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“Bernard Mandeville” oil 1702-1705 
(as identified by David Helberg, Arne C. Jansen) by John Closterman
National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG1261

Psychological Egoism

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

I. The distinction between psychological egoism and ethical egoism reflects the contrast of …
“is” verses “ought,”
“fact” verses “value,” and
“descriptive” verses “normative.”

  1. Psychological egoism is the empirical doctrine that the determining motive of every voluntary action is a desire for one's own welfare.

    This descriptive claim holds that acting in one's own interest is not necessarily acting selfishly (q.v., below), but the welfare or other persons of significance only in so far as it affects one's own interest.

    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 behaviorally 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 some common confusions 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 be educated, 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 notion of the “invisible hand” as a version of rational psychological egoism: Adam Smith, engraving by MacKenzie
U.S. Library of Congress Prints and Photographys Division LC-USZ62-17407
    “The rich only select from the heap what is most precious and agreeable. They consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own conveniency, though the sole end which they propose from the labours of all the thousands whom they employ, be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants; and thus, without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species.”

    [Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (London: A. Strahan et al., 1792), 466.]
    Note, as well, 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 resources and the knowledge of how to help others in ways that are appreciated and needed.

III. The Refutation of Psychological Egoism: The generalization that everyone acts from the motive of self-interest is either false or meaningless.

  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.

    Here are five situations which falsify the theory of psychological egoism.

    1. Many people choose and continue injurious habits such as smoking, worrying, or of other kinds of self-defeating behaviors.

    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 seeking personal benefit.

    3. Many people will react in such a manner that their action is done for the “heck of it.” I.e., their are actions done precisely because the actions are not in their self-interest. It is sometimes said we “cut off our nose to spite our face” when we are ineffectually self-destructive.

      Fedor Michajlovic Dostojevsky 1889
engraving Jan Vilimek
Humoristic Letters XXI no. 43
(October 25, 1889) Prague The Russian novelist Fyodor 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.

      [Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes From Underground trans. Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Random House,1993), Pt. VII.]
      Overwhelming depressive and anxious distress can lead to self-harm and self-injury.

    4. Some people will intentionally act against their self-interest in order to act in accordance with their conscience. They do what's right even though they know they will not personally benefit from the action.

    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 complete a term paper in anticipation of an grade which is in their long-term interest, 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 on the basis of how the term is defined, then this claim turns out to be a nonempirical claim — i.e. it's tautologous reasoning.

    1. By the way psychological egoism is defined, all possible counter-examples to the view have been ruled out in advance. Consider the following example of how this comes about:
      Suppose a soldier falls on a grenade in order to save the lives of his tactical unit. The psychological egoist would have to say that this action must have been in the dead soldier's interest, or, otherwise, the soldier would not sacrificed his life.

      How can the action of killing oneself be in one's own interest? We would have to conclude something like the soldier believed sacrificing his life was in his own interest. Perhaps his dying was preferable to his having to live the rest of his life with regret. Or perhaps he did so because he knew he would be thought of as a hero and be remembered as such.
      Notice how no matter what kind of action is set forth as a possible 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 said to be extensionally isomorphic with the class of actions. In other words, 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, q.v, the Dostoevsky quotation above from Notes from Underground) the claim of the psychological egoist is trivial. For “self-interested actions” to be a meaningful class of actions, we would have to know what kind of actions aren't self-interested actions.

IV. Interestingly enough, the same objections can be raised against the view termed, “psychological altruism”: the view that 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., Sigmund 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 The Interpretations of Dreams: Sigmund Freud photograph 1909 Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division LC-USZ62-139124
A contradiction to my theory of dreams produced by another of my women patients (the cleverest of all my dreamers) was resolved … 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.

[Sigmund Freud, The Interpretations of Dreams (New York: Avon, 1966), 185 (italics original).]

Further Sources

Altruism “In-built” in Humans: BBC report of discovery of altruistic behavior in infants summarized from the journal Science.

Butler, Joseph. “Sermon XI Upon the Love of Our Neighbour,”Fifteen Sermons, Preached at the Rolls Chapel (1726 London: Joseph Rickerby, 1836), 187-208. Also here: “Sermon XI Upon the Love of Our Neighbour,” (accessed July 15, 2022), The first edition of this work is available here: “Sermon XI: Upon the Love of Our NeighbourFifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel (London: W. Botham, 1726), 201-225. In this classic sermon, Bishop Butler inquires about the relationship between self-love and love or others which found philosophical discussions of the contrast of self-interest with altruism

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.

Feinberg, Joel. “Psychological Egoism,” in Ethical Theory: An Anthology ed. Russ Shafer-Landau, 2nd. ed. (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2013), 168-177. Also here: “Psychological Hedonism.” Discussion of the theory, support, critique, and unclear logical status of psychological hedonism.

May, Joshua. Psychological Egoism,” PhilPapers:Philosophical Archives (2011), also here: “Psychological EgoismInternet Encyclopedia of Philosophy n.d. (accessed July 15, 2022).

Mandeville, Bernard. “Human Beings are Selfish,” (this site) A reading selection from Mandeville's The Fable of the Bees where he praises selfishness as the origin of virtue and societal progress. Self-regarding actionshe claims, produce public benefits. See also notes on the reading “Mandeville: Human Beings Are Always Selfish

Mercer, Mark. “In Defence of Weak Psychological Egoism,” Erkenntis 55 (2001), 2017-237. doi: 10.1023/A:1012902007138 Mercer defends a weak version of psychological egoism that anything an agent does intentionally is done in the expectation of realizing self-regarding goals.

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

Slote, Michael Anthony. “An Empirical Basis for Psychological Egoism,” The Journal of Philosophy 61 no. 18 (October 1, 1964), 530-537. doi: 10.2307/2023495 (Access via your library or free registration with JSTOR). Slote argues the psychological egoism as an empirical theory is an open question despite the philosophical arguments concerning it. In fact, “[It] may well be true … that men who act consistently in a benevolent manner … would not be acting benevolently unless their selfish desires and/or interests were usually satisfied by their doing so.”

Sober, Elliott. Psychological Egoism in The Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory eds. Hugh LaFollette and Ingmar Persson 2nd. ed. (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell, 2013), 148-168. In this lucid account and explication of psychological egoism and motivational pluralism, Sober concludes the empirical evidence as well as the philosophical arguments leave the issues unresolved.

Tilley, John J. “John Clarke of Hull's Argument for Psychological Egoism,” British Journal for the History of Philosophy 23 no. 1 (January 2015), 69-89. doi: 10.1080/09608788.2014.986711 Tilley reconstructs and interprets Clarke's historically neglected argument for psychological egoism.

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