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Egoism ( egoˈɪsmʊs , from the Latin ego “I” with the Greek suffix -ism) means “self-interest”, “self-interest”.

The Duden calls regardless of the psychological perspective, many linguistic synonyms ( "self-love, self-interest, selfishness, self-absorption, narcissism, self-obsession, selfishness, self-love, selfishness, narcissism () lifted egomania (educational language) egotism, self-centeredness (psychology) Autophilie" ).

Egoism ( plural ) will be actions in which only the agent itself for action, the maxim determined. In most cases, these actions unrestrictedly have the agent's own advantage as their purpose . If this advantage in a symbiotic way of life is at the same time the advantage of others, then such an action is partially ethically legitimized. Mostly, however, an egoist is understood as a short-sighted actor in the sense of a raucous man who can hardly accept it when other people are just as greedy towards him. The ruffian grants themselves more freedom than they allow others.

“Egoism” is mostly used disparagingly as a synonym for reckless behavior and judged as “ indecent ”. The term then describes the attitude to pursue exclusively external personal interests without considering the interests or even at the expense of others. In this context, egoism is criticized as the opposite of altruism and solidarity , which, however, only applies if the inner benefit is not taken into account when assessing the action.

Conversely, there is the notion that altruism is only possible through the attainment of one's own well-being, for example analogous to the rule that applies to rescue missions that self-protection is the first measure of first aid .

In addition, there is a view that self-love and neighborly love are inextricably linked, both are mutually dependent, analogous to the well-known Bible quote: "You should love your neighbor as yourself." ( Mk 12.31  EU )

The negative view of egoism as egomania stands in contrast to a positive evaluation of a "healthy" egoism, which is philosophically elaborated in ethical egoism . A non-judgmental view is the factual assertion of psychological egoism that all people acted de facto egoistically. The economic model of Homo oeconomicus is also value-free .

The term “ reciprocal altruism ” attempts to discuss the interplay between selfish behavior and altruism, assuming that selfish behavior can be altruistic.

Criteria / delimitation

1. Primacy of the ego : Regardless of the goal, purpose or effect of the attitude or action, the preference of the ego is imperative for egoism.

2. Awareness: Egoism is to be distinguished from egocentrism (see below). Egoism takes place in a more or less conscious and / or wanted attitude. Egocentricity happens unconsciously.


In evolutionary terms, the drives to selfish behavior arose from competitive behavior . They are part of human social behavior .

Egoism is a highly controversial phenomenon because it is understood, valued or defined differently by different people and groups. Often it is also used based on interests to achieve certain purposes: e.g. B. Justification of power or also for the degradation of others. It therefore makes sense to define the term in more detail using additional labels. At least four forms of egoism can therefore be distinguished. An attempt at classification could look like this: Following the subjective approach, a distinction is made between egoism in the narrower sense and egoism in the broader sense; according to the objective approach, positive and negative egoism must be separated.

Egoism in the broader sense:

If one looks at egoism in the broadest sense, all human behavior will and must be classified as egoistic, because every conscious action is based on an individual weighing of the benefit of the deed. Thus, in the broadest sense, even altruistic behavior can be subordinated to the concept of egoism, since the altruistic agent subjectively evaluates his actions as beneficial, because he perceives the intended benefit for the other as personal success (e.g. successful child-rearing, successful medical help) . This also applies to all other definitions, but their meaning is ignored in order to create a simplification and to make the term manageable.

Egoism in the narrower sense:

In the narrower sense, behavior is to be classified as egoistic if the agent consciously accepts a disadvantage for another and is solely concerned with his own benefit, although alternative behavior that meets the criteria of justice and morality as well as the principle of equality is possible would. If there is no awareness at all of any disadvantages that have actually arisen for someone else as a result of one's own actions or neglect, one can no longer speak of egoism in the narrower sense, but of egocentrism . Under the Wikipedia lemma "egocentrism", egoism is defined as "reflected self-infatuation". The other is not perceived as an equal subject, but is only an instrument of one's own feeling of pleasure . This concept of egoism is therefore negatively occupied and is often used in the context of moral reproaches.

Positive egoism:

The objective approach evaluates the consequences of human actions because it is assumed that the real intentions of human actions are difficult or impossible to determine. One speaks of positive egoism when the consequences of self-centered thinking and behavior are objectively general and do not harm individuals. The idea of ​​competition in particular is based on this positive conception of egoism. This egoism describes the driving, prosperity and thus general welfare-promoting effects of self-centered thinking.

Another phenomenon of positive egoism is “cooperative egoism”, which can be observed especially in the USA: Those people who are most committed to egoistic values ​​such as careers and self-actualization are often also those who value community activities and unite spend a large part of their free time on others. Cooperative egoism is also known as "altruistic individualism". This shows that positive egoistic motives can be blurred with altruistic goals.

The " objectivism " of Ayn Rand describes a so-called "rational" egoism, which is presented by its representatives as sensible and productive action for their own benefit and while respecting the negative protective rights of other individuals. These rights essentially protect life, freedom and property in the sense of a defense against physical violence; protection against structural violence , however, is missing in “objectivism”.

Negative egoism:

This includes forms of self-centered thinking insofar as its consequences are detrimental to the general welfare and cause damage to individuals. Social differences, ruthlessness, war and human catastrophes are possible consequences of this understanding of egoism that can be objectively assessed.

Reflection in religions


In following Jesus of Nazareth , a selfish attitude is not possible for Christians. Unselfish love - the tradition of the Church uses the term agape - is the goal of man. However, the example mentioned above and, according to the tradition of the New Testament, quoted by Jesus himself, “Love your neighbor as yourself” allows at least so much self-interest that the “neighbor” can only participate in it by achieving his own well-being. Consequently, those who do not love themselves cannot love their neighbors either. This, in turn, corresponds to the theory that altruism cannot exist without a minimum of selfishness.

