The Concept of Egoism and War

egoism and war

In philosophy, egoism is the theory that one’s self is, or should be, the motivation and the goal of one’s action. Egoism has two variants, descriptive or normative. The descriptive (or positive) variant conceives egoism as a factual description of human affairs. That is, people are motivated by their interests and desires, and they cannot be described otherwise. The normative variant proposes that people should be so motivated, regardless of what presently motivates their behavior. Altruism is the opposite of egoism. The term “egoism” derives from “ego,” the Latin term for “I” in English. Egoism should be distinguished from egotism, which means a psychological overvaluation of one’s importance, or of one’s activities.

People act for many reasons; but for whom, or what, do or should they act—for themselves, for God, or the good of the planet? Can an individual ever act only according to her interests without regard for others’ interests? Conversely, can an individual ever truly act for others in complete disregard for her interests? The answers will depend on an account of free will. Some philosophers argue that an individual has no choice in these matters, claiming that a person’s acts are determined by prior events which make illusory any belief in choice. Nevertheless, if an element of choice is permitted against the great causal impetus from nature, or God, it follows that a person possesses some control over her next action, and, that, therefore, one may inquire as to whether the individual does, or, should choose a self-or-other-oriented action.

The Concept of Egoism

Ethical egoism can be broadly divided into three categories: individual, personal, and universal. An individual ethical egoist would hold that all people should do whatever benefits “my” (the individual) self-interest; a personal ethical egoist would hold that he or she should act in his or her self-interest, but would make no claims about what anyone else ought to do; a universal ethical egoist would argue that everyone should act in ways that are in their self-interest.

Proponents of Egoism

Ethical egoism was introduced by the philosopher Henry Sidgwick in his book The Methods of Ethics, written in 1874. Sidgwick compared egoism to the philosophy of utilitarianism, writing that whereas utilitarianism sought to maximize overall pleasure, egoism focused only on maximizing individual pleasure (Floridi, 2005).

Philosophers before Sidgwick have also retroactively been identified as ethical egoists. One ancient example is the philosophy of Yang Zhu (4th century B.C.), Yangism, who views wei wo, or “everything for myself”, as the only virtue necessary for self-cultivation (Senghaas, 2002). Ancient Greek philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics were exponents of virtue ethics, and “did not accept the formal principle that whatever the good is, we should seek only our good, or prefer it to the good of others.” However, the beliefs of the Cyrenaics have been referred to as a “form of egoistic hedonism”, and while some refer to Epicurus’ hedonism as a form of virtue ethics, others argue his ethics are more properly described as ethical egoism (Evans, 2004).

Descriptive and Psychological Egoism

The descriptive egoist’s theory is called “psychological egoism.” Psychological egoism describes human nature as being wholly self-centered and self-motivated. Examples of this explanation of human nature predate the formation of the theory, and, are found in writings such as that of British Victorian historian, Macaulay, and, in that of British Reformation political philosopher, Thomas Hobbes.

Opponents claim that psychological egoism renders ethics useless. However, this accusation assumes that ethical behavior is necessarily other-regarding, which opponents would first have to establish. Opponents may also exploit counterfactual evidence to criticize psychological egoism— surely, they claim, there is a host of evidence supporting altruistic or duty-bound actions that cannot be said to engage the self-interest of the agent (Feinberg, 1998). However, what qualifies to be counted as apparent counterfactual evidence by opponents becomes an intricate and debatable issue.

Normative Egoism

The second variant of egoism is normative in that it stipulates the agent ought to promote the self above other values. Herbert Spencer said, “Ethics has to recognize the truth, recognized in unethical thought, that egoism comes before altruism. The acts required for continued self-preservation, including the enjoyments of benefits achieved by such arts, are the first requisites to universal welfare. Unless each duly cares for himself, his care for all others is ended in death, and if each thus dies there remain no others to be cared for.”

Rational Egoism

Rational egoism claims that the promotion of one’s interests is always following reason (Rachel, 1995). The greatest and most provocative proponent of rational egoism is Ayn Rand, whose The Virtue of Selfishness outlines the logic and appeal of the theory. Rand argues that: first, properly defined, selfishness rejects the sacrificial ethics of the West’s Judaic-Christian heritage because it is right for a man to live his own life; and, Rand argues that, second, selfishness is a proper virtue to pursue.

Ethical Egoism

Ethical egoism is the normative theory that the promotion of one’s good is in accordance with morality. In the strong version, it is held that it is always moral to promote one’s good, and it is never moral not to promote it. In the weak version, it is said that although it is always moral to promote one’s good, it is not necessarily never moral to not. That is, there may be conditions in which the avoidance of personal interest may be a moral action.

Christian Position on Egoism

The Bible could be seen as advocating a similar view. ‘I’ must have faith because without it ‘I’ can’t be saved, and being saved is in my long-term interest. Does the Bible advocate ethical egoism?

The Model of Jesus argues against it

In laying down His life for creatures He made, Jesus had absolutely nothing to gain. Being God, he is in no way contingent upon us. Despite this, he willingly gave up the perks of being God, humbled himself, and became obedient unto death – even the death of a cross! Now, yes, because of this, at the name of Jesus, every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father. (Philippians 2:5-12) But remember, he was already God, so it wasn’t needed. So, from the standpoint of Jesus, the answer would have to be no.

Biblical Teaching argues against it

When Jesus said, “You must take up your cross, and follow me,” he did so knowing there would be no gain. When Jesus said, blessed are you when men shall persecute you and revile you for My name’s sake, he was being clear that this was not a path to power, riches, or fame (Geek, 2013). Even Peter admitted that the disciples had given up houses and family- and Jesus replied that they wouldn’t be paid back for any of those things in this life. So, from an instructional point of view, the answer must be no.

The definition of Love argues against it

Overall, the major theme of Johannine literature is the idea that people should be able to recognize Christians by their love. Love often involves a cost – As Jesus said, no greater love hath a man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. Jesus showed his love for us in this – that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us! Likewise, Paul explicitly defines love as something that “Seeketh not it’s own” (1 Cor 13). So, from a theological point of view, the answer would be no.

Original Sin suggests that grace overrides man’s choice anyway

Finally, far more Christians adhere to the Calvinistic doctrine of Total Depravity than its heretical opposite (which I now know to call Pelagianism). Total Depravity says that as a result of original sin, man’s will has a fundamental defect that prevents him from seeking God on his own. That man can be saved is an act of grace – unmotivated by selfish interest from a perfect God – and (as Paul says), not through any work, lest any man should boast. In other words – even if a man is inherently self-interested in the outcome of faith, it isn’t a choice he is even capable of making in the first place.

Concept of War

War is a state of armed conflict between societies. It is generally characterized by extreme aggression, destruction, and mortality, using regular or irregular military forces (Lindemann, 2010). Cicero defines war broadly as “a contention by force”; Hugo Grotius adds that “war is the state of contending parties, considered as such”; Thomas Hobbes notes that war is also an attitude: “By war is meant a state of affairs, which may exist even while its operations are not continued;” Denis Diderot comments that war is “a convulsive and violent disease of the body politic;” for Karl von Clausewitz, “War is the continuation of politics by other means”, and so on. Each definition has its strengths and weaknesses, but often is the culmination of the writer’s broader philosophical positions. War is not only warfare. It’s also a cultural entity, and its practice is not linked to any single type of political organization or society. It is the universal phenomenon whose form and scope are defined by the society that wages it (John Keegan, History of Warfare).

The English word war derives from the late Old English (circa.1050) words wyrre and werre, from Old French werre (also guerre as in modern French), in turn from the Frankish werra, ultimately deriving from the Proto-Germanic werzō ‘mixture, confusion’.

Theories And Causes of War

Psychological theories

Behavioral approaches. Human beings are inherently violent. This aggressiveness is fueled by displacement and projection where a person transfers their grievances into bias and hatred against other races, religions, nations, or ideologies. By this theory, the nation-state preserves order in the local society while creating an outlet for aggression through warfare (Gat, 2006).

Fornari focuses upon sacrifice as the essence of war: the astonishing willingness of human beings to die for their country, to give over their bodies to their nation.

Evolutionary psychology. This school tends to see war as an extension of animal behavior, such as territoriality and competition (Konrad Lorenz, On Aggression)

Biological theories

They see War as a particular feature of human beings. No victories over nature could inspire people like victory over another people” (Fry, 2009).

Demographic theories

Malthusian theory (named after Thomas Malthus) sees expanding population and scarce resources as a source of violent conflict (Fry, 2005).

Youth bulge theory. Its adherents see a combination of large male youth cohorts -as graphically represented as a “youth bulge” in a population pyramid -with a lack of regular, peaceful employment opportunities as a risk pool for violence. While Malthusian theory focuses on a disparity between a growing population and available natural resources, youth bulge theory focuses on a disparity between non-inheriting young males and available social positions within the existing social system of division of labor.

Sociological theories

The Primat der Innenpolitik (Primacy of Domestic Politics) school based on the works of Eckart Kehr and Hans-Ulrich Wehler, sees war as the product of domestic conditions, with only the target of aggression being determined by international realities.

The Primat der Außenpolitik (Primacy of Foreign Politics) approach of Carl von Clausewitz and Leopold von Ranke argues it is the decisions of statesmen and the geopolitical situation that leads to peace.

Rationalist theories

Rationalist theories of war assume that both sides to a potential war are rational, which is to say that each side wants to get the best possible outcome for itself for the least possible loss of life and property to its side. This is based on the notion, generally agreed to by almost all scholars of war since Carl von Clausewitz that wars are reciprocal, that all wars require both a decision to attack and also a decision to resist attack. Rationalist theory offers three reasons why some countries cannot find a bargain and instead resort to war: issue indivisibility, information asymmetry with an incentive to deceive, and the inability to make credible commitments.

Economic theories

War can be seen as a growth of economic competition in a competitive international system. In this view, wars begin as a pursuit of markets for natural resources and wealth. “Is there any man, is there any woman, let me say any child here that does not know that the seed of war in the modern world is an industrial and commercial rivalry?” (US. President Woodrow Wilson, September 11, 1919, St. Louis). (See William P. Avery and David P. Rapkin World Markets and Political Instability within less developed countries. Cooperation and Conflict).

Political science theories

There are several different international relations theory schools. Supporters of realism in international relations argue that the motivation of states is the quest for security. The democratic peace theory argues to contradict the realist view, that there is much empirical evidence to support the claim that states that are democracies do not go to war with each other (Fry, 2009).

Another major theory relating to power in international relations and machtpolitik is the Power Transition theory, which distributes the world into a hierarchy and explains major wars as part of a cycle of hegemons being destabilized by a great power that does not support the hegemons’ control.

Christian Position in War

Old Testament

In early Old Testament times war was often seen as a holy war, a conflict initiated and led by God. Such a war was declared by God, Himself (Exodus 17:16; Numbers 31:1-3, 1 Samuel 15:1-3), and every facet of war had religious significance. Sacrificial rites were performed to ensure God’s continued support (1 Samuel 7:8-10; 13:9). The sacred ark of the covenant, symbolizing the presence of God, was often taken into battle (1 Samuel 4:3). Later in Israel’s history, the prophets began to see the terror of war as God’s judgment against his people for their sins, and the glory of war faded (Habakkuk 1:5-11, Jeremiah 21:3-7). Israel began to look to the day when the endless cycle of war would be broken: (Isaiah 2:3-4).

New Testament

In the New Testament, war is universally seen as evil and Jesus emphasized peace instead. He advised us to avoid retaliation and revenge and to extend our love even to our enemies. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well… (NIV, Matthew 5:38-45). The apostle Paul and other New Testament writers echoed Jesus’ sentiment and expanded on it. Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men… (NAS, Romans 12:17-21).

Despite the immense evil of war, Jesus said it is inevitable that wars will continue until He returns (Mark 13:7-8), and He did not oppose earthly governments or their right to maintain armies (Matthew 8:5-10). Other New Testament passages accept the necessity of maintaining armies and the worthiness of military occupations (Luke 3:14, Acts 10:1-6).

Just War Theory

The Christian ideal is the total elimination of war and brotherly love among all people. However, in this imperfect world, war may be forced on those who do not desire it. Christian theologians St. Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430) and St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) are primarily responsible for formulating the theory of the Just War which has remained the majority Christian approach to war to this day. There are many variations on the just war theory, but these are the basics (Spencer, 2007):

  • There must be a just cause for the war.
  • Every possible means of peacefully settling the conflict must be exhausted first.
  • There must be serious prospects of success; bloodshed without hope of victory cannot be justified.
  • The war must be declared by a legitimate authority. Private individuals or groups should seek redress of their rights through their governments, not by acts of war.
  • The war must not cause greater evil than the evil to be eliminated.
  • Non-combatants (civilians) must not be intentionally harmed.
  • Prisoners and conquered peoples must be treated justly.

Christian Pacifism

Pacifism, the opposition to all war, is a minority view throughout Christianity but is the dominant belief in some denominations such as Mennonite and Society of Friends (Hedges, 2007). Pacifists take their example from Jesus who never resisted His persecutors. When the mob came to arrest Jesus, one of His followers tried to defend Him with a sword. But Jesus said, “Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.” (NAS, Matthew 26:52-53). Many of Jesus’ apostles and other followers were also martyred for their faith but never used violence to resist their fate.


In conclusion, A justification for pacifism is the belief that the kingdom of God is set apart from the world (Matthew 5:20, 7:13-14, John 18:36). The world will continue in the sin of all kinds, including war (Matthew 24:6-7, Mark 13:7-8), but those who truly belong to the kingdom of God are called to put their total trust in God (Matthew 10:28, John 14:1) and to obey all of Jesus’ teachings (Matthew 7:21, 28:18-20, Luke 6:46, John 14:15, 15:10), including His teachings against violence.


Evans, Matthew (2004). “Can Epicureans be friends?” Ancient Philosophy.

Feinberg, Joel (1998). “Psychological Egoism” in Ethics: History, Theory, and Contemporary Issues. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Floridi, Luciano; Craig, Edward (2005). “Egoism and Altruism”. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Taylor & Francis.

Fry, Douglas P., (2005), The Human Potential for Peace: An Anthropological Challenge to Assumptions about War and Violence, Oxford University Press.

Fry, Douglas. (2009). Beyond War. Oxford University Press.

Gat, Azar (2006). War in Human Civilization, Oxford University Press.

Geek, Affable (2013). Does the Bible advocate ethical egoism? Christianity. February, 15.

Hedges, Chris. 2007. American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. Free Press.

Lindemann, Thomas (2010), Causes of War. The Struggle for Recognition Colchester, ECPR Press

Rachels, James (1995). Elements of Moral Philosophy. McGraw-Hill: London.

Senghaas, Dieter (2002). The clash within civilizations: coming to terms with cultural conflicts. Psychology Press. Spencer, Robert (2007). The religion of Peace? Why Christianity Is and Islam Isn’t, Regnery Publishing.

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