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Ethical egoism has a centuries-old history. The ancient Epicureans can be considered as ethical egoists. Thus, according to them, the pursuit of the higher pleasures, such as rational and aesthetic, could benefit to personal happiness more than seeking lower pleasures, such as food, drink or sex. The latter, they considered, leads to weariness and unhappiness. In general, the Stoics also supported ethical egoism, cultivating a pessimistic view about the opportunities for personal happiness in this world. They recommended apatheia — courage and indifference in the face of hostile fortune — as a method to achieve whatever happiness was available to man. In the context of this paper it is interesting to mention Plato, a psychological egoist, who tried to find out the way to make it to the self-interest of each individual to behave morally toward others. In the Republic he offered to introduce sanctions, for example laws, to make it no longer worth one’s while to harm other people, and to influence conscience to encourage feelings of guilt at antisocial conduct. To some extent Christianity can be considered as egoistic, since it promises “bonuses” of afterlife for behaving in unselfish way.
One of the most prominent ethical egoists was Thomas Hobbes. In Leviathan he wrote that:
Every man is Enemy to every man. . . wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish. . . there is no place for Industry. . . no Culture of the Earth. . . no Navigation. . . no Knowledge. . . no account of Time. . . no Arts. . . no Letters. . . no Society; and which is worst of all, continual feare, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short (Hobbes, 1914).
According to Hobbes’s belief of the state of nature, or what civilization would be like without formal government, people in pursuit of their own self-interest generate an environment of competitiveness, fear, and anxiety. Jean Hampton (1954 – 1996) adopted Hobbes’s view on self-interest and described possible motivations for one’s opposition to the law. In particular, she considered that “identifying moral agendas in the furtherance of personal desires” helps to explain how the law is selfishly displaced (Hampton, 2001).
That ethics of the previous century was on generally antipathetic toward ethical egoism. Thinkers did not consider ethical egoism like, for example, the Epicureans, for whom it was an ideal of personal life. Rather they considered it as a strict doctrine that an individual should never under any conditions behave contrary to one’s own self-interest. That includes also the idea, that there is no reason to behave generously toward other people, if there is no hope of personal advantage. This belief was influenced mainly by David Hume, who wrote in A Treatise upon Human Nature that “It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger” (Hume, 1739).
In philosophical novels by Ayn Rand (1908-1982), such as We the Living (1936), The Fountainhead (1943), and Atlas Shrugged (1959) she sets forth a type of ethical egoism that is called objectivism. According to her philosophy, the suitable life for any individual is the pursuit of his/her happiness. Also, altruism and self-sacrifice conflict with rational morality.
Louis P. Pojman, a principal opponent of Hobbes’s and Rand’s ideas, characterizes two levels of thinking about the self:
On a higher (tier 2) level a person legitimately concerns oneself with prospects for one’s happiness, but, in so reflecting, one rationally concludes that the best way to realize happiness on an everyday (tier 1) level is to develop a strong (non-egoistic) disposition toward altruism. Limited, reciprocal altruism offers us the best chance for happiness (Pojman, 2006, p. 427).
The primary obstacle to the acceptance of ethical egoism has been the notion of “the moral point of view” (in other words, the God’s Eye point of view) of the unbiased and wise observer who judges honestly on the basis of the interests of all parties (for example, a judge in court) rather than the interests of one person. Since ethical egoism recommends action in conformity with the person’s own interest, it is considered as generally immoral.
However, egoism is the principal ethical system in criminal justice nowadays, as it can be illustrated by the following examples. The first example deals with the problem of use of force and immunity of law enforcing bodies and the state in general. Thus, egoism can, for example, define the actions of the police. Consider the situation of pursuing a fleeing felon in a car, who would not stop or obey other commands of the officer. In this case shooting at the tires and even accidental hitting of the driver in most cases can’t subject the officer to lawsuit by a survivor. According to the principles of egoism, the pursuit is a justified end and stopping at roadblock is the related means. Shooting tires in this case appears to be the least severe alternative. Another example deals with an arrest warrant of a wrong person, involving his resistance and damage to health. According to egoism, no one is liable for false arrest. There was a probable cause, which could be proved by the arrest and trial, and the police could expect fake identification, but could not tell it without the arrest. Such action doesn’t taint the law enforcing bodies and state.
Ethical egoism can also be applied in criminal justice as a motivation force. Going to jail is bad for the individual, so pursuing self-interest one will not steal or make other illegal actions. However, there can be a certain conflict of interests, when going to jail is a lesser evil.