The Elements of Moral Philosophy



Chapter 5:  Psychological Egoism



                  An action is altruistic when it involves making a personal sacrifice for the benefit of others.  It is generally agreed that this sort of unselfish behavior is sometimes required by morality, although there is considerable disagreement as to how much of it is required.  Those who sacrifice everything in order to help others in need are usually thought of as paragons of moral virtue.  It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that many people have thought that altruism is not just rare, but actually impossible.  According to Psychological Egoism, every human action is motivated entirely by self-interest.


                  Psychological Egoists say that behind every action that appears to be altruistic there is really a selfish motive.  People help others because they believe it will get them into heaven, or because it will bring them public recognition, or because they enjoy the gratitude of those they help, etc.  Attributing selfish motives to account for apparently altruistic behavior requires that we re-interpret the motives behind such behavior.  For example, suppose that Fred runs into his neighbors burning house to save a child trapped there.  Fred succeeds, and when asked why he did it, says “It was the right thing to do.  I couldn’t stand by while a little girl died.”  But the Psychological Egoist doesn’t take Fred’s explanation at face value.  Perhaps Fred did it because of the positive attention he would get afterwards; perhaps he did it because he knew he would feel good about himself.  Fred may tell us (and himself) that he was motivated by a moral judgment and concern for the life of the child, but in reality his motives are entirely selfish.

                  Thomas Hobbes was a Psychological Egoist and had a way of systematically re-interpreting “altruistic” motives.  Two examples:


Charity:  Acts of charity are really a demonstration of power.  The idea is that by helping others, we show ourselves to be more resourceful than others, because we can take care of ourselves and have plenty to spare.


Pity:  We pity others because we imagine ourselves in their place.  Helping others out of a sense of pity is really an attempt to assuage our fear of how we might end up and help to ensure that others will help us if and when the time comes.


In no case, according to Hobbes, do we act out of genuine concern for the welfare of others.


The Argument that We Always Do What We Most Want to Do


Here is how a Psychological Egoist might argue:  Sometimes we have desires that come into conflict.  For example, we desire to relax at home but we also desire to get paid.  When we take action, we must decide which of our desires will be satisfied (if any) and which (if any) will be frustrated.  If you decide to go to work, then this reflects your judgment that getting paid is more important than relaxing at home.  In other words, you desire to get paid more than you desire to relax at home.  To put it another way:  you are doing what you most want to do, all things considered.  The point generalizes:  whenever you take action, you are doing what you most want to do.


1.  Whenever we do anything, we are choosing an action over its alternatives.

2.  Therefore, our action is what we most want to do.

3.  Therefore, in all of our actions, we always do what we most want to do.

4.  No one is praiseworthy for doing what he or she wants to do.


5.  Therefore, no actions –including acts of “altruism”—are praiseworthy.


Two problems with the argument:


Problem #1 

The argument confuses wanting with willing.  What we end up doing is what we will to do, but is not necessarily what we want to do.  The argument leading to premise 3 slides from a truth to a falsehood.  It’s true that your decision to go to work reflects your judgment that getting paid is more important than relaxing.  But this is not equivalent to saying that you desire to get paid more than you desire to relax.  Maybe you decided that getting paid is more important simply because you have a moral duty to support your family.  In general, we sometimes do things even though it is not what we most want to do.  We sometimes act out of a sense of duty, or because our action is a means to something that we do want down the road.  An example of the latter:  the hiker pinned under a rock did not want to cut his arm off with a dull knife; in fact, he wanted very much not to do that.  But he did it anyway –he willed himself to do it—because it was necessary for something he did want – survival.


Problem #2

                  The second problem is even more straightforward – whether an action is praiseworthy depends not so much on whether it is something you want to do but on what it is you want to do.  If Fred saves the child because he wants to save a life and he desires to do the right thing, then the fact that he is doing what he most wants to do does not make him selfish or unpraiseworthy.  As Rachels puts it, (in reference to Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish businessman who risked his life saving thousands of Jews from the Nazis), “If he wanted to help other people, even at great risk to himself, that is precisely what makes him unselfish.  What else could unselfishness be, if not wanting to help others, even at some cost to oneself?”

                  Of course, it is logically possible for a person to help others just to feel good about himself.  If this really is the sole motive for the action, then the action has a selfish motive.  Arguably, though, this is the exception and not the rule.  Typically, when people feel good about helping others, it is at least partly because they care about those they are helping.  Whether this is true is a psychological question and can be tested empirically.  We can do a little thought experiment to imagine how such a test would go.  Suppose that Fred saves the child from the fire, but the next year (well after all of the adulation has died down) the child is killed in a car accident.  If Fred saved the child just to feel good about himself and not out of concern for the child, then there is no reason to think that Fred would feel badly about the tragic accident (after all, he got to have his good feelings, so what does he care?).  Likewise, we can ask how Fred would feel if someone else saved the child instead.  If his motives are entirely selfish, then we would expect him to be ambivalent about the outcome, or perhaps even have negative feelings towards the rescuer (since the rescuer denied him an opportunity to feel good about himself).  Even without carrying out experiments, we are quite confident that most people would not react in the way that the selfish theory predicts.

