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Study Notes

Egoism

Level:
A Level
Board:
AQA, Edexcel, IB

Last updated 26 May 2019

Egoism, the most radical form of individualist anarchism, is closely associated with the German philosopher and social critic Max Stirner (1806-56).

Stirner's key ideas are set out in his major work The Ego and His Own (1845). For Stirner, humans are driven by egoism in the sense that they are self-interested, lack morality and want total personal autonomy. Individuals, he argues, should act in any way they see fit without any restrictions being imposed on them. As he puts it ‘I am everything to myself and I do everything on my own account’. Egoism therefore asserts that complete personal freedom requires the rejection of all forms of constraint including the state, social conventions, laws, moral codes and religion. All human actions, including those rationalised as being for the benefit of others, are actually undertaken for selfish motives. Indeed, egoism accepts altruistic acts precisely because such behaviour gratifies an individual’s self-image. Nihilism, the most extreme form of egoism, pushes this stark individualism to its limit. Sergei Nechaev (1847-82), a prominent nihilist, argues in The Revolutionary Catechism (1869) that the egoist is cut off from both morality and society:

"Heart and soul, not merely by word but by deed, he has severed every link with the social order and with the entire civilized world; with the laws, good manners, conventions, and morality of that world. He is its merciless enemy and continues to inhabit it with only one purpose - to destroy it. He despises public opinion. He hates and despises the social morality of his time, its motives and manifestations."

Predictably, Stirner regards any form of organised society as incompatible with individualism and personal autonomy. In his view, all human political and social institutions inevitably become oppressive and so have to be opposed to protect individual liberty. Nevertheless, egoism maintains that individuals, being rational and self-interested would form voluntary ‘unions of egoists’ when they needed to make agreements or cooperate in order to benefit themselves. Such unions, however, would not result in the loss of individual liberty or constitute a real society. Economic life under egoism rests on Stirner’s vision of the ‘unlimited dominion’ of individuals over the world. In short, there are no moral constraints on how a person might use objects and other humans (i.e. property). Thus the egoist conception of property is not based on the familiar notion of rights because Stirner rejects that the use of such ‘property’ should be exclusive or constrained.

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