Game theory

In game theory , a player's attempt to minimize their maximum loss could serve as an indicator that the player is acting selfishly.

The ultimatum game shows that people forego accepting money shares if they perceive the share to be shared with them to be too small and if the "too egotistically" sharing person does not receive any amount by doing without. The behavior of the renouncing individual initially appears irrational, however, as behavior in groups, this reaction has been preserved and thus proves to be evolutionarily proven. Because through a threatened total loss in the event of a waiver of the party to be involved, the distributor is urged not to let the proportion turn out "too small", which corresponds to a rational way of acting. The important difference in game theory between a game played once and a game played repeatedly is also clearly effective here. In the case of repeated games, the game is not only played for a useful function, but also - as a meta game - for maintaining or changing the rules of the game itself. Here, good and bad are not decided, but the rules of the game are simply selected evolutionarily that determine the occurrence of the game maximize.

Neuroscientific Findings

Nikolaus Steinbeis , psychologist at the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Neurosciences, has discovered with colleagues that the child's brain is not yet developed enough to make a fair decision. Childish selfishness does not come from the fact that the little ones cannot be generous or do not know what is fair.

With experiments from game theory , Steinbeis investigated a certain type of social behavior in 146 children between the ages of 6 and 14: strategic action.

Nayef RF Al-Rodhan derives from his neurological research the human image of emotional amoral egoism.

A yardstick for the satisfaction of selfish needs is also the comparison with other people. In an experiment at the University of Bonn, for example, the following behavior could be determined: Test subjects who had to estimate the number of points on a screen were rewarded with money for a correct result. They responded to the information that their teammate had miscalculated while they were correct with a far higher activity of their reward center than if both teammates could give the correct result. They did this even though the other players' activities had no effect on their own pay . The disadvantage suffered by the other was assessed as positive.

Perhaps this is a major cause of phenomena such as envy and resentment . In the run-up to their creation, the comparison with the respective advised person or group was presumably to the disadvantage of the person who drew the comparison.

Assuming that all people are selfish in themselves, an explanation for this reaction could be that at least unconsciously in the egoism of others, a "tip" is seen against the similar striving for the satisfaction of one's own needs. This would therefore trigger the (usually only secretly cherished) disapproval. Thomas Hobbes already saw the cause of such behavior in an actual ongoing struggle for resources in which everyone basically claims everything for himself.

Altruistic behavior also results from the phenomenon of egoism. At least one can observe that a person who generally behaves more generously also experiences a clearly positive reaction from his reward system. These people are therefore more likely to behave pleasantly towards others than people who have far less or no response.


Often egoism is reflected with the term elbow mentality in order to denounce the reckless behavior of individuals and groups with regard to their interests. The focus of the dispute is the question of whether reckless behavior can be prevented by social regulation. In this regard, opinions differ widely - depending on the (political-economic) worldview . While some are in favor of regulation because they believe that egoism in itself leads to reckless behavior, others hold the opposite opinion. In their view, ruthlessness and crime only arise through regulation, because this leads to a reduction in natural social skills. One reason for the discussion are different interpretations of the term “regulation”. This can be done through legislation but also through the exercise of social competence.

Institutions selfishness

Egoism can also relate to one's own group. Such “institutional egoism” often explains the behavior of those responsible for a particular institution under a dictatorship. So z. B. Church leaders seek to secure the existence of their own church. To do that, they were willing to adapt. Such adjustment steps do not express any ideological proximity to the ideology of those in power. In addition to adaptation, there can also be the opposite, namely a rejection of certain wishes of the government. The President of the Academy of Sciences in Vienna resisted certain requests, which would have restricted the Academy's scope for activity. With other expectations, which did not result in any disadvantages for the academy, however, there could be concessions. But even where the government's wishes are rejected in a dictatorship, this is not necessarily a fundamental resistance to the government and its ideology.


  • Max Stirner : Nothing beats me , from his main work The Single and His Property from 1845
  • Falco : The whole world revolves around me because I'm just an egoist. The person who is closest to me is me, I am an egoist (from: egoist )
  • Arthur Schopenhauer : The main and basic driving force in humans, as in animals, is egoism, i. H. the urge for existence and wellbeing. From The two basic problems of ethics from 1841 price writing on the basis of morality
  • Karl Friedrich Wilhelm Wander : If selfishness were an illness, one couldn't bear to moan in the streets.

See also


  • Immanuel Kant: Anthropology in a pragmatic way , §2 ("Vom Egoism" and "On the formality of egoistic language"), 1798, ISBN 3-15-007541-6
  • Thomas Leon Heck (Ed.): Das Prinzip Egoismus, Tübingen: Noûs Verlag, 1994 (Numerous smaller essays on the "Egoism Principle", including the conception of Western intellectual greats from Plato to today, and the egoism-altruism discussion in the Sciences)
  • Miller, Dale T. (1999): The norm of selfinterest . In: The American Psychologist, Vol. 54, No. 12, pp. 1053-1060
  • Marx, Karl (1845): On the Jewish question (Marx on (1) Bruno Bauer: "The Jewish question". Braunschweig 1843. (2) Bruno Bauer: "The ability of today's Jews and Christians to become free". "Twenty-one sheets der Schweiz ". Edited by Georg Herwegh. Zurich and Winterthur, 1843, 5.56-71.), Marx and Engels Works (MEW) Volume 1, especially p. 364ff. Comments on selfish people in bourgeois society.
  • Gabriele Lindner: Egoismus (pdf), in: Historical-Critical Dictionary of Marxism , Vol. 3, Argument-Verlag, Hamburg, 1997, Col. 31–40.

Web links

Wiktionary: Egoism  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations


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