                  The idea that people always act only to promote their own interests has some initial plausibility, for two reasons.  One, there is so much selfish behavior in the world that it is easy to lose sight of the unselfish behavior.  (In this connection, there are individuals for whom the claim seems to be true, or at least approximately true).  Two, just about everything we do, including what we do for others, is motivated at least partially by self-interest.  But for Psychological Egoism to be true, it would have to be the case that all of our actions are motivated entirely by self-interest.


Chapter 6:  Ethical Egoism


Psychological Egoism is a descriptive theory, according to which each person in fact pursues only his or her own self-interest.


Ethical Egoism is a prescriptive (or “normative”) theory, according to which each person ought to pursue only his or her own self-interest.




Egoism versus Personal Belief Relativism



Egoism is a form of ethical relativism in which right and wrong is relative to the interests of an individual.  Note that Egoism does not imply that right and wrong is relative to the beliefs of individuals.  Personal Belief Relativism, in contrast with Egoism, holds that what is right (or wrong) for an individual is determined by whatever ethical theory that person accepts.  Thus, if person X is a Christian fundamentalist, then the Bible sets the standard of right and wrong for X.  If person Y is a Marxist, then Marxism (understood as a moral theory) sets the standard of right and wrong for X.  What is right for X may be wrong for Y, and vice versa.  Egoism differs from Personal Belief Relativism in that it uses the same standard for each person (self-interest), and the standard applies regardless of the person’s beliefs.  Egoism implies that the right thing for X to do is what is in X’s self-interest, even if X finds that idea abhorrent.  Of course, there is a sense in which Egoism advocates a different standard for each person (my self interest versus your self interest, and so on).  That is why it is correct to say that Egoism is a form of relativism.


Egoism and Moral Duties

As an ethical theory, Ethical Egoism (henceforth simply “Egoism”) is literally incredible.  At first, it is hard to see why anyone would be tempted to accept it.  But before we get to the arguments for Egoism, we will consider


Two Kinds of Moral Duties:


·  Natural Duties to others --  Duties that we have to others simply because they are people who could be helped or harmed by what we do.  These are duties that we have to others automatically – regardless of the kind of relationship we have (or don’t have) to the people in question.


·  Duties of Association --  Duties that we have to people because of the special relationship that we have to them (e.g. they are family, friends, people we have made promises to, fellow countrymen, etc.).  Duties of association are not automatic – we have these duties to some people and not to others, and the type and extent of the duties will depend on the kind of relationship that exists.



Egoism implies that we have no duties to others whatsoever.  Even if I make a promise to you, I have no duty to you to keep the promise.  I may have a duty to keep the promise, but it would only be a duty to myself – basically, I have a duty to do X if and only if it is in my best interests to do X.  (You can think of my duty to myself as a duty of association.  After all, I have a special relationship with myself – the relation of identity).  Sometimes, it is in my best interests to keep a promise; sometimes, it is not.  Note that Egoism doesn’t require that we act against the interests of others.  Often, it may require that we help others – but only when doing so would help ourselves.               

                  Rachels notes (correctly, I think) that it is a “commonsense assumption” that there are natural duties to others.  He contrasts this position with Egoism.  His main reason for rejecting Egoism is that it arbitrarily excludes from consideration the interests of others in just the way that racism and sexism do.  His argument is broad enough to suggest that any view is unacceptable if it denies there are natural duties to others while asserting duties of association to only some.

It can be illuminating to think about the two different kinds of moral duties in the context of political debate.  Roughly speaking, those on the left of the political spectrum tend to emphasize natural duties to others, while those on the right (Libertarians in particular) tend to emphasize duties of association.  Sometimes those in one camp deny that the other kind of duty exists at all.  Consider the issue of immigration.  Liberals tend to favor extending many of the benefits of citizenship (access to public schools and hospitals, permission to work and get a driver’s license, protection from deportation, etc.) to recent immigrants – including illegal or “undocumented” immigrants.  When this is justified on moral grounds, the appeal is general and humanitarian in nature.  It is said that because immigrants are equally human beings, their interests deserve equal consideration, whether they are citizens or not, whether they arrived legally or not.  Conservatives, on the other hand, reject this appeal on the grounds that a nation has special obligations to its citizens.  It is said that the tax dollars and legal protections of a nation our owed to its citizens but not to non-citizens.  (An analogy:  the members of a family living together have a duty to look after each other, but don’t have the duty to look after a stranger who enters their home without permission).

