Psychological egoism is the view that humans are always motivated by self-interest, even in what seem to be acts of altruism. It claims that, when people choose to help others, they do so ultimately because of the personal benefits that they themselves expect to obtain, directly or indirectly, from doing so. This is a descriptive rather than normative view, since it only makes claims about how things are, not how they ought to be. It is, however, related to several other normative forms of egoism, such as ethical egoism and rational egoism.
A specific 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 discussions of psychological egoism focus on this variety, but the two are not the same: 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.
Critics argue that it is false either because it is an over-simplified interpretation of behaviour or that there exists empirical evidence of altruistic behaviour. Recently, some have argued that evolutionary theory provides evidence against it.
Critics have also stated that proponents of psychological egoism often confuse the satisfaction of their own desires with the satisfaction of their own self-regarding desires. Even though it is true that every human being seeks his own satisfaction, this sometimes may only be achieved via the well-being of his neighbor. An example of this situation could be phoning for an ambulance when a car accident has happened. In this case, the caller desires the well-being of the victim, even though the desire itself is the caller's own. Psychological egoism asserts that all such desires are ultimately derived from self-interest. For example, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche argued, in the §133 of his The Dawn, that in such cases compassionate impulses arise out of the projection of our identity unto the object of our feeling. He gives some hypothetical examples as illustrations to his thesis: that of a person, feeling horrified after witnessing a personal feud, coughing blood, or that of the impulse felt to save a person who drowns in the water. In such cases, according to Nietzsche, there comes into play unconscious fears regarding our own safety. The suffering of another person is felt as a threat to our own happiness and sense of safety, because it reveals our own vulnerability to misfortunes, and thus, by relieving it, one could also ameliorate those personal sentiments.
The problem of apparent altruism
Psychological egoism may seem at first obviously false, because there are many acts that appear to be altruistic which are common and well known, such as self-sacrifice and gratuitous help.
As David Hume once wrote, "What interest can a fond mother have in view, who loses her health by assiduous attendance on her sick child, and afterwards languishes and dies of grief, when freed, by its death [the child's], from the slavery of that attendance?". It seems incorrect to describe such a mother's goal as self-interested.
Psychological egoists, however, respond that helping others in such ways is ultimately motivated by some form of self-interest, such as non-sensory satisfaction, the expectation of reciprocation, the desire to gain respect or reputation, or by the expectation of a reward in a putative afterlife. The helpful action is merely instrumental to these ultimately selfish goals.
In the ninth century, "Mohammed Ibn Al-Jahm Al-Barmaki محمد بن الجـَهْم البَرمَكي" has been quoted saying:
"No one deserves thanks from another about something he has done for him or goodness he has done, he is either willing to get a reward from God, therefore he wanted to serve himself, or he wanted to get a reward from people, therefore, he has done that to get profit for himself, or to be mentioned and praised by people, therefore, to it is also for himself, or due to his mercy and tenderheartedness, so he has simply done that goodness to pacify these feelings and treat himself."
According to psychological hedonism (a form of psychological egoism), the ultimate egoistic motive is to gain good feelings of pleasure and avoid bad feelings of pain. Other, less restricted forms of psychological egoism may allow the ultimate goal of a person to include such things as avoiding punishments from oneself or others (such as guilt or shame) and attaining rewards (such as pride, self-worth, power or reciprocal beneficial action).
Even accepting the theory of universal positivity, 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 positivity toward one's actions, although a psychological egoist may argue that the soldier experiences moral positivity in knowing that he is sacrificing his life to ensure the survival of his comrades, or that he is avoiding negativity associated with the thought of all his comrades dying. Psychological egoists argue that although some actions may not clearly cause physical nor social positivity, nor avoid negativity, one's current contemplation or reactionary mental expectation of these is the main factor of the decision. When a dog is first taught to sit, it is given a biscuit. This is repeated until, finally, the dog sits without requiring a biscuit. Psychological egoists could claim that such actions which do not 'directly' result in positivity, or reward, are not dissimilar from the actions of the dog. In this case, the action (sitting on command) will have become a force of habit, and breaking such a habit would result in mental discomfort. Such could be said of morality and the basic theory applied to other seemingly ineffective positive actions.
Psychological egoism has been accused of being circular: "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 tendered by William Hazlitt and Thomas Macaulay in the 19th century, and has been restated many times since. An earlier version of the same objection was made by Joseph Butler in 1726.
