Psychological Egoism

If you're not sure what "psychological egoism" means, make sure you get it straight before you do anything else on this topic.

"Egoism" is being only out for yourself, with no care for anyone else.
An "egoist" is some one who is only out for himself, with no care for anyone else.
An egoist will let a billion children die in agony if there's nothing in it for him.

"Psychological Egoism" says that _everyone_ is an egoist.
A "psychological egoist" is some one who _believes_ that everyone is an egoist.
A psychological egoist believes that _you_ will let a billion children die in agony if there's nothing in it for you.

"Moral Egoism" says that everyone _should_ be egoists.
A "moral egoist" is some one who _believes_ that everyone should be egoists.
A moral egoist believes that you _should_ let a billion children die in agony if there's nothing in it for you.

Do not change these definitions.

Read this page, and then do your best to answer the question given in bold type below.

Do the defenders of psychological egoism give us compelling reason to think that no-one ever chooses to something that is not in his own best interests

A good way to get started is to try to write down this compelling reason. If you think there is a compelling reason, you will be able to write this reason out in a coherent paragraph that consists of more than repeating the definition of psychological egoism in different words, or illustrating the doctrine with examples of people you think are really acting in their own self-interest. A compelling reason will begin with facts, will not make assumptions, and will not make excuses. If you can't do more than reiterate your belief in psychological egoism, then there is no compelling reason, and you should answer this question with a resounding "no!"

The Box Rule

If you think that there is a compelling reason to think that psychological reason is true, you must write out that reason at the beginning of your paper and draw a box around the reason. Here's an example:
 
This box is empty because I can't think of anything to put into it that isn't just a statement of psychological egoism in different words. If you do write something in a box on your paper, you should ask yourself two questions:

1. Is there any logical difference between what I've written in this box and the simple statement that psychological egoism is true? Or have I just stated psychological egoism in different words?

2. Can I prove everything I've written in this box?

Things You Shouldn't Do

Please don't tell me that psychological egoism is sometimes true. That's like saying that two plus two is sometimes seven. Psychological egoism is either true or false. If someone ever chooses to act against his own best interest, then psychological egoism is false, no matter what anybody else does at any time. So don't write that psychological egoism is true or false depending on circumstances, or viewpoint, or phase of the moon. Psychological egoism says people always act in their own best interest. That's always. If there's even one exception, psychological egoism is false.

Please don't tell me that psychological egoism is true because, whatever you do you always get some satisfaction out of it. That's like saying people always maximize their own physical effort because whatever you do it will always involve some physical effort, so a couch potato maximises his physical effort as much a bodybuilder or an ultrarunner. Physcological egoism doesn't say "people always get something out of whatever they do," it says "people always act to get the most possible personal gain out of whatever they do." There's a huge difference.

Please don't tell me there are two kinds of egoism. There is only one kind of egoism. There are several _doctrines_ about egoism, but they're all taking about the same thing. (The doctrine I want you to think about here is the one that says people are always completely egoistic.)

Psychological Egoism is the doctrine that everyone always acts, or tries to act, in her own self-interest, where self-interest is defined differently from "whatever she decides to do." (If my self-interest is defined as whatever I decide to do, then psychological egoism just says "everyone always acts, or tries to act, in the way she decides to act," which is the same as saying "everyone always tries to do whatever she's trying to do at that moment." Duh.)

If anyone ever acts in a way that is not in her own self-interest, then psychological egoism is false.


Consider Ellen, who has the power to ignore the feelings of others. Specifically, Ellen can ignore the feelings of her mother and other relatives. Ellen has the choice between two situations.

Situation 1: Ellen spends Saturday mornings with her relatives. This makes Ellen's mother happy because of her deep commitment to family ties, but it makes Ellen miserable because her relatives cannot stop passive-aggressively harassing her. No matter what Ellen does, she can not manage to get through these gatherings with any pleasure whatsoever, and only manages to feel good again when the memory of that morning fades later in the week. (None of Ellen's family has any money or influence, so there is absolutely no possibility that Ellen will derive any future benefit from this activity.)

Situation 2: Ellen spends Saturday mornings hanging out with friends. This disturbs Ellen's mother, but doesn't bother Ellen at all. In fact she has loads of fun and feels great the whole week. She notices and regrets her mother's unhappiness, but it doesn't bring Ellen down very much much at all, especially since the unhappiness felt by Ellen's mother is much, much, much les onerous than the misery that Ellen would feel if she consorted with her horrible relatives.

For the purposes of this question, these are Ellen's only choices.

Please note that you do NOT get to change the situation. You do NOT get to pretend that Ellen gets pleasure, satisfaction, relief, or anything else out of spending Saturday mornings with her relatives. Ellen gets a lot of pain and absolutely no pleasure from this situation.


If psychological egoism is true, Ellen could never choose situation one because it is not in her best interest in any way whatsoever. If she decides to spend her Saturday mornings with her relatives she is knowingly choosing to give up a lot of pleasure for a lot of pain.

Notice that we can change the situation in some ways without altering this conclusion. If we make situation 2 better than it is, and make the mall less fun, psychological egoism still says that Ellen will necessarily choose situation 2 so long as situation 1 is even slightly worse than situation 2. In fact, even if Saturday with the relatives is pretty good, psychological egoism still says that Ellen will necessarily choose situation 2 so long as the mall is even slightly more fun overall. This is because situation 1 is still less in her interest than situation 2, and so choosing it means giving up some self-interest. Remember, situation 1 ALWAYS serves Ellen's self interest LESS than situation 2, so psychological egoism says Ellen could NOT possibly EVER choose situation 1.

Even if it was true that Ellen got some satisfaction out of situation 1, that wouldn't mean that situstion 1 serves her self interest, so if you think that Ellen might ever chose situation 1, you think psychological egoism is false.

The question is, do the defenders of psychological egoism give us compelling reason to think that no-one ever chooses to something that is not in their own best interests. This is because if anyone ever choose an option that is not absolutely the best option for her, then she is giving up some self-interest, and so psychological egoism is false.

It is important to remember that merely stating that psychological egoism is true does not constitute an argument for psychological egoism, even if you restate psychological egoism in any number of different ways.

Remember that egoism is different from Psychological Egoism. Egoism is when some person puts his own interests over the interests of others some time, or when some person is only out for himself. Psychological Egoism is the doctrine that everyone is always like that. Egoism clearly exists because we know that some people are purely selfish sometimes. Psychological egoism only "exists" in the sense that belief in fairies exists. We know that psychological egoism exists because we have the concept. The question is whether that concept is true or false.

Remember that assuming something is not the same as proving it. Saying "people by nature act in self-interest, so we are all egoists" is not an argument for PE because it's just two statements of PE joined together by the word "so". If all you can do is repeat PE over and over again in different words, you should conclude that nobody has any argument for PE, and that, since PE bears the burden of proof, this means PE is false.

Also remember that satisfaction is not the same as interest, and gratification is not the same as interest. If you think they are the same, you have to prove it. You can't just say "he served his own self interest because he got some satisfaction," you have to prove that satisfaction is interest, and that this bit of satisfaction served his interests more than all he gave up.

For hints about the logical consequences of failing to find a compelling argument for psychological egoism, see burden.htm

You may add any other comments or questions you happen to think of.

And remember, psychological egoism is either true or false. It can't be sometimes true. If it's ever false, it's always false. So if you say it's sometimes true, I'll give you zero points for that stage.

Copyright 2012 by Martin C. Young


This Site is Proudly Hosted By:
WEBster Computing Services