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Egoism | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

In philosophy, egoism is the theory that ones self is, or should be, the motivation and the goal of ones own action. Egoism has two variants, descriptive or normative. The descriptive (or positive) variant conceives egoism as a factual description of human affairs. That is, people are motivated by their own interests and desires, and they cannot be described otherwise. The normative variant proposes that people should be so motivated, regardless of what presently motivates their behavior. Altruism is the opposite of egoism. The term egoism derives from ego, the Latin term for I in English. Egoism should be distinguished from egotism, which means a psychological overvaluation of ones own importance, or of ones own activities.

People act for many reasons; but for whom, or what, do or should they actfor themselves, for God, or for the good of the planet? Can an individual ever act only according to her own interests without regard for others interests. Conversely, can an individual ever truly act for others in complete disregard for her own interests? The answers will depend on an account of free will. Some philosophers argue that an individual has no choice in these matters, claiming that a persons acts are determined by prior events which make illusory any belief in choice. Nevertheless, if an element of choice is permitted against the great causal impetus from nature, or God, it follows that a person possesses some control over her next action, and, that, therefore, one may inquire as to whether the individual does, or, should choose a self-or-other-oriented action. Morally speaking, one can ask whether the individual should pursue her own interests, or, whether she should reject self-interest and pursue others interest instead: to what extent are other-regarding acts morally praiseworthy compared to self-regarding acts?

The descriptive egoists theory is called psychological egoism. Psychological egoism describes human nature as being wholly self-centered and self-motivated. Examples of this explanation of human nature predate the formation of the theory, and, are found in writings such as that of British Victorian historian, Macaulay, and, in that of British Reformation political philosopher, Thomas Hobbes. To the question, What proposition is there respecting human nature which is absolutely and universally true?”, Macaulay, replies, “We know of only one . . . that men always act from self-interest.” (Quoted in Garvin.) In Leviathan, Hobbes maintains that, “No man giveth but with intention of good to himself; because gift is voluntary; and of all voluntary acts the object to every man is his own pleasure.” In its strong form, psychological egoism asserts that people always act in their own interests, and, cannot but act in their own interests, even though they may disguise their motivation with references to helping others or doing their duty.

Opponents claim that psychological egoism renders ethics useless. However, this accusation assumes that ethical behavior is necessarily other-regarding, which opponents would first have to establish. Opponents may also exploit counterfactual evidence to criticize psychological egoism surely, they claim, there is a host of evidence supporting altruistic or duty bound actions that cannot be said to engage the self-interest of the agent. However, what qualifies to be counted as apparent counterfactual evidence by opponents becomes an intricate and debatable issue. This is because, in response to their opponents, psychological egoists may attempt to shift the question away from outward appearances to ultimate motives of acting benevolently towards others; for example, they may claim that seemingly altruistic behavior (giving a stranger some money) necessarily does have a self-interested component. For example, if the individual were not to offer aid to a stranger, he or she may feel guilty or may look bad in front of a peer group.

On this point, psychological egoisms validity turns on examining and analyzing moral motivation. But since motivation is inherently private and inaccessible to others (an agent could be lying to herself or to others about the original motive), the theory shifts from a theoretical description of human nature–one that can be put to observational testing–to an assumption about the inner workings of human nature: psychological egoism moves beyond the possibility of empirical verification and the possibility of empirical negation (since motives are private), and therefore it becomes what is termed a closed theory.

A closed theory is a theory that rejects competing theories on its own terms and is non-verifiable and non-falsifiable. If psychological egoism is reduced to an assumption concerning human nature and its hidden motives, then it follows that it is just as valid to hold a competing theory of human motivation such as psychological altruism.

Psychological altruism holds that all human action is necessarily other-centered, and other-motivated. Ones becoming a hermit (an apparently selfish act) can be reinterpreted through psychological altruism as an act of pure noble selflessness: a hermit is not selfishly hiding herself away, rather, what she is doing is not inflicting her potentially ungraceful actions or displeasing looks upon others. A parallel analysis of psychological altruism thus results in opposing conclusions to psychological egoism. However, psychological altruism is arguably just as closed as psychological egoism: with it one assumes that an agents inherently private and consequently unverifiable motives are altruistic. If both theories can be validly maintained, and if the choice between them becomes the flip of a coin, then their soundness must be questioned.

A weak version of psychological egoism accepts the possibility of altruistic or benevolent behavior, but maintains that, whenever a choice is made by an agent to act, the action is by definition one that the agent wants to do at that point. The action is self-serving, and is therefore sufficiently explained by the theory of psychological egoism. Let one assume that person A wants to help the poor; therefore, A is acting egoistically by actually wanting to help; again, if A ran into a burning building to save a kitten, it must be the case that A wanted or desired to save the kitten. However, defining all motivations as what an agent desires to do remains problematic: logically, the theory becomes tautologous and therefore unable to provide a useful, descriptive meaning of motivation because one is essentially making an arguably philosophically uninteresting claim that an agent is motivated to do what she is motivated to do. Besides which, if helping others is what A desires to do, then to what extent can A be continued to be called an egoist? A acts because that is what A does, and consideration of the ethical ought becomes immediately redundant. Consequently, opponents argue that psychological egoism is philosophically inadequate because it sidesteps the great nuances of motive. For example, one can argue that the psychological egoists notion of motive sidesteps the clashes that her theory has with the notion of duty, and, related social virtues such as honor, respect, and reputation, which fill the tomes of history and literature.

