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Psychological egoism

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For other uses, see Egoism (disambiguation).

Psychological egoism is the view that humans are always motivated by rational self-interest, even in what seem to be acts of altruism. It can be contrasted both with ethical egoism, which is the view that the individual always ought to be motivated by self-interest and disregard the interests of the community, and rational egoism, which asserts that the rational thing to do in all situations is that which furthers the actor's interests the most. It claims that when sane people choose to help others, it is because of the personal benefits they themselves obtain or expect to obtain, directly or indirectly, from doing so. Psychological egoism is controversial; some see it as an over-simplified interpretation of behavior, others argue that there exists evidence of altruistic behavior.

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, as does this entry, for the sake of simplicity. 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. A possible (though controversial) example of somebody holding 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.

The problem of apparent altruismEdit

Psychological egoism seems at first inconsistent, because many acts that appear to be altruistic are common and well known (e.g. self-sacrifice, gratuitous help). One possible response is to claim that the apparent altruism conceals conscious self-interest. For example, apparently gratuitous help might be explained by the expectation of subsequent reciprocation, by the desire to gain respect or reputation (which may be expected to yield subsequent benefits), or by the expectation of a reward in a putative afterlife. This explanation appears to be close to the views of La Rochefoucauld and Thomas Hobbes. 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 these acts are in their essence selfish, because the real motive of these actions is that they fulfill some need of the self to the person who accomplishes them. This "something" is generally referred to as good feeling or avoidance of bad feeling, and it includes such things as:

  • Satisfaction of a desire to comply with a given moral code or avoidance of bad feelings from noncompliance
  • Feeling of power or avoidance of feeling powerless, by making notable changes in one's environment
  • The expectation of reciprocal beneficial action
  • Pride and self-worth or avoidance of shame


Critics of psychological egoism often reject it on the grounds that it is non-falsifiable; in other words, it is designed in such a way as to be impossible to prove or disprove, because psychological egoists claim that apparent acts of altruism are simply the acts of individuals seeking a good feeling or following social incentives to be seen to be altruistic (also providing a "good feeling"). Since this good feeling is difficult to detect or measure, it is problematic to prove that all people experience it every time they perform altruistic acts. It should be noted that with the increasing prevalence of the use of MRI and other brain scanning machines that tests can be conducted to determine what happens in the brain of someone engaging in an altruistic act and compared to other states of the brain when engaging or avoiding other activities.

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.

Some argue that the theory claims that we cannot know our own motives, so that even if we think we are doing something altruistically, we will be wrong. In this way, psychological egoism may be viewed as a form of eliminative materialism. This may leave psychological egoism open to common attacks on eliminative materialism. However others would argue that our motives can still be known, just that some people are not as in touch with their selfish motivations that drive their seemingly altruistic ones.

Another criticism comes from Robert Nozick's experience machine thought experiment. The thought experiment goes as follows. Imagine that neuropsychologists have created an experience machine, which you can plug into. Once you are plugged in you cannot tell that your experiences are not real, much like in the brain in the vat thought experiment. Prior to plugging in you can pre-program all the experiences you desire, so that it is the case that if you were to plug in, you would experience more pleasure than if you were to stay in the real world. The question is, would you plug in? It turns out that most people would not. This is a refutation of psychological hedonism because it shows that people want something other than to maximize their own pleasure. Note that it is not a refutation of psychological egoism, because it could still be the case that all our actions are motivated by self-interest. It would, however, have to be the case that those desires aimed at something other than pleasure, would have to be self-interested for reasons other than wanting a good feeling.

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[1] and Thomas Macaulay [1] 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.

One especially searching examination of the arguments for and against psychological egoism may be found in Unto Others (1998), by Elliot Sober and David Sloan Wilson.

See alsoEdit

References and further readingEdit


  1. William Hazlitt, Self-Love and Benevolence Selected Writings:,Edited and with Introduction by Jon Cook; (Oxford University Press, 1991).

External linksEdit

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