Psychological egoism

Psychological egoism

Psychological egoism is the view that humans are always motivated by self-interest, even in what seem to be acts of altruism. It claims that when people choose to help others, it is ultimately because of the personal benefits they themselves expect to obtain, directly or indirectly, from doing so. It is a non-normative view, since it only makes claims about how things are, not how they ought to be. However, it is related to several other normative forms of egoism, such as "ethical egoism" and "rational egoism".

The most prominent form of psychological egoism is "psychological hedonism", the view that the ultimate motive for all voluntary human action is the desire to experience pleasure or to avoid pain. Many of the discussions of psychological egoism focus on this variety. The two are not the same, however: one can hold that all actions are ultimately motivated by considerations of self-interest, without thinking that all agents conceive of their self-interest in terms of feelings of pleasure and pain. [Shaver (2002); Moseley (2006). A possible (though controversial) example of someone that holds such a view would be Aristotle, who asserts that the ultimate aim of all actions is the agent's eudaimonia, or happiness, but who denies that all people think that happiness consists solely in pleasure and the absence of pain.]

Psychological egoism is controversial. Proponents often argue that it is true either because reflection upon human psychology reveals such (e.g. Bentham, 1789) [Thomas Hobbes is also often read as a psychological egoist. However, this is fairly controversial, especially whether he used it to ground his moral theory. See Gert (1967) and Lloyd & Sreedhar (2008).] or that it is empirically supported (e.g. Slote, 1964). Critics often argue that it is false either because it as an over-simplified interpretation of behavior (e.g. Butler, 1726; Hume, 1751; Nagel, 1970) or that there exists empirical evidence of altruistic behavior (e.g. Baston, 1991). Recently, some have argued that evolutionary theory provides evidence against it (e.g. Sober and Wilson, 1998).

The problem of apparent altruism

Psychological egoism may seem at first to be obviously false, because there are many acts that appear to be altruistic which are common and well known (e.g. self-sacrifice, gratuitous help). As David Hume once wrote: "What interest can a fond mother have in view, who loses her health by assiduous attendance on her sick child, and afterwards languishes and dies of grief, when freed, by its death, from the slavery of that attendance?" (1751, Appendix II). It seems incorrect to describe such a mother's goal as self-interested. However, psychological egoists respond that helping others in such ways is ultimately motivated by some form of self-interest, such as the expectation of reciprocation, the desire to gain respect or reputation, or by the expectation of a reward in a putative afterlife. The helpful action is merely "instrumental" to these ultimately selfish goals. This sort of explanation appears to be close to the view of La Rochefoucauld (1691) (and perhaps Thomas Hobbes, 1650). However, there are many acts of apparent altruism that do not immediately appear to admit an account of this kind.

The proponents of psychological egoism nevertheless consider that apparently altruistic acts are in their essence selfish or self-interested. They claim that such acts are merely instrumental to some ultimately self-interested motive. According to psychological hedonism (a form of psychological egoism), for example, the "ultimate" egoistic motive is to gain good feelings of pleasure or to avoid bad feelings of pain. However, other less restricted forms of psychological egoism may allow the ultimate goal of a person to include such things as avoiding punishments from oneself or others (such as guilt or shame) and attaining rewards (such as pride, self-worth, power, or reciprocal beneficial action).


Explanatory power

But even accepting the theory of the universal "good feeling", it is difficult to explain, for example, the actions of a soldier who sacrifices his life by jumping on a grenade in order to save his comrades. In this case, there is simply no time to experience a "good feeling" for one's actions, though a psychological egoist may argue that the soldier experiences "good feeling" in knowing that he is sacrificing his life to ensure the survival of his comrades, or that he is avoiding the pain associated with the thought of all his comrades dying. Psychological egoists argue that although actions might not effectively cause pleasure or avoidance of pain, one's contemplated or reactionary expectation of this is the main factor of the decision. When a dog is first taught to sit, he is given a biscuit. This is repeated until finally, the dog will sit without requiring a biscuit. Psychological egoists could also claim that the actions which do not directly result in a good feeling (or biscuit) are not dissimilar from the actions of the dog. People still sit, or jump on the grenade simply because a similar action in the past resulted in a gooddubious


