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Ethical egoism is belief that one ought to do what is in one's own self-interest, although a distinction should be made between what is really in one's self-interest and what is only apparently so (see psychological egoism). What is in one's self-interest may incidentally be detrimental to others, beneficial to others, or neutral in its effect. Ethical egoism is not to be confused with rational egoism, which holds that it is rational to act in one's self-interest, but not that it is ethically imperative. Ethical egoism must also not be confused with individualism, because individualism does not force that one ought to do what is in one's own self-interest.

Ethical egoism does not necessitate that individuals disregard the well-being of others, nor does it require that an individual refrain from taking the well-being of others into consideration. It allows for the possibility of either as long as what is chosen is efficacious in satisfying self-interest. For some, it is the philosophical basis of their espousal of libertarianism or anarchism, which advocate that individuals do not coercively prevent others from exercising freedom of action.

Ethical egoism is in contrast with the ethical doctrine of altruism which holds that individuals have an ethical obligation to help or serve others. A philosophy holding that one should be honest, just, benevolent etc., because those virtues serve one's self-interest is egoistic; one holding that one should practice those virtues for reasons other than self-interest is not egoistic.

Many contend that the view is implausible on its face, and that those who advocate it seriously usually do so at the expense of redefining "self-interest" to include the interests of others. Or, it may be argued that harming or enslaving others is what is one's best self-interest. An ethical egoist might counter this by asserting that furthering the ends of others is sometimes the best means of furthering one's own ends, or that simply by allowing liberty to others one's self-interest is resultingly furthered.

On the other hand, ethical egoism has also been identified as the basis for immorality. For instance, Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to Thomas Law, in 1814:

Self-interest, or rather self-love, or egoism, has been more plausibly substituted as the basis of morality. But I consider our relations with others as constituting the boundaries of morality. With ourselves, we stand on the ground of identity, not of relation, which last, requiring two subjects, excludes self-love confined to a single one. To ourselves, in strict language, we can owe no duties, obligation requiring also two parties. Self-love, therefore, is no part of morality. Indeed, it is exactly its opposite.

Ethical egoism is present in the philosophies of individuals such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Max Stirner (who was the first philosopher to call himself an egoist). Others, such as Ayn Rand, Thomas Hobbes, and David Gauthier, have argued that the conflicts which arise when people each pursue their own ends can be resolved for the best of each individual only if they all voluntarily forgo some of their aims — that is, one's self-interest is often best pursued by allowing others to pursue their self-interest as well so that liberty is equalized among individuals. Sacrificing one's short-term self-interest in order to maximize one's long-term self-interest is known as "rational self-interest." And, this is the idea behind most philosophers' advocacy of ethical egoism.

As Nietzsche (in Beyond Good and Evil) and Alasdair MacIntyre (in After Virtue) are famous for pointing out, the ancient Greeks did not associate morality with altruism in the way that post-Christian Western civilization has done. Consequently, followers of Ayn Rand may argue that Greeks like Aristotle (for whom pride was a virtue) were ethical egoists. However, Nietzsche, MacIntyre, and the Greeks do not associate ethical egoism with morality, either. Aristotle's view, for example, is that we have duties to ourselves as well as to other people (e.g. friends) and to the polis as a whole.

The term ethical egoism has also been applied retroactively to philosophers such as Bernard de Mandeville and to many other materialists of his generation, but none of them declared themselves to be egoists. One must also note that being a materialist does not necessarily imply egoism, as indicated by Karl Marx, and many other materialists, who espoused various forms of collectivist altruism.

Ethical egoism is opposed not only by secular altruist philosophies, but also by the majority of religions. Most religions hold that ethical egoism is the product of a lack of genuine spirituality and shows an individual's submersion in greed. Particularly anti-egoist religions are Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism (see Atman, Anatman and Pudgalavada).

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