The ethical egoist is one who believes that it is morally right to act strictly in one's own self-interest. Understandably, this belief poses a threat to social cooperation and, therefore, clearly introduces a significant political problem. I believe that the best example of ethical egoism is displayed in Book I of Plato's The Republic. In this Book, Plato introduces the idea of ethical egoism, explains the political problem posed by it, and addresses the problem through the words of Socrates. I will use this paper to explain and clarify the arguments for and against the concept of ethical egoism, with specific focus on the political problem it poses and the proper approach to addressing that problem, in terms of Plato's social philosophy.
Before addressing the specific issue of ethical egoism, it is first important to understand the context of The Republic and what Plato was trying to accomplish in his writing. As a student of Socrates, Plato's goal in writing The Republic was to define justice. Furthermore, he aimed to define justice in such a way as to show that it is good for its own sake, in and of itself. In The Republic, Plato speaks through Socrates in an attempt to prove this claim. In Book I, he focuses specifically on a couple of questions: What is justice? Why is justice important?
Book I of The Republic puts Socrates discussing justice within a group of companions. Their conversation begins by discussing and arguing the various definitions of justice and what it is. Soon, a man by the name of Thrasymachus boldly enters the conversation. Thrasymachus is a sophist and an ethical egoist. Thus, the topic of conversation quickly transitions from discussing the definition of justice to whether or not justice is important or necessary at all. Plato, through Socrates, believes that it is. However, Thrasymachus offers an alternative explanation.
Thrasymachus represents and argues for the ideas of the ethical egoist, which are founded on the concept of pursuing self-interest alone while simply disregarding the interests of others. Thus, ethical egoists wish to completely do away with justice and other similar concepts of moral standards. Thrasymachus believes that "justice is simply the advantage of the stronger" (The Republic, Book I, 338c). He believes that the entire idea of justice is a convention created by powerful men and used as an excuse to exercise power and force weaker men to obey their laws. When men are forced to obey laws, they are then obeying the wishes of the powerful. Therefore, the ethical egoist does not believe that being just is worthwhile because it only works toward the advantage of other people―those people that are most powerful―and thus adhering to justice is not beneficial to us. He believes that a ration and good man will ignore justice entirely.
Clearly, the ideals of the ethical egoist pose extreme political problems. Frankly, the entire foundation of a political system is the...