Psychological Egoism and Ethical Egoism

Sandra LaFave

Psychological Egoism

Psychological egoism is the claim that people always act selfishly, to foster their own self-interest or happiness. Psychological hedonism is the claim that people always act to attain their own pleasure and avoid pain. Psychological hedonism is also called the “pleasure principle.”

In these notes, I’ll give arguments against psychological egoism. However, the same arguments apply against psychological hedonism. 

Is psychological egoism a fact (a true claim)? If it is true, ethics is in trouble, because most traditional ethical systems demand at least occasional altruism (unselfish behavior). If psychological egoism were true, altruism would not be possible. We would have to explain apparent (what appears as) altruism as self-interest. For example, we wouldn’t say Mother Teresa is altruistic; we’d say that she’s self-interested. She’s using the poor to attain her own long-term spiritual goals.

In fact, people who think psychological egoism is true (such as Thomas Hobbes and Ayn Rand) often use it as a premise in an argument to deny the validity of traditional ethics altogether:

1. (Psychological egoism): People always and invariably act to foster their own self-interest.

2.  Traditional ethical systems demand at least occasional altruism (non-self-interested behavior).

3.  In demanding altruism, traditional ethical systems are demanding the impossible. (They might as well demand that people fly.)

4. Any ethical systems that demands the impossible is silly and stupid.

5. Traditional ethical systems are silly and stupid.

6. We should adopt a more realistic system, ethical egoism, which demands that we pursue self-interest.

But psychological egoism is a surprisingly weak claim. If it is false, then the above argument against ethics is unsound. Here are some reasons not to take psychological egoism seriously.

Critique #1: Psychological egoism is not true, on face value, in a simple, naive sense. That is, it's easy to think of counterexamples — cases that falsify the generalization that all human acts are selfish, i.e., cases of people acting unselfishly. It certainly appears that people sometimes act in ways that are not in accord with their own interests: the soldier who falls on the grenade to save his buddies, the person who runs into the busy street to save a child about to be run over, etc. Psychological egoism is only true if you adopt what Rachels calls the strategy of redefining motives. That is, you insist on claiming that people are “really” acting selfishly even when they appear to be acting unselfishly.

But this strategy has two problems. First, if all human actions are self-interested, then “self-interested actions” become, by definition, identical with “actions”. That is, these two expressions denote exactly the same set of actions, and thus are substitutable for each other. It then becomes impossible to disprove the claim that all human actions are self-interested, because the claim, after substitution, becomes a vacuous tautology: “All human actions are human actions.”

Try to imagine what it would take to disprove the claim that all human actions are self-interested. The claim would be definitely disproved if we could come up with one human action that wasn't self-interested, i.e., a counterexample. But if by definition all human actions are self-interested, there can be no possible counterexample. If there are no possible counterexamples, then the claim “all human acts are self-interested” is not falsifiable. If the claim is not falsifiable, then according to the verificationist criterion, the claim is meaningless.

So the claim “all human acts are self-interested” is either tautologous (true by definition, and therefore uninteresting, like “All circles are round”) or unfalsifiable (and therefore meaningless).

Besides, even if the egoist still insists on claiming that all human acts are self-interested, the egoist must deal with the puzzling fact that some acts appear to be non-self-interested. Now the anti-egoist could say, “Okay, I still think you egoists are wrong to say there are no unselfish acts. But even if there aren’t any, your position is no threat to ethics. There are still the self-interested selfish acts and the self-interested acts that appear to be unselfish. Saying all human acts are self-interested doesn't make that empirical distinction go away. And that empirical distinction is where ethics can start. We’ll grant for the sake of argument that all human acts are self-interested, and then simply say that ethics sometimes demands that people perform those self-interested but seemingly unselfish acts.” The claim that all human acts are self-interested is no problem, as long as some acts appear altruistic. And they do.

Critique #2: Self-interest and interest in the welfare of others aren't necessarily incompatible. One might be perfectly self-interested and look out for the interests of others — e.g., a shopkeeper who never cheats his customers simply because he knows honesty is good for business.

Critique #3: Psychological egoism relies on an oversimplified conception of human motives. Of course it is true that we often get satisfaction or good feelings from acting unselfishly. But it is not necessarily true that we perform unselfish acts solely for the sake of that satisfaction. P1 commits a fallacy — assuming that given two events E1 and E2, E2 occurring after E1, that E2 was the intended result of E1. But everyone knows the following argument is not valid; it’s a kind of post hoc fallacy:

P1: E2 happens after E1

C: E2 is the intended result of E1. 

Suppose, for example, that you are a soldier and you save your friend's life in combat, and you also happen to receive a medal for that. Call E2 your receiving the medal, E1 your act of saving your friend's life. It does not follow from the fact that you received the medal (or self-satisfaction, or good feelings, or whatever) after saving your friend's life that your intention in saving him was to get the medal. Similarly, it doesn't follow that if you get some good feelings or self-satisfaction after saving your friend's life that you saved his life in order to get those good feelings. You didn’t save your friend in order to feel good; rather, you feel good because you saved your friend.

Another example: you see your child run into a busy street. A car is driving very fast toward the child. You see that you can save the child’s life if you run out into the street and grab the child in your arms. Realizing this, do you now stop and calculate how much happiness you’ll receive if you save the child? Do you say to yourself, “Gee, it would make me feel really good to save my child. So I guess I’ll do it!” No. You feel good after saving the child because you saved the child. You didn’t save the child in order to feel good.

