James Rachels: Egoism and Moral Sceptism

March 2, 2009

Book: Contemporary Moral Problems by James E. White (7th Edition)

Library Reference: N/A

Amazon Reference:


Quote: “The legend of Gyges is about a shepherd who was said to have found a magic ring in a fissure opened by an earthquake. The ring would make its wearer invisible and thus would enable him to go anywhere and do anything undetected. Gyges use the power of the ring to gain entry to the Royal Palace where he seduced the Queen, murdered the King, and subsequently seized the throne.”


This chapter talks about ideas coming from an American philosopher named James Rachels, who happen to be well-known in the field of ethics. At the first few paragraphs of the chapter, Rachels discussed something about egoism and moral sceptism. He was able to distinguish and determine the commonalities of the two – both of them are quite insignificant. There were some parts of her discussions that he tried to object, making her responses from psychological egoist’s claiming that people never act in unselfish manner – they react on things they think what they are doing is something that the ‘majority’ would usually does.

Rachels also explained and argued that it is the object of an action that creates meaning or determines whether a certain action is selfish or not. She argued that if people want to prosper on the way they think and on the way they live, they should do certain action, based on their desires, without turning the situation in a selfish act.

In this chapter, it was also discussed how egoists react on Rachels’ stand. It would still be a question why would people become so ‘big-hearted’ in the first place; well in fact, there’s no reason at all in the first place. However, what Rachels standpoint makes everything clear. She talked about the welfare – the human welfare that we need – which is something we must possessed and we must value. There should be reasons why would a person do something or perform something, thinking if he would allow himself others or not.

According to Rachels, the best argument against ethical egoism is its unacceptable arbitrariness. The egoist finds his interests come before those of others but in fact, no person matters that much more than others – a selfish act. Just as well as explained, egoism is like racism. Racism assumes that the interests of one race count more than the interests of others, for no good reason.

Self interest is something that should be highlighted in this chapter. No matter how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ we execute our tasks or actions, at the end of the day, we shouldn’t feel guilty about it. What is done is done. If egoists would reject with what Rachels wanted to point out, probably, that person never cares at all. That kind of person won’t be bothered whether his actions brought something that could affect other people in different ways.

What I’ve learned:

  • Egoism is a selfish act, based on what I’ve understood.
  • Whether it is ethical or not, egoism is still egoism
  • There are two kinds of egoism: psychological and ethical egoism
  • Egoism creates a kind of ‘leveling’ for two parties/individuals.


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