Must Ethics be Altruistic?


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The question of whether ethics must be altruistic would be approached from various perspectives. First, one would have to understand the confines of ethics as seen from egoism and altruism. Therefore, one would need to evaluate the meaning of the ethical egoism and the ethical altruism.


Egoism, by definition, refers to an individual in the subjective position. Better definition shows that egoism is derived from the term “ego” and which regard the subjective position of an individual and denotes the sense of selfishness or self-centeredness (MacIntyre 11). As such, an individual prioritizes own need to the rest of the people’s needs. The sense of being complete egoistic shows that the individual is completely opposed to the welfare of others, while holding own goals and interest in the highest esteem. However, an egoistic position may not necessarily indicate a person is greedy or selfish, but would include politeness and the aspect of helping others (MacIntyre 15). Nevertheless, in spite of the person helping others, the definition shows that the egoist would be interested in helping with a motive of benefiting from the people in the later times. Egoism is defined from two perspectives, which include the psychological egoism and the ethical egoism. Despite being presented as a non-moral theory, the psychological egoism is meant to invoke the feeling of the selfish nature of people. On the other hand, the ethical egoism holds that people would surely enjoy and that people would take the active responsibility of helping each other genuinely and wanting the best of the others like altruism.


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Altruism is derived from “autres,” which is a French word, meaning others. Therefore, the person who is said to be altruistic cares and is concerned about other people. In fact, an altruistic person would sacrifice own gains for the sake of the welfare of others. The altruistic actions are said to be selfless, and encouraging others to sacrifice own interests for the welfare of others (MacIntyre 23). The question of morality then comes up, and one would be interested in understanding when actions would be considered moral. Accordingly, some people would argue that actions would be considered moral if only done for the sake of the gains of others and not for own gain. Nevertheless, critics of the position argue that all humans are naturally wired to have a personal interest or selfishness dominate over the benefit of others. However, through practice and informed decisions, one would learn to regard others better than or as well as oneself (MacIntyre 23). A popular illustration of altruism is the life of Mother Teresa and who, being a Catholic nun, devoted self to serving others in India. Nevertheless, a psychological egoist would also argue that the devotion of Mother Teresa to serving the poor would have been explained by the need to feel good about herself and practice her religious duty of being good. On the other hand, an ethical egoist would interpret her actions as being foolish as she neglected her interests for other people’s interests.

Ethical Egoism

The ethical egoists argue that it is possible and good for individuals to pursue the interests of others. However, the ethical egoists reason that an individual ought to prioritize own interests and gains at all times. As a normative ethical theory position, the egoistic position encourages people to care only about the interests of “self” (MacIntyre 19). Therefore, one would reason that the theory contradicts the position of morality and despite appreciating that people would be altruistic, it encourages overlooking others and acting in a selfish manner. As such, the egoists esteem self-centeredness and pursuing own personal gains both in the short term and the long term (MacIntyre 19). At times, the position of the ethical egoists is that other people’s interests are of no value to the person. An example of such a position is on how the trading companies and individuals behave in the market. Often, the trading companies would strive to overtake all the other companies in the market and wherever possible remain alone. Therefore, they would do anything to maximize own gains and has little regard for the welfare of the rival market players. In fact, even when helping others, the ethical egoists hold that the person would be focused on the gains to be realized in the short run and the long run. However, one’s interests should not be used to justify evil, but rather living in harmony with other people as well as esteeming own interests to others’.

Ethical Altruism

The ethical and moral stance of altruism holds that any human being has no right to exist for own sake, but serving others would be the only justifiable reason for one’s existence. Therefore, according to the ethics of altruism, self-sacrifice becomes the person’s highest moral value, duty, and virtue (MacIntyre 11). Nevertheless, one would have to differentiate the stance of altruism from good will, kindness, or respect to other people. In fact, altruism regards denial to self and encourages caring for others or regarding selflessness as the standard of good.

Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy

The book by Williams paints a new picture of “ethical life” and redefines its relation with Philosophy. In the discussions, Williams criticizes various approaches that are accorded to the moral philosophy as has evolved through such philosophers as Aristotle, and Hare and offers own opinions on the subject. He also visits the opinions of Plato and Kant (Williams 72). Although the author approaches the subject from various perspectives, he concludes by affirming that altruism would bring about the higher gains to individuals. Accordingly, he reasons that although personal gains often override the interests of other people as shown by egoism, life’s meaning would only be supported by having people live with and for each other (Williams 22). Philosophy comes in to teach individuals the art of compromising own interests for the sake of the other people. Rationality in decision-making is contrasted with generalization, and the position of the author is that common interests would always supersede the individualized interests (Williams 7). Therefore, from the discussion presented by Williams, the altruistic nature of ethics would be highly desirable, although it would not be a precondition. Altruism ethics would emphasize in the place of the interests of others over the subjective interests. In fact, the book would point out the importance of altruism in a social set-up as against embracing the egoistic opinions (Williams 91). In other terms, while altruism would not be considered as a must for the subject of ethics, it holds great relevance for understanding human interactions and interests.

Modern Moral Philosophy

The writing by Anscombe in 1958 would point out that ethics would not be propagated without a philosophical psychology. Besides, the article shows the commonality of the modern philosophers, especially in the use of the term “ought” in the expression of empathy (Anscombe 1). In fact, the choice and use of “ought” brings about the moral sense in the discussion and alludes to the need of law in interpreting human interactions. Accordingly, Anscombe shows that all human actions would be evaluated from the moral perspective, maximization of the utility derived and on the element of sympathizing with humanity. Accordingly, the article shows that any action should be aimed at maximizing utility as against considering the motives (Anscombe 10). Secondly, the article shows that any action by a person should be guided by clear and good conscience, as through such, one would strive to maximize on the utility derived (Anscombe 12). The motive for writing the article as illustrated in the discussion was to revive virtue ethics. Anscombe argues that humans should act in manners as would be considered just, thus implying that the position of whether an act is right or wrong would be subjective (7). Through the just acts, an individual would be bound to flourish but when considering the correctness or otherwise of the actions would be interpreted differently. In fact, altruism, as regards to the article by Anscombe, has special attention towards humanity, indicating that the basis of the ethics represented is on whether or not individual acts in a humane manner (Anscombe 16).


The two writings present a foundation upon which the argument of whether or not ethics must be altruistic. The authors justify the moral position of the actions of individuals as explained by the egoistic and altruistic ethics. According to the altruistic position, the issue of ethics would be concerned about the welfare of other people as against the subjective position supported by the egoistic ethics. Williams would correctly point that at all times, personal interests explains the actions of an individual as contrasted to pursuing other people’s interests. However, Anscombe highlights that mutual interests make the foundation of human existence. Therefore, in spite of individuals pursuing their interests, the position of the common good would never be ignored. In fact, Anscombe reasons that morality would require every person to pursue what would be considered just as against right or otherwise. From the discussion presented, this paper reasons that ethics must not be altruistic, but rather would have altruism as a foundation as against egoism. The justification would be based on the position of Williams that all human actions would be directly or indirectly based on own gains. Nevertheless, pursuing personal interest would not yield the highest gains as shown by Anscombe while advocating for altruism; hence, the position that ethics should have altruism as a core principle.


The philosophy of whether or not ethics must be altruistic has had various approaches as illustrated in the discussion. Various historical philosophers such as Kant, Aristotle, and Plato considered the topic of ethics and contrasted opinions on altruistic and egoistic ethics. While a common consensus would be hard to assume, this paper embraces the position that altruism becomes the foundation upon which ethics would be understood. Egoistic stance regards subjective gains, while the altruistic stance concerns the interests of other people higher than the individual. In essence, the discussion has illustrated that ethics must not be altruistic but should be founded on the principles of altruism.

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