Ethical and Psychological Egoism: The Debate

In the field of modern ethics two specific theories stand out among them as the most supported, persecuted, debated, and overall controversial theories. Both psychological egoism and ethical egoism have been thoroughly analyzed and dissected by a number of both contemporary and pre-contemporary philosophers. The result of these studies and extensive works of literature on the subject matter will begin to explain what exactly each theory is, its applications in real word situations, and its support and critiques. Additionally, the two theories will be discussed in terms of differences between them, contrasts in the doctrines of motivation for each, and the differences between the key words behind each theory. That being said, its time to introduce the first of the two.

Psychological egoism is generally thought of as the more extreme of the two. Although both deal with ones ego, psychological egoism takes a somewhat extreme stance on how our thinking (motives) actually work. Psychological egoism states that all human acts are selfish acts at their roots, meaning that no action however altruistic it may look actually altruistic. As a result even the most seemingly altruistic actions are motivated wholly under the basis that we will get something out of our helping someone else that will ultimately help us better ourselves. It goes even further to state that if a choice must be made between two things, one will decide in favor of the action that furthers our own agenda and our good. In simpler terms all actions are, at root, selfish ones. A prime example of how this theory works can be simply put as such: if I find a wallet and I keep the money, I do so from self-interest. Nevertheless, if I find a wallet and I return the money, I also do so from self-interest (because in the second case, my sense of honor or honesty is worth more to me than the money in the wallet). (Philosophy 102: Introduction to Philosophical Inquiry).

Although at this point the theory seems rather simple, and with little thought on the matter it might even seem very plausible. However, one must first analyze the possibilities of such a theory. Since psychological egoism is based wholly on ones motivation which is in itself a very personal and private matter. It’s highly presumptuous to attribute all ones motivation to one simple theory of selfishness. Thus the theory suffers from hasty generalization which pushes it into fallacy. However this isn’t the best refutation to the theory.

Since psychological egoism states that all actions are selfish, we must look to separate instances. One’s motivation is not always ones desire. The desire would be selfish, however, if the motivation were a sense of duty and the action seemingly altruistic, how then can it can it be argued that the action was purely selfish? Furthermore, if one helps another purely because one wants to, the action is at its core altruistic; is it not? But psychological egoism would argue that the action is selfish because the person “wanted” to help someone. Under psychological egoism, this seemingly selfless act is turned into a selfish act. (Psychological Egoism, 2001). Going even further, saying all acts are selfish turns this law into tautology. If every act is selfish then act mean selfish and there is no need for “selfish act.” The term “selfish act” then becomes merely act. The term loses all meaning and thus it can be said that the term is not understood at all. As an example we will use a child, if a child learns a new word and begins using this word to mean everything, then we naturally assume that the child doesn’t know the meaning of the word. Likewise, to say all acts are selfish, and then only use the word act for every action, whether it be helping an elderly woman across the road or buying oneself a new car, creates a contradiction and thus the term becomes misunderstood.

Many actions can also be said to be done for reasons that are not due to desires or wants that would make them associated with selfishness. For example: following ones beliefs and conscience although your interests lie elsewhere, or even acting against your will in order to better serve long-term interests or other people. As argued by Butler in 1726, “Even if we feel gratification when we satisfy our desires, it cannot be inferred that such gratification is the object of those desires.” (Psychological Egoism, 2001). Self-interest is not always served in every case and yet what exactly is the classification for self-interest? Since there is confusion surrounding the term “self-interest” it cannot be a meaningful argument for a psychological egoist.

In contrast, ethical egoism, generally thought to be a milder and more moderate psychological stance, believes in actions based in ones own self-interest. That one’s own welfare is the most important thing and thus all actions should be centered around it. Hence the word “should.” Ethical egoism doesn’t stress that all actions “are,” but merely that they “should be.” This particular theory is held as a parallel to Utilitarianism because instead of putting emphasis on maximizing the good of all beings, it places its importance in emphasizing the good only of oneself. (Egoism, 2006).

However, problems begin to arise as one realizes that one’s own self interest is not always best served when one acts on one’s own self interest. As such, an egoist cannot go around telling others to he is an egoist, nor can he advocate his cause. For if everyone acted in their own self interest always, then the egoists self interest wouldn’t be served. Thus the theory is not universal. It cannot be applied nor practiced by everyone or no one’s interests would be met. This point brings the question of, if it is not in our best interest to exclude others then why should we? Why should we think only of ourselves if ultimately the notion on impartiality is accepted?

