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The Irrefutability of Psychological Egoism

Updated on October 16, 2009

Irrefutability is not a virtue of a theory (as people often think) but a vice.

–––Karl Popper

A fundamental question in ethics is, ‘what motivates action’? That is, when we perform a morally “right” action, why do we do so? There are many competing moral theories that seek to provide an answer to this question, and perhaps one of the most interesting and controversial attempts is put forth by psychological egoism. Psychological egoism is a theory which holds that all human actions are motivated by self-interest. While there are a number of effective criticisms against this theory, I feel that one important failing of psychological egoism that is often overlooked is its untestability. In this paper I will argue that psychological egoism offers no credible reason to accept its thesis, due to the fact that it is an untestable theory. First I will outline the theory, psychological egoism. Second, I will explore reasons why one might find psychological egoism a credible theory. Third, I will discuss Karl Popper’s objections against empirical theories like psychological egoism to argue that psychological egoism offers no good reason to think that all human actions are motivated by self-interest.

Psychological egoists argue that all human actions are motivated by self-interest. It is important to note that psychological egoism is not a moral theory that prescribes what one ought to do, but rather argues that, as a matter of empirical fact, all human actions are motivated by self-interest. Hence, unlike most theories of morality this is a moral theory about “what is the case,” rather than a normative doctrine like ethical egoism, or utilitarianism, about how one ought to act. So then, why think that all human actions are motivated by self-interest? Let us consider a few examples to see why psychological egoism is such an appealing theory to some.

Suppose Sally is walking down the road and she comes upon an elderly lady, Ms. Smith, carrying a couple of heavy grocery bags. Sally stops and asks Ms. Smith if she would like some help carrying the bags. Ms. Smith accepts and Sally helps her carry the bags home. Now if we ask why Sally helped Ms. Smith with her grocery bags, Sally might respond by saying something like, “it was the right thing to do and so I did it.” Upon deeper reflection, Sally might even justify her actions in consequentialist terms by saying that she acted on utilitarian grounds, and that her actions produced the greatest amount of happiness for everyone involved. So, by helping Ms. Smith, not only was Ms. Smith better off (because she was no longer burdened with carrying heavy grocery bags), but also, Sally was happier, too, because she had the satisfaction of knowing that she helped someone in need, and it feels good to help those in need. So, according to the psychological egoist is this an example of an action motivated by self-interest?

At first glance it would seem that in the above example, Sally’s actions were not motivated by self-interest. After all, Sally admits (so we are supposing here) that Sally helped Ms. Smith simply because helping was the right thing to do. There was no self-interest at work here; Sally just wanted what was best for Ms. Smith. But at this point the psychological egoist will want to point out that Sally’s true motivation for helping out Ms. Smith was so that Sally could get that “feel good” sensation of having helped someone in need. That is, the real motivation for Sally’s action was so that Sally could fulfill that self-interested need of feeling good about one’s actions; Sally was not concerned with the well-being of Ms. Smith at all, say the psychological egoists, she was merely helping out of her own self-interest. The psychological egoist might even point out that another possible self-interested motivation for Sally helping Ms. Smith was that Sally would likely have felt guilty had she not helped Ms. Smith. Hence we conclude that Sally may have been motivated to help Ms. Smith for two different self-interested reasons: 1) so that she would feel good about herself for having helped another person in need; and 2) to avoid feelings of guilt for not helping those in need. Hence, no matter how you evaluate this action, Sally’s motivation seems self-interested.

We may or may not agree with the psychological egoists interpretation of Sally’s motivations here, but we can point out that while it might be true that Sally may have been motivated by self-interest, surely not all human actions are motivated by self-interest. In fact, there are clearly many actions that cannot be interpreted as having been motivated by self-interest. Let us consider a more complex case of moral action. James Rachels discusses the case of Raoul Wallenberg who was a Swedish businessman volunteering as a diplomat during World War Two. While in Germany, Wallenberg helped as many as 120,000 Jews escape the Nazi regime. He remained in Germany during extremely dangerous times and put his own life at risk for complete strangers. Sadly, after the war Wallenberg went missing and it is believed tat he was killed by Soviet occupation forces. In this tragic case, surely we would admit that Wallenberg is a truly altruistic person, and that given the fact that he put his own life at risk for others shows that his actions could not possibly have been motivated by self-interest.