David Hume, in his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (Appendix IIOf Self Love), offers six rebuttals of what he calls the selfish hypothesis, an arguably archaic relative of psychological egoism. First, Hume argues that self-interest opposes moral sentiments that may engage one in concern for others, and, may motivate ones actions for others. These moral sentiments include love, friendship, compassion, and gratitude. Second, psychological egoism attempts to reduce human motivation to a single cause, which is a fruitless taskthe “love of simplicityhas been the source of much false reasoning in philosophy.” Third, it is evident that animals act benevolently towards one another, and, if it is admitted that animals can act altruistically, then how can it be denied in humans? Fourth, the concepts we use to describe benevolent behavior cannot be meaningless; sometimes an agent obviously does not have a personal interest in the fortune of another, yet will wish her well. Any attempt to create an imaginary vested interest, as the psychological egoist will attempt, proves futile. Fifth, Hume asserts that we have prior motivations to self-interest; we may have, for example, a predisposition towards vanity, fame, or vengeance that transcends any benefit to the agent. Finally, Hume claims that even if the selfish hypothesis were true, there are a sufficient number of dispositions to generate a wide possibility of moral actions, allowing one person to be called vicious and another humane; and he claims that the latter is to be preferred over the former.

The second variant of egoism is normative in that it stipulates the agent ought to promote the self above other values. Herbert Spencer said, Ethics has to recognize the truth, recognized in unethical thought, that egoism comes before altruism. The acts required for continued self-preservation, including the enjoyments of benefits achieved by such arts, are the first requisites to universal welfare. Unless each duly cares for himself, his care for all others is ended in death, and if each thus dies there remain no others to be cared for. He was echoing a long history of the importance of self-regarding behavior that can be traced back to Aristotles theory of friendship in the Nichomachaean Ethics. In his theory, Aristotle argues that a man must befriend himself before he can befriend others. The general theory of normative egoism does not attempt to describe human nature directly, but asserts how people ought to behave. It comes in two general forms: rational egoism and ethical egoism.

Rational egoism claims that the promotion of ones own interests is always in accordance with reason. The greatest and most provocative proponent of rational egoism is Ayn Rand, whose The Virtue of Selfishness outlines the logic and appeal of the theory. Rand argues that: first, properly defined, selfishness rejects the sacrificial ethics of the Wests Judaic-Christian heritage on the grounds that it is right for man to live his own life; and, Rand argues that, second, selfishness is a proper virtue to pursue. That being said, she rejects the selfless selfishness of irrationally acting individuals: the actor must always be the beneficiary of his action and that man must act for his own rational self-interest. To be ethically selfish thus entails a commitment to reason rather than to emotionally driven whims and instincts.

In the strong version of rational egoism defended by Rand, not only is it rational to pursue ones own interests, it is irrational not to pursue them. In a weaker version, one may note that while it is rational to pursue ones own interests, there may be occasions when not pursuing them is not necessarily irrational.

Critics of rational egoism may claim that reason may dictate that ones interests should not govern ones actions. The possibility of conflicting reasons in a society need not be evoked in this matter; one need only claim that reason may invoke an impartiality clause, in other words, a clause that demands that in a certain situation ones interests should not be furthered. For example, consider a free-rider situation. In marking students papers, a teacher may argue that to offer inflated grades is to make her life easier, and, therefore, is in her self-interest: marking otherwise would incur negative feedback from students and having to spend time counseling on writing skills, and so on. It is even arguably foreseeable that inflating grades may never have negative consequences for anyone. The teacher could conceivably free-ride on the tougher marking of the rest of the department or university and not worry about the negative consequences of a diminished reputation to either. However, impartiality considerations demand an alternative courseit is not right to change grades to make life easier. Here self-interest conflicts with reason. Nonetheless, a Randian would reject the teachers free-riding being rational: since the teacher is employed to mark objectively and impartially in the first place, to do otherwise is to commit a fraud both against the employing institution and the student. (This is indeed an analogous situation explored in Rands The Fountainhead, in which the hero architect regrets having propped up a friends inabilities).

A simpler scenario may also be considered. Suppose that two men seek the hand of one woman, and they deduce that they should fight for her love. A critic may reason that the two men rationally claim that if one of them were vanquished, the other may enjoy the beloved. However, the solution ignores the womans right to choose between her suitors, and thus the mens reasoning is flawed.

In a different scenario, game theory (emanating from John von Neumanns and Oskar Morgensterns Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour, 1944) points to another possible logical error in rational egoism by offering an example in which the pursuit of self-interest results in both agents being made worse off.

This is famously described in the Prisoners Dilemma.

Prisoner A

From the table, two criminals, A and B, face different sentences depending on whether they confess their guilt or not. Each prisoner does not know what his partner will choose and communication between the two prisoners is not permitted. There are no lawyers and presumably no humane interaction between the prisoners and their captors.

Rationally (i.e., from the point of view of the numbers involved), we can assume that both will want to minimize their sentences. Herein lies the rub – if both avoid confessing, they will serve 2 years each a total of 4 years between them. If they both happen to confess, they each serve 5 years each, or 10 years between them.

However they both face a tantalizing option: if A confesses while his partner doesnt confess, A can get away in 6 months leaving B to languish for 10 years (and the same is true for B): this would result in a collective total of 10.5 years served.

For the game, the optimal solution is assumed to be the lowest total years served, which would be both refusing to confess and each therefore serving 2 years each. The probable outcome of the dilemma though is that both will confess in the desire to get off in 6 months, but therefore they will end up serving 10 years in total. This is seen to be non-rational or sub-optimal for both prisoners as the total years served is not the best collective solution.

The Prisoners Dilemma offers a mathematical model as to why self-interested action could lead to a socially non-optimal equilibrium (in which the participants all end up in a worse scenario). To game theorists, many situations can be modeled in a similar way to the classic Prisoners Dilemma including issues of nuclear deterrence, environmental pollution, corporate advertising campaigns and even romantic dates.

Supporters identify a game as any interaction between agents that is governed by a set of rules specifying the possible moves for each participant and a set of outcomes for each possible combination of moves. They add: One is hard put to find an example of social phenomenon that cannot be so described. (Hargreaves-Heap and Varoufakis, p.1).

