Utilitarianism and Ethical Egoism

In this chapter, we discuss two ethical theories that evaluate actions solely in terms of their consequences: utilitarianism and ethical egoism. These theories are special versions of a broader class of consequentialist ethical theories. All consequentialists believe that the moral rightness and wrongness of our acts depend on nothing but consequences. However, advocates of different versions of consequentialism disagree on exactly how the moral properties of our acts correlate with their consequences. Utilitarians believe that an act is morally right if and only if no alternative act brings about a greater sum total of well-being for everyone affected by the act. Ethical egoists consider only the consequences for the agent herself.

Utilitarianism sometimes conflicts with conventional morality and deeply rooted cultural norms. If, for instance, lying brings about the best overall consequences, then that is the right thing to do. Another type of objection is that the utilitarian theory is too demanding. If the only morally right acts are those that bring about the best consequences, then nearly all acts we perform are wrong.

Ethical egoists stress that people we interact with are often more likely to be nice to us if we are nice to them. Therefore, the practical implications of ethical egoism are not as radical as one might think. In many everyday situations, the best outcome for oneself is achieved by behaving in the same way as nonegoists. However, critics argue that if all of us do what is best for ourselves, then everyone will end up in a situation that is worse from an egoistic point of view, compared to if we had not been selfish. The prisoner’s dilemma is a classic example of this.

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