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"
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Many people have injurious habits such as smoking, worrying, or self-defeating
- 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
- 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."
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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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."
- 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.")
- 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.
- 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
"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
*Sigmund Freud, The Interpretations of Dreams (New
York: Avon, 1966), 185.
Are Not Always Selfish": (this site) A
classic discussion of the many facets of ethical egoism in notes on James
"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.
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.