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.”
II. By way of clarification of relevant terms, James Rachels, among
others, points out some common
confusions concerning selfishness and self-interest.
- Psychological egoism is the empirical doctrine that the
determining motive of every voluntary action is a desire for one's
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.
- 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 behaviorally 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
- If ethical egoism is to be regarded as a theory, it must be
universalized to hold for all persons.
III. The Refutation of Psychological Egoism: The generalization that everyone
acts from the motive of self-interest is either false or meaningless.
- 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
- 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 notion of the “invisible hand” as a version
of rational psychological egoism:
“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
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.
[Adam Smith, The
Theory of Moral Sentiments (London: A. Strahan et al., 1792),
- 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
Here are five situations which falsify the theory of psychological egoism.
- Many people choose and continue injurious habits such as smoking,
worrying, or of other kinds of self-defeating behaviors.
- 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
- 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.
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.
Overwhelming depressive and anxious distress can lead to self-harm
[Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes
From Underground trans. Larissa Volokhonsky (New York:
Random House,1993), Pt. VII.]
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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
- 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.”
- 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
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.”)
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.
- 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.
Consider the following passage from Freud's The Interpretations of
“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).]
“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
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 Neighbour
” Fifteen 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
: (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
,” in Ethical Theory: An Anthology
Shafer-Landau, 2nd. ed. (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2013), 168-177.
Also here: “Psychological
.” Discussion of the theory, support, critique, and
unclear logical status of psychological hedonism.
May, Joshua. Psychological
,” PhilPapers:Philosophical Archives
also here: “Psychological
” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
(accessed July 15, 2022).
Mandeville, Bernard. “Human Beings are
,” (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
(2001), 2017-237. doi:
Mercer defends a weak version of psychological egoism that
anything an agent does intentionally is done in the expectation of realizing
“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
,” The Journal of Philosophy
18 (October 1, 1964), 530-537. doi:
(Access via your library or free registration with
). 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
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
Journal for the History of Philosophy
23 no. 1 (January 2015), 69-89.
Tilley reconstructs and interprets Clarke's
historically neglected argument for psychological egoism.