Finally, psychological egoism has also been accused of using circular logic: "If a person willingly performs an act, that means he derives personal enjoyment from it; therefore, people only perform acts that give them personal enjoyment". In particular, seemingly altruistic acts must be performed because people derive enjoyment from them, and are therefore, in reality, egoistic. This statement is circular because its conclusion is identical to its hypothesis (it assumes that people only perform acts that give them personal enjoyment, and concludes that people only perform acts that give them personal enjoyment). This objection was made by William Hazlitt [Hazlitt (1991).] and Thomas Macaulay [] in the 19th century, and has been restated many times since then. An earlier version of the same objection was made by Joseph Butler in 1726.

Evolutionary theory

An examination of the arguments for and against psychological egoism can be found in "Unto Others" (1998), by Elliot Sober and David Sloan Wilson. Sober and Wilson ultimately argue that the psychological evidence and philosophical arguments are inconclusive on this debate, yet they argue that evolutionary theory provides good evidence that psychological egoism is false. [Sober & Wilson (1998), Ch. 10 "The Evolution of Psychological Altruism".]

ee also

* reward system, for an anatomic basis of psychological egoism.
* Inclusive fitness

References and further reading

* Baier, Kurt (1990). "Egoism" in "A Companion to Ethics", Peter Singer (ed.), Blackwell: Oxford.
* Batson, C.D. (1991). "The Altruism Question: Toward a Social-Psychological Answer", Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
* Batson, C.D. & L. Shaw (1991). "Evidence for Altruism: Toward a Pluralism of Prosocial Motives," "Psychological Inquiry" 2: 107-122.
* Bentham, Jeremy (1789). "Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation". Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907. First published in 1789. ( [ link] )
* Broad, C. D. (1971). "Egoism as a Theory of Human Motives," in his "Broad's Critical Essays in Moral Philosophy", London: George Allen and Unwin.
* Butler, J. (1726). "Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel", in "The Works of Bishop Butler", J. H. Bernard (ed.), London: Macmillan, Sermons I and XI.
* Gert, Bernard (1967). "Hobbes and Psychological Egoism", "Journal of the History of Ideas", Vol. 28, No. 4, pp. 503-520.
* Hazlitt, William (1991). "Self-Love and Benevolence Selected Writings", edited and with Introduction by Jon Cook, Oxford University Press.
* Hume, David (1751). "An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals". Public domain. ( [ link] )
* Hobbes, Thomas (1650). "Human Nature", public domain.
* Hobbes, Thomas (1651). "Leviathan", C. B. Macpherson (ed.), Harmondsworth: Penguin.
* Hobbes, Thomas (1654). "Of Liberty and Necessity", public domain.
* Krebs, Dennis (1982). "Psychological Approaches to Altruism: An Evaluation". "Ethics", 92, pp. 447-58.
* La Rochefoucauld, François de (1691). "Moral Maxims and Reflections, in Four Parts". London: Gillyflower, Sare, & Everingham.
* Lloyd, Sharon A. & Sreedhar, Susanne. (2008). "Hobbes's Moral and Political Philosophy", "The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy", Edward N. Zalta (ed.). ( [ link] )
* Moseley, Alexander (2006). "Egoism", "The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy", J. Fieser & B. Dowden (eds.). ( [ link] )
* Nagel, Thomas (1970). "The Possibility of Altruism". Princeton: Princeton University Press.
* Shaver, Robert (2002). "Egoism", "The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy" (Winter Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). ( [ link] )
* Slote, M. A. (1964). "An Empirical Basis for Psychological Egoism," "Journal of Philosophy" 61: 530-537.
* Sober, E. & D.S. Wilson (1998). "Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior", Harvard University Press.


External links

* [ Egoism] in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
* [ Egoism] in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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