Nonetheless, it can be countered that the nature of the game artificially pre-empts other possibilities: the sentences are fixed not by the participants but by external force (the game masters), so the choices facing the agents are outside of their control. Although this may certainly be applied to the restricted choices facing the two prisoners or contestants in a game, it is not obvious that every-day life generates such limited and limiting choices. The prisoners dilemma is not to be repeated: so there are no further negotiations based on what the other side chose.

More importantly, games with such restricting options and results are entered into voluntarily and can be avoided (we can argue that the prisoners chose to engage in the game in that they chose to commit a crime and hence ran the possibility of being caught!). Outside of games, agents affect each other and the outcomes in many different ways and can hence vary the outcomes as they interact in real life, communication involves altering the perception of how the world works, the values attached to different decisions, and hence what ought to be done and what potential consequences may arise.

In summary, even within the confines of the Prisoners Dilemma the assumptions that differing options be offered to each such that their self-interest works against the other can be challenged logically, ethically and judicially. Firstly, the collective outcomes of the game can be changed by the game master to produce a socially and individually optimal solution the numbers can be altered. Secondly, presenting such a dilemma to the prisoners can be considered ethically and judicially questionable as the final sentence that each gets is dependent on what another party says, rather than on the guilt and deserved punished of the individual.

Interestingly, repeated games tested by psychologists and economists tend to present a range of solutions depending on the stakes and other rules, with Axelrods findings (The Evolution of Cooperation, 1984) indicating that egotistic action can work for mutual harmony under the principle of tit for tat i.e., an understanding that giving something each creates a better outcome for both.

At a deeper level, some egoists may reject the possibility of fixed or absolute values that individuals acting selfishly and caught up in their own pursuits cannot see. Nietzsche, for instance, would counter that values are created by the individual and thereby do not stand independently of his or her self to be explained by another authority; similarly, St. Augustine would say love, and do as you will; neither of which may be helpful to the prisoners above but which may be of greater guidance for individuals in normal life.

Rand exhorts the application of reason to ethical situations, but a critic may reply that what is rational is not always the same as what is reasonable. The critic may emphasize the historicity of choice, that is, she may emphasize that ones apparent choice is demarcated by, and dependent on, the particular language, culture of right and consequence and environmental circumstance in which an individual finds herself living: a Victorian English gentleman perceived a different moral sphere and consequently horizon of goals than an American frontiersman. This criticism may, however, turn on semantic or contextual nuances. The Randian may counter that what is rational is reasonable: for one can argue that rationality is governed as much by understanding the context (Sartres facticity is a highly useful term) as adhering to the laws of logic and of non-contradiction.

Ethical egoism is the normative theory that the promotion of ones own good is in accordance with morality. In the strong version, it is held that it is always moral to promote ones own good, and it is never moral not to promote it. In the weak version, it is said that although it is always moral to promote ones own good, it is not necessarily never moral to not. That is, there may be conditions in which the avoidance of personal interest may be a moral action.

In an imaginary construction of a world inhabited by a single being, it is possible that the pursuit of morality is the same as the pursuit of self-interest in that what is good for the agent is the same as what is in the agents interests. Arguably, there could never arise an occasion when the agent ought not to pursue self-interest in favor of another morality, unless he produces an alternative ethical system in which he ought to renounce his values in favor of an imaginary self, or, other entity such as the universe, or the agents God. Opponents of ethical egoism may claim, however, that although it is possible for this Robinson Crusoe type creature to lament previous choices as not conducive to self-interest (enjoying the pleasures of swimming all day, and not spending necessary time producing food), the mistake is not a moral mistake but a mistake of identifying self-interest. Presumably this lonely creature will begin to comprehend the distinctions between short, and long-term interests, and, that short-term pains can be countered by long-term gains.

In addition, opponents argue that even in a world inhabited by a single being, duties would still apply; (Kantian) duties are those actions that reason dictates ought to be pursued regardless of any gain, or loss to self or others. Further, the deontologist asserts the application of yet another moral sphere which ought to be pursued, namely, that of impartial duties. The problem with complicating the creatures world with impartial duties, however, is in defining an impartial task in a purely subjective world. Impartiality, the ethical egoist may retort, could only exist where there are competing selves: otherwise, the attempt to be impartial in judging ones actions is a redundant exercise. (However, the Cartesian rationalist could retort that need not be so, that a sentient being should act rationally, and reason will disclose what are the proper actions he should follow.)

If we move away from the imaginary construct of a single beings world, ethical egoism comes under fire from more pertinent arguments. In complying with ethical egoism, the individual aims at her own greatest good. Ignoring a definition of the good for the present, it may justly be argued that pursuing ones own greatest good can conflict with anothers pursuit, thus creating a situation of conflict. In a typical example, a young person may see his greatest good in murdering his rich uncle to inherit his millions. It is the rich uncles greatest good to continue enjoying his money, as he sees fit. According to detractors, conflict is an inherent problem of ethical egoism, and the model seemingly does not possess a conflict resolution system. With the additional premise of living in society, ethical egoism has much to respond to: obviously there are situations when two peoples greatest goods the subjectively perceived working of their own self-interest will conflict, and, a solution to such dilemmas is a necessary element of any theory attempting to provide an ethical system.

The ethical egoist contends that her theory, in fact, has resolutions to the conflict. The first resolution proceeds from a state of nature examination. If, in the wilderness, two people simultaneously come across the only source of drinkable water a potential dilemma arises if both make a simultaneous claim to it. With no recourse to arbitration they must either accept an equal share of the water, which would comply with rational egoism. (In other words, it is in the interest of both to share, for both may enjoy the water and each others company, and, if the water is inexhaustible, neither can gain from monopolizing the source.) But a critic may maintain that this solution is not necessarily in compliance with ethical egoism. Arguably, the critic continues, the two have no possible resolution, and must, therefore, fight for the water. This is often the line taken against egoism generally: that it results in insoluble conflict that implies, or necessitates a resort to force by one or both of the parties concerned. For the critic, the proffered resolution is, therefore, an acceptance of the ethical theory that might is right; that is, the critic maintains that the resolution accepts that the stronger will take possession and thereby gain proprietary rights.

