Defending Deontological Egoism


Ethical egoism is typically regarded with disdain and often rejected in ethicist circles. Some ethicists have attempted to reform the philosophy into a more palatable form. The result of this is Deontological egoism. But does Deontological egoism truly solve the problems of Ethical Egoism? This essay argues that it does. This essay will be explaining the contents of Deontological egoism, how it solves the problem of moral arbitrariness and wickedness through Negative Duty, and then how both obligations and negative duty make us beholden to our fellow beings. Overall, Deontological egoism may contain some metaphysical flaws, but it manages to overcome the ethical problems inherent in ethical egoism.

The Essay

Ethical Egoism is typically regarded with disdain. This is an unfair treatment of a theory which, in fact, branches into a multitude of varying ideas (Burgess-Jackson, 2003, p. 362). This essay will be addressing the problems inherent in the broadly defined ‘Unconstrained Ethical Egoism’ (henceforth: Egoism) by examining how Deontological Egoism (henceforth: DE) avoids these problems.

Egoism is, fundamentally, the idea that you ought to pursue the maximisation of your own self-interest (Rachels & Rachels, 2012, p. 71). Self-interest is not necessarily that of pleasure or happiness (as it would be for Hedonists) but the ultimate fulfilment of all faculties which allow you to prosper as a human (Rachels & Rachels, 2012, p. 71). In this sense, even though one may become happy (or at least feel pleasure) from the consumption of alcohol, it may not be within the self-interest of a person to consume alcohol as it may result in liver damage and the temporary loss of cognitive functioning. A second qualification that needs to be made is that Egoism does not prohibit working towards the self-interest of others; all that matters is that the ultimate goal is one’s own self-interest.

The problems inherent in Egoism are, ultimately, all collected under one criticism: Egoism fails to account for the interests of other beings. This criticism can be separated into the idea that Egoism allows (even encourages) wickedness (Rachels & Rachels, 2012, p. 77), and that it is fundamentally unfair and arbitrary to put our own interests above those of others (Rachels & Rachels, 2012, p. 81).

This essay will be outlining the specifics of DE and then will discuss how DE solves the problems of arbitrariness and wickedness through Negative Duty and then how both Obligations and Negative Duty make us beholden to our fellow beings.

This essay will ultimately find that DE successfully addresses the fundamental concern of Egoism which is its disregard for other beings. DE does this through the enforcement of obligation and negative duty over the maximisation of self-interest.

DE, rather than setting a desired moral goal, seeks to determine what it is to do rightly (Burgess-Jackson, 2003, p. 366). Rather than set out the desired end, as in Consequentialism, Deontology puts restraint on our actions (Burgess-Jackson, 2003, p. 360). DE does this by outlining the concepts of Duties and Obligations. Duties are natural aspects of human morality that without, human society would be unable to function, thus making adherence to them involuntary (Burgess-Jackson, 2003, p. 363). Obligations are voluntary ‘contracts’ that we become party to, once agreed upon, and must be fulfilled (Burgess-Jackson, 2003, p. 363). There is a further classification, as Duty and Obligations are separated into Positive and Negative. Positive Duties and Obligations are actions that we must or ought to do. This could be in the form of obeying a legal contract or giving to charity. Negative Duties and Obligations are things we are strictly prohibited from doing. These take the obvious forms of doing no harm, no stealing and, in the case of obligations, not spreading information that you agreed to keep secret.

DE does not acknowledge the existence of Positive Duty (Burgess-Jackson, 2003, p. 364). It does not prohibit what we may perceive to be ‘good’ actions, but rather states that they are not morally required. Giving to charity, or helping others, becomes supererogatory (Burgess-Jackson, 2003, p. 366), virtuous but not required. DE does not specify what it is to be good, for that isn’t its purpose. DE merely outlines a set of restraints to prevent what we may call evil. In the case of Positive Obligations, it sets out the principle that one must not violate ones obligations.

DE, in this sense, does not put the maximisation of self-interest as a goal (Burgess-Jackson, 2003, p. 364), instead it acts as an outline on how to appropriately act within society, while taking into account the interests of the individual.

Below, I will be outlining how the aspects of DE address Egoism’s inherent problem, its disregard for beings other than the individual in question.

Negative Duty, the restraint on what we can do, restricts our actions, preventing us from pursuing our own self-interest through wicked means. A charge against Egoism is that, in its fundamental goal of maximising ones self-interest, it allows an individual to perpetrate evil and wicked actions (Rachels & Rachels, 2012, p. 77). An example of this would be the average criminal. It is within their self-interest to commit wicked actions to gain wealth. One could argue that their crime is not within their self-interest as it risks punishment and risks the fabric of society’s tendency to act reciprocally according to the actions of its members – but let’s say that a criminal is given the chance to commit a crime without fear of punishment or that the institutions of property would collapse. It would be within the criminal’s irrefutable self-interest to commit the crime. Egoism would have to accept this, despite the fact that, upon reflection, we know that a crime (such as stealing) is seldom ever morally justifiable.

DE attempts to solve this through putting restraints on our actions. Negative Duty is a set of moral rules that we are not allowed to contravene under any circumstances. Some examples of these would be the murder of innocent people and the theft of goods. Even if it is within the interest of the Egoist to steal or murder, DE forbids it. To reiterate, the maximisation of self-interest as a goal does not factor into DE. The theory is one that restrains action.

