Handbook of Economics and Ethics
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Handbook of Economics and Ethics

Edited by Jan Peil and Irene van Staveren

The Handbook of Economics and Ethics portrays an understanding of economic methodology in which facts and values, though distinct, are closely interconnected in a variety of ways. From theory building to data collection, and from modelling to policy evaluation, this encyclopaedic Handbook is at the intersection of economics and ethics.
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Chapter 16: Egoism

John O’Neill


John O’Neill The term ‘egoism’ is used both to refer to a theoretical claim about human dispositions and to refer to a particular human disposition itself. Egoism as a theoretical claim can take two forms – descriptive and normative. Descriptively it refers to the claim that individuals are only concerned with their own interests. Normatively it refers to the claim that they ought to be only concerned with their own interests. This normative claim can be understood as an ethical claim – that it is morally right that individuals only pursue their own interests – or as a claim about rationality – that rational individuals ought only to pursue their own interests. Egoism is also used to refer to a disposition of character rather than a doctrine. One says that a person is egoistic or that they exhibit the virtue or vice of egoism. While the theoretical doctrines will be discussed below, this chapter uses the term primarily to refer to a disposition of character. Used as such it often appears in both empirical and normative discussions of market economies. The assumption that agents in market economies are egoists, concerned only with the pursuit of their own selfinterest, appears in both explanatory and normative claims about market economies. It appears in normative arguments that are critical of the scope of market economies and also in arguments in their defence. The perfectionist argument against markets from egoism One common argument against markets from egoism is a perfectionist argument that runs in outline as follows: 1....

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