However, ethical egoism does not have to logically result in a Darwinian struggle between the strong and the weak in which strength determines moral rectitude to resources or values. Indeed, the realist position may strike one as philosophically inadequate as that of psychological egoism, although popularly attractive. For example, instead of succumbing to insoluble conflict, the two people could cooperate (as rational egoism would require). Through cooperation, both agents would, thereby, mutually benefit from securing and sharing the resource. Against the critics pessimistic presumption that conflict is insoluble without recourse to victory, the ethical egoist can retort that reasoning people can recognize that their greatest interests are served more through cooperation than conflict. War is inherently costly, and, even the fighting beasts of the wild instinctively recognize its potential costs, and, have evolved conflict-avoiding strategies.

On the other hand, the ethical egoist can argue less benevolently, that in case one man reaches the desired resource first, he would then be able to take rightful control and possession of it the second person cannot possess any right to it, except insofar as he may trade with its present owner. Of course, charitable considerations may motivate the owner to secure a share for the second comer, and economic considerations may prompt both to trade in those products that each can better produce or acquire: the one may guard the water supply from animals while the other hunts. Such would be a classical liberal reading of this situation, which considers the advance of property rights to be the obvious solution to apparently intractable conflicts over resources.

A second conflict-resolution stems from critics fears that ethical egoists could logically pursue their interests at the cost of others. Specifically, a critic may contend that personal gain logically cannot be in ones best interest if it entails doing harm to another: doing harm to another would be to accept the principle that doing harm to another is ethical (that is, one would be equating doing harm with ones own best interests), whereas, reflection shows that principle to be illogical on universalistic criteria. However, an ethical egoist may respond that in the case of the rich uncle and greedy nephew, for example, it is not the case that the nephew would be acting ethically by killing his uncle, and that for a critic to contend otherwise is to criticize personal gain from the separate ethical standpoint that condemns murder. In addition, the ethical egoist may respond by saying that these particular fears are based on a confusion resulting from conflating ethics (that is, self-interest) with personal gain; The ethical egoist may contend that if the nephew were to attempt to do harm for personal gain, that he would find that his uncle or others would or may be permitted to do harm in return. The argument that I have a right to harm those who get in my way is foiled by the argument that others have a right to harm me should I get in the way. That is, in the end, the nephew variously could see how harming another for personal gain would not be in his self-interest at all.

The critics fear is based on a misreading of ethical egoism, and is an attempt to subtly reinsert the might is right premise. Consequently, the ethical egoist is unfairly chastised on the basis of a straw-man argument. Ultimately, however, one comes to the conclusion reached in the discussion of the first resolution; that is, one must either accept the principle that might is right (which in most cases would be evidentially contrary to ones best interest), or accept that cooperation with others is a more successful approach to improving ones interests. Though interaction can either be violent or peaceful, an ethical egoist rejects violence as undermining the pursuit of self-interest.

A third conflict-resolution entails the insertion of rights as a standard. This resolution incorporates the conclusions of the first two resolutions by stating that there is an ethical framework that can logically be extrapolated from ethical egoism. However, the logical extrapolation is philosophically difficult (and, hence, intriguing) because ethical egoism is the theory that the promotion of ones own self-interest is in accordance with morality whereas rights incorporate boundaries to behavior that reason or experience has shown to be contrary to the pursuit of self-interest. Although it is facile to argue that the greedy nephew does not have a right to claim his uncles money because it is not his but his uncles, and to claim that it is wrong to act aggressively against the person of another because that person has a legitimate right to live in peace (thus providing the substance of conflict-resolution for ethical egoism), the problem of expounding this theory for the ethical egoist lies in the intellectual arguments required to substantiate the claims for the existence of rights and then, once substantiated, connecting them to the pursuit of an individuals greatest good.

A final type of ethical egoism is conditional egoism. This is the theory that egoism is morally acceptable or right if it leads to morally acceptable ends. For example, self-interested behavior can be accepted and applauded if it leads to the betterment of society as a whole; the ultimate test rests not on acting self-interestedly but on whether society is improved as a result. A famous example of this kind of thinking is from Adam Smiths The Wealth of Nations, in which Smith outlines the public benefits resulting from self-interested behavior (borrowing a theory from the earlier writer Bernard Mandeville and his Fable of the Bees). Smith writes: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages” (Wealth of Nations, I.ii.2).

As Smith himself admits, if egoistic behavior lends itself to societys detriment, then it ought to be stopped. The theory of conditional egoism is thus dependent on a superior moral goal such as an action being in the common interest, that is, the public good. The grave problem facing conditional egoists is according to what standard ought the limits on egoism be placed? In other words, who or what is to define the nature of the public good? If it is a person who is set up as the great arbitrator of the public, then it is uncertain if there can be a guarantee that he or she is embodying or arguing for an impartial standard of the good and not for his or her own particular interest. If it is an impartial standard that sets the limit, one that can be indicated by any reasonable person, then it behooves the philosopher to explain the nature of that standard.

In most public good theories, the assumption is made that there exists a collective entity over and above the individuals that comprise it: race, nation, religion, and state being common examples. Collectivists then attempt to explain what in particular should be held as the interest of the group. Inevitably, however, conflict arises, and resolutions have to be produced. Some seek refuge in claiming the need for perpetual dialogue (rather than exchange), but others return to the need for force to settle apparently insoluble conflicts; nonetheless, the various shades of egoism pose a valid and appealing criticism of collectivism: that individuals act; groups dont. Karl Poppers works on methodological individualism are a useful source in criticizing collectivist thinking (for example, Poppers The Poverty of Historicism).