Actually, the typical conservative does not think that there are no natural duties to others.  A traditional doctrine associated with conservative politics is that we have a natural duty not to harm others, but we have no natural duty to help others.  Liberals agree that we have a natural duty not to harm others.  But they insist that we also have a duty to help, when conditions allow.  They tend to see the distinction between acting to harm and failing to help as morally arbitrary.


Exercise:  Think about how the distinction between natural duties to others and duties of association applies to political positions on the following other issues:

· access to healthcare

· access to public education

·  welfare programs

·  income tax

· foreign aid (e.g. famine relief)

· arguments for and against the Iraq war


Arguments in Favor of Ethical Egoism


The Argument From Competition  (not in the text)


1.  In any sort of individual competition, it is right for everyone to do their best in order to win. 


2.  In life, there are limited resources available with which people can pursue their interests.


3.  Therefore, life is one big individual competition (for resources).



4.  Therefore, it is right for each person to act only in his or her own self interest (Ethical Egoism).



There are multiple problems with this argument, including both questionable premises and questionable inferences.  As an exercise, try to identify them.




The Argument that Altruism is Self-Defeating


1.  Each of us is intimately familiar with our own individual wants and needs and we know how to pursue them.


2.  In contrast, we know far less about the wants and needs of others and how to pursue them.


3.  Therefore, we are much better at pursuing our own interests than the interests of others.  To put if more forcefully:  Pursuing the interests of others is an inefficient way of satisfying wants and needs and is prone to error.


4.  Thus, we will all be better off if we refrain from pursuing the interests of others.  In other words, we will all be better off if we act Egoistically.



5.  Therefore, each of us should adopt the policy of Egoism and pursue our own interests exclusively.




                  There are two problems with this argument.  First, it is false that we will all be better off if we act Egoistically.  Some of us will be better off, and some of us will be worse off.  This is obvious once it is realized that some will be advantaged by victimizing others.  Premise 4 might be amended to account for this problem, to read, “On the average, people will be better off if they act Egoistically.”  But on the amended version of premise 4, the conclusion does not seem to follow.  Why should we accept a policy that requires victimization just because people will be better off on the average?  Moreover, it is arguable that the amended premise is also false (it can be argued that Egoism would lead to anarchy, large scale starvation, slavery, etc.).

                  The second problem with the argument is that it depends on a principle that runs counter to Egoism.  If we adopt a policy because it would make us all better off, then we are adopting it in order to promote the general welfare, and not because it furthers our own interests.  The conclusion of the argument says that we should act Egoistically, but the premises of the argument suggest that we should think in terms of the betterment of all.  The argument supports Egoism in the sense that it purports to give us a reason to act Egoistically.  But the reason it gives us is decidedly un-Egoistic.  If Egoism is understood as the theory that what makes an action right is that it promotes the interests of the actor, then the argument is not compatible with Egoism.


The Argument that Altruism is Misguided Paternalism


1.  Altruism – sacrificing our own interests to promote the interests of others – involves forcing our own conception of what is good on another person.


2.  We have no right to force our own conception of what is good on another person.


3.  Moreover, altruism, in the form of “charity”, robs the recipients of dignity and self-respect, making them dependent.


4.  Altruism is morally wrong.



                  You should be able to pick apart this argument pretty easily, especially if you have read the chapter.  The main thing to note is that premises 1 and 3 are sweeping generalizations that seem to have many exceptions.


Egoism as an explanation of Commonsense Morality

1.  If we harm others, others will be inclined to harm us.


2.  If we lie to others, others will not believe us.


3.  If we fail to keep our promises, then others will not keep their promises to us.


4.  Therefore, we have self-interested reasons to avoid harming others, to tell the truth, and to keep our promises.


5.  In general, if we treat others badly (by not taking their interests into consideration), then they will do likewise.


6.  So, in general, we have a self-interested reason to avoid treating others badly.


7.  Therefore, Egoism implies that we should not treat others badly.


According to the argument, Egoism provides a justification for following commonsense morality.  What are some objections to the argument?


The Argument that Egoism is Logically Inconsistent

(see p. 87)


The Argument that Egoism is Unacceptably Arbitrary


1.  We can justify treating people differently only if we can show that there is some factual difference between them that is relevant to justifying the difference in treatment.


2.  Acting Egoistically – pursuing my own interests without considering the interests of others – involves treating myself differently than other people.


3.  There is no factual difference between myself and other people that is relevant to justifying Egoistic behavior.


4.  Egoism is unjustified.


Question for discussion:  Does the argument “prove too much” by implying that we have no duties of association?  For example, does the first premise imply that we cannot justify treating our friends and other loved ones any differently than we treat perfect strangers? 



Follow up question:  if our having a relationship with someone constitutes a relevant “factual difference” between that person and a stranger, then wouldn’t each person’s special relationship to him or herself also be relevant?