Even though Wallenberg’s actions seem completely altruistic, the psychological egoist will want to argue that the real motivation for his actions was self-interest. The psychological egoist will argue that the real reason Wallenberg put his own life at risk in order to save the lives of strangers was so that he would receive public recognition and be seen as a hero. Thus, his actions were not motivated by the interests of others, but for his own interests, mainly to receive praise from others as a truly great person. In fact, it was later reported that Wallenberg admitted to friends that prior to the war he found his life in Sweden dull, and that he wanted to do something heroic in order to have a more meaningful life. Hence, in this example, we seem to have empirical evidence that confirms the psychological egoists thesis that Wallenberg’s actions really were motivated by self-interest. So are we convinced by these compelling cases where actions seem to be motivated by self-interest?

Perhaps average people like Raoul Wallenberg sometimes perform extraordinary deeds for self-interested reasons, but what about truly exceptional people like Mother Theresa. Mother Theresa devoted her entire life to helping the poor. She had accepted to live her life in complete devotion to others. Now it would seem that Mother Theresa’s motivations were unlike those of Raoul Wallenberg, for surely Mother Theresa did not perform her acts of kindness in order to be seen a heroic figure in the eyes of the public. After all, Mother Theresa did most of her work in obscurity. But, the psychological egoist is able to see a self-interested motivation even in the actions of Mother Theresa. For Mother Theresa expects to be rewarded for her good acts in heaven, argue the psychological egoists. Thus, she had her own self-interest in mind when she offered her life to helping the poor: she was seeking eternal life in heaven. We might even say that Mother Theresa is among the most self-interested persons, after all, she is thinking in her eternal self-interest, not just fulfilling her day-to-day self-interests.

So we might be beginning to see why the theory of psychological egoism has gained popularity with some. Though it is usually thought that people often perform moral actions in the interest of others, say when we offer to help others, but it would seem that no matter how altruistic an action may appear, there lies at the heart of any moral action, a self-interested motivation. Though this might seem like an unsettling fact about human nature, it seems difficult to imagine a case where we could not interpret a motivation as being self-interested: A lady gives to charity to ease her guilty conscience of living an affluent lifestyle; a person runs into a burning house to rescue children in the hope of seeing himself on the evening news, and so on. Given that psychological egoism is so offensive to our moral sensibilities and intuitions there must be something wrong with it. But how are we to criticize a theory that seems irrefutable? Though psychological egoism may be valued because it seems irrefutable, this irrefutability is in fact its weakness, not its strength, as we will soon see.

In order for my criticism to be effective against this theory, we must remind ourselves that psychological egoism purports to be an empirical theory. That is, psychological egoism expresses an empirical claim; mainly, that all human actions are motivated by self-interest. Now it is commonly accepted that any empirical claim must be subject to some sort of empirical test, in order to be considered legitimate. One proposed test for the adequacy of an empirical claim was put forth by A.J. Ayer. Ayer argued that in order for any sentence to be meaningful, its claim must be empirically verifiable. So, for example, when a theory claims to know some proposition, that theory must be able to demonstrate that it predicts accurately by offering empirically verifiable proof of its claims. Ayer called this test the criterion of verifiability (p. 31). So the idea here is that if we want to know whether an empirical theory predicts accurately, we ask for verification of the claim that the theory is making. To give a simplified example, suppose we want to know whether the following sentence expresses a genuine empirical claim: ‘water boils at 100 degrees Celsius’. In order to know whether this empirical claim predicts accurately, we must be able to empirically verify the claim. In this example, it is easy to verify the claim, all we have to do is bring water to a temperature of 100 degrees Celsius and see if it boils. It turns out that water does boil at 100 degrees Celsius, thus, this claim has met the criterion of verifiability and is therefore a truthful claim. So what would it mean for a claim not to meet the criterion of verifiability? Consider the following well-known example of a meaningless claim by Noam Chomsky: colourless green ideas sleep furiously. This claim is utterly meaningless and has no truth value, due to the fact that the claim is not empirically verifiable. That is, there is no conceivable test one could perform to see whether it is true that colourless green ideas sleep furiously. No possibility of verification means that this claim is not a truthful empirical claim.