Psychological egoism is fraught with the logical problem of collapsing into a closed theory, and hence being a mere assumption that could validly be accepted as describing human motivation and morality, or be rejected in favor of a psychological altruism (or even a psychological ecologism in which all actions necessarily benefit the agents environment).

Normative egoism, however, engages in a philosophically more intriguing dialogue with protractors. Normative egoists argue from various positions that an individual ought to pursue his or her own interest. These may be summarized as follows: the individual is best placed to know what defines that interest, or it is thoroughly the individuals right to pursue that interest. The latter is divided into two sub-arguments: either because it is the reasonable/rational course of action, or because it is the best guarantee of maximizing social welfare.

Egoists also stress that the implication of critics condemnation of self-serving or self-motivating action is the call to renounce freedom in favor of control by others, who then are empowered to choose on their behalf. This entails an acceptance of Aristotles political maxim that “some are born to rule and others are born to be ruled,” also read as “individuals are generally too stupid to act either in their own best interests or in the interests of those who would wish to command them.” Rejecting both descriptions (the first as being arrogant and empirically questionable and the second as unmasking the truly immoral ambition lurking behind attacks on selfishness), egoists ironically can be read as moral and political egalitarians glorifying the dignity of each and every person to pursue life as they see fit. Mistakes in securing the proper means and appropriate ends will be made by individuals, but if they are morally responsible for their actions they not only will bear the consequences but also the opportunity for adapting and learning. When that responsibility is removed and individuals are exhorted to live for an alternative cause, their incentive and joy in improving their own welfare is concomitantly diminished, which will, for many egoists, ultimately foster an uncritical, unthinking mass of obedient bodies vulnerable to political manipulation: when the ego is trammeled, so too is freedom ensnared, and without freedom ethics is removed from individual to collective or government responsibility.

Egoists also reject the insight into personal motivation that others whether they are psychological or sociological “experts” declare they possess, and which they may accordingly fine-tune or encourage to “better ends.” Why an individual acts remains an intrinsically personal and private act that is the stuff of memoirs and literature, but how they should act releases our investigations into ethics of what shall define the good for the self-regarding agent.

Alexander Moseley Email: alexandermoseley@icloud.com United Kingdom

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Egoism | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Egoism: Examples and Definition | Philosophy Terms

I. Definition

You may think you already know egoism; but youre probably thinking of egotismself-importance, or self-centeredness. In contrast, egoism is the philosophical view that human beings do, or should, always act for their own benefit. Both words are derived from the Latin word for I ego.

Egoism and egotism are quite different. For example, egotists often talk about themselves a lot, not listening to otherswhich makes people dislike them. In contrast, egoists might act very humbly, and pay attention to othersbecause its in their best interests to make people like them and want to treat them well. Egotism is a character trait; egoism is a philosophy.

Even so, you might think that egoists must secretly be egotistsand a lot of philosophers would agree with you. But the point is that egoism does not necessarily violate our usual notions of what is right and wrong. We will return to this questionof whether egoism implies immoralityin other sections.

In fact, some of our highest ideals in the Western worldindividual rights, freedom, and democracydepend on ideas similar to egoism. All of these philosophies depend on the idea that humans normally do or should pursue their own welfare and happiness. The problem, of course, is when your welfare conflicts with someone elsesanother point well discuss below.

But whether you think egoism is right or wrong depends a lot on what kind of egoism youre talking about. The two main kinds of egoism are quite different; descriptive egoism just claims that human being do always act for their own benefit; while normative egoism claims that we should always act for our own benefit.

The most popular variety of descriptive egoism is psychological egoism, which simply claims that whatever a human being does, the ultimate aim is self-benefit. If psychological egoism is correct, it means that even when people appear to act for others benefit, with no concern for themselveswhich is called altruismtheyre actually doing it for their own sake. It doesnt mean that anyone is necessarily trying to be deceptive, or pretending, to help others (although thats a possibility of course). Psychological egoists would say that people may act altruistically because it will be good for them in the long run, or because it makes them feel good when they do it.

There are at least two main categories of psychological egoismdesire-based and objective. The first says that humans are always doing what they desire. For example, even if you say you dont want to do your homework, you do choose to do it; you have the option to not do it, and suffer the consequences. So, you do desire to do your homeworkjust not for its own sake.

But, this kind of psychological egoism seems to be trivially true; it doesnt say why we make what choices we do.

Other kinds of psychological egoism are called objective because they claim that we are always pursuing certain objectives. Some say we always act for pleasure. Others argue that we always pursue whatever we think will bring us the most benefit.

But most philosophers have rejected psychological egoism. For one thing it is probably unprovable because it is a theory about our deepest motivationswhich are private. How could anyone prove whether you help an old lady across the street only for her sake, or because it makes you feel good about yourself? You may not be sure yourself which it is!

But that kind of example is another reason most philosophers reject psychological egoismbecause human beings really do sometimes act for the benefit of others without expecting to any reward for themselves. Altruism; well come back to this debate in section III.

Normative egoism is not about what humans do, but about what they should do. Two kinds of normative egoism are well known:

Ethical egoists may argue that you cannot know what is best for anyone but yourselfand so it is immoral to try. If you try to act in reference to other peoples interests, rather than your own, you can easily do things those people wouldnt want, mess up other peoples lives, or just violate their right to decide what happens to them, which would be immoral. Ethical egoists also might argue that human beings are dependent on one another for survival, so therefore, it is your moral obligation to take care of yourself first, so that others dont have toand so that you have the ability to take care of them. In other words, whats in your best interests is ultimately in everybodys best interests.

