Keith Burgess-Jackson, a name literally no one will recognize, wrote an article that whined about how nobody in ethical circles takes egoism seriously. Why can’t we just look after number one and claim to be acting morally? Ayn Rand had some valid points, right? Now, most people would say, “Of course not! Ayn Rand was a psychopath and should be relegated to the Young Adult Fiction section of the library next to the Twilight Saga.” Unfortunately, the ethical beliefs of Ayn Rand, much like the Twilight series, has gained mind-boggling popularity, so I will grant Burgess-Jackson his request, and take the time to explain why egoism fails as an ethical system.

Burgess-Jackson’s main thesis is dependent on the comparison between egoism and utilitarianism. Utilitarianism, even when rejected, is shown academic respect, but egoism is laughed out of the cafeteria. Both are consequentialist, but one measures the consequences as they relate to the group, the other as they relate to the self. Egoism takes the utilitarian maxim of “the greatest good for the greatest number” and turns it into, “the greatest good for the greatest guy: this guy!” The egoist would then point at himself with his two thumbs.


Jack Black: A stand-in for the abstract concept of ethical egoism

This isn’t as stupid as it sounds. There are plenty of problems with utilitarianism (to the point where I consider it an invalid system), but the difference between maximizing the benefit for all and the benefit for the self is just arbitrary preference. If a reason were demanded, all a utilitarian could say is that it’s “nicer” than only looking out for the self, but that would certainly not be enough for the egoist, who is only nice insofar as it would work for their personal benefit.

Let’s look at the same ethical dilemma as Burgess-Jackson: should one steal the pensions from a bunch of old people, and then retire to some sandy beach island with your ethically-gotten gains?


You know your ethical system is a winner when something like this is considered a dilemma

Luckily, Burgess-Jackson says no, and I’m sure we’re all breathing a sigh of relief. His reasoning is a little different than most people’s, though. We shouldn’t steal the pensions from retirees because we might get caught and go to jail. Consequentialism, remember? The egoist ought to weigh the possible outcomes and act according to maximum utility. Not for the pensioners, mind you, just for himself. He posits rule-egoism, comparable to rule-utilitarianism, which suggests that the egoist ought to follow rules that would in general maximize his personal utility, like the law and common social norms.

Much like rule-utilitarianism, however, rule-egoism has the same flaw: if it maintains its original consequentialist principles, it cannot truly exist. If an act would, on its own, create greater utility than following the rule, one ought to act on it. For example, if our egoist had an opportunity to rob senior citizens with a guarantee of escape, he certainly would. Alternatively, if he could obtain their pensions legally (such as by lobbying for tax cuts that are paid for by cutbacks to social security), then he’s going to do that. Hobbes’s sovereign (Burgess-Jackson’s exemplar of rule-egoism) is only obeyed insofar as those underneath don’t see a way to thwart their sovereignty. If the rules are deemed absolute, then the system abandons consequentialism and becomes deontological.

Albert Camus, a philosopher with a lot more name recognition, said, “Every ethic based on solitude implies the exercise of power.” If you’re seeking to make things right only for yourself, you’re going to need power to do it. This is where egoism fails as an ethical system.

Donald Trump

You might think it’s odd that robbing seniors of their pensions didn’t disqualify egoism as an ethical system, but just remember, who’s got two thumbs and became president after bragging about sexually assaulting women?

When everyone is looking out for themselves, those with more power will always succeed over those with less. If I’m looking out for me, and you’re looking out for you, and we come into some kind of conflict, and you possess more power than me, I lose. It’s pretty simple. That’s not great if I’m an egoist who wants to maximize my personal benefit, now is it? Within the egoist system, egoism itself does not provide the maximum utility. It cancels itself out. Perhaps you might argue that it can still survive if only I am an egoist, and I successfully convince others to be, say, utilitarians, then my personal utility is again maximized. However, a system of ethics is a social system. If it cannot function on a macro level, it is no longer a system. If it only works when one person does it, it’s no longer a morality, it’s just selfishness.

So throw Ayn Rand back on to the garbage fire that is her metaphorical equivalent, and think about how your dumb actions impact other people for once in your God damn lives.