Furthermore, ethical egoism is nearly impossible to argue with an egoist because of basic disagreement. An egoist believes that doing something is right merely because he believes it is right. There is no basis for argument since this is so strongly accepted by the egoist. For example: “If the egoist genuinely believes that doing harm to others is fine, then there is no way to convince him otherwise because that is his fundamental attitude toward life.” (Philosophy 102: Introduction to Philosophical Inquiry).

There are two versions of ethical egoism, a weaker and a stronger. The weaker version plays on morals by twisting what is moral and what is both moral and immoral. More specifically it states that it is always moral to promote one’s own interests, however, it flips and contrasts this statement by saying that although one doesn’t promote one’s own interests they are not necessarily immoral. To stand alone this theory seems indeed quite week. How can it always be moral to promote ones own means, and yet still be moral not to? The stronger version of ethical egoism clears this problem by simply stating that it is always right to pursue one’s self interests and immoral not to. (Egoism, 1996).

So what exactly are the key differences between ethical and psychological egoism? The first, most basic, and most important distinction between them can be found in their principle statements. Psychological egoism states how things “are.” It tells how people “actually” think, whereas ethical egoism merely states how people “should” think, things that “ought” to be rather than things that “are.”

Additionally, ethical egoism, unlike its counterpart can approve of cooperative behavior. Psychological egoism can do nothing of the sort. It believes only of working to achieve ones ends with maximum results, thus leaving this idea of cooperation with others out of the picture. However, neither ethical nor psychological egoism will admit that this cooperation would be an altruistic motive. Both agree that if person A helps person B it is because person A has benefitted themself by doing so, and not because it was an altruistic act. Both also agree that it is an impossible standard for humans to believe that we can or should sacrifice ourselves for others. They argue that humans cannot make such sacrifices and we are not to blame for this, it is simply our nature. (Egoism, 1996).

Psychological egoism also differs in its doctrine of motivation. Since psychological egoism describes the way people act, the way things “are,” its doctrine of motivation lies wholly in ones motivation for doing something. Why was the action done? The answer would be to gratify oneself in one way or another. On the other hand ethical egoism, as it looks at things that “ought” to be, rests its doctrine of motivation in the believe that morality and self interest are rooted in the same thing. That one is the same as the other, thus in pursuit of one, you are really achieving both. Psychological egoism does no such thing to claim that one can achieve both ends in this way, it merely tries to explain that people act in “this” way and “that” is how it is. Ethical egoism tries to imply that by pursing ones self interest one can be moral and happy, thus such a pursuit should be done.
Psychological egoism and ethical egoism, self interest and selfishness. We have since clarified the differences between the former pair, but what about the later? In both theories the terms are widely used. However, in both theories they are also widely misunderstood and thoroughly confusing at times. How can we make the distinction between the two?

To begin with, actions based in self interest aren’t specifically selfish actions. For example, if it is in your best interest to do something, you cannot be said to be selfish simply by doing them. If selfishness and self interest were the same, then quitting smoking because it is in your best interest is also a selfish action. A selfish action, by definition, is an action that is done only to benefit yourself. Furthermore this action often denies others something in their interest. An example would be stealing a car so that you can make money to buy yourself something. This action denies others a car simply so that you can live well. However, a self interested action is merely one that serves your interests best. This can be your health situation, finances, or social situation. Anything, but these actions aren’t done because you will wholly benefit from them. They are done to serve a practical purpose. You should go to work to earn money. It is then in your best interest to go to work. But going to work isn’t in itself a selfish act.

In conclusion, although both theories deal with egoism and the way the human mind thinks, they are significantly different theories. One focuses on what it calls reality, and the other on what reality “should” be. However, now as there has been some light shed on the matter of both theories and their differences, it can be left to be decided as to whether each theory can hold water or not. Whether each can hold up in the large sea of ethical theories, and whether the debate surrounding them will ever cease. This is psychological egoism, ethical egoism, ethics.

Egoism. (1996). Retrieved Mar. 16, 2006, from Online Guide to Ethics and Moral Philosophy Web site: http://caae.phil.cmu.edu/Cavalier/80130/part2/Routledge/R_Egoism.html. Egoism. (2006). Retrieved Mar. 29, 2006, from The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy Web site: http://www.iep.utm.edu/e/egoism.htm. Philosophy 102: introduction to philosophical inquiry. (n.d.). Retrieved Mar. 22, 2006, from http://philosophy.lander.edu/intro/rachels.html. Psychological egoism. (2001). Retrieved Mar. 08, 2006, from Ethics Web site: http://philosophy.lander.edu/ethics/egoism.html .

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