Which brings us to rational egoism, which assumes that we should act rationally, which is egoistically. The most famous rational egoist, the writer Ayn Rand, argued strongly against sacrificing ones own interests for others. She argued that not taking full advantage of ones own freedom is immoral because it opposes the natural fulfilment of human potential, which is the best thing for everyone in a society. For example, if I dont work as hard as possible for my own personal success, then I might fail to accomplish many things that would be good for the world.

Nevertheless, many philosophers feel that rational egoism cannot provide a basis for ethical behaviorthat it is, rather, a justification for amorality (no morality), which could be very dangerous.

In the big picture, its worth noting that egoism has been a characteristically Western philosophy since at least Aristotle. Although there were a few ancient Chinese thinkers who had egoistic ideas, in general, egoism is much harder to justify in Eastern thought, where the ego (the personal self) is an illusion that one should try to get over!

In the west, Aristotle is cited for his early contribution to egoism, in the Nicomachean Ethics, where he points out that one must act for ones own benefit in order to be a good friend, or a good citizenbecause you cant do any good for other people if youre not in good condition yourself. However, Aristotle was not really an egoist, because he believed that it was the primary value of helping others that justified helping oneself.

The main ideas of psychological egoism started popping up in Europe during the Reformation (17th century) such as in the writings of philosopher, Thomas Hobbes (see next section for a quote). Hobbes (and others) argued that all voluntary actions are, by definition, egoisticbecause they are voluntary. So, humans are always acting for their own sakes, whether they think so or not.

Many philosophers shared this view during the 18th century, supported by the rationalism of the time. But David Hume, in his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (Appendix IIOf Self Love), set forth some well-known arguments against it. Hume said that psychological egoism denied the reality of such important human feelings as friendship, love, compassion, and gratitude. He also argued that there was no reason to try to reduce the diversity of human motivations to one simple thing. And he pointed out, as many have, that both humans and animals have been observed to act, instinctively for others sakes.

Early normative egoism is often associated with the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche whose ideas about freedom, the will, and the superman, certainly seem to support egoism, and have been used that way, but Nietzsche himself rejected egoism because, he said, being an egoist would have the opposite of the desired effect; it would set other people against you, which is bad for your own success.

The first philosophers to consider themselves egoists were Max Stirner and Henry Sidgwick in the 19th Century. But probably the most popular and controversial spokesperson for egoism was Ayn Rand, who set forth her arguments in The Virtue of Selfishness, and in novels such as Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Adapting some of Nietzsches rhetoric, Rand focused on rational egoism as a rejection of the sacrificial ethics of Christianity; she argued that it is wrong to sacrifice ones own interests for others because it is irrational: the actor must always be the beneficiary of his action and that man must act for his own rational self-interest. Thus, to her, ethical and rational egoism go together. Her perspective owes a lot to Nietzsches rejection of traditional morality and glorification of the individual will.

Over the past 30 years or so, egoism has faced stronger opposition than before because of scientific research showing that (a) humans and animals do have altruistic instincts, (b) selfish decisions are often not in your best interests, and (c) that altruistic behavior is consistent with evolution. When we were evolving, living in small tribes, most people lived around their many relatives, so doing things for others benefitaltruismcould actually spread ones own genes!

Egoism has always been a controversial theory, and we have sketched some of its debates in the previous sectionssuch as whether it can be moral or not, and whether it needs to be.

Another challenge to egoism is whether its even logically possible. Several philosophers have pointed out that it leads to self-contradictions and irresolvable conflicts. For example, Joseph Butler writes that it may be necessary to act un-selfishly in order to receive benefits, which makes egoism self-contradictory. However, we can get around this paradox by just saying that egoism is acting for long-term benefit.

A bigger problem for psychological egoism is that some behavior just doesnt seem egoistic in any sense. Say a soldier throws himself on a grenade to prevent others from being killed. Its hard to say how that could be in the soldiers selfish interests! Hes not going to benefit from it in the long run, or even be able to enjoy the feeling of being a good person. Egoists might argue that the soldier is deceiving himself if he thinks he acted selflessly; perhaps he was sub-consciously motivated to avoid feeling guilty if he didnt sacrifice himself. But then again, feeling that kind of guilt depends on having non-egoistic motivations, doesnt it? An egoist could also argue that since the soldier made a free decision to jump on the grenade, he was, by definition, following his own desires. However, that argument seems like a cop-out; it avoids resolving the question of why the soldier did it.

The major controversy about normative (ethical or rational) egoism is, of course, whether it can be truly ethical at all, since almost all people agree that an ethical system must encourage us to act for the benefit of other human beings. The main points of debate are whether it is desirable or possible to act selflessly, and whether rational selfishness is or is not really the best thing for others. The answers to these questions depend on answers to many other questions: how interdependent are human beings? Is individual freedom more important than social stability? Is individuality an illusion? So, this debate will doubtless not soon be settled!

Ethics has to recognize the truth, recognized in unethical thought, that egoism comes before altruism. The acts required for continued self-preservation, including the enjoyments of benefits achieved by such arts, are the first requisites to universal welfare. Unless each duly cares for himself, his care for all others is ended in death, and if each thus dies there remain no others to be cared for. Herbert Spencer

In this argument for ethical egoism, Herbert Spencer, a 19th century British philosopher, seems to echo Aristotles original justification for some degree of egoismthat a person needs to take care of their own needs and happiness before they can take care of others. Often accused of inconsistency, Spencer was an egoist who also believed that human beings have a natural sense of empathy and should care for each other, although at the same time, he believed that altruism was a relatively recent development in humans.

What interest can a fond mother have in view, who loses her health by assiduous attendance on her sick child, and afterwards languishes and dies of grief, when freed, by its death [the childs], from the slavery of that attendance? David Hume

Hume, a famous opponent of psychological realism, here gives an example that demonstrates several of his arguments against egoism. Hume pointed out that human beings have certain innate non-egoist instincts, such as the compulsion of a mother to sacrifice herself for her children. And even if she does so, selfishly, in order to feel good herself, that doesnt explain why she dies of grief after her child dies.