In general, you feel good when you get things you already value. You don’t derive the value of something by estimating how good you’d feel if you had it. Its goodness doesn’t come from that; rather, your good feelings about having it come from the fact that you think it’s good, independently of whether you have it.


Ethical Egoism

Thomas Hobbes gives a version of psychological egoism in Leviathan; so does Thrasymachus, a character in Plato's Republic (Plato has Socrates disagree with him). Both Hobbes and Thrasymachus think that psychological egoism is true: that humans are, at best, indifferent to everything except what directly benefits them.  Thus, we must re-think our views about what’s moral. Hobbes and Thrasymachus urge a “new” normative ethics, which states that it is morally right to pursue self-interest and wrong not to. This view is called ethical egoism.

Hobbes argued that psychological egoism implies ethical egoism. In other words, Hobbes claimed that the following argument is sound:

P1: (Psychological egoism or hedonism): People always and invariably act as to foster their own self-interest, in accordance with self-love, or the “pleasure principle,” etc.

C: (Ethical egoism): People should always act so as to foster their own interests.

Ethical egoism has never been a mainstream view in ethics. Here are some counterarguments:

1.       The ethical egoist conclusion (“people should always act so as to benefit themselves”) not only does not follow from psychological egoism (the premise) but is actually inconsistent with it! The ethical egoist thinks we should pursue self-interest because we can’t help but do so. But if we must pursue self-interest, as the premise states, then what’s the point of saying we should? If psychological egoism is true, we can’t act any other way. In other words, ethical egoism only makes sense if psychological egoism is false, i.e., if we have a genuine choice.

2.       The premise of the argument (psychological egoism or hedonism) is highly questionable, for the reasons given in the first part of this handout. If you reject psychological egoism, then the argument for ethical egoism is unsound because its premise is false.

3.       Ethical egoists think that people will be happiest if they look out for themselves and not concern themselves with others But is this where true human happiness lies? Many other writers — e.g., Erich Fromm, John Stuart Mill, and most major world religions — claim that as a matter of fact, people who systematically disregard the interests of others are not as happy as people who maintain caring relationships. So, for example, selfish Mr. Burns on The Simpsons isn’t – can’t be – be as happy as Marge Simpson.

4.       Ethical egoists such as Ayn Rand often talk as though there’s a conflict between my happiness and the happiness of others. This seems just false. The happiness of others is not inconsistent with my happiness; in fact, the happiness or well-being of others might be a necessary component of my happiness. Happiness is not a zero-sum game: it’s not like there’s only so much happiness to go around, so that if I get some, somebody else loses some! This is what’s wrong with Harry Browne’s “big red ball” argument. It’s clearly a dubious analogy.

5.       It's not clear how an ethical egoist would act as a moral advisor or moral judge in cases where the egoist's happiness is involved. Suppose I am an ethical egoist, so I believe that everyone ought to act for his/her own benefit. Say Terry wants to have sex with you, and you’re thinking about it, but you're not really sure it's a good idea, so you and Terry discuss it. Suppose Terry knows it would be better for you if you didn't sleep with Terry; but Terry also thinks it would be in Terry’s interest if you did. Now you ask Terry what you should do. What answer does Terry give, supposing Terry is an ethical egoist? Remember Terry’s view is that everyone ought to act to benefit him/herself. Does Terry give you the advice that benefits you or the advice that benefits Terry? 

6.       Some writers say ethical egoism is ultimately inconsistent. To be inconsistent is to be guilty of self-contradiction. So the argument against egoism is that ethical egoists must ultimately contradict themselves. Since self-contradiction is a big problem in logic, showing that someone is guilty of it is an excellent refutation technique.

To show that egoists are guilty of self-contradiction, the argument is: suppose everyone were consistently selfish (selfish all the time), and, as often happens in life, some misfortune arises and the egoist now needs the unselfish help of another. If everyone is a consistent egoist, the egoist won’t get the help he needs. So in the interests of self-interest, an egoist must reject egoism, at least sometimes; in other words, the egoist must be inconsistent. The egoist really doesn’t want everyone to be selfish all the time, because ethical egoism, if adopted universally, would lead to undesirable social consequences.

Interestingly, in “Egoism and Moral Skepticism,” James Rachels argues that ethical egoism is not inconsistent. You can explore that interesting argument yourself.

7.       According to Rachels, the best argument against ethical egoism is its unacceptable arbitrariness. The egoist arbitrarily assumes his interests come before those of other people. But as a matter of fact, no one person matters that much more than others. Egoism is like racism. Racism assumes that the interests of one race count more than the interests of others, for no good reason (i.e., arbitrarily). Likewise, egoism assumes that the interests of one person count more than the interests of others, for no good reason.

How Egoism Might be True

Suppose there is some “deep” sense in which doing what is in your interest happens to be exactly the same as doing what's in the interests of others, such that if you consistently and conscientiously sought your own genuine interest, you'd automatically foster the interests of others. Plato thinks this is what would happen in a well-run state.  If you believe this and you want to call this ethical egoism, you can, but it’s now ethical egoism of a much deeper sort. (You could see it as a kind of egoism because you’re acting for your own happiness, but it’s not egoism at all in another sense, because you’re happy only if your loved ones’ interests are fulfilled.)

This “deep” egoism would also be true if seeking the good of others were, as a matter of fact, the major and most gratifying source of happiness for people. Is it? Note that this question (“What makes people happiest?”) appears to be empirical, and thus resolvable one way or the other using ordinary methods of observation and experiment. Do you think it's really an empirical matter? If it is, what are the facts?





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