Ethical Egoism

Ethical egoism is a normative moral theory that holds that human conduct should be based exclusively on self-interest. It is an individualistic theory that stresses personal good over common good by arguing that individuals make up society.

It falls under the umbrella of egoism, and is related to psychological egoism, which describes human nature as being wholly self-centered and self-motivated, and rational egoism, the principle that an action is rational only if it maximizes one's self-interest.

Ethical egoism is considered similar to enlightened self-interest, which can incorporate the public relations practice of social responsibility, or doing good in the community. It suggests that an action is morally right if it promotes a party's long-term interests, [1] e.g., being seen to do good gives companies a competitive edge. This falls under the realm of consequence-based ethics that incorporate a teleological (from the Greek //telos// meaning "end" or "goal") approach to ethics, so that the obtained result is what's important. [2] This rationale suggests the end justifies the means.

Critics and Supporters

There is no agreement on ethical egoism's truth or adequacy as an ethical system. [3] Critics argue that ethical egoism restricts one's actions to those that are pejoratively "selfish" or self-centred. A narrowly self-centred egoist would, for example, not experience the valuable pleasure of community, and may have difficulty grasping when others are in pain. Another problem is that it might not be in one's self-interest to have everyone act from the perspective of self-interest. It might ultimately be in one's self-interest to enter into a contract with others. [4]

Others say there are in fact two types of ethical egoists: (a) those who perform actions in which they are the sole-beneficiary, and (b) those who perform actions that benefit others as well as themselves. Those who fall into the (a) camp are more vulnerable to criticism than those who fall into the (b) camp, yet even those in (b) could invoke harm to others. [5]

Supporters, however, say ethical egoism generates many of the same duties to others as Kantianism and utilitarianism. [6] They argue that each person needs the cooperation of others for their self-betterment, so must give weight to others. If, say, a person breaks her promises whenever it is in her direct self-interest to do so, others will not accept her promises, she will lose their trust, and their willingness to cooperate will be sacrificed. James Rachels articulated a defense that says we are not our brother's keeper, we should mind our own business, and to give charity to others, through the antithetical ethical altruism – which regards the good of others as the end of moral action – is to degrade them. [6]

Theorists associated with ethical egoism include Ayn Rand, who wrote //The Virtue of Selfishness,//in which she objected to the demonization of the word "selfishness" and wrote that if a man accepts the ethics of altruism, his first concern is not how to live his life but how to sacrifice it, and Adam Smith, who defined right vs. wrong in terms of consequences to oneself. One of its most famous critics is Kurt Baier, who argued those who adopt consistent egoism cannot make moral judgements and that egoism does not allow for the resolution of conflicts.

Application in Public Relations

As a possible model for public relations practice, ethical egoism is problematic. It suggests using organizational or client self-interest to designate the baseline as to what would be considered ethical behaviour for the public relations practitioner. Professionals may submerge their own ethical values on behalf of clients. Ethical egoism suggests that an individual or organization does not need to make an uncompensated sacrifice (e.g., social responsibility including philanthropy) in order to act ethically. Many today consider good public relations practice to be symmetrical, improving communication between an organization and its publics sharing certain basic needs for mutual understanding, while ethical egoism is a more asymmetrical model. People are treated as means rather than ends, and as a theory it is not sufficiently universalistic to take into account the interests of all people, both within and without the organization. [7]

[1] Martinson, D. L. (1994). Enlightened self-interest fails as an ethical baseline in public relations. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 9(2), 100-108.

[2] Hallahan, K., (2006), Responsible online communication. In K. Fitzpatrick, & C. Bronstein (Eds.), Ethics in public relations: Responsible advocacy (pp. 107-131). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

[3] Regis, E. (1980). What is ethical egoism? Ethics, 91, 50-62.

[4] Online guide to ethics and morality. Retrieved Oct. 16, 2012. From:

[5] Regis, E., op. cit.

[6] Rachels, J., (2010). The Elements of Moral Philosophy, (6th ed.). New York: McGraw Hill.

[7] Martinson, D. L. op. cit.