Altruism is the opposite of egoism the motivation or practice of doing things to benefit others, without expecting any benefit for oneself. However, most of the debates about egoism and altruism are not about whether its good to benefit others or not, which almost everyone agrees on, but whether egoism or altruism are actually beneficial, or even possible.

Just as psychological egoism could be rejected on the basis that its impossible to prove peoples motivations, many philosophers have questioned whether it is possible to prove altruistic motivations either. As descriptions of human nature, egoism and altruism seem to compete on equal grounds; you can pretty much always argue that any action was really motivated by egoism or really altruism, but you cant prove it.

As normative philosophies, about what people should do, most philosophers agree that ethical behavior is behavior which is good for people in generalso you might assume that altruism should win automatically. But there are some pretty good arguments that altruistic action depends on egoist motivations; you might not help that old lady cross the street if you didnt care about feeling good about yourself. And egoists may argue that its immoral to decide whats in other peoples best interests. On the side of altruism is the universal belief that morality means being good to others and the evidence that empathy, compassion, and altruism are natural instincts.

Many popular films feature egoist villainssociopaths who pursue their own gain without regard for others. But Heath Ledgers Joker in Christopher Nolans Dark Knight goes further. Late in the movie he actually sets up a version of The Prisoners Dilemmaa scenario from game theory which philosophers have used to explore the egoism versus altruism debate. The Joker intends to prove to all that his view of human naturepsychological egoismis true. He believes that one or both boats will try to blow up the other one in order to save their own lives, according to the Jokers rulesbut they refuse to cooperate, seemingly proving that humans are not entirely egoistic. Throughout the film, the Joker represents the egoist view as he repeatedly exploits his enemies egoism. But in the end, Batman supposedly demonstrates that altruism is real by taking the fall for a politician he doesnt even likefor the good of the people of Gotham.

Both of the Star Trek films featuring Khan, Captain Kirks worst enemy, explore the consequences of egoist versus altruist views. In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, we learn that Khans murderous anger towards humanity is partly a result of Captain Kirks earlier action of marooning Khan and his people on a then hospitable planetwhich later suffered an environmental disaster killing most of Khans people. This is a clear illustration of the ethical egoists claim that trying to act in others interests may be immoral. Furthermore, Kirks failure to check up on Khan on the planet suggests that Kirk was not really acting altruistically, but rather egoistically, supporting the views of psychological egoism. Meanwhile, Khan believes that he has a natural right to dominate, based on his superior intellect and strength, a view commonly associated with rational egoism and Ayn Rand. Of course in the end, Mr. Spock demonstrates altruism by sacrificing himself to save the rest of the Enterprise crew, repeating an idea clearly meant to prove that altruism is more rational than egoismthe needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

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Egoism: Examples and Definition | Philosophy Terms

Ethical Egoism – University of Colorado Boulder

IV. Ethical Egoism

The rough idea behind ethical egoism is that the right thing to do is to look out for your own self-interest.We are morally required only to make ourselves as happy as possible.We have no moral obligations to others. Ayn Rand seems to endorse this idea in the following passages:

“By the grace of reality and the nature of life, man — every man — is an end in himself, he exists for his own sake, and the achievement of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose” (Pojman, p. 74).

“Accept the fact that the achievement of your happiness is the only moral purpose of your life, and that happiness — not pain or mindless self-indulgence — is the proof of your moral integrity … ” (Pojman, 77).

Let’s make these rough thoughts more clear; let’s formulate a criterion of moral rightness based on Rand’s ideas.

A. Formulating Ethical Egoism (EEh)

– Alternative: the alternatives that some agent has at some time are the actions that are open to the agent at that time; they are her “options”; two actions are alternatives to one another when an agent can do either one of them, but not both of them. – Consequences: the consequences of a given act are the things that would happen “as a result” of the act, if it were performed. Note that some subsequent event is a consequence of an act whether it is near in space and time or far away; whether it is something that the agent of the act could reasonably anticipate or not; whether it involves the agent of the act or some distant stranger.

Our version of egoism is going to be a form of consequentialism. A normative theory is a form of consequentialism insofar as it implies that facts about the consequences determine the normative status of acts.

(This leaves open just what it is about the consequences that determine an act’s normative status.Our version of egoism will say that it is the pleasure and pain that befall the agent of the act that are relevant.So we need to say a few words about pleasure and pain.)

Some assumptions about pleasure and pain: – they are feelings, or sensations – each episode of pleasure or pain has an intensity and a duration; these factors determine the amountof pleasure or pain in the episode – the hedon is the unit of measurement of pleasure; the number of hedons in an episode of pleasure is determined by the intensity and duration of the episode of pleasure – the dolor is the unit of measurement of pain; the number of dolors in an episode of pleasure is determined by the intensity and duration of the episode of pain – Pleasures and pains are “commensurable”; that is, if some pleasure contains the same number of hedons as some pain contains dolors, then we can say that there is an much pleasure in the episode of pleasure as there is pain in the episode of pain.(This assumption will enable us to add and subtract pleasure and pains, like the assets and liabilities on an accountant’s balance sheet.)

We can now define hedonic agent utility as the total number of hedons of pleasure that the agent of the act would feel as a consequence of the act if it were performed, minus the total number of dolors of pain that the agent of the act would feel as a consequence of the act if it were performed.

In more rough terms, to the hedonic agent utility of some alternative is how good the alternative would be for the agent, pleasure-pain-wise.

The last concept is that of maximizing: we say that an act maximizes hedonic agent utility when no alternative to that act has a higher hedonic agent utility than it has.

Finally, we can state the theory, EEh (Ethical Egoism, of a hedonistic sort):

EEh: An act is morally right if and only if it maximizes hedonic agent utility.

So this theory is saying that an act is right when there is nothing else the agent could do on that occasion that would lead to a consequence that would be better for him in terms of pleasure and pain.

B. Common Misconceptions about Egoism

1. Immediate Gratification

Egoism is not the doctrine that we should indulge in as much pleasure we can in the short run, without a care for what happens to us in the long run.And EEh does not imply this because, in order to calculate the hedonic agent utility of an action, you need to figure in all the pleasure and pains that would result, no matter how down the line in the future.

2. No Altruism

Egoism also does not imply that we should never act altruistically. Rather, it implies that we may act for the benefit of others so long as that act also maximizes our own hedonic utility. (See Feldman p. 83 for further discussion.)

3. Psychological Egoism

EEh is a doctrine in ethics, a theory about what we morally ought to do. However, there is another doctrine — a doctrine in psychology — that sometimes goes by the name of “egoism”. This other doctrine, “Psychological Egoism,” is a view about how human beings happen to be set up, psychologically speaking. It is not a view at all about what we morally ought to do. Psychological Egoism says that we human beings in fact always pursue our own well-being. That is, we always choose the act that we think will be best for us. We are motivated only by the desire for pleasure and an aversion to pain.

C. Arguments for EEh

1. Closet Utilitarian Argument

The Closet Utilitarian Argument (from Feldman, p. 86) (1) If people act in such a way as to maximize their own self-interest, then humanity will be better off as a whole. (2) People ought to act in whatever way will lead to the betterment of humanity as a whole. (3) Therefore, people ought to act in such a way as to maximize their own self-interest; in other words, egoism is true.

Criticism of premise (1): – Feldman’s case of the selfish art lover (pp. 85-86). – The “Tragedy of the Commons”; the “Prisoner’s Dilemma”

Criticism of premise (2): – See Feldman, p. 87.

D. Arguments Against EEh

1. Moore’s; Baier’s; The Promulgation Argument

(see Feldman, Ch. 6)

2. Feldman’s Refutation of EEh

Feldman’s Refutation of EEh 1. If EEh is true, then it is morally right for the man to steal the money from the pension fund. 2. It is not right for the man to steal the money from the pension fund. 3. Therefore, EEh is not true.

Imagine a treasurer of large pension fund. He is entrusted with keeping track of and investing the retirement savings of all the workers at a company. He discovers, however, that it would be possible for him to steal all the money in the fund and get away with it, leaving all the workers who worked hard to save their money out of luck. Suppose he does this and succeeds, escaping to a South Sea Island to live out the rest of his days indulging in idle pleasure (at the expense of the workers he screwed back home).

Egoism implies that the fact that this action screws over the workers back home is irrelevant. All that is relevant is whether this action is most in the interests of the treasurer. Well, to see exactly what EEh will have to say about this case, we should fill in the details. Here are the treasurer’s alternatives:

The man’s alternativeshedonic agent utility a1: steal the money+10,000 a2: leave the money where it is-3

Let’s say these are his two main alternatives at the time. EEh implies that it would be morally acceptable for this guy to steal the money. Why? — because this act maximizes hedonic agent utility.That is, if he were to perform it, he would get a greater balance of pleasure over pain than he would get if he were to do any of his alternatives.

So we get premise 1:

1. If EEh is true, then it is morally right for the man to steal the money from the pension fund.

But this is clearly not right. EEh is mistaken in this verdict. This act is cruel and selfish. It is utterly immoral. Most everyone, I take it, would be prepared to condemn this man for his actions; and we would think it would be appropriate to punish for his ruthless deeds. So we get premise 2:

2. It is not right for the man to steal the money from the pension fund.

From these two premises, this follows:

3. Therefore, EEh is not true.

This argument is valid: the conclusion follows logically from the premises. The first premise is clearly true. I also think the second premise is true. I think people behave immorally when they do this. Maybe Ayn Rand is willing to accept this consequence. I myself cannot.Can you?

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Ethical Egoism – University of Colorado Boulder

Psychological Egoism | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Psychological egoism is the thesis that we are always deep down motivated by what we perceive to be in our own self-interest. Psychological altruism, on the other hand, is the view that sometimes we can have ultimately altruistic motives. Suppose, for example, that Pam saves Jim from a burning office building. What ultimately motivated her to do this? It would be odd to suggest that its ultimately her own benefit that Pam is seeking. After all, shes risking her own life in the process. But the psychological egoist holds that Pams apparently altruistic act is ultimately motivated by the goal to benefit herself, whether she is aware of this or not. Pam might have wanted to gain a good feeling from being a hero, or to avoid social reprimand that would follow had she not helped Jim, or something along these lines.

Several other egoistic views are related to, but distinct from psychological egoism. Unlike ethical egoism, psychological egoism is merely an empirical claim about what kinds of motives we have, not what they ought to be. So, while the ethical egoist claims that being self-interested in this way is moral, the psychological egoist merely holds that this is how we are. Similarly, psychological egoism is not identical to what is often called psychological hedonism. Psychological hedonism restricts the range of self-interested motivations to only pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Thus, it is a specific version of psychological egoism.

The story of psychological egoism is rather peculiar. Though it is often discussed, it hasnt been explicitly held by many major figures in the history of philosophy. It is most often attributed to only Thomas Hobbes (1651) and Jeremy Bentham (1781). Most philosophers explicitly reject the view, largely based on famous arguments from Joseph Butler (1726). Nevertheless, psychological egoism can be seen as a background assumption of several other disciplines, such as psychology and economics. Moreover, some biologists have suggested that the thesis can be supported or rejected directly based on evolutionary theory or work in sociobiology.

While psychological egoism is undoubtedly an empirical claim, there hasnt always been a substantial body of experimental data that bears on the debate. However, a great deal of empirical work beginning in the late 20th century has largely filled the void. Evidence from biology, neuroscience, and psychology has stimulated a lively interdisciplinary dialