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Philosophy Topics: Psychological Egoism

Updated on July 11, 2012

Another debatable topic in philosophy and ethics is psychological egoism, which is the idea that the underlying motive behind every action we take is in some way a means to fulfill our own self-interest. The validity of the suggestion is a highly debatable topic. It in some ways may be true. Still in some instances, it may be disregarded as a fundamentally fallacious theory. Based on my own interpretation of what, in general, a human beings actual self-interest are, I find I cannot side with the psychological egoist.

The Egoist

When a person tells another that everything he or she does is for his or her own self-interest, I would bet that the recipient would not hesitate to feel a bit of resentment. The fact that we feel that resentment ought to suggest something to us. What I believe it suggest is that although we may be seeking our own self-interest in all that we do, whether it be something dramatically important or mundane, there will always exists in us a desire to fulfill the self-interest of others. Now, the psychological egoist will probably respond to that notion by saying “No, you do not seek to fulfill someone else’s interest. You are at best doing this to hide self-interest of your own that you will enjoy from the results of your action, be it glory, pride, or possible compensation.” In other words, it is a lose-lose situation in dealing with the physiological egoist. His argument cannot be disproven at the surface because our only defense is our own thoughts. One may say cigarettes and beer are damaging to one’s own health, so one who indulges in them is hurting himself, thus not seeking self-interests. They respond with no, his self-interest lies in the feelings obtained from indulging in them. Proving your own motives is not a battle easily won.

True Motives

The idea of psychological egoism contains no hint of positivity towards humanity as a whole. How could it? It leaves no room for charity toward others without saying it is a means to some self-interest. And when you factor that in, charity loses its meaning. I however believe this may be where the egoist can be disproven. Good deeds, charity, heroic rescues, and all other so called “selfless acts” become less attractive to us when we realize they were done for the doers own self-interest. If a man fights a war for the sake of receiving a bonus to his military paycheck, we may disregard him as a mercenary and not view his actions as heroically as the man who fights for the sake of freedom for his countrymen. A man, who rescues a dog from a fire because he did not want the dog to suffer, is a more admirable man than the one who rescues a dog because it is a show dog worth millions. When looking at the situation from this perspective, we see in humanity a desire for genuine, selfless acts of goodness. Yes, many people may do things to fulfill their own interest. Many more people may hide their true motives for doing such things. Still, the fact that people overall wish for a world where good deeds are done selflessly disproves the notion that all we do is for ourselves only. Now, I did not say that humanity does this. The road is narrow and few take it, even those who do get lost once or twice. But the fact is we live in a natural world where self-interests are a necessity to some degree. Yet, we also live in a world that desires selfless acts of which will ultimately make the world better.

Our Nature

To say that all we do is a motivation to fulfill our own desires is a notion that carries with it a weight of negativity too heavy for me to bear. If the theory were accepted by all and put into practice, what room would be left for any self-restraint in obtaining any and all things that we desire? No, because of the fact that we as a society are somewhat let down when we see that a selfless act wasn’t really selfless; I find I cannot yet agree with the theory of physiological egoism. We truly do desire the satisfaction of other people. The theory seems to be a fallacious claim that need be in constant defense of its own propositions. The very existence of our own conscience ought to disprove the theory in its entirety, but I dare not venture there and use a dull sword in my refutation. We are people who want to see selflessness in action. Part of our true self-interest lies in fulfilling the self-interest of others. Any objection beyond that I regard as nonsense and overthinking.


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    • rjbatty profile image


      7 years ago from Irvine

      Psychological egoism is a pretty sturdy philosophy about the behavior of our species. However, I think that the adoption of this philosophy (consciously or unconsciously) has various levels. On its face the philosophy is repugnant because it makes us all into self-serving egotists. But, even if true, I maintain that the level of egoism coincides with an entity's degree of self-awareness. I suggest that the degree to which an individual submits to egoism is in direct correlation with his/her consciousness of the "self," as Carl Jung would use the term. Knowing oneself means more than simply being conscious. It also means being aware of one's unconscious fears, drives, needs, etc., and how they manifest themselves. In Buddhism the object of meditation and training is (in part) the obliteration of the ego. They refer to this as "enlightenment." The practice can lead to an awareness that there is no demarcation between "self" and "other." The sense of duality disappears, and an individual can wash a sink full of dishes with the same sense of "correct action" as (for example) caring for a dying patient.

      Even an unenlightened but fully conscious person can contemplate their motivations and take a route that is not in his/her best interest, but the best interest of another.

      There have been many occasions where I am aware that a friend or relative is on the wrong path, but I remain silent. First, I realize that my efforts (if I were to take them) may be based on self-gratification. I would feel a sense of worth by directing a friend/relative/associate by using my experience/wisdom to correct their wrong choices. Secondly, I realize that my efforts could be misinterpreted or taken out of context and simply create an ego-injuring experience for the friend. If the friend is not directly seeking your advice, chances are they will not be receptive to a lecture. Thirdly, I realize that though I may remain silent on a particular occasion another individual or life itself will course-correct a friend following a path that seems mistaken. A fully conscious person must constantly perform this self-analysis to weigh the benefit of an action vs. its possible negative ramifications. Do I experience a sense of pride by performing this analysis? No. For me, the entire exercise is a mere process. The outcome of whether I'm instrumental in a particular situation or not doesn't impact my ego -- as I view my ego as not much more than a collection of influences that have amalgamated in the naturally occurring, instinctive mechanism of individuation.

      Thus, I see psychological egoism as something that can be subsumed and even overcome. I think the process for beginning to wrangle psychological egoism begins with a very deep examination of the self. An individual must begin by accepting that their ego is a great illusion and to be willing to have it smashed to smithereens.

    • Thomas Swan profile image

      Thomas Swan 

      8 years ago from New Zealand

      To be regarded as a hero may be more beneficial to the self than picking up a paycheck though. Also, even in debates like this, it's beneficial for people to think you are an altruist. This becomes even more believable if you are able to convince yourself that you are an altruist.

      The problem lies in how we understand egoism. Do we attach it only to selfish, cruel acts, or is there more to it than this? Consider that altruistic groups fair better than selfish groups in evolutionary terms. So behaving in the best way for the self can actually involve behaving in the interests of others.

      The law of natural selection is pretty irrefutable on this. Individuals who act selflessly will die out. Individuals who act selfishly will survive and reproduce. However, groups who act selflessly to each other will survive over groups that act selfishly to each other. So you could say that selfless behaviour, or altruism, became more widespread when humans started living in bigger and bigger groups. Ultimately though, egoism is true, but it leads to altruism in particular circumstances.

    • Sethughes profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago

      Thanks for the comment. I like what you said about egoism not removing kindness from the world. I hadn't quite thought of it that way.

      I don't know if when we do a selfless act we are always just trying to live up to societies standards. If a person who is at odds with society does something for someone for the sole purpose of helping that individual, I can't see any self interest there. Think of this case: If not one person is to know about an act of kindness, and the person in need doesn't realize who did the act, how will the doer of the deed benefit at all? I find it hard to say that he will do it out of guilt of not doing it simply because I cannot prove any persons motives using my own intuition. No one can.

      I understand the theory is hard to disprove, but unless an explanation can be given for every possible explanation, I cannot accept it as absolute truth. I have no way of knowing a persons motives, so how can I make a logical judgement about that persons interest in doing something?

      Thanks again for the comments

    • jadesmg profile image

      Jade Gracie 

      8 years ago from United Kingdom

      It's extremely difficult to disprove egoism. You could look at it the other way, how many people do things which truly oppose their own self interest?? It's hard to think of any such cases. When you do there could be over issues of self interest beyond say physical benefits or even survival. Perhaps, faced with the extreme choice of taking either your life or someone elses, maybe you'd take your own. This may seem to be completely opposing your own self interest. But, if you had taken the other persons life would you ctually be able to live with it? Would the guilt ruin you?? would the shame and possible knowledge of others over what you had done made it just unbarable? whereas, if you choose to take your own life you would be noted as a hero, a selfless saviour. The benefits do not always have to be physical. Given our very social nature these benefits can be something which has been instilled in us from society. Maybe commiting an act of some sort may seem selfless as though it does not benefit you, but it will in fact benefit your family. This again may still seem selfless, your family are not YOU. Yet, society says it is your responsibility and duty to look out for them. Maybe failing to meet societies social standards is worse than doing this selfless thing....

      O.K. tbh i'm not all that informed on this, and i do agree with you that it is much nicer to view the world in terms of selfless acts and kindness. Yet, people can still be kind and only out to look after themselves. As I said our species is wholly social, the praise or the friendship gained (or even simply the grateful social interaction, even if brief) is enough to make an action worthy to us.

      Egoism does not remove kindness and generosity from the world, it only places it's source in relations with one another. (I'd guess, honestly not reliable)

      Good hub though, It's nice to think of opposite arguments even when I don't know really.

    • Sethughes profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago

      Thanks for the great response. You make some really good points and arguments.

      I hadn't yet thought of nature pursuing its own self interest by generating fruit and thus perfecting its own self. I think to a certain degree, if everything did not fulfill its own self interest, we would never progress as a society, nor would nature be able to provide us with the benefits that it does.

      It is hard to not say everything is a egoist to some level. On the one hand, if a man fights in war for money, he is seeking his own self interest. If a man fights a war to save his country, he is seeking his own self interest in becoming more courageous or brave. Still, the fact that we cannot prove a person or things motives makes me unable to accept egoism in its entirety.

      Thanks again for the comment. It is a good argument and really got me thinking.


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