Are All Voluntary Acts Selfish?
Here are two arguments for psychological egoism.
Premise 1: When people act voluntarily, they do what they want.
Premise 2: When people do what they want, they act selfishly.
("acting selfishly" = "doing what you want"; OR
“acting selfishly” = “doing what you want, all things considered”)
Conclusion: Therefore, when people act voluntarily, they act selfishly.
I.e., all voluntary acts are selfish. This view has a name:
Premise 1: When people act “unselfishly” they derive good feelings.
Premise 2: Getting these good feelings is people’s real motivation in acting
("acting selfishly" = "doing what makes you feel good")
Premise 3: When people act for the sake of deriving good feelings, they
Conclusion: Therefore, so called “unselfish” actions are really selfish.
Lines of attack to employ against these two arguments:
1. LOGIC: If the premises were all clear and true, would the conclusion have to be true? (Yes – if the premises were clear and true. But they’re not.)
2. CLARITY: Are the premises clear? Consider each premise carefully. Any impromptu definitions of key words? YES!
The table below shows the inadequacy of the psychological egoist's definition of "selfish." "OL" means "the ordinary language idea of."
Notice that OL "unselfish" and OL "selfish" people do exactly the same. BOTH do what they want. BOTH do what makes them feel good. The difference, then? OL "selfish" people and OL "unselfish" people WANT different things and feel good about different things.
And why does this point matter? The psychological egoist says "selfish" means "doing what one wants." But we've just seen that BOTH selfish and unselfish people do what they want. So the psychological egoist's definition of "selfish" can't be right, since it doesn't distinguish between selfish and unselfish people.
Similarly for the psychological egoist's other definition of "selfish" as "doing what makes one feel good." BOTH selfish and unselfish people do what makes them feel good. So the psychological egoist's definition of "selfish" can't be right, since it doesn't distinguish between selfish and unselfish people.
3. FACTS: Are the premises true? Any counterexamples? Consider each premise
carefully. There seem to be many counterexamples.
Another line of attack:
The claim that all voluntary acts are selfish is not falsifiable, i.e., it is compatible with all states of affairs. This puts it in the same class as statements of astrology, metaphysics, pseudo-science, etc.
People who defend psychological egoism often resort to the fallacy of unfair shifting of the burden of proof (“Prove I’m wrong”). Since the burden of proof by default falls on the affirmative, the defender of psychological egoism has the burden of proof, not the opponent.
If the opponent does not realize the burden of proof has been unfairly shifted, the opponent will find it impossible to prove psychological egoism is wrong, since it is compatible with all states of affairs. Then the defender of psychological egoism often resorts to another fallacy, the appeal to ignorance: “Your inability to prove I’m wrong proves I’m right.” Naturally, lack of proof or one’s inability to prove an arguer wrong does not make the arguer right. Lack of proof is just that: lack of proof. The fallacy of appeal to ignorance is very appropriately named, for the arguer appeals to ignorance of proof, not proof.
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