It’s not difficult now to find able moral philosophers such as TiborMachan, Tara Smith, Ayn Rand and others defending egoism as a viable normative ethical theory. My question is: supposing that I can get away with it, why shouldn’t I freeride if I take egoism to be correct? I am aware that only a minority of philosophers subscribe to egoism. Thus if I may ask a different but still connected question, does the injustice of freeriding prove that egoism is not practically livable?

An interesting question. There are a large number of rather tangled issues involved in thinking about egoism as an ethical theory. Let's take this as the claim that (for each of us) I should look out for my interests only (or primarily). The implicit contrast is that I should not sacrifice my interests to those of others. (I won't try to deal with the issue of whether the theorists you mention actually defend a pure form of egoism.)

A number of philosophers have argued that egoism of this kind cannot be an ethical theory. While I think the theory is fundamentally flawed, I'm not convinced that egoism is somehow impossible to live by. However, to be coherent, it does require some very challenging commitments.

Objection 1: Egoism is logical contradictory. If we accept that each person privileges their own interests, then we accept that, if my interests conflict with those of someone else ('Adam'), then Adam should seek to assert his interests over mine. But since I should assert my interests over his, how can I accept that he harms my interests by asserting his? I cannot rationally will both that I should assert myself, irrespective of the harm to other people, and that other people should assert themselves in a way that harms me. Therefore, egoism is incoherent unless it accepts constraints placed on us by the interests of others - which is no longer egoism.

Reply: We should reject the assumption that we have to find solutions to conflicts in life. The egoist is not *willing* other people to hurt him. He might instead say, 'Just let them try!'. However, he cannot feel resentment or disapproval of others hurting him in pursuing their own interests - on his own view, they have done nothing wrong. But he can fight back.

Objection 2: Egoism is only possible if it is not widely adopted. Egoists (and free-riders) rely on altruists in order to live as they say one should. Therefore, egoism is practically contradictory.

Reply: If this is true, it only shows that there cannot be too many egoists. There is no practical contradiction in me being an egoist; and as an egoist, I'm really not primarily concerned whether other people are or not - though, of course, I would prefer other people to be altruists! If egoism is a moral theory, then we have to reject, of course, the idea that a moral theory is something that everyone should follow. But is it true that egoism relies on altruism? Of course, being a free-rider depends on others being altruists. But maybe everyone could be an egoist (there's a further question of how happy that would make them!).

So, perhaps egoism is 'practically livable'. It will only be condemned as unjust by those who disagree with it - but that is often the case in disagreements over moral theory. And within the system of egoism, there is no reason not to free-ride if you can get away with it. (Of course, if egoism is simply the wrong ethical theory - viable or not - then there are reasons not to be an egoist and not to free-ride. But those aren't reasons that egoism recognises.)

Or perhaps, almost no reason not to free-ride. Some forms of egoism move very close to standard moral thinking by introducing ideas about long-term interests, retaliation and cooperation. If I'm going to meet you again, and may depend on your goodwill when we meet, then it is usually against my interests to take advantage of your altruism (you might take revenge or at least refuse to cooperate with me again). Instead, it is in my interests to reach some agreement with you about how to behave, but you will only agree if your interests are also protected. This leads to establishing a 'social contract', by which we agree to many of the fundamental rules of morality. With this development, the distinction between morality and egoism that privileges my 'long-term' or 'rational' interests over what I might want here and now starts to fade.

My own view is not that we can build morality out of rational egoism. It is that, from the start, egoism goes wrong in its view of the relationship between the self and others. Egoism assumes that my interests are distinct from the bonds that support altruism, so that egoism and altruism (and so traditional morality) are in conflict. This is simply false. We cannot give a realistic account of what is in our interests without mentioning all kinds of moral values that take account of our relationships to others. For instance, it is in my interests to achieve what is good or worthwhile (to live a worthwhile life), but achieving something by cheating is worth far less than doing so honestly. Aristotle argued that to live the best life, you must treat people in certain, morally good ways. Self-interest and morality are intertwined.

We can illustrate this with friendship. It is a very important part of leading a good, happy life that one has friends. But someone who is a friend just out of self-interest is not a real friend. She will miss out on the good things – the feelings, the character, the state of mind – that come from being a real friend. On the other hand, someone who does not find friendship a beneficial and important part of their life – who is a friend without feeling that they gain from it – is also missing out on what is important in friendship.

So seeking the best life for yourself *involves* recognising that other people matter. Failing to recognise the importance of other people means that our relationships with them will fail to be as good - for us - as they could be. We can also turn this around: a morally good person recognises that being morally good is good for them.

There is good empirical psychological evidence that altruism is good for you. Jonathan Haidt summarises some of this in his book 'The Happiness Hypothesis' (Ch. 8 might be of particular interest). So at least one very good reason why you shouldn't free-ride, and indeed why you shouldn't be an egoist, is that it won't make you as happy as becoming someone who is more altruistic and thinks about their relationships with others is a more positive, and less conflicted, light.

Read another response by Michael Lacewing
Read another response about Ethics