Given that psychological egoism makes an empirical claim, we need to see whether its claim is empirically verifiable. If the theory of psychological egoism meets Ayer’s criterion of verifiability, we then have some reason to accept its claim about the nature of human moral motivation. So what happens when we subject psychological egoism to Ayer’s criterion of verifiability? When we apply the criterion of verifiability to psychological egoism, we see that the claims made by the psychological egoist are empirically verifiable. For example, in the case of Raoul Wallenberg, the psychological egoist predicts that Wallenberg’s motivations will be found to be motivated by self-interest. And we see that upon observation of his actions, they are motivated by self-interest. Wallenberg is motivated by his desire to live a meaningful life and be publicly praised as a hero. So too in the case of Mother Theresa: the psychological egoist had predicted that the motivation behind her actions was also self-interest, and what do you know? upon observation of her actions she too was found to be motivated by self-interest: all Mother Theresa wanted was to be recognized for her good deeds in order to live an eternal afterlife. In fact, there does not seem to be any conceivable human moral action where one could not identify self-interest as the motivation. Hence, we see that the claims made by psychological egoists are verified each time we observe some human moral action.

At this point it would seem that psychological egoism meets the criterion of verifiability, but is this criterion an adequate criterion for evaluating empirical claims? In response to Ayer’s criterion of verifiability, Karl Popper developed his own criterion for the legitimacy of empirical theories. Popper sought to identify a criterion of demarcation for distinguishing between scientific and psuedo-scientific theories. Popper argued that the true measure for whether a theory was scientific was to ask whether the claims of the theory were testable, or refutable, or falsifiable (p. 48). While Popper did not specifically target psychological egoism as a psuedo-science, it would appear as though it is fair game to subject psychological egoism to Popper’s criterion of scientific legitimacy. After all, psychological egoism claims to be an empirical theory. So what is the result of evaluating psychological egoism in light of Popper’s demarcation criterion?

At first glance, psychological egoism seems to pass all the tests you can subject it to. No matter what moral action you describe, the psychological egoist has a self-interested explanation at the ready. But it seems as though what is happening when psychological egoists claim that human actions are motivated by self-interest is that they are merely re-interpreting behaviour in light of their theory. In fact, it seems clear to me that once you convince yourself of the truth of the thesis, any moral action at all can be labelled (or re-labelled) as being motivated by self-interest. So, in fact, there really is no test that you could give that would prove psychological egoism false. But are we to think that because a theory is unable to be proven false that it is a good theory? Without giving this question too much thought, one would think that irrefutability is a good feature of a theory; after all, we would expect a true theory to resist attempts at refutation. But this irrefutability or unfalsifiability is not a strength of the theory but is actually its weakness. The problem isn’t that nothing has been found contrary to the theory; the real problem is that nothing could be found contrary to the theory. There is simply no test for the psychological egoists thesis. In other words, the theory lacks testability; there is no way to test the theory to see if it what it purports to be true is true.

Since there is no way to test the claim made by psychological egoism we have no good reason to accept it as a truthful theory of human moral motivation. It may well be that psychological egoism is a true theory of human moral motivation, however, we have no good reason to believe its claims, any more than we have reason to believe in claims like “everything happens for a reason,” or “it was meant to be.” There is simply no way to test whether these claims are true because any conceivable situation can be interpreted as a verification of the truth of these claims. Hence, verification alone is not enough to prove the adequacy of an empirical claim. Unless the propositions of a theory are falsifiable, or refutable, or testable, the claim is unscientific and open to much doubt.


A.J. Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic, (New York: Dover Publications, Inc, 1936).

James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 4th ed., (McGraw-Hill, 2003).

Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge (London and New York: Routledge, 2002).


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