Rational egoism is the thesis that the pursuit of one's own self-interest is always rational. The view is a normative form of egoism. However, it is different from other forms of egoism, such as ethical egoism and psychological egoism. While psychological egoism is about motivation and ethical egoism is about morality, rational egoism is a view about rationality.
Ayn Rand is well known for endorsing what she calls "rational egoism". This, however, departs a bit from standard usage. On the standard terminology, Rand's view is a normative theory conjoining both ethical egoism and rational egoism.
In both fields, the postulate has been criticized and defended on a range of empirical and philosophical grounds. For example, in political science, the assumption of rational egoism gives rise to the paradox of voting - given the low probability of being decisive, relative to the personal benefit from a change in the outcome, voting in elections is not rational unless the number of electors is very small.
Ayn Rand rejected David Hume's assertion that one cannot derive an ought from an is. Contrary to the philosophies of others, Rand asserted that the facts of reality, including the nature of a human being, allow each individual to determine what he or she ought to do given his or her needs and wants, but no person can make such determinations without first choosing to think rationally. According to Rand, the life of a human being is the standard by which things are determined either to be values to be pursued, or non-values/disvalues not to be pursued. For example, man has no wings with which to fly, so if in some situation a man decides to jump from a plane, he should decide also to wear a parachute. The facts of reality dictate that, if he does not do so, he is much more likely to suffer a loss of values (e.g., his health or his life).
In Rand's ethics, the greatest vice is irrationality. In practice, Rand regarded it irrational to leave others to do the rational thinking for you. Because rational thought is necessary for the creation of values by human beings, the irrational person, by failing to think for himself, puts his fate in the hands of those who think rationally. In other words, the person who refuses to think for himself will die unless others give him values that he has not earned. The irrational person is, accordingly, a "second hander" and, often, will resort to the life of a "parasite", who hopes to live by means of "mooching" (begging for values) or "looting" (trying to obtain values from others by coercing them with physical force).
In Rand's philosophy charity is not a duty, and it is not a virtue. However, nor is charity regarded as morally wrong in all cases. According to Rand's philosophy, if charity were a moral duty, it would not be benevolent: to give what you owe a person is not an act of benevolence. Hence, she explained, philosophies in which each person has a duty to give charity to others are philosophies in which benevolent acts are impossible. Charity is not wrong, and it is an act of benevolence in Rand's philosophy, if one will suffer no significant loss by engaging in charity, and the person to whom the charity is given is a good person who is in need due to matters beyond their control. In contrast, it is wrong, according to Rand, to give charity to evil people.
In rational egoism, one pursues only those things that, in reality, are a value to ones own life. Thus, although jumping out of a plane over the Rocky Mountains without a parachute might "maximize" someones "pleasure" over the very short term, the facts of reality dictate that such a jump will not be a value to ones life. Instead, the facts of reality dictate that one is likely to lose values, or to die.
In rational egoism, one never pursues values by irrational means. One does not resort to theft, fraud, physical coercion etc. in the pursuit of values. It is erroneous, therefore, to assert that rational egoism "allows people to do anything they want".
Rational egoism distinguishes between physical sensations and emotions. "Pleasure" is a physical sensation. "Happiness", in contrast, is an emotion. In rational egoism, the highest purpose of ones life is ones own happiness, not ones own "pleasure".
It is purported that the possibility exists for situations to arise where acting on selfishness will not yield the best result.. An example of this situation, known as Prisoner's dilemma, is discussed in Theory of Games and Economic Behavior. In this situation, two suspects in an investigation are taken into custody and split up. Each is offered a plea bargain individually, if they turn state's evidence and betray the other. If they both betray, they each serve 2 years in prison. However, if the other suspect doesn't betray, then the one betraying goes free and the other serves 10 years. If neither betrays, then they will only spend six months in prison. The dilemma can be summarized as thus;
|Prisoner B Stays Silent||Prisoner B Betrays|
|Prisoner A Stays Silent||Both serve six months||Prisoner A serves ten years
Prisoner B goes free
|Prisoner A Betrays||Prisoner A goes free
Prisoner B serves ten years
|Both serve two years|
Egoists debate whether or not this can be applied to the philosophy of rational egoism, because if both prisoners were able to make their decision based on all the information, they would both decide to remain silent and serve six months. Nor does the problem take into account any kind of operative context, such as the issue of truth, guilt or innocence, or the specific system of law under which the suspects are being charged- all of which would affect a rational man's decision. For instance, if a suspect is guilty and rats out his partner in order to avoid jail sentence, he would be evading the fact that he deserves punishment- he is therefore attempting to act in contradiction to the facts of reality, and thus to his own nature, a course which is not in anyone's self-interest.
In addition to such objections as those above, the argument can also be made that this theory does not refute, but rather supports the moral system of rational egoism. Ayn Rand's Objectivism holds that the initiation of physical force is evil precisely because it denies the victim of the freedom to act in accordance with his self-interest. When facing the threat of force one's options are limited to choosing the "lesser of two losses". This is the foundation of criminal justice- that a criminal has forfeited his rights to unabridged self-interest, by acting against the rights of others. The Prisoner Dilemma, therefore proves not to be a dilemma when approached with rationality, which is exactly what rational self-interest demands.
Books: Explosions on a Pagan Planet ; Did Christianity Destroy Rational Thought for 1000 Years? Mary Beard Revisits Classical Conflicts
Sep 14, 2002; IN THE late Thirties E R Dodds, professor of Greek at Oxford, had a chance but significant encounter in front of the Parthenon...