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Introduction to Ethics
Lecture 12
Psychological Egoism
By David Kelsey
What is Psychological Egoism?
Psychological Egoism:
– All human actions are motivated by selfish desires.
– The only thing anyone is capable of desiring as an end in itself is his own
self interest.
– “…men are capable of desiring the happiness of others only when they take
it to be a means to their own happiness.” (section 1)
• Thus, purely altruistic and benevolent actions and desires do not exist.
Psychological Egoism:
description not prescription
Psychological Egoism is a description of human psychology:
It isn’t a theory about what ought to be the case but a theory about what, as a matter of
fact, is the case. (Section 2)
It is a theory of psychological facts, not a prescription of ethical ideals.
So psychological egoism tells us that we just do pursue our own self interest because
this is how human psychological motivation works.
“…all men do as a contingent matter of fact ‘put their own interests first,’” and “they are capable
of nothing else, human nature being what it is.” (2)
Ethical Egoism &
Psychological Egoistic Hedonism
Ethical Egoism:
Says all men ought to pursue their own well being. (Section 3)
This is a prescription about how we are to act.
Psychological Egoistic Hedonism:
First developed by Jeremy Bentham who was famous for defending Utilitarianism.
Says all persons have only one ultimate motive in all their voluntary behavior:
the desire for one’s own pleasure or
“…the desire to get or to prolong pleasant experiences, and to avoid or to cut short unpleasant
experiences for oneself.”(3)
Support for Psychological Egoism
According to Feinberg, there are 4 reasons to believe Psychological Egoism is
Whenever I act I always pursue my own ends or try to satisfy my own desires.
(Section 4)
In other words, Every action of mine is prompted by motives that are mine.
We can then generalize:
All men in all their actions are selfish, I.e. pursue their own ends or the satisfaction of their own
When one gets what she wants she feels pleasure. (4)
We can then generalize:
Whenever one acts, she does so to pursue her own pleasure.
Psychological Egoism
& self deception
The truth of Psychological Egoism is revealed by self deception (4):
– It appears that we often will deceive ourselves into thinking that our motives
for action aren’t selfish when in fact they are.
• “…people tend to conceal their true motives from themselves by camouflaging
them with words like ‘virtue,’ ‘duty,’ etc.” (4)
– Thus, might it not be the case that whenever we think our motives for action
aren’t selfish ones that we have just deceived ourselves.
• “…we might always be deceived when we think motives disinterested and
altruistic…” (4).
Psychological Egoism
& Moral Education
Moral education presupposes Psychological Egoism:
– Moral education and the inculcation of manners utilize what Bentham calls
the “sanctions of pleasure and pain”. (4)
– “People in general have been inclined to behave well only when it is made
plain to them that there is ‘something in it for them’”. (4)
Objections to Psychological Hedonism
The first two motivations for Psychological Egoism are both non
– 1. The inference from the fact that whenever I act I am prompted by my
own motives, to the claim that whenever any man acts he does so for
selfish motives is a non sequitur. (section 6)
• A non sequitur is just an inference that doesn’t follow.
• We know that: every voluntary action is prompted by the agent’s own motives and
not someone else’s.
• We are mistakenly inferring that: every voluntary action is promoted by motives of
a particular kind, I.e. selfish ones.
• My motives for action could simply be non-selfish…
A second non-sequitur
2. It is also a non-sequitur to think that because I feel pleasure
when I get what I want, it must be the case that whenever I act I do
so for the sake of pleasure. (7)
• We know that: pleasure is the usual accompaniment of actions
• We are mistakenly inferring that: when acting what the agent always and only
wants is his own pleasure.
• “The immediate inference from even constant accompaniment to purpose (or
motive) is always a non sequitur.” (7)
Disinterested Benevolence
Disinterested Benevolence must be possible:
The benevolent man does get pleasure from his benevolence, but in most cases this is
only because he has a previous desire to help someone or some thing.
So in some cases the fact that we get pleasure from a particular action presupposes that we
desired something else as an end in itself.
Pleasure is then a consequence of the satisfaction of our desire.
The Lincoln example: (Section 8)
Lincoln hears a pig squealing because her baby pigs had got into the slough and were in
danger of drowning.
Lincoln ran from his train to lift the pigs out of the mud and water and place them on the bank.
Lincoln responds that his action is selfish because if he hadn’t helped the pigs he would have
had no peace of mind all day.
But if Lincoln had cared only about his own peace of mind, if he hadn’t cared about the welfare
of the pigs, then how would he have derived pleasure from helping them?
Disinterested Malevolence
Disinterested malevolence must be possible:
“To the malevolent man, the injury of others is often an end in itself…” (Section 9)
If the malevolent man gets pleasure in harming another person, this pleasure is merely
a consequence of the satisfaction of his desire to harm.
So the fact that he derives pleasure from harming another must mean that he has as a
motive, not the pleasure, but the harming of another.
The Paradox of Hedonism
The Paradox of Hedonism:
If one were to only desire one’s own happiness, one would never achieve it.
“…the single-minded pursuit of happiness is necessarily self defeating, for the way to
get happiness is to forget it.” (11)
“…when persons deliberately and single-mindedly set off in pursuit of happiness, it vanishes
utterly from sight and cannot be captured.” (Section 11)
You can’t just aim to get pleasure itself, for pleasure is only attainable as a result of satisfying a
desire for something else.
Instead, you must aim to get those things from which you will derive pleasure.
Jones (11):
Devoid of intellectual curiosity, no aesthetic desires, no desire for physical activity or sport, no
interest in politics or helping others & he has no talents.
But Jones does have an overwhelming desire for his own happiness.
Question: How can Jones achieve happiness for he has no desire to pursue anything which will
result in his happiness?
Egoistic desires & Morality
Maybe Psychological Hedonism won’t work after all.
– But can we salvage anything from Psychological Egoism, which will help us
learn about morality?
One thing we know is that we do have selfish desires:
– If it isn’t all of our actions that are motivated by self interest, it seems to be a
lot of them that are.
– We get pleasure when we do satisfy our desires.
We do seem to want to maximize the satisfaction of our selfish
desires, at least most of the time:
– 4a and 4b in Feinberg support this! (Section 4)
– Most of the time we try to satisfy our desires.
– The psychological facts & survival of the fittest...
Egoistic desires and avoiding blame
So human beings by nature aim for the actions that will maximize their self interest.
But the maximization of self interest is restricted by the desire to avoid Blame for
wrong action.
– There is a social pressure that comes with blame that is very strong.
So we don’t want to break societies mores.
Doing wrong and taking blame will further restrict one’s ability to maximize her self
Example: you get caught stealing money from your friend or cheating on your girlfriend…
Of course, if one does the right thing he or she will receive praise for it.
Break a promise or cheat and you might lose a friend or be ostracized by your peers...
But the maximization of our self interest is restricted.
And praise isn’t as motivating as Blame.
Examples: you help a friend study versus cheating on an exam…
Thus, humans are more interested in avoiding wrong action than pursuing right
Conclusions about morality
Our conclusion:
– humans are more interested in avoiding wrong action than pursuing right
What can we learn from this?
– It is an interesting question to ask: how are we to decide when and how
much to be moral?
• (from Wolf’s Moral Saints)
– Our first answer to this question: We may not be as interested in ‘good’
and ‘right’ as our moral theories take us to be.
• But much of moral theory is dedicated to ‘good’ and ‘right’. So why not develop
theories about ‘evil’ and ‘wrong’ and ‘blame’.
• Why not build a moral theory that better molds to the psychological laws? One
that allows for us to be the self interested agents that we are?