Chapter Five: Teleological Theories : Egoism
Section 2. Psychological egoism

What sort of a psychological theory is egoism?

First, psychological egoism is a theory about the nature of human motives.

Psychological egoism suggests that all behaviors are motivated by self-interest. In other words, it suggests that every action or behavior or decision of every person is motivated by self interest. It also suggests that every action must be motivated by self interest. The doctrine of selfish motivation is simply a natural law of psychology. Just as it is a natural law of physics that bodies tend to move toward one another in proportion to their masses and at velocities inversely proportionate to their distances from one another, it is a natural law that all motivations are, ultimately, selfish.

Because psychological egoism states that every act of every person is motivated by self-interest, it is universal.

Because psychological egoism states that all motivations are, in the final analysis, selfish, it is reductive. That is, it reduces what seems to be a plurality or a multiplicity of motives to a single kind.

In consequence, all motives are selfish motives. As MacKinnon states on p. 36: "If [people] sometimes act for others, it is only because they think that it is in their own best interests to do so."


Objections to psychological egoism


It is common, among psychologists, to think that psychology is a science. Even the word indicates this -- geology, physiology, endocrinology, biology, meteorology, etc. Now what are the important features of a science? It's very common to think that provability, or appeal to facts are the key. But this is very difficult stuff. The concept of provability is very slippery when you get into it in any detail, and most scientists have given up on the notion that scientific theories can be proven to be true. Similarly, the notion of a "fact" is deeply problematic.*

One thing that philosophers of science, and many scientists themselves agree upon, is that if a theory is a genuine scientific theory, then even if it cannot be proven (demonstrated without doubt to be true), then at least this must be so: the theory must be able to be falsified. In other words, we must be able to set up some experiments by which to say, "well, if the theory "A" is true, then it is impossible for "Y" to occur." So, we experiment to see if "Y" occurs when "A" says it cannot occur. And if it occurs, then "A" cannot be true, and we need to come up with a better theory. There must be some type of evidence or argument that could count against it.

Now, if it is impossible for a theory to be refuted, if there is nothing that could count against it, then most scientists will not even bother to entertain it.

But for every act in which we are thinking about the good of another person, the psychological egoist can always reply that we act not, ultimately because of the good of that other person, but because we get satisfaction out of it. It seems, in other words, that nothing could count against it, and that it is therefore unrefutable (or irrefutable). Far from being a good thing, this is a bad thing. It is good for a theory to be strong, to be able to withstand criticism -- but it is not a good thing if nothing can possibly count against it.

Every action is always motivated by self-interest -- that is the theory of the psychological egoist. And for every act that you throw their way, they can always simply say, "yes, but since all motivations are simply forms of self-interest, the motive behind that act is also self-interest." This is circular reasoning, or begging the question, and has no place in scientific theorizing. It is, in principle, non-falsifiable.

Being thankful and grateful
Although it seems easy for the psychological egoist to interpret all actions as motivated by self-interest, there are a couple of feelings that seem to resist their interpretation.

When somebody does something for you that is unexpected, you feel a sense of gratefulness. Let's say a friend goes out of their way -- and gives up something they wanted -- to help you. Generally, you feel thankful or grateful. Well, if you discovered later on that they got something out of it -- if you discovered that their own interest was better served by doing you this "favor", then wouldn't you re-evaluate your feeling of gratefulness? Wouldn't you feel less grateful, and a bit more suspicious of their motives? If everyone always acted out of self-interest, then what place would feelings of gratefulness, thankfulness have?

One might say, "well, I'm still thankful, because my situation has improved." Sure -- but then you are not grateful to them. You may feel lucky that their interest and your interest coincided, but that's not exactly the same as feeling grateful to them.

In summary, it seems as though the feelings we have of gratefulness and thankfulness -- directed toward people -- simply wouldn't make much sense if every action of altruism were nothing more than a concealed action of self-interest.

The meaning of selfishness
James Rachels suggest that psychological egoists make a silly mistake, and that if one believes that people are genuinely altruistic, then you have nothing to fear from the egoist. Rachels points out that it is precisely what we mean by unselfishness that we take joy out of doing something to help others.

Why should we think that merely because someone derives satisfaction from helping others this makes him selfish? Isn't the unselfish man precisely the one who does derive satisfaction from helping others, while the selfish man does not? If Lincoln "got peace of mind" from rescuing the piglets,, does this how him to be selfish, or, on the contrary, doesn't it show him to be compassionate and good-hearted? (If a man were truly selfish, why should it bother his conscience that others suffer -- much less pigs?) Similarly, it is nothing more than shabby sophistry to say, because Smith takes satisfaction in helping his friend, that he is behaving selfishly..." [from "Egoism and Moral Skepticism", A New Introduction to Philosophy, ed. Steven Cahn, New York: Harper and Row, 1971]

* Fact has an epistemological component (a claim about what I can know) and a metaphysical component (claim about what actually exists). Sometimes fact is used to refer to actual existence -- the fact that the moon circles the earth (metaphysical claim), and sometimes it is used to refer to publicly verifiable, shared experience (epistemological claim). According to the first way of using the term fact, IF it is true that God exists, then the existence of God is a fact, whether or not we can actually know that God exists. According to the second way of using the term fact, If all publicly available data points in the wrong direction of a theory (say, that the earth is flat), then facts change when new types of previously unavailable evidence comes about.

The Truth in Psychological Egosim by Hugh LaFollette

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Copyright Stephen O Sullivan and Philip A. Pecorino  2002. All Rights reserved.

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