Joel Feinberg, in his 1958 paper "Psychological Egoism", embraces a similar critique by drawing attention to the infinite regress of psychological egoism. He expounds it in the following cross-examination:
- "All men desire only satisfaction."
- "Satisfaction of what?"
- "Satisfaction of their desires."
- "Their desires for what?"
- "Their desires for satisfaction."
- "Satisfaction of what?"
- "Their desires."
- "For what?"
- Enlightened self-interest
- Reward system, for a proposed anatomic basis of psychological egoism.
- Inclusive fitness
- Simulated reality
- Experience machine
- Baier, Kurt (1990). "Egoism" in A Companion to Ethics, Peter Singer (ed.), Blackwell: Oxford.
- Batson, C.D. & L. Shaw (1991). "Evidence for Altruism: Toward a Pluralism of Prosocial Motives," Psychological Inquiry 2: 107-122.
- Bentham, Jeremy (1789). Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907. First published in 1789. (link)
- Broad, C. D. (1971). "Egoism as a Theory of Human Motives," in his Broad's Critical Essays in Moral Philosophy, London: George Allen and Unwin.
- Gert, Bernard (1967). "Hobbes and Psychological Egoism", Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 28, No. 4, pp. 503–520.
- Hazlitt, William (1991). Self-Love and Benevolence Selected Writings, edited and with Introduction by Jon Cook, Oxford University Press.
- Hobbes, Thomas (1651). Leviathan, C. B. Macpherson (ed.), Harmondsworth: Penguin.
- Hobbes, Thomas (1654). Of Liberty and Necessity, public domain.
- Feinberg, Joel. "Psychological Egoism." In Reason & Responsibility: Readings in Some Basic Problems of Philosophy, edited by Joel Feinberg and Russ Shafer-Landau, 520-532. California: Thomson Wadsworth, 2008.
- Krebs, Dennis (1982). "Psychological Approaches to Altruism: An Evaluation". Ethics, 92, pp. 447–58.
- Lloyd, Sharon A. & Sreedhar, Susanne. (2008). "Hobbes's Moral and Political Philosophy", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.). (link)
- May, Joshua (2011). "Psychological Egoism", The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, J. Fieser & B. Dowden (eds.). (link)
- Moseley, Alexander (2006). "Egoism", The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, J. Fieser & B. Dowden (eds.). (link)
- Shaver, Robert (2002). "Egoism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). (link)
- Shaver (2002); Moseley (2006). A possible (albeit controversial) example of someone who holds such a view is 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. Some, however, interpret Aristotle as not conceiving of eudaimonia as self-interested.
- See Bentham 1789. Thomas Hobbes is also often read as a psychological egoist, but this is fairly controversial, especially in respect of whether or not he used it to ground his moral theory. See Gert (1967) and Lloyd & Sreedhar (2008).
- Slote, M. A. (1964). "An Empirical Basis for Psychological Egoism," Journal of Philosophy 61: 530-537
- Butler, J. (1726). Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel, in The Works of Bishop Butler, J. H. Bernard (ed.), London: Macmillan, Sermons I and XI.
- Hume, David (1751). An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. Public domain. (link)
- Nagel, Thomas (1970). The Possibility of Altruism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
- Batson, C.D. (1991). The Altruism Question: Toward a Social-Psychological Answer, Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
- Sober, E. & D.S. Wilson (1998). Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior, Harvard University Press
- Ethics and human well-being: an introduction to moral philosophy. Year 1996. Chapter 1. Psychological Egoism. By Edward Jarvis Bond.
- Ibn-Qutaiba Al-Dainoori, "Taweel Mukhtalaf AlHadith" (interpretation of controversial Hadith), http://www.almeshkat.net/books/open.php?cat=9&book=1150 (The book in Arabic). The quote in Arabic "لا يستحق أحد من أحد شكرا على شيء فعله به أو خير أسداه إليه لأنه لا يخلو أن يكون فعل ذلك طلبا للثواب من الله تعالى فإنما إلى نفسه قصد أو يكون فعله للمكافأة فإنه إلى الربح ذاهب أو يكون فعله للذكر والثناء ففي حظه سعي وفي حبله حطب أو فعله رحمة له ورقة وضعت في قلبه فإنما سكن بتلك العطية علته وداوى بها من دائه"
- La Rochefoucauld, François de (1691). Moral Maxims and Reflections, in Four Parts. London: Gillyflower, Sare, & Everingham
- Hobbes, Thomas (1650). Human Nature, public domain
- Hazlitt (1991).
- Feinberg 2008.