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Psychological Egoism Sigmund Freud (source: Library of Congress)

Abstract:  Psychological egoism, the view that people act solely in their own interest, is defined and shown not to be a meaningful ethical philosophy.

I.  The distinction between psychological egoism and ethical egoism reflects the contrast of "is" verses "ought," "fact" verses "value," or "descriptive" verses "prescriptive."

  1. Psychological egoism is the empirical doctrine that the determining motive of every voluntary action is a desire for one's own welfare. On this view, even though all actions are regarded as self-interested actions, the egoist readily points out that people usually try to conceal the determining motives for their actions because such concealment is usually in their self-interest.


    1. Psychological egoism is a descriptive theory resulting from observations from human behavior. As such, it can only be a true empirical theory if there are no exceptions. In science, a purported law only needs one disconfirming instance to disprove it.


    2. Psychological egoism makes no claim as to how one should act. That all persons seek their self-interest on this theory is a purported fact, and this belief is viewed by the psychological egoist as nonmoral and verifiable.


  2. Ethical egoism is the normative or prescriptive doctrine that each individual should seek as an end only that individual's own welfare. The idea here is that an individual's own welfare is the only thing that is ultimately valuable for that individual.

    1. Ethical egoism does not claim that all persons, in fact, seek their own self-interest; ethical egoism only claims that we should or ought seek our self-interest, even though all persons might not do so.


    2. If ethical egoism is to be regarded as a theory, it must be universalized to hold for all persons.


II. By way of clarification of relevant terms, James Rachels, among others, points out common confusion concerning selfishness and self-interest.

  1. Actions in self-interest are not necessarily selfish actions. For example, it is in your self-interest to obey the law, to exercise, and to enroll in college, but no one would claim that it is selfish for you to do so.


  2. Actions in self-interest and actions for the interest of others are not exclusive categories of action. That is, it is false that every action is done from either self-interest or other-regarding motives. Some people smoke or eat too much, and these actions are not clearly in either category of actions.


  3. Actions in self-interest are not necessarily incompatible with the interest of others. For example, it is in your self-interest for everyone to be happy (cf., Adam Smith's "unseen hand"). If you are to help others, you must first be in a position to do so. I.e., in many instances, you have to help yourself first to obtain the knowledge of how to help others.


III. The Refutation of Psychological Egoism: arguments to the conclusion that the generalization everyone acts from the motive of self-interest is false. 

  1. Psychological egoism as an empirical theory commits the fallacy of hasty generalization or converse accident. The descriptive psychological law that all persons act from the motive of self-interest is false because there are many disconfirming instances.

    1. Many people have injurious habits such as smoking, worrying, or self-defeating behavior.


    2. Many people do their duty when their self-interest lies elsewhere. Many people will help someone in need without thinking of self-gain. Many people will follow religious precepts without personal benefit.


    3. Many people will react in such a manner that their action is done for the "heck of it."  I.e., some actions are performed precisely because they are not in our self-interest. We "cut off our nose to spite our face." Dostoevsky writes, "And what if it so happens that a man's advantage, sometimes, not only may, but even must, consist in his desiring in certain cases what is harmful to himself and not advantageous.


    4. Some people will act against their self-interest so that they can follow their conscience. They do what's right even though they won't personally benefit.


    5. Almost everyone will act against their short-term self-interest in order to obtain a greater long-term self interest. Students will stay up all night to get a term paper done even though the short-term effects are disadvantageous (loss of sleep, lack of attention in class, altered circadian cycle, and so forth).


  2. If psychological egoism is claimed to have no disconfirming instances from the definition of the term, then the generalization turns out to be a tautology or trivially true statement.


    1. By the way psychological egoism is defined, all possible counter-examples have been ruled out. This marks the theory meaningless. Suppose a soldier falls on a grenade to save his buddies. The psychological egoist would say the action can be said to be in the interest of the soldier because he could not live with himself if he did sacrifice his own life or he did so because he would go out as a hero and so forth. No matter what action is set forth as an exception to the generalization, we can always rationalize that the action was a self-interested one.


    2. Hence, because there is no empirical test to confirm an action not in self-interest, the claim is empty of factual content. The class "self-interested actions" is extensionally isomorphic with the class of actions. In other word, the claim that all actions are self-interested actions (i.e., the claim of psychological egoism) is logically equivalent to the claim that "All actions are actions."


    3. Since any possible counter-example is assimilated to "self-interested actions" (even self-defeating behaviors) the claim of the psychological egoist is trivial and meaningless. For "self-interested actions" to be a meaningful class of actions, we would have to know what kind of actions isn't self-interested.


IV. Interestingly enough, the same objections can be raised against the view termed, "psychological altruism": all persons act from the motive of helping others, and all actions are done from other-regarding motives. (Psychological altruism is a view advanced only from the position of a "devil's advocate.")

  1. In the most selfish act we can always rationalize an altruistic motive. E.g., littering can be viewed as done as a public service in order to help unskilled workers keep their jobs.


  2. Pari passu with psychological egoism, if we can't find the altruistic motive in all actions, it is claimed we just haven't thought deeply enough.


V. As a final note, it should be mentioned that psychological egoism can't be saved by psychoanalytic theory. I.e., Freud's notion of the unconscious raises the possibility that we have unconscious desires and can act against our conscious inclinations. If it is argued that we always unconsciously seek our self-interest, then this view is untestable and circular as well.

Consider the following passage from Freud's Interpretations of Dreams*:

     "A contradiction to my theory of dream produced by another of my women patients (the cleverest of all my dreamers) was resolved more simply, but upon the same pattern: namely that the nonfulfillment of one wish meant the fulfillment of another.  One day I had been explaining to her that dreams are fulfillments of wishes. Next day she brought me a dream in which she was traveling down with her mother-in-law to the place in the country where they were to spend their holidays together.  Now I knew that she had violently rebelled against the idea of spending the summer near her mother-in-law and that a few days earlier she had successfully avoided the propinquity she dreaded by engaging rooms in a far distant resort.  And now her dream had undone the solution she had wished for;  was not this the sharpest contradiction of my theory that in dreams wishes are fulfilled? No doubt;  and it was only necessary to follow the dreams logical consequence in order to arrive at its interpretation.  The dream showed that I was wrong.  Thus it was her wish that I might be wrong, and her dream showed that wish fulfilled (italics original)" 

*Sigmund Freud, The Interpretations of Dreams (New York: Avon, 1966), 185.


Recommended Sources

"We Are Not Always Selfish":  (this site) A classic discussion of the many facets of ethical egoism in notes on James Rachel's work.

Altruism "in-built" in humans:   BBC report of discovery of altruistic behavior in infants summarized from the journal Science

"Studies Show Chimps to Be Collaborative."
: A summary of an article from Science News describing research indicating that chimpanzees cooperate without the expectation of reward.

"Egoism": Explanation of egoism and altruism with a brief summary of refutations and defenses excerpted from Richard Kraut's "Egoism" in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Ethical Egoism: (this site)  The various forms of ethical egoism are defined. Standard objections to ethical egoism are evaluated, and the conclusion is drawn that ethical egoism is incomplete.

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