Psychological egoism is the belief that all people in their actions are guided only by self-interest. People always pursue their own pleasure, and not that of their ‘neighbors’ in the biblical sense. In this light, psychological egoism rules out altruism in people. In contrast, it claims everything that looks like altruism is in fact disguised egoism because people do things for the sake of others when they know they will take pleasure in the act of the sacrifice. Doing things for others gives individuals pleasure that they cannot obtain in a different way. The concept of psychological egoism contrasts with the principle of ethical egoism. Its truthfulness is debatable at best since there are valid arguments against the reality and universality of psychological egoism.
Psychological Egoism versus Ethical Egoism
Although both notions deal with inherent egoism present in human beings, they differ in their approach to it. Proponents of psychological egoism insist that egoism in human beings is unavoidable reality. People, they believe, are prone to act in such a way that their self-interest comes first in all situations.
In comparison, proponents of ethical egoism believe that people should act in their own interests. The supporters of this viewpoint believe that ethical egoism is the norm, and everything else is contrary to it. Altruism from this viewpoint appears immoral since it violates the basic precept: always act in your own interests, for your personal gratification. Thus, ethical egoism provides the foundation for a moral theory that is in many ways different from other theories of morality such as Kantianism or utilitarianism.
The crucial difference between psychological and ethical egoism is in their purpose. Psychological egoism is the concept that strives to describe reality and explain how things work in practice. Ethical egoism is a normative theory that provides guidelines as to how people should act under specific circumstances. Thus, the theory of psychological egoism is descriptive, while that of ethical egoism is prescriptive.
Is Psychological Egoism True?
The theory of psychological egoism is appealing in its simplicity: aligning all human interests along the same lines proves alluringly simple. However, its intent to encompass all of humanity may be an unwarranted generalization. There are arguments showing that not all people always act in their self-interest.
Evidence points to actions that are clearly unjustifiable from the selfish viewpoint. These are, for instance, the actions of people who sacrifice their lives for the sake of their comrades or motherland, like soldiers who go to sure death to protect others or for some other end. In this case, there is almost no time left for enjoying the consequences of personal actions. Although psychological egoists can say that the person is acting under the influence of self-deception, cases similar to the above happen too often if one considers, for example, people who die a heroic death saving a child from fire or other cases. It is hardly possible that all people deceive themselves in such a way.
Psychological egoists can try to refute this argument by stating that the soldier will be so tormented by the feeling of guilt afterward that he would not have the guts to tolerate years of life with a feeling of guilt. However, the fact that he can feel guilt may point to the presence of inherent altruism. When one considers such arguments, one can see that psychological egoism is true of some people, but not of all. This means that it is subject to the fallacy of hasty generalization.
Another objection against the pervasiveness of self-interest is that our actions are not always rational. A person may choose to perpetrate deeds that ruin the well-being of others as well as one’s own. This is true of suicide, self-mutilation, or other types of self-defeating behaviors. Here the choice is not even between following self-interest and following other motives like helping others. The motives of these actions are clearly to destroy one’s personal well-being. Some people deliberately commit actions directed against their well-being, just for the sake of damaging themselves.
Reasons in Favor of Psychological Egoism
Despite serious objections to the universality of self-interest as a motive, there are also important arguments in favor or psychological egoism. It adequately explains why certain people engage in seemingly altruistic actions. Their focus on helping other people can be a product of social programming, as many are told from their childhood that it is good to help others and that their efforts in this direction will be rewarded manifold. So, many pursue this goal in the hopes that the reward will outweigh their efforts – a highly egoistic way of thinking. A similar motive underlies many religions where followers abide by principles in the hopes of paradise after death. Some hope for psychological rewards, such as appreciation and respect from others. An example can be an old lady who dotes on her children and tries to do things for them all the time, while her real motive is to keep herself busy and find opportunities for communication with people. Her seemingly altruistic motive disguises the real state of affair in which she is seeking self-interest.
Besides, a rational person will recognize that sometimes altruistic actions or fulfilling a duty are in their own self-interest. For example, the modern-day society is structured in such a way that it is in the interest of many people to abide by the law, pay taxes, etc. A different approach can get them in prison or lead to other unwanted consequences. In this respect, it appears plausible that many actions that do not seem to meet the criterion of self-gratification when considered against a short-term perspective demonstrate signs of satisfying self-interest over the long run.
It can also be claimed that many people pursue actions that apparently contradict their interests because of self-deception. Their upbringing or lack of rational thinking prevents them from seeing where their interest lies. This makes them prone to follow appeals of others or invent deceptive motives on their own. In this way, the state propaganda can induce people to go to war because it is claimed to be good for their country and ultimately for their families and themselves. A person can choose not to take the money lying on the floor because he or she is afraid of being accused of theft.
Psychological egoism is also supported by evidence. Thus, we can often observe cases of self-interested behavior, perhaps more often than those of altruistic behaviors. In addition, altruistic deeds can in many cases turn to be self-interested. Motivational speeches directed at individuals appealing to their self-interest in many cases prove effective. However, psychological egoism does not seem to embrace the whole variety of human motivations.
Psychological egoism is a descriptive theory that attributes to all people the desire for pleasure and self-interest as the main drivers of action. Its descriptive character distinguishes it from ethical egoism, the prescriptive theory that stresses the moral imperative to act for the satisfaction of one’s own interests.
Psychological egoism has the power to explain many actions relevant to self-interest including those that are at first sight incompatible with it. Deeds that seem to be the embodiment of altruism may turn out to be very egoistic over the long term. However, it seems that to think everybody is selfish it to oversimplify things. People can be motivated by true altruism, even though such individuals are in the minority. Thus, psychological egoism is only true when it is restricted to a limited number of people.
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