Egoism and Utilitarianism


2/17/04


Ethics Test #3


Introduction:
Egoism and Utilitarianism are moral systems which seek to maximize certain consequences of policy or action. Egoism considers the consequences only for oneself while utilitarianism considers the consequences for people at large. This essay will explore the similarities and differences, and the strengths and weaknesses of these two theories.


Egoism:


It is difficult to overestimate the pervasiveness of this ethic in our society today. Selfishness runs rampant and thinly veiled hedonism or vanity is apparent in much of the world. Advertisements shamelessly pander to our motives or compliment our sensibility. Recent business failures have shown the greed that runs rampant through our culture. The fashion industry creates an image and asks us to both seek it for ourselves and worship it as an end in itself.


Perhaps egoism’s omnipresence can be explained because a certain amount of egoism is important and even necessary for survival. People who have no regard for themselves, do not last long. A certain pleasure in eating or other physical acts coupled with a certain amount of self regard assist an individual in meeting their responsibilities and becoming successful in our world. The problems that occur happen when egoism becomes the only or primary ethic for action.


In fact, egoism is not the only motive for action. Countless altruistic acts are done on a daily basis by millions of people. Egoism is too simple to explain the complexity of human behavior. That is, egoism always co-exists with some form of altruistic concern as well. Thus, egoism fails as a consistent and workable ethic.


Utilitarianism:

If egoism primarily fails because it doesn’t allow for altruistic behavior, then the other form of maximizing consequence—that is utilitarianism—may serve as an ethical basis for action. Utilitarianism seeks to maximize the good for all over the good for the individual. Many have cited this as an important influence on philosophy of the twentieth century. Its appeal may lie in the fact that if the good of all is maximized, then the individual will also receive a benefit.


Utilitarianism suffers from two fatal flaws. First of all, there has to be some non-consequential act defined as "good". Utilitarianism seeks to cause positive consequences for the most amounts of people. One cannot be entirely consequentialist, because there must be some reason for choosing one particular chain of consequences over another. That is, there must be some external standard of “good.” The question of how to define the “good” still remains, even if one accepts that one should act to maximize the good consequences.


If one sets aside the problem of what “good” is, the second flaw comes into focus. It focuses on what the “maximum good” means. Does it mean that one simply seeks the highest average of “good” across the population, or does one look to maximize the sum of all good over the some of all bad? These two methods of distributing the “good” lead to very different kinds of actions. What that means is that utilitarianism can’t help one decide what to do because it doesn’t provide guidance in defining good and doesn’t provide guidance in action either.


Conclusion:


Egoism and utilitarianism are important to understand because they are often stages in the moral/ethical development of individuals. They are however, not viable systems in and of themselves. Specifically, neither serves to define “good” very well, and utilitarianism doesn’t provide guidance for the distribution of that “good” assuming it were defined.