Psychological Egoism

Here’s a very brief summary of Joel Feinberg’s paper, Psychological Egoism.

Psychological Egosim (PE) is a descriptive theory of human behavior according to which self-interest is the sole motivation for all human action.  People may not always know that they are acting on self-interest, but when their motivation is properly understood, it is revealed that they are acting on self-interest.  People often seem to behave altruistically, but seemingly altruistic behavior can always be explained by the selfish or self-interested desires the people possess.

Reasons to accept this theory are that everyone acts on their own desires and not someone else’s, when they achieve their desires they derive pleasure, people often deceive themselves so likely do not know they are being selfish, and moral education always makes use of the pleasures and pains that certain actions lead to when teaching kids about moral conduct.

The problems with PE are that it is a non-empirical claim since such a generalization cannot be scientifically tested, the conclusion that people always act out of self-interest does not follow from the fact that people feel pleasure when their desires are achieved or that people sometimes deceive themselves about their motivations, and people who act moral only because of the rewards or punishments they will get are not wholly moral.  PE seems to make wanting something in general and acting to achieve that desire selfish, but selfishness is not in the want itself, but in its object.  If I want to help someone for his own benefit, that is altruistic behavior. According to the “Hedonist Paradox”, an exclusive pursuit of happiness actually keeps one from being happy.  Happiness ends up coming upon those who are not looking for it.  So if one has a self-interested desire for happiness, he has to pursue something other than happiness, so his interest cannot ultimately be self-interested.  Finally, “pleasure” is ambiguous.  It can mean a certain sensual pleasure or it can mean satisfaction of a goal that may does not involve sensual pleasure.  However, it is obvious that people do not always seek pleasure in the first sense because pleasure is only a byproduct of the actions I do rather than the end.  When I eat, I get pleasure from it, but I do not eat because of the pleasure, I eat to sustain myself.  It cannot mean “satisfaction” because that leads to an infinite regress.

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5 Responses to Psychological Egoism

  1. Pingback: Posts on Morality, God, and Ethical Theories | Into the Harvest

  2. Sam Harper says:

    I agree with this. The main problem with psychological egoism is confusing the result of acting on your desires with the motive the desires are aimed at, and in confusing selfishness with self-interest.

    I’m curious what you think of this thought experiment, though. Suppose you put this question to a random citizen:

    Let’s suppose you want to get a life insurance policy on yourself, naming your family as beneficiaries, and your motive for wanting to get the insurance policy is so that if you die, your family will be taken care of.

    Since the insurance policy doesn’t pay out unless you die, you cannot hope to benefit from it. And since you have to pay money for it, there’s even negative benefit to you.

    But a psychological egoist can point out that there is a psychological pay off to getting the insurance policy. Knowing that your family will be taken care of after you die gives you a psychological feeling of comfort. And they claim that’s what really motivates your action, making it a self-interested action.

    Since you get nothing from the insurance policy, and since you have to pay for it, the only possible benefit you could get from buying the policy is purely psychological.

    But suppose you could get the exact same feeling of comfort from a pill, and suppose the pill wouldn’t cost you a dime. Now, you’ve got a choice between these two options:

    1. Take the pill for free and get a psychological pay-off.

    2. Pay money for an insurance policy to get the exact same psychological pay-off.

    In both cases, you get the exact same psychological pay-off, but if you choose option 1, you have the added benefit of saving money. So if your actions are really motivated solely by self-interest, you’d choose option 1 every time.

    But in reaction, almost anybody would choose option 2 every time. That shows that self-interest isn’t really what’s motivating the action. The action of buying a life insurance policy really is motivated by a concern for others–your family. It is not self-interested.

    What do you think about that?

    • That’s a very good thoughts experiment! I’m inclined to agree. The thing about PE is that advocates can always find some egoist interpretation of why people do certain actions. They may even be able to find one for your thought experiment. However, being able to give egoist interpretations of the motivations of actions, even seemingly altruistic ones, is not the same as giving us reason to think that those interpretations are true.

      • Sam Harper says:

        I used this thought experiment on a guy several years ago, and he responded by saying there are psychological pressures even before you take the pill or buy the policy. If you reach for the pill, you’ll feel the sting of guilt before you take it. But if you reach for the policy, you feel good about yourself.

        I thought that was a good response, but you could press the issue even further. Usually a conversation between an altruist and an egoist will go like this:

        Egoist: Name me one “altrustic” act, and I’ll show you how it’s self-interested.

        Altruist: I bought a life insurance policy that costs me $100/month, and I get nothing out of it since it doesn’t pay out until I die. I did it solely for my family, not for myself.

        Egoist: But you did it because of the comfort it gives you knowing that your family will be taken care of, so the act is still self-interested. If you hadn’t done it, you’d feel guilty.

        Altruist: Oh, but I had the option of taking a pill that would give me the same psychological pay off the policy would’ve given me except that the pill was free. So it wasn’t the psychological pay off the motivated my action; it was love for my family.

        Egoist: But if you decided to take the pill instead of getting the policy, between the time you made the decision and took the pill, you would’ve felt guilty, whereas if you chose the policy instead, your conscience would be clear, so you still choose according to your own self-interest.

        Altruist: But [i]why[/i] would I feel guilty for taking the pill and not feel guilty for getting the life insurance policy? It’s because I love my family, and it is out of a concern for their well-being that I chose the life-insurance policy instead of the pill. Just JUST IS a concern for the well-being of others, and while there is a psychological pay off when you act in love toward others, it’s the love itself that motivates the act. It’s the love that gives rise to the psychological pay off, so it isn’t the psychological pay off that motivates the action, but the love.

  3. I just realized that I had used brackets (][) in order to italicize my words instead of the arrows (><), so they didn't turn out right. Fixed. I like your response, by the way.

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