A Case of Ethical Egoism and Utilitarianism

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Right from our childhood, everyone whether parents or teachers tried to teach us that every action of ours has consequences. Clean our room, get extra desserts. Throw a tantrum, get sent to your room. But in reality, we were just being prepared for intellectual philosophical debates, to deal with morality, which is the distinction between right and wrong.

It is believed by most of the philosophers that the ethical equality of an action is judged completely by its results. But here, an important question arises: How will someone judge what is right and wrong ?. Some people say that right and wrong can be judged through the intentions of the person performing the action. Whereas, at the same time, some people say that right and wrong can only be judged by the action of the person. But judging what is right and wrong just by action give rise to another question which binds us in a complete dilemma. What makes an action moral or immoral ?. Some consequentialist responds to this question by saying outcome of that action defines whether the action was moral or immoral. In other words, only the end justifies the means. But how will someone decide whether the consequence itself is good or bad, moral or immoral?

People act for many reasons. Some of the important questions which arise are For whom ? or For what ? or Should they act for themselves ? or Should they act for God ? or Should they act for good of the planet ?. So with this, another important question arises, Can an individual ever act only according to his own interests without the regard for interests of other people? Also can an individual ever truly act for others' completely disregarding his own interests ?

To answer such questions and determine the morality of the action, two basic arguments: Utilitarianism and Ethical egoism came into existence, which are two faces of the same coin named Consequentialism.


Utilitarianism is one of the best known and the most influential moral theory. The basic idea behind this theory is that whether actions are wrong or right based on the results produced by it.

According to Utilitarianism thoughts, actions are judged by the means how much they are benefited to the majority of human beings. This means that utilitarians believe that a moral consequence is that which produces the greatest good for the vast majority of the people. Philosophers call this Utility. In other words, an action can be called moral if it produces the most utility or is the most beneficial to a large group of people. According to Bentham:

Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure.It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do.1

But there are multiple ways to define this. The greatest good could mean happiness or it might also mean the best chance at survival. For example, If someone is walking down the street and sees an apartment on fire. What is the right thing to do? What is moral? He is going to be judged based on the results that come from his actions, and also his actions should produce the greatest happiness to a great number of people.

For example, someone is walking down a lane and sees an apartment on fire.
The first choice is to keep walking. So in this situation, he has three choices. The first choice is that he keeps walking neglecting the fire. As the consequence, large number of people will die and no one is saved. So this action has the most negative consequence and is considered immoral. The second choice the person has is he himself jumps into the burning apartment and rescue as many people as he can. The consequence is that few people are saved, so this action can be considered moral. The third choice is that he calls the fire department which will save everyone present in the burning apartment. So this act is the most moral choice as it has the most positive consequence.

But, not every time, the situation would look simple. When considering into utility, it is hard to predict which action producing the greatest good for the majority of the people could have a negative influence on oneself ? Utilitarianism requires selflessness and foresight to figure out how one's action will affect the vast majority of people and not just oneself.

Utilitarianism is one face of the coin which helps one to decide whether the consequence was right or wrong. Moral or immoral..? Another face of the same coin is Ethical Egoism. In this, morality is defined by the impact of one's action on himself. One does not need to worry about causing greater good to great number of people, instead one should work on one's self- interests. In other words, by the theory of ethical egoism, it is just immoral to risk your own life than to be killed by someone else.

The theory of ethical egoism may sound selfish in nature. But a lot of our legal system supports this theory. Suppose if I decide not to help someone in need, then I build up a bad reputation and no one will help me when I am in need. So it will be in my own interests and benefit to consider other people's need and aid them. In other words, in this situation, trying to help other people is the best way to help myself since all the other people will think that I am well, hence based on the above scenario, egoists argue that self-interest creates a very strong sense of responsibility towards others.

But this thing is likely to create conflict because there can be situations where one's pursuit of his self-interest might disrupt other's pursuit of self-interest. Each person wishes the cooperation of others to acquire items inclusive of friendship. Supporter of ethical egoism James Rachel says:

It is possible for people to act altruistically and perhaps many people act that way, but there is no reason why they should do so. A person is under no obligation to do anything except what is in his own interests2.

