You are walking down a crowded street and a petite, old woman with grocery bags in her hand is walking towards you. The handles on her bag break and all her fruit goes tumbling down to the ground. You watch as people walk by, look at her and keep walking. Unlike them you stop and help her pick up the fruit. She simply looks at you with her warm, kind eyes and says, “Thank you”. You smile at her and then continue on your way feeling much betteryourself because you cared enough to stop and help.
Now, some people would say you were raised with manners and were being compassionate, but others would say you were being selfish because they believe in Psychological Egoism. Psychological Egoism is the belief that every thing you do has a hidden agenda behind it, to please yourself. No act of charity or humanity is done to better the world; it is done to better [SAL1]you. Much controversy has been stirred [SAL2]over what drives humans to act selfishly and unselfishly, or better yet [SAL3]what in itself is considered [SAL4]selfish. Philosophers dating as far back as Plato have discussed this very topic.
Plato, one of the earliest and most respected philosophers, wrote many dialogues held by others as well as himself[SAL5]. One of his most famous was The Republic in which he refuted Glaucon’s idea of what makes a person just[SAL6]. Glaucon believed that humans are just only because they do not have the guts to be unjust and pay the consequences. Glaucon states, “. . .no one is just willingly but under compulsion, so that justice is not one’s private good, since wherever either thought he could do wrong with impunity he
would do so”. Plato disagreed with Glaucon. Plato believed that everything is a “wannabe” of their ideal form, he called this the Form. [SAL7]The “ideal” form of a human is one who is a good, just, rational person. [SAL8]Plato believed that humans all strive to be like their Form and those who come the closest are better then [SAL9]those who don’t. So unlike Glaucon who thought humans are just only because they are to [SAL10]scared to be unjust, Plato believed those who are just are closer to being the model example of a human. [SAL11]
There are many arguments that are presented for and against the idea of [SAL12]Psychological Egoism. James Rachels in his book The Element of Moral Philosophy presents some of the leading arguments on both sides of the matter. A common argument used to support Psychological Egoism is the idea that our actions are conscious decisions we make ourselves. [SAL13]No one is twisting our arm to help the old woman who dropped her fruit; we want to help the old lady. Since we voluntarily chose to help her we were doing it for our own benefit. Perhaps we did it to get that “good feeling” afterwards. This argument seems to make sense, but do not be deceived because it has some flaws. Rachels points out that this argument assumes, “. . .people never voluntarily do anything except what they want to do” (68). When I take my dog for a walk I always take a plastic bag with me. I know my dog is going to go to the bathroom and I feel obligated to pick up his mess. Believe me I don’t want to do it but I do it anyways[SAL14]. So am I doing this for my own self-interest?[SAL15]
The argument has yet another problem according to Rachels. What if you did help the old lady for your own selfish desires[SAL16], would that be a bad thing[SAL17]? How could helping someone, even if you were doing it to help yourself, be selfish? Would that not be a conflict of interest? If helping others is an unselfish act then wouldn’t you be acting both selfishly and unselfishly at the same time? [SAL18]Yet obviously that is not possible which is precisely the problem with the argument.
Rachels also mentions another argument that is commonly used by Psychological Egoists. Remember that “good feeling” you got after helping that lady? Well, Psychological Egoists believe that is the reason you helped her. I don’t know how many people go around helping others just to get the “feeling” but I suppose there are some people who do. Just because one can feel goodhim/herself after helping someone does not make it[SAL19] the reason he or she did it. It is like when there is someone I like in one of my classes. I am more excited to go to class but that is not the reason I go. It’s an added bonus.
Just as there are arguments for Psychological Egoism, there are many arguments refuting its ideas. To say humans always act selfishly or based on their self-interests is a little presumptuous, as Rachels points out. We are not being selfish if we take a shower, eat breakfast, or go to sleep; we are just doing what needs to be done to maintain ourselves. A confusion that is also made[SAL20], “. . .is between self-interested behavior and the pursuit of pleasure” (Rachels, 71). To do something you enjoy like playing golf or drinking a glass of brandy is not always in your best interest. Brandy can be harmful to you; it will deteriorate your liver after a long period of time. So it would be safe to say it would be in your self-interest if you didn’t drink the brandy. Because you still drink it means that you are not acting in your self-interest but are doing what you enjoy. This means the bases of Psychological Egoism do not hold up, [SAL21]and that is Rachels’ point.
Many people buy into Psychological Egoism because it seems so believable and indestructible[SAL22]. It is an easy cookie-cutter explanation of human behavior. Rachels testifies [SAL23]that there is a deep down fall to Psychological Egoism. Rachels affirms the theory has, “ . . .the power of a controlling assumption: Once a hypothesis is accepted, everything can be interpreted to support it” (73). It would be easy to prove that all our actions can be selfish or motivated by self-interest, but that does not mean they are.
One believer in Psychological Egoism is Harry Browne. In “The Unselfish [SAL24]Trap” Browne discusses his views on selfishness. He [SAL25]considers the problem does not lie with selfishness but with the means that are taken to accomplish the goal[SAL26]. He, like many philosophers, believes there is a median [SAL27]between completely sacrificing yourself for others and self-serving[SAL28]. If everyone were unselfish who would there be to help? Unselfish people want to help others not to be helped[SAL29]. If there were no selfish people there would be no one for the unselfish people to help. But as children we are taught to share and not be selfish with our toys. Browne points out that we grow up thinking it is our duty to help others because we do not want to be selfish, and that is the unselfish [SAL30]trap. Browne recommends instead that we help ourselves; there isn’t anyone who knows us better. It is a waste of time and energy if our actions are not focused on making us happy. To serve both sides we should do things that make other people and us happy. “. . .it’s possible to create exchanges between individuals in which both parties benefit” (Browne, 462).[SAL31]
Ethical Egoism takes the idea that humans act based on their self-interest and takes it[SAL33] a step further. “Ethical Egoism is the idea that each person ought to pursue his or her own self-interest exclusively” (Rachels, 76). No one should try to help others; they should only focus on helping themselves. This is an extreme idea that has a polar opposite. The idea that we should always help others, and sacrifice ourselves for the greater good is the basis of Altruism. Many Ethical Egoists compare their beliefs with the beliefs of Altruism.[SAL34] Just like Psychological Egoism, there are many arguments for and against Ethical Egoism.
Ayn Rand who wrote The Virtue of Selfishness is a strong defender of [SAL35]Ethical Egoism. In an excerpt of her book, in Christina and Fred Sommers’ book Vice and Virtue in Everyday Life, [SAL36]Rand attacks Altruism and defends Ethical Egoism. Rand believes it is foolish to think that we have a moral obligation to help others who are in need or are suffering. She deems the only obligation we have is to ourselves. It is the idea of “survival of the fittest”; it is our fight to live. Like Browne, Rand believes that the fault in actions does not come from the desire to fulfill one’s self-interest, but from what was done to accomplish it.[SAL37] She believes that is how selfishness got such a bad wrap[SAL38]. There are many philosophers who disagree [SAL39]with Rand and have made arguments against her statements. One of these philosophers is Louis Pojman.
In his work “Egoism, Self-Interest, and Altruism”3, Pojman describes how Rand has presented a false dilemma. One does not have a purely Altruistic lifestyle or a purely Ethical Egoistic lifestyle either. There can be a balance of the two, and that is what Pojman is trying to prove. People who are Altruistic will not be happy because they will only fulfill the desires of others and not their own. Those who are Ethical Egoists will have a hard time finding Altruists who will sacrifice themselves for them because most people are not pure Altruists. Most people are somewhere in between. They believe in sharing and mutual benefits. If I do a favor for you, you do a favor for me. If you benefit from our deal, I also benefit from our deal. Pojman thinks the people who are in between are the one who will survive and have the best lives.
Like Pojman, Rachels also disagrees with Rand’s views on Ethical Egoism. He also believes Rand’s argument is a false dilemma. Rachels also [SAL40]presents more arguments that support and refute [SAL41]Ethical Egoism. One argument that is commonly used to support Ethical Egoism is an attack on Altruism. It steams [SAL42]from the belief of over stepping ones [SAL43]boundaries. If we try to help others we will be intruding in their lives and assuming that they can not live their lives correctly. We shouldn’t degrade other human being like that, therefore helping others is wrong. This may be plausible, but as Rachels points out this has nothing to do with Ethical Egoism[SAL44]. This is an argument against Altruism, not an argument for Ethical Egoism.
Another argument that has been made[SAL45], according to Rachels, is the idea [SAL46]that our moral values are all driven by our self-interests. We do not steal because we might be caught and sent to jail. It is not in our self-interest to go to jail so that is why we do not steal. The same can be said about many other common moral values. This argument seems to be very persuasive but it too has some flaws. Rachels brings to light the idea that just because we can route an action to a self-interest [SAL47]does not mean that is why we took that action.
There are varying arguments against Ethical Egoism pile up and in his book Rachels presents a few.[SAL48] One striking argument is that Ethical Egoism does not account for conflicts of interest. Imagine that someone you love has an illness. The only way you can cure them is by stealing the medicine from someone. Now, it is not in your self-interest to steal because you can go to jail, but it is in your self-interest to steal the medicine because you need it to cure the person you love. According to Ethical Egoism what should you do? The theory does not allow for conflicts of interest and that is a big problem. It also brings up yet another argument that “Ethical Egoism [i]s [l]ogically [i]nconsistant[SAL49]” (Rachels, 87). How can something be wrong and not wrong at the same time? That is where the inconsistency lies. But, this argument has its own flaw. An Ethical Egoist might not find a dilemma here [SAL50]and so there would be no inconsistency.
The last argument against Ethical Egoism that Rachels describes is how the theory is subjective. [SAL51]Why should we only look out for ourselves? Is there something so special about us that we should be held on a pedestal and everyone else in the world as secondary human beings?[SAL52] No, that is why Rachels feels, “We should care about the interests of other people for the same reason we care about our own interests; for their needs and desires are comparable to our own” (89). This seems like the moral thing to do, and after all don’t we all want to be moral human beings?
Morals are and always have been a complicated issue. We are raised with morals, told to obey the moral laws, we marry people with the same moral values that we posses[SAL53], and then pass on our moral values to our children. There have been many books written to teach people about morals and also stretch our beliefs on the subject. Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote “Why Not Murder?”4 to question the boundaries of moral laws. This story is about a poor man named Raskolnikov. He tries to be morally just by murdering an old, bitter, wealthy woman and stealing her money to give to less fortunate people. She didn’t deserve the money she possessed; it would be better of [SAL54]with people who worthy of the money. We all know to murder someone is a crime, but is it morally wrong if the outcome does more people good then [SAL55]harm. It is like Robin Hood who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. Raskolnikov was Robin Hood. Unfortunately things did not go as planed and Raskolnikov also ended up killing the woman’s innocent sister. Now his moralized murder has ended up being a double [SAL56]homicide. Does this prove that it is not possible to do something morally wrong for a just cause? The means must justify the end. [SAL57]When something or someone is sacrificed to help others, similar to the ideas of Altruism, it does not end up working out.[SAL58]
Altruism and Ethical Egoism are two extremes of the spectrum. Each case will continue to be supported and refuted by believers and skeptics. Soon there will be a theory that embraces the compromise of the two. Until there is a flawless universal idea about how human nature works there will be arguments about Egoism.[SAL59]
 This quote came from THE RING OF GYGES, which is from The Republic by Plato. It is also published in Vice and Virtue in Everyday Life (pgs 436-441) by Christina and Fred Sommers.
 “The Unselfish Trap” by Harry Browne is found in Vice and Virtue in Everyday Life (pgs.457-464) by Christina and Fred Sommers.
3 “Egoism, Self-interest, and Altruism” by Louis Pojman is found in Vice &Virtue in Everyday Life (pgs 481-486) by Christina and Fred Sommers
4 “Why Not Murder?” is from Crime and Punishment written by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It is also published in Vice and Virtue in Everyday Life by Christina and Fred Sommers.
[SAL1] 25 make you feel better?
[SAL4] 10, 22
[SAL5] 21 “held”? 22, 10
[SAL6] 10 justice
[SAL7] 4, 36
[SAL8] 10 “good, just, and rational”
[SAL10] 6 too
[SAL11] 36 You need to say a great deal more about Plato’s REASONS for thinking the model human is as he depicts!
[SAL13] 10, 32 This is “word salad” – acts are not the same as decisions.
[SAL14] 24 anyway
[SAL15] 38, 39
[SAL16] 10 If you helped …
[SAL17] 10 bad
[SAL18] 38, 39 Please do not use questions when you are writing philosophical argument. An argument is a set of statements.
[SAL20] 10, 22
[SAL21] 36 How? I don’t understand.
[SAL24] 6 Get the title right!
[SAL26] 9 what goal?
[SAL28] 32 serving self?
[SAL31] Critical analysis of Browne? He does NOT represent philosophers generally.
[SAL32] 32 Lots of words, but you don’t see to understand the basic difference between psych egoism and ethical egoism (one is descriptive, the other normative).
[SAL34] 44 are these ideas the only options? You seem not to realize that this rigid distinction is advocated only by ethical egoists and that it is a false dilemma according to most philosophers.
[SAL35] 10 strongly defends
[SAL38] 6 rap
[SAL39] 10 SIMPLIFY! “Many philosophers have argued against …”
[SAL40] 10 too many “also”’s
[SAL41] 32 you mean he’s contradicting himself?
[SAL44] 44 why not? If it’s true, doesn’t it support egoism, by showing that altruism (the only supposed alternative) is silly?
[SAL50] 36 why not?
[SAL56] 44 arguably triple – remember the sister is pregnant
[SAL57] 36 Please explain this!
[SAL58] 32 I am not sure what you mean exactly?
[SAL59] This shows work but not a full grasp of how the authors and arguments relate to one another. Also there are too many bloated sentences and distracting technical errors.
Deduction for tech errors: 10% (this is generous)