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Ethical systems which hold self-love to be the source of all rational action and the determinant of moral conduct

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Egoism (Lat. ego, I, self), the designation given to those ethical systems which hold self-love to be the source of all rational action and the determinant of moral conduct. In a broad use of the term any system might be called egoistic which makes any good of the ego the end and motive of action. The name, however, has been appropriated by usage to those systems which make happiness, pleasure, or personal advantage the sole end of conduct. In one form or another and with various modifications, the principle pervades the theories of the Cyrenaic, Epicurean, Utilitarian, and Evolutionary Schools; and, slightly disguised, it lurks at the bottom of utilitarian altruism. Its typical expression is to be found in Hobbes and Mandeville, while Jeremy Bentham, combining it with the other cognate principle, that pleasure and pain are the only good and evil, formulates it in its full character as egoistic hedonism. Two of Bentham’s statements, when taken together, set forth concisely the egoistic doctrine. “Pleasure is itself a good, nay, setting aside immunity from pain, the only good. Pain is in itself an evil, and indeed without exception, the only evil, or else the words good and evil, have no meaning.” (Principles of Morals and Legislation, chap. ix.) “The search after motives is one of the prominent causes of man’s bewilderment in the investigation of the question of morals. But this is a pursuit in which every moment employed is a moment wasted. All motives are absolutely good, no man has ever had, can, or could have a motive different from the pursuit of pleasure or shunning of pain.” (Deontology, vol. I, p. 126.) The undisputed fact that men do experience sentiments of benevolence and perform disinterested actions offers an obvious difficulty to the egoist. Hobbes seeks to evade it by resolving altruistic impulses into personal hopes and fears. Later hedonists, recurring to the principle of the association of ideas, contend that virtue, which at first is pursued only for the pleasure it brings, comes later on, through a confusion of means and end, to be pursued for its own sake. Innumerable analyses have shown that pleasure and pain are not measurable, and still less commensurable. The scheme devised by Bentham for estimating the quantity of different pleasures by considering their various dimensions—intensity, duration, nearness, certainty, purity (freedom from pain), fruitfulness—is commonly regarded as a piece of absurdity.

This fundamental postulate of egoistic hedonism is, therefore, fallacious. But a deeper and more pernicious vice of the system lies in its primary principle that self-interest is the only motive of human action This doctrine reduces all virtue to mere selfish calculation, it outrages our liveliest moral feelings by resolving the highest and noblest impulses into a base pursuit of personal pleasure. To say that man is incapable of acting from any motive other than self-interest is to degrade human nature. Mankind at large understands very clearly that self-interest is one thing and virtue quite another; that self-sacrifice and heroic devotion do exist, and are not vice and immorality; that a worthy action challenges our approbation in proportion to the disinterestedness of the agent. Let it become known that the hero of what we at first considered a brilliant act of self-sacrifice had after all no other motive than to obtain some advantage for himself, and immediately he appears but a vulgar mercenary. As Lecky says: “No Epicurean could avow before a popular audience that the one end of his life was the pursuit of his own happiness without an outburst of indignation and contempt, no man could conscientiously make this—which according to the selfish theory is the only rational and indeed possible motive of action—the deliberate object of all his undertakings without his character becoming despicable and degraded.” (European Morals, vol. I, p. 35.) Besides, if the egoistic impulse is made the sole and unconquerable motive of action, it is idle to speak of obligation and duty. Nor can the hedonist, consistently with his theory, claim that he safeguards the pre-eminent value of virtue by recognizing the happiness derivable from it to be the highest form of pleasure. For if one kind of conduct yields this pleasure, while another does not, then evidently there must be some essential difference, unaccounted for in the egoistic and hedonistic theories, between right and wrong conduct, in virtue of which they produce contrary results of happiness and pain for the agent. But moral judgments are not resolvable into estimates of self-interest; and if we commit ourselves to classifying conduct purely by the advantages, in terms of the pleasure and pain, to be reaped from it, we shall be forced to appraise as virtuous actions which the reasonable judgment of men condemns as immoral; while, on the other hand, we shall be compelled to brand as wrong acts of self-sacrifice such as, in all life and literature, challenge the highest honor and reverence.

At the bottom of the errors of egoistic hedonism there lies a truth which this system misinterprets and perverts. However complete and disinterested we may be, we can never strip ourselves of self. The constitution of his nature compels man to seek his good, however he may err in the deliberate choice that he makes among the various goods that solicit his efforts. The end constituted for him by God is to reach that highest good which consists in realizing the moral perfection of his nature. This good is to be sought for its own sake chiefly, and in its train follows happiness as, if the expression may be permitted, an automatic consequence. Hence in pursuing the moral good, I am implicitly pursuing my own happiness. This self-realization is not egoism; for egoism makes self the center, the beginning and the end of action. On the other hand, the virtuous man subordinates himself to the moral good, which in the last analysis is identified with God. In this sense, as Aristotle points out, the good man may be said to be a self-lover. “For he gives to himself what is most honorable, and the greatest goods, and gratifies the authoritative part of himself, and obeys it in everything. Therefore, he must be a self-lover, after a different manner from the person who is reproached for it, and differing in as great a degree as living in obedience to reason differs from living in obedience to passion, and as desiring the honorable differs from desiring what seems to be advantageous.” (Nich. Ethics., Bk. IX, ch. viii, §§ 6, 7.) When Kant declared that duty must be fulfilled exclusively for duty’s sake, with disregard of all considerations of happiness or welfare, he ignored the fact that by annexing happiness as a concomitant of the good the Creator evidently intends that we may legitimately aim at our own happiness, provided we do not invert the order which makes happiness subordinate to the good. Duty is not the be-all and the end-all. It is a means to reach our supreme end and good.


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