Is selfishness an innate human quality? Max Stirner, the founder of egoism, argues that selfishness is not just innate but should be embraced. Whilst many of us see being selfish as a negative trait, Stirner's conceptualisation of egoism calls us to question this viewpoint. 

Egoism Egoism

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Table of contents

    Egoism definition

    The main argument of egoism is that self-interest and autonomy should be given completely free rein, without any restrictions from the state, social or religious norms, or any other hierarchy.

    Egoism is an ideological position that views self-interest as the foundation of morality and one’s individual actions.

    Egoism and Anarchism

    Anarchism is a group of political ideologies that are founded on the rejection of the state. Anarchism rejects all coercive authority and hierarchy in favour of the organisation of society based on voluntary participation and advocates for the freedom and liberty of all. The state is viewed as being exploitative and coercive, restricting the free exercise of the human will and the potential of the human character.

    Egoism Tree showing relationship between political ideologies StudySmarterIllustration of the relationship between different forms of Anarchism

    For egoists, the existence of the state and the obedience to its orders and laws are incompatible with the pursuit of self-mastery, and therefore, egoists view the state as illegitimate. As egoism is concerned with the rights of the individual over the collective, it is situated within individual anarchism as opposed to collective anarchism (though it sits at the very extreme of individualist anarchism). Therefore, egoism shares many similarities with anarcho-capitalism and very few similarities with forms of anarchist thought like anarcho-syndicalism or anarcho-communism.

    Egoism theory

    The theoretical basis for egoism derives mainly from the work of Max Stirner, a German philosopher of the 19th Century.

    Max Stirner

    Born in Bavaria on the 25th of October 1806, Max Stirner was a German philosopher who wrote and published his infamous 1844 work The Ego and Its Own. In this book, Stirner presents a range of ideas that would later become the basis of egoism, and, as such, many consider him the founder of the egoist tendency within individualist anarchist thought.

    Egoism Cartoon of Max Stirner StudySmarterFig. 2 Cartoon of Max Stirner

    In The Ego and Its Own, Stirner compares an individual’s physical and intellectual capabilities to property rights, arguing that an individual should be able to do whatever he wants with both his mind and body, as he is their owner. This is described as “anarchism of the mind,” focussing on the individual’s mind and body as the site of resistance to the state.

    Stirner argued that all humans are egoists and that even if individuals act in a kind, altruistic or charitable way, this is only to flatter the ego. Stirner also notes that it is often in our own interest to act in this way, and so freeing the ego from the moral constraints imposed on it by state and society would not necessarily lead to a breakdown in what we might call ‘social order.’ Stirner can be described as a psychological egoist, as he understands that individuals act only in their own interests.

    Types of Egoism

    Egoism comes in different forms as there are a number of reasons as to why someone may act in their own self-interest, such as ethics or rationality. The three main types of egoism are physical egoism, ethical egoism and rational egoism. Let's take a look into what exactly these three types of egoism are.

    Egoism Table showing the difference between altruism and egoism StudySmarterTable showing the difference between altruism and egoism, U3201446, CC-BY-SA-4.0, Wikimedia Commons

    Psychological egoism

    Psychological egoism is based on the understanding that individuals act out of self-interest. People may appear to act altruistically, but this is only in order to fulfil one’s self-interest.

    For example, someone who works for the benefit of others, such as within the charity sector or as a volunteer, may appear to be selfless, but they are actually acting for selfish reasons such as the desire for recognition or wanting to feel good about themselves

    Even in an extreme case, where someone might offer their own life in order to save someone else, psychological egoism would argue that the motivation for such an action could be to avoid the guilt that would follow from letting someone else die. Psychological egoism, therefore, does not recognise any actions as purely altruistic.

    Ethical egoism

    Ethical egoism is the position that it is always right (i.e., it is always ethical) to act in one's own self-interest. Ethical egoism differs from psychological egoism in the sense that it places an ethical, moral judgement on the decision to act in one's own self-interest.

    Rational egoism

    Rational egoism refers to the idea that it is always rational and logical to act in one's own self-interest. Rational egoism is different from psychological egoism in the sense that it doesn't argue that individuals always act out of self-interest and different from ethical egoism in the sense that it does not place a moral or ethical judgement on self-interested behaviour or action.

    What would Egoism look like in practice?

    An egoist society would be a society in which individuals are able to express their own individuality without constraint. It would be a society of individuals who serve themselves and resist subjugation of any kind.

    Stirner argues that an egoist society would be organised into a union of egoists, which is a collection of people who interact with each other only for their own self-interest. None of these individuals are bound or have any obligations to any others. Individuals choose to enter the union and also have the ability to leave if they so wish. The union is not something that is imposed on individuals.

    Stirner's use of the word union is used in a broad sense as within a union of egoists, there is no end goal or collective target or the union. It only exists as the interaction of the people who are willingly involved. Each member in the union is independent and pursues their own needs, as Stirner believes self-interest is the best guarantee for social order

    Despite the radical individualism of an egoist society, it would not be entirely devoid of human relationships or even kindness. In an egoist society, individuals would be free to form relationships, but they would not be obliged to do so. In Stirner's view, many of the ordinary aspects of daily life that we associate with a happy and healthy society - children playing together in the streets or in parks, friends meeting up to socialise etc. - would all be able to continue in an egoist society. The critical difference is that none of these actions is forced or coerced.

    Criticism of Egoism

    Much of the criticism aimed at Egoism surrounds Stirner's inability to imagine that some individuals may actually find comfort and joy in some social institutions, such as the family. Whilst Stirner believes that familial ties bind a man, others find a sense of belonging and comfort within family. Stirner acknowledges that many people will be uncomfortable with his theory of egoism.

    Egoism faces criticism from within the anarchist field, as many anarchists believe it is not even a form of anarchism and is even positioned as a radical libertarian philosophy. This is because, despite anarchy's association with chaos, anarchism seeks to bring about order to society, which is unachievable in an egoist society where there are no societal objections to any individual actions. Egoism, as theorised by Stirner, allows for the ability of individuals to do whatever they desire. Acts such as theft, deprivation of property, physical harm or even murder are not morally condemned by egoism, which causes critics of egoism to exhibit scepticism regarding how an egoist society would be plausible.

    Egoism - Key takeaways

    • There are three types of egoism: psychological egoism, ethical egoism, and rational egoism.
    • Max Stirner is considered to be the founder of egoism.
    • Stirner compares an individual’s physical and intellectual capabilities to property rights, arguing that a person should be able to do whatever they want with both their mind and body since they are the natural owner of both.
    • Egoism is radically individual, and it is a concept that falls under the umbrella of anarchism.
    • Egoism forwards the idea that the existence of a state is incompatible with egoists.
    • Egoism faces criticism from within the anarchist field, as many anarchists believe it is not even a form of anarchism and is even regarded as an extreme libertarian philosophy.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Egoism

    What is egoism?

    Egoism is a radically individualistic concept that is concerned with self-interest as the foundation of individual actions. 

    What are the ideologies of egoism?

    Egoism forwards the idea that an individual’s physical and intellectual capabilities are their property rights. This means that an individual should be able to do whatever they wants with both their mind and body, as they are the natural owner of both. 

    What is the concept of egoism?

    Self-interest as the foundation of individual actions is the core concept of egoism.

    What is the difference between egoism and utilitarianism?

    While utilitarianism aims to maximise overall pleasure, egoism seeks only to maximise individual freedom.

    What are the main ideas of egoism?

    The idea that all human beings are natural self-interested, and that this self-interest should be given free reign by freeing it from all constraints from the state and social or moral norms. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Who is the founder of egoism?

    What are the three types of egoism?

    When was 'The Ego and Its Own' published?


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