INTRO TO PHIL HOME
|Philosophy 102: Introduction to
Rachels, "Humans Are Not Always Selfish"
1. Distinguish psychological egoism from ethical egoism.
2. What are Rachels' arguments against the view that all acts are done
3. If one derives satisfaction from helping others, does it make one
selfish? Why or why not?
4. What are the three common confusions about psychological egoism?
5. State the argument against ethical egoism relating to its inability
to be universalized.
6. Is there any telling argument against ethical egoism?
When we think of ethics, one of the first things we think of is our duty to help others
and not thinks so much of ourselves.
- In fact, a large measure of effort is spent in growing up to resist the natural instinct
to act in our own self-interest without first thinking of the other person.
- Yet, there is another side to ethics also. We have the right, and many say the duty, to
make ourselves the best that we can be--i.e., to realize our potential.
Often, we would like to help others, but because of lack of
self-development, we are unable to do so. We have to help ourselves first in order to be
in a position to help others. This is a reason why many persons go to college. How much
help would a person be able to give in the Peace Corps, if that person did not know the
language and customs of the country and basic information about nutrition, health, and
- Psychological egoism: the doctrine that everyone acts from the motive of
self-interest. Occasionally, the doctrine is initially defined in terms of selfishness or
doing what one wants.
1. This doctrine is a descriptive generalization of "what is" apart from what
ought to be.
2. It's a descriptive generalization, much like a law in social science. For example, on
this view, if I find a wallet and I keep the money, I do so from self-interest.
Nevertheless, if I find a wallet and I return the money, I also do so from self-interest
(because in the second case, my sense of honor or honesty is worth more to me than the
money in the wallet).
- Ethical egoism: the doctrine that everyone ought to act from the motive
1. This doctrine is a prescriptive generalization as to what "ought" to
be, rather than what "is."
2. Consider the difference between the descriptive law of gravity (which we cannot choose
to disobey) and the prescriptive law of a speed limit (which we can choose to disobey).
|2. What are Rachel's
arguments against the view that all acts are done for self-interest?
- Rachels argues that sometimes people ordinarily do what they do not what to do. For
- Actions which are means to an end--going to college in order to get a good job,
working to get a paycheck, going to the dentist, exercising, and so forth.
- Actions which are a result of an obligation or a duty--keeping promises,
studying, staying in good health, and so forth.
- Certainly as part of the answer to this question, we would have to include the answers
to questions 3 and 4: what "selfishness" is and how that differs
|3. If one derives
satisfaction from helping others, does it make one selfish? Why or why not?
- We can't say
that every act is selfish since it is done by an agent because this descriptive
generalization would make "act" and "selfish act" extensionally
1. The word "selfish" would lose all meaning because there would be, by
definition, no act that is not selfish. The descriptive law would not be empirical; the
law would be a tautology.
2. Consider the baby who calls everything a duck. If the word "duck" stands for
anything, we would say that he did not know what the word meant.
- Following the maxim, then, "when in difficulty, make a distinction," we can
distinguish between "selfishness" and "non-selfishness" by looking at
the object of the want in the action of an individual.
1. If I want something for myself, the action is selfish.
2. If I want something for someone else, then even if it gives me pleasure, the act is not
- After all, as Rachels writes, isn't the unselfish person precisely the one who derives
satisfaction from helping others? The selfish person would be the one who helps
|4. What are three common
confusions about psychological egoism?
|1. The confusion of selfishness with
||If we can find action that is one of these
and not the other, these are distinct concepts: coming to class, buying a car, brushing
your teeth, and so on.
|2. Confusion that every action is done from
either (1) self-interest or (2) other regarding motives.
||That is, there are many actions that are
done from neither motive: e.g., drinking, doing an action for the sake of the action,
duty, watching TV, and so on.
|3. Confusion that concern for one's own
welfare is incompatible with the welfare of others.
||We can wish both parties well without
contradiction. Actions that fit into this category include doing dishes, being honest,
learning all that you can, picking up a nail from the road, and so on.
|5. State the argument
against ethical egoism relating to its inability to be universalized.
- If I am an ethical egoist, then it is in my interest not to tell others. I.e., it
is not in my own interest to tell others I act from self-interest. (Many persons avoid or
try to get even with selfish people; avarice breeds avarice.)
- The rational egoist, then, cannot advocate that egoism be universally adopted precisely
because that would be an action not in his self-interest.
- To say that an action is right is to say that it is right for anyone in that position.
But the egoist cannot want others to act as he does because this is not in his
- Hence, ethical egoism cannot be an ethical theory because any theory must be
universalizable, or it is not a theory.
|6. Is there any telling
argument against ethical egoism?
- As a theory, it is false since it cannot be generalized without contradiction.
- As a practical doctrine, it cannot be shown to be inconsistent--a practice is not
normally said to be logically consistent or inconsistent.
- If the egoist genuinely believes that doing harm to others is fine, then there is no way
to convince him otherwise because that is his fundamental attitude toward life. There is
no common ground for argument.
1. There is just a disagreement in belief. The attitude of
the egoist is that other persons are not important.
2. The best that we can do is to try to show that this practical doctrine is false in
practice empirically. Namely, his life won't be as happy since others will oppose him or
his soul will not be centered (cf., the Socratic