Front Page Titles (by Subject) The Egoist as a Psychopath - Literature of Liberty, Summer 1980, vol. 3, No. 2
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
The Egoist as a “Psychopath” - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Summer 1980, vol. 3, No. 2 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
The Egoist as a “Psychopath”
“Ethical Egoism and Psychological Dispositions.” American Philosophical Quarterly 17(January 1980):73–78.
Moral philosophers have argued against ethical egoism as an internally inconsistent theory, as a solipsism, and as a system which cannot be properly termed a moral theory. However, these arguments have not proved particularly persuasive. As a result, Prof. Thomas presents a new argument which seeks to refute egoism on psychological grounds.
Thomas defines ethical egoism as “the view that a person morally ought to maximize the satisfaction of his or her own long-range interests”—which involves taking advantage of others whenever the egoist does not run undue risk physically, financially, or psychologically. Thomas labels his definition the E (exploitation) principle.
In schematic form, the Thomas argument against egoism runs as follows:
“P1 A true friend could never, as a matter of course, be disposed to harm or to exploit anyone with whom he is a friend (from theion of a friend).
P2 An egoist could never be a true friend to anyone (from P1 and E principle).
P3 Only someone with an unhealthy personality could never be a true friend to anyone (definition of a healthy personality).
P4 Ethical egoism requires that we have a kind of disposition which is incompatible with our having a healthy personality (from P1-P3).
P5 Therefore, from the standpoint of our psychological makeup, ethical egoism is unacceptable as a moral theory.”
To avoid the charge of circularity in this argument, Thomas examines at length the psychological grounds for statements P1 and P3.
To begin, he states that all human beings receive their initial sense of selfworth from others—usually in the form of parental love. As we mature, this need for positive assessment from those around us declines. Nonetheless, no human being can maintain psychological health without occasional approval from at least one person whose judgment he respects and trusts. The psychological principle of reciprocity also makes it likely that we will regard favorably someone who esteems us. However, the egoist must even be prepared to take advantage of a person who values him whenever his interests are at stake. Since the egoist treats those whom he trusts and (probably) likes as if they were enemies, he cannot act as a true friend.
Furthermore, psychologists agree that stability of character is one of the essential dimensions of a healthy personality—that is, a conjunction of positive personal traits which endures through a wide variety of circumstances. Anyone who feels well-disposed towards a person and is yet capable of exploiting that person at an opportune moment manifests clear instability of character. He thus lacks a basic element of psychological health. In fact, the behavior described may not only be termed unhealthy but psychopathic. In Prof. Thomas's view, the true egoist would merit the diagnostic label of psychopath.
Thomas acknowledges that several philosophical approaches might serve to question and perhaps refute ethical egoism. He also emphasizes, however, that a close examination of our human psychological make-up will yield significant material contributing to an ultimate invalidation of the egoist position.