Incase of a fire hazard, the person witnessing this would simply ignore this as doing anything would not be in his own self-interest which will lead to him avoiding the situation.

The above arguments requires a deeper analysis to provide sustainable insight of both the concepts.


Utilitarians believe that their theory of Utilitarianism is relativistic instead of absolutist. Absolutist moral views believe that certain action will always be morally wrong irrespective of the consequences. For example many campaigning group suggests that torture is always morally wrong and unacceptable, whether it is to instil fear in the population or to stop the terrorist activities. But Utilitarians having a relativistic moral views says that whether an action is right or wrong will always depend on the consequence produced. They would say that torture is morally acceptable and right if it is used to stop the terrorist atrocities and thus producing a great amount of pleasure among a vast population.

Also, many philosophers believe that this theory is impartial. Its main aim is to secure the maximum amount of pleasure for a large population. It does not give special preference regarding which people should have access to it and which people should not. Utilitarian theory is associated with equal consideration of interests, as far as total pleasure is maximized.

A major flaw in the theory of utilitarianism can be related to the tyranny of the majority. As this theory is a relativistic one, it seems to be opened up to cases where majority exploit the minority for a greater good and the pleasure. For example, the total pleasure of a large and prosperous country would be maximized if all the resources of a small country were forcibly taken away from them and exploited by the people of a larger country. This act seems to be immoral and unjust if seen through humanity point of view, but according to utilitarianism, this act is completely just and moral as it brings a great amount of pleasure to the population of the larger country which robbed the smaller country of its resources.

Another flaw in this theory is judging the action to be morally right or wrong only after the consequences come in front of us. The flaw is that there is no one in this world who can predict the future. So, it seems wrong to base our ethical choices on what may or may not come about in the future. It's a mistake to generalize an action based on right or wrong because each action is done on the basis of different contexts and circumstances.

Euthanasia, the biggest bioethical problem is the end of life filled with struggle and pain. Utility favors an action right if all it gives pleasure in its highest sense. For people, euthanasia is a product of snatching away of all pleasures from life leaving only pain and struggle and hence opposes utility in a sense that it degrades the value of life which for many people is an opportunity to experience all sorts of pleasures that the society can offer them. Euthanasia is not only the struggle of the person asking for it but also for people related to him/her, which eventually leads to taking an atrocious decision against all odds. More number of people become sad seeing their own loved one suffer without any recovery.

Demanding euthanasia is more of a self-interest act in order to get rid of all the pain in life disregarding the concerns of other people related to the person, which brings us to the concept of ethical egoism.

Egoists also argue that if so called unselfish actions produce self satisfaction in the doer and this sense of satisfaction is pleasant state of consciousness, and according to ethical egoism, the important point of action is to achieve pleasant state of consciousness instead of bringing good to others. But there are people who argue, Isn't the unselfish man the one who derives satisfaction from helping others and selfish man doesn't ? The people who argue this have a view that the people who derive satisfaction from others are the one being selfish rather than the people who only pursue their own interests.

Ethical Egoists believe that there is no particular action which can be considered as plainly wrong. As long as an action serves to promote your own interests, then it is morally right thing to do. But then, there will be situations where rape, murder, stealing and lying will be right thing to do according to some people, as these actions are the best means of promoting their own interests. But these things are really disgusting. Some things are just plain wrong even if they would benefit someone, which cannot be explained by this theory.

It is an advantage for everyone to live in a society where people's rights and interests are respected and also only in such a society, someone can live a happy and secure life. So, being kind to others would merely be doing someone's part to create and maintain such society which is an advantage to him. So, Egoists believe that they are not so bad man as they would be as kind and considerate as anyone else because it is to their own advantage. But at the same time, people who oppose ethical egoism argue that there is no reason for egoists to think that if they won't honor the rules of social game then a decent society would collapse.

Also, an egoist can't endorse that egoism be universally adopted by all and sundry, as he desires a global wherein his very own interests are maximized and if other people adopted the egoistic coverage of pursuing their personal pursuits then any such international could be not possible. So basically an egoist wants others to be altruists. So ethical egoism is at bottom inconsistent because it cannot be universalised. If everyone else is seeking to pursue their own interests, then it makes it more difficult for someone to achieve his goals.

The exposure argument towards moral egoism basically proposes that ethical theories have to be publicized, or made recognized to everybody possible, due to the fact these arguments are approximately dwelling a very good existence. However, the moral egoist will prefer actions in his intention, if he continues this a secret and allows others to continue performing altruistically. The extra he convinces others to do selfless matters on behalf of himself and others, the higher off he could be in attaining his own self hobbies. So ethical egoism is satisfactory applied through trying to misinform others.

Since the purpose of ethical egoism is personal happiness or pleasure, and one way that most of the people benefit pleasure is from wholesome relationships with others, it would appear that comradeship and circle of relatives may be goals for an ethical egoist. However, deep friendships and loving family relationships require performing selfless acts on behalf of buddies and own family. Can a person who's usually concerned most effective together with his personal hobbies and in no manner with others, ever have sincerely deep friendships? This is referred to as the paradox of ethical egoism.

Ethical egoism has no solutions to offer when a problem arises involving conflicts of interests. It would even include hurting the other people knowing that nothing bad would ever come to that person, for example murdering someone when someone is sure that no one will ever find out.

The Golden rule of Kant, which says,

One should treat others as he would like to be treated.

This would seem moral and logical as one would never wish to harm themselves.This theory never covers this blot of selfishness.

The first example is the best example of unpredictability flaw of utilitarianism, suppose five trackers were trapped in a landslide. Rescue operation was delayed for ten days and they could have died of hunger. So they arrive at a decision to eat one of their friends for food supply. One of the person is selected randomly and is killed by other four friends. Also, in rescue operation, ten rescue workers die. After the rescue operation is successful, all the four survivors were found guilty of murdering their friend and were given death penalty. So studying this example, the sacrifice of the tracker to save his four friend was just a waste. That tracker thought from utilitarian perspective that only one should die instead of all five, and other four will live a happy life. But eventually, all of them were killed along with ten rescue workers in this situation. Had he thought from ethical egoism point of view, only five of them would have died instead of fourteen people. Was the sacrifice made by the tracker morally right or wrong ?

A real life example in which one cannot judge who is right and wrong just by using these two theories is Statue Of Unity. A lots of crores of money and manpower has been spent in building this statue by the government. It may be possible that government has taken this task to show their potential and power. Some people believe that this is the case and government is being egoist. Critics argue that the money spent on the statue could have provided food and shelter to large number of people. So the task of making the statue is waste of resources. But at the same time, there are people who think that this statue will be a tourist attraction which will provide employment to the tribals living their, improving their condition of life. Even if this is true, there will still be lot of money to be spent on this monument for maintaining it. So was it a justified act to spent the people's money on this statue rather than spending it on improving the lifestyle of people who have difficulty in getting one time food?


Of course, there will always remain many difficult philosophical problems. On the same hand, there are so many utilitarianism and ethical egoism theories, which is believed by many people that these theories can solve most of the philosophical problem. Still, there are so many philosophical problems which remain unsolved even in today's world.

The modern society is made up of a large number of people with their own unique thinking ability and everyone has the right to act on their own, according to their interests. Everyone in the society has their own set of ideals and even own way to attain pleasure. It is not always necessary that everyone in the society will get pleasure from the same thing. The thing which brings pleasure to some group of individuals may bring pain to the other group simultaneously.

Another question is, Can the amount of pleasure that one person gets from particular action be compared with the amount of pleasure of different person doing different task? It is literally impossible to compare the pleasure and pain of different individuals doing different tasks.

So, not a single philosophical problem in modern world can be solved only by using the theory of utilitarianism or the theory of ethical egoism. We need a collection of all such theories into one theory which will result into the maximum utility and is accepted and just to a vast majority of people.

But how can someone take a utilitarian decision when his own loved ones are on stake? One's instinct will always insist to take wrong decisions and will lead in favor of his own loved ones if not Should the right to pursue one's self interest always be given the highest priority?
In any case, it is difficult to choose between ethical egoism and utilitarianism.

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A Case Of Ethical Egoism And Utilitarianism. (2019, Jul 10). Retrieved April 13, 2024 , from

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