EGOISM (from Gr. and Lat. ego, I, the 1st personal pronoun), a modern philosophical term used generally, in opposition to "Altruism," for any ethical system in which the happiness or the good of the individual is the main criterion of moral action. Another form of the word, "Egotism," is really interchangeable, though in ordinary language it is often used specially (and similarly "egoism," as in George Meredith's Egoist) to describe the habit of magnifying one's self and one's achievements, or regarding all things from a selfish point of view. Both these ideas derive from the original meaning of ego, myself, as opposed to everything which is outside myself. This antithesis of ego and non-ego, self and not-self, may be understood in several senses according to the connexion in which it is used. Thus the self may be held to include one's family, property, business, and an indefinitely wider range of persons or objects in which the individual's interest is for the moment centred, i.e. everything which I can call "mine." In this, its widest, sense "a man's Self is the sum total of all that he can call his" (Wm. James, Principles of Psychology, chap x.). This self may be divided up in many ways according to the various forms in which it may be expressed. Thus James (ibid.) classifies the various "selves" as the material, the spiritual, the social and the "pure." Or again the self may be narrowed down to a man's own person, consisting of an individual mind and body. In the true philosophical sense, however, the conception of the ego is still further narrowed down to the individual consciousness as opposed to all that is outside it, i.e. can be its object. This conception of the self belongs mainly to metaphysics and involves the whole problem of the relation between subject and object, the nature of reality, and the possibility of knowledge of self and of object. The ordinary idea of the self as a physical entity, obviously separate from others, takes no account of the problem as to how and in what sense the individual is conscious of himself; what is the relation between subject and object in the phenomenon of self-consciousness, in which the mind reflects upon itself both past and present? The mind is in this case both subject and object, or, as William James puts it, both "I" and "me." The phenomenon has been described in various ways by different thinkers. Thus Kant distinguished the two selves as rational and empirical, just as he distinguished the two egos as the noumenal or real and the phenomenal from the metaphysical standpoint. A similar distinction is made by Herbart. Others have held that the self has a complex content, the subject self being, as it were, a fuller expression of the object-self (so Bradley); or again the subject self is the active content of the mind, and the object self the passive content which for the moment is exciting the attention. The most satisfactory and also the most general view is that consciousness is complex and unanalysable.
The relation of the self to the not-self need not to be treated here (see Metaphysics). It may, however, be pointed out that in so far as an object is cognized by the mind, it becomes in a sense part of the complex self-content. In this sense the individual is in himself his own universe, his whole existence being, in other words, the sum total of his psychic relations, and nothing else being for him in existence at all. A similar idea is prominent in many philosophico-religious systems wherein the idea of God or the Infinite is, as it were, the union of the ego and the non-ego, of subject and object. The self of man is regarded as having limitations, whereas the Godhead is infinite and all-inclusive. In many mystical Oriental religions the perfection of the human self is absorption in the infinite, as a ripple dies away on the surface of water. The problems of the self may be summed up as follows. The psychologist investigates the ideal construction of the self, i.e. the way in which the conception of the self arises, the different aspects or contents of the self and the relation of the subject to the object self. At this point the epistemologist takes up the question of empirical knowledge and considers the kind of validity, if any, which it can possess. What existence has the known object for the knowing subject? The result of this inquiry is generally intellectual scepticism in a greater or less degree, namely, that the object has no existence for the knower except a relative one, i.e. in so far as it is "known" (see Relativity of Knowledge). Finally the metaphysician, and in another Sphere the theologian, consider the nature of the pure or transcendental self apart from its relations, i.e. the absolute self.
In ethics, egoistic doctrines disregard the ultimate problems of selfhood, and assume the self to consist of a man's person and those things in which he is or ought to be directly interested. The general statement that such doctrines refer all moral action to criteria of the individual's happiness, preservation, moral perfection, raises an obvious difficulty. Egoism merely asserts that the self is all-important in the application of moral principles, and does not in any way supply the material of these principles. It is a purely formal direction, and as such merely an adjunct to a substantive ethical criterion. A practical theory of ethics seeks to establish a particular moral ideal; if it is an absolute criterion, then the altruist would place first the attainment of that ideal by others, while the egoist would seek it for himself. The same is true of ethical theories which may be described as material. Of the second type are those, e.g. of Hobbes and Spinoza, which advocate self-preservation as the ideal, as contrasted with modern evolutionist moralists who advocate race-preservation. Again, we may contrast the early Greek hedonists, who bade each man seek the greatest happiness (of whatever kind), with modern utilitarian and social hedonists, who prefer the greatest good or the greatest happiness of the greatest number. It is with hedonistic and other empirical theories that egoism is generally associated. As a matter of fact, however, egoism has been no less prominent in intuitional ethics. Thus the man who seeks only or primarily his own moral perfection is an egoist par excellence. Such are ascetics, hermits and the like, whose whole object is the realization of their highest selves.
The distinction of egoistical and altruistic action is further complicated by two facts. In the first place, many systems combine the two. Thus Christian ethics may be said to insist equally on duty to self and duty to others, while crudely egoistic systems become unworkable if a man renders himself obnoxious to his fellows. On the other hand, every deliberate action based on an avowedly altruistic principle necessarily has a reference to the agent; if it is right that A should do a certain action for the benefit of B, then it tends to the moral self-realization of A that he should do it. Upon whatsoever principle the rightness of an action depends, its performance is right for the agent. The self-reference is inevitable in every action in so far as it is regarded as voluntary and chosen as being of a particular moral quality.
It is this latter fact which has led many students of human character to state that men do in fact aim at the gratification of their personal desires and impulses. The laws of the state and the various rules of conduct laid down by religion or morality are merely devices adopted for general convenience. The most remarkable statement of this point of view is that of Friedrich Nietzsche, who went so far as to denounce all forms of self-denial as cowardice: - let every one who is strong seek to make himself dominant at the expense of the weak.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)