The lack of Positive Duty, an innate duty to help our fellow beings, has been criticised as permitting wickedness. An example of this may be the case of a man trapped inside a room. The room is slowly running out of oxygen and you have the ability to open the door to let him out. Critics would state that a lack of Positive Duty to save this man is tantamount to permitting wickedness. The Deontological Egoist could approach this from two angles:

  1. Inaction is not evil. The consequences of inaction may be unpleasant but an individual should not be blamed for something they did not cause. Critics have a problem with this response as it seems unsatisfactory. To respond, let us look at it with a different example: the vast majority of the middle and upper class population have the ability to donate money to feed starving children. This would prevent the deaths of these children. Yet, a great number of these people do not donate money. By the logic of this criticism, their inaction to feed a child is evil, but we do not regard all these people as evil. In this way, as much as it may feel unsatisfactory to not view inaction as morally reprehensible, the alternative is to regard our lives as immoral, as we cannot solve all the world’s problems. In this way, an adherence to Positive Duty makes moral goodness impossible. Morality needs to have some sort of limit and the lack of Positive Duty in DE gives us the limit needed to control the extent to which we should be ‘moral’ (Burgess-Jackson, 2003, p. 363).
  2. We have a Negative Duty or Obligation to save the man. If it could be deemed logical that inaction to save the man is tantamount to harming him yourself, then it could also be logically argued by the Deontological Egoist that you have a Negative Duty to save the man. If I was to write a test and fail (the equivalent of doing wrong) it has the same result as if I had refused to write the test at all. In this way, as the results of inaction would be the same as intentional murder, the way of treating said choices should be equivalent. One could also argue that as a member of human society you have entered into a voluntary obligation (by virtue of not being a hermit) to help other humans.

The responses against the lack of Positive Duty in DE (especially ‘a’) in addition to the fact that DE does prohibit wicked actions, does solve part of the problem of Egoism; the next section will solve the other.

People enter into obligations and, under DE, are required to fulfil all those obligations (Burgess-Jackson, 2003, p. 365). Egoism, with the goal of the maximisation of self-interest, would permit the violation of obligations in particular situations if it meant a maximisation of self-interest. DE prohibits this disregard of another person’s interest.

As Rachels (2012) argued, morality has to take into account other people (Rachels & Rachels, 2012, p. 81). Egoism cannot be applied universally as its adherents will only take into account their own interests, while disregarding not only the importance but the validity of other being’s interests. DE solves this through requiring that all people adhere to obligations and Negative Duty. In this regard, DE is a universal principle, as it applies equally to everyone (Burgess-Jackson, 2003, p. 371). This avoids the problem that Rachels put forward of the “Arbitrariness” inherent in Egoism (Rachels & Rachels, 2012, p. 81). Other beings have to be taken into account, so not to violate ones Negative Duty, in addition to being able to form and obey obligations.

Critics state that this does not go far enough. One such criticism is that it is too easy to be seen as moral under DE (Burgess-Jackson, 2003, p. 372). This criticism, firstly, fails to understand how DE is not a theory that espouses a normative good in the manner of Consequentialism. It only seeks to set out restrictions and requirements on what we should do. Secondly, the accusation is wrong. Living morally under DE is not that easy, as Keith Burgess-Jackson (2003) argued, as Negative Duty compels us to refrain from a myriad of actions (Burgess-Jackson, 2003, p. 372). Pollution harms other people and beings, violating our Negative Duty – yet we struggle to abide by the principle to limit our pollution. Under DE, we may also have Negative Duty to other beings, such as animals. A strict adherent to DE would never pollute the environment or eat meat; both are actions that one cannot call immoral in and of themselves. Under other moral theories, both would actually be deemed supererogatory; under DE, they are necessary.

A focus on the limiting of our negative effects on Earth should not be condemned as ‘not doing enough,’ as we can see that it entails large sacrifices for its adherents. In this way, DE cannot be said to be contravening the idea of the ‘good’ or regard for fellow beings, but rather set guidelines which allows us to refrain from doing evil, while similarly limiting our responsibilities so that we can also take account of our own importance (Burgess-Jackson, 2003, p. 373).

In this way, DE maintains the regard for oneself in Egoism, while avoiding its dangerous disregard of all others.

DE solves the inherent disregard for other beings inherent in Egoism. Rather than specifying a goal, like Consequential variants of Egoism, DE sets out a guideline on how to act morally. It succeeds in outlining a set of moral rules which maintain our responsibility to other beings, while also maintaining our responsibility to ourselves.

This essay has shown how DE prevents evil actions through Negative Duty and how obligations and Negative Duty require us to take into account other beings. The criticism of a lack of Positive Duty has been addressed by the fact that Positive Duty makes moral goodness unachievable.

Ultimately, DE succeeds in solving Egoism’s disregard of other beings, in fact creating a set of moral rules which one cannot accuse of being too easy to follow.


Burgess-Jackson, K., 2003. Deontological Egoism. Social Theory and Practice, 29(3), pp. 357-385.

Rachels, J. & Rachels, S., 2012. Ethical Egoism. In: The Elements of Moral Philosophy. 7th ed. New York: McGraw Hill, pp. 64-76.