Egoism: Objectives and Readings

Psychological egoism is the claim that while people can be forced to act unselfishly, all voluntary acts are motivated by selfishness. On the face of it, psychological egoism seems just false, of course. What about people like Mother Teresa? The psychological egoist would answer that she, too, is really selfish. The psychological egoist would say things like "Mother Teresa just does what makes her happy"; or "Mother Teresa really just wants — for deep-seated psychological reasons (e.g., a rigid and punitive super-ego) — to appear extra-good"; or "Mother Teresa is just ambitious to be named a saint"; or "Mother Teresa wouldn't be able to sleep at night if she didn't help the poor, and she really likes to sleep", etc. So it follows, according to the psychological egoist, that even people who appear unselfish are really selfish.

Note that psychological egoism is a controversial claim of descriptive ethics: i.e., psychological egoism is supposed to be an empirical, informative claim — a "fact" about human psychology. If it is really an empirical, informative claim, we should be able to discern in some obvious straightforward way whether it is true or false. "All voluntary acts are selfish" is supposed to be as unproblematic as other empirical, informative claims, e.g., "Boise is the capitol of Idaho." Do you think psychological egoism is comparable?

Ethical egoism is the normative theory that we ought to promote our own interests and only our own interests; i.e., we should not promote the interests of others unless doing so is in our interest. Promoting our interests is the morally right thing to do. Again, whether or not ethical egoism is a reasonable ethical system depends what one construes as being "in one's interest," no? Judgments about value need to be settled before judgments about obligation.

A third major question in this section is: why should I care at all about being a moral person? In a way, this is the most fundamental question of ethics. Plato is the first philosopher who tries to answer it. Dostoevsky gives a fictionalized account of psychological dis-integration resulting from moral failure. Pojman gives a sociobiological answer: a secular "natural law" argument. All these answers appeal to a mature notion of self-interest — to what I call "deep egoism."

OPTIONAL: View online introductory lecture on egoism by Professor Lawrence Hinman of the University of San Diego.


After studying this material, you should be able to:

  1. Explain psychological egoism and explain arguments against psychological egoism.

  2. Explain ethical egoism and explain arguments against ethical egoism.

  3. Explain any "deep" sense in which ethical egoism might be a reasonable view.

You may write a paper on Egoism.

Week 11 Egoism Psychological Egoism and Ethical Egoism
Are All Voluntary Acts Selfish?
12 Ways to Be Perfectly Miserable
Rachels JR Ch 5 and 6
Plato "The Ring of Gyges"
Plato's Philosophy as a Reply to Glaucon's Challenge
Dostoevsky "Why Not Murder?"
Browne "The Unselfishness Trap"
Rand "The Virtue of Selfishness"
Pojman "Egoism, Self-Interest, and Altruism"
Writing a Paper on Egoism



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