothing would be done. At any rate, egoism and altruism tend to be superficial, perhaps even vapid, perspectives, especially when either is taken for an absolute. Commented Jul 5, 2023 at 7:59
  • There has been a lot of research in to Game Theory formulations like the Prisoner's Dilemma and iterated versions, which end up being like what we face in daily life. The result was that in a one-time situation you should always defect, and when iterated, nothing succeeds better than Tit For Tat: replaying your opponent's last move. It is very simple.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jul 5, 2023 at 10:54

2 Answers 2


"Is there any way to refute this type of objection, or is it truly lethal for ethical egoism as a correct theory of ethics?"

What evidence or arguments allows a claimant to say there are "correct" theories of ethics to begin with? What makes a theory useful is that it adequately models, predicts, or otherwise is useful, but to presume there is a correct theory there are wrong theories. How should we determine whether or not a theory is correct?

Before you answer, recognize that an ethical theory itself can be viewed through a metaethical lens. From WP:

In metaphilosophy and ethics, metaethics is the study of the nature, scope, and meaning of moral judgment. It is one of the three branches of ethics generally studied by philosophers, the others being normative ethics (questions of how one ought to be and act) and applied ethics (practical questions of right behavior in given, usually contentious, situations).

Thus, you there may very well be an answer to your question, but such an answer would be normative.

So, yes, there is a way to refute the argument presented, and that is to use metaethics to examine and deny any of the premises in the ethical theory. It may turn out that the semantics involved in the term 'objective' for instance don't hold up. It may be that the act of moral judgment presumed by the theory is flawed, and it might be that the means by which one can know what is moral and what is not is suspect.


Both objections can be refuted.

We can say there are two types of egoists: short-term and long-term.

A short-term egoist does not think on the future, so, he gets immediate benefits and always, in the long-term, suffers consequences. For example, I steal, and profit of some coins. But in the long term, I will be imprisoned.

A long-term egoist is also an egoist, but with a strategic perspective. I think in myself, but I don't steal, because short-term benefits have consequences. I prefer working hard and earning money. Voilà, I become rich and don't risk prison.

Ethical egoists are basically those of the second type. They not only do things right, but also think on their relatives, their contacts, their neighbours: acting nicely, he benefits himself, and, as a collateral result, he benefits his community, his family, etc.

So, your second statement can also be refuted: an ethical egoist wants the rest to be like him. In such way, everybody wins. Moreover, this is probably the prosperity model of current societies.

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