Whereas altruism asserts that human beings should act in ways that help others, Egoism is a theory, in ethics, that human beings act or should act in their own interests and desires. Modern psychologist have been challenged to reconcile the two seemingly mutually exclusive theories expanding sphere of investments in others.


Ego means self; egoism can be thought of as self-ism. Egoism is a theory, in ethics, that human beings act or should act in their own interests and desires. Egoism is opposed to altruism, which asserts that human beings should act in ways that help others. Egoism is frequently associated with the early Greek hedonists, whose aim was pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain (The Columbia Encyclopedia 2002).

The assertion that people act in a purely egoist manner has several problems. Taken in the most literal sense, egoism can easily be proven false. People may be motivated by a myriad of feelings such as anger, fear, love, compassion, pride, a sense of justice, or a desire for knowledge. The theory assumes some ambiguity and fuses intentions and consequences. For example, a cigarette smoker acts on his desire to smoke; smoking causes health problems that are not in one's best interest. Oftentimes, one's desires can lead to behaviors and consequences that are not in one's best interest, though the initial action may have provided pleasure or avoided pain.

Modern psychologists have been challenged to reconcile the two seemingly mutually exclusive theories of altruism and egoism with the concept of an evolving self, a self that is enriched by a widening sphere of investments in others (Kegan 1982). Similarly, Maslow's actualized self is one whose more basic needs (ie., food, water, safety, belonging, esteem, and respect) have been met, propelling the self toward higher development and a concern for others.

Historic Roots

The concept of egoism is rooted in the tradition of Greek hedonism. The ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus (342-270 B.C.E.) asserted that our life's aim should be fulfilling our moral obligation to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. In a letter to Menoeceus, he wrote:

We recognize pleasure as the first good innate in us, and from pleasure we begin every act of choice and avoidance, and to pleasure we return again, using the feeling as a standard by which we judge every good. (The Internet Encyclopedia 2002)

Epicurus denounced the pursuit of pleasure when seeking it produced pain. Rather, he thought that the less desires a person had, the easier it would be to find happiness. Yet, in the Middle Ages, Christian theologians "denounced Epicurean hedonism, which they believed was inconsistent with the Christian emphasis on avoiding sin, doing God's will, and developing the Christian values of faith, hope, and charity" (Ibid.).

Thomas More, in his Utopia (1516), revived interest in seeking pleasure, by claiming that God gives us desires for pleasure and He wants us to be happy. Over the years, philosophers and, more recently, psychologists have grappled with the issue of human motivation. Many people are familiar with the Freudian ego, the part of our mind that mediates impulses and desires (Wallach and Wallach 1983). Freud's theory is distinct from the forms of egoism discussed in this paper. For Freud, human behavior results from subconscious sexual desires.


Common sense and folk psychology assumes that people tend to act in their own interests. Today's culture reflects an interest in self-improvement, self-esteem, and self-gratification. The "X-generation" has also been called the "Me-generation," as rampant consumerism focuses young people on immediate gratification and reflects no example of community responsibility or consideration for others. In fact, the American market economy is founded on the assumption that self-interested, competing parties will produce the greatest good.

Yet, interestingly, our culture provides examples of both self- and other-centered paradigms. There are countless examples of people who act in the interests of others, sacrificing their own comfort and safety, to help fellow human beings, living creatures, or the physical environment. The acts of kindness, rescuing, generosity, self-sacrifice, and advocacy cover the spectrum of needs. Fire-fighters risked their lives, indeed some died, in the September 11, 2001, tragedy in the United States. In addition, a wave of financial gifts to victims and their families followed, as well as volunteers ready to help at the Ground Zero and Pentagon sites of devastation. Mother Teresa tended to the needs of the poor and sick in India - washing, feeding, bathing, and loving the least valued people in Calcutta's society. Princess Diana Spencer used her fame and status to advocate for the banning of land mines; she donated her clothing to raise funds for several social causes.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Theories of egoism attempt to explain human motivation; understanding what motivates one toward serving the interests of others is key to understanding giving and philanthropic activity. The American spirit of giving has been expressed in concrete ways over the past two hundred years. "Major universities have been founded, hospital and medical centers have been built, and social change agencies have come into being" (Russo 1991, 1). Philanthropic gifts of time, talent, and treasure may result from complex motivations (ranging from the feeling of satisfaction that one has helped another to the tax-deduction gained from a financial contribution).

What is important to consider is that it does not have to be an either/or kind of proposition. People's behavior is not purely egoist or purely altruist. Actions can result from a blend of altruistic and egoist motives. Indeed our own American tradition has evolved from this apparent contradiction - we believe in individualism and serving the interests of self, and we have a tremendous history of giving to others in need.

Key Related Ideas

Ethics is a field of philosophy that is concerned with morality, recommending right and wrong behavior. Egoism is a philosophical theory in ethics, which has at least three subtypes, descriptive egoism, normative egoism and conditional egoism.

Descriptive egoism, also known as psychological egoism, contends that people always act in self-serving ways, though they may try to disguise their selfish motives. Normative egoism, also termed ethical egoism, claims people should act in self-serving ways because it is morally right. Modern philosophers have added a third, conditional egoism, which asserts that egoism is morally right and acceptable if it leads to morally acceptable ends; self-motivated actions can be considered morally acceptable, if they lead to the betterment of society and the public as a whole (The Internet Encyclopedia 2002).

Adam Smith, in Wealth of Nations, offers an example of conditional egoism. Borrowing ideas from Mandeville's, Fable of the Bees, Smith wrote:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages. (Ibid.)

Important People Related to the Topic

Thomas More (1478 - 1536) was a Renaissance philosopher. His Utopia, sanctioned pleasure on the religious grounds that "the chief part of a person's happiness consists of pleasure," God's wish is for human beings to experience pleasure and find happiness (Ibid.).

During the same era, Thomas Hobbes (1588 - 1679) was born in Westport and educated at Oxford. In Leviathan, a political, philosophical, and ethical piece, Hobbes writes that life is "nasty, brutish, and short" and, therefore, people should above all value and pursue their own interests, under the sovereign authority of God (Ibid.).

During a time of great social upheaval and intellectual debate, that included a civil war and the execution of Charles I, David Hume (1711 - 1776) was forced to flee England (Baird 2000). Hume explored the moral theme of happiness and pleasure, in his renowned, A Treatise on Human Nature. Hume attended Oxford at the age of fourteen and thought that schooling was a waste of time. His position was controversial and brought him into conflict with Aristotelian authorities at Oxford.

Hume's Scottish friend, Adam Smith (1723 - 1790), expanded an application of egoism to include the economic sphere. The Wealth of Nations came to be regarded as the foundation for classical economics. In it, Smith asserts that if market forces were allowed to operate, unfettered by government interference, "an invisible hand" would guide the interests of the public and society at large would be served (The New American 1989). Recent years have seen a renewed interest in the work of German philosopher Max Stirner (1806 - 1856). In The Ego and His Own, Stirner asserts that "the individual must find his entire satisfaction in his own life" (Fleischman 1971, 14). For Stirner, the unique man is the center of the world; his will, in relation to his property, is an expression of his subjective interests. Stirner exalted self above the State, the law, and God (Honderich 1995).

Related Nonprofit Organizations

The Adam Smith Institute is "dedicated to introducing choice and competition, in extending the influence of markets, and giving ordinary people the chance to help frame their future by their choices, and in redesigning public services in ways that inject innovation and customer responsiveness into their delivery"

(The Adam Smith Institute 2002). Established in 1977, this British organization claims to have led the way in the development and evaluation of public policy.

The Values Institute, directed by Dr. Lawrence Hinman of the University of San Diego, is dedicated to the exploration and analysis of values, including egoism, as an ethical theory. Hinman purposes a four-quadrant framework, of opposing continua (representing degrees of altruistic and egoistic motivations) in order to understand human motivation and behavior.

Related Web Sites

The Adam Smith Institute Web site contains information with text and photos, related to the pursuit of self-interest in the American market economy, at

The Ethics Update Web site, at was founded in 1994, by Dr. Lawrence Hinman. It was designed to "provide updates on current literature, both popular and professional, that relates to ethics," primarily for faculty and students.

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy contains text and links to information on egoism, at

The Values Institute Web site, at, contains links to egoism information with text and photos. The Institute is "dedicated to thoughtful discussion of difficult moral issues."

Bibliography and Internet Sources

The Adam Smith Institute. [updated 1 October 2002; cited 8 October 2002]. Available from

Baird, Forrest. Philosophic Classics, Vol. III. New York: Prentice Hall, 2000.

The Columbia Encyclopedia, sixth ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

The Ethics Update. Psychological Egoism. [updated 7 October 2002; cited 12 October 2002]. Available from

Fleischman, Eugene. The Role of the Individual in Pre-Revolutionary Society: Stirner, Marx, and Hegel. London: Cambridge University Press, 1971.

Honderich, Ted, ed. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford University Press, 1995. ISBN: 0198661320.

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Hedonism. [cited 29 September 2002]. Available from

Kegan, Robert. The Evolving Self. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.

The New American Desk Encyclopedia. New York: Concord Reference Books, 1989.

Russo, Henry A. Achieving Excellence in Fund Raising. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1991. ISBN: 1555423876.

Wallach, Michael, and Wallach, Lise. Psychology's Sanction for Selfishness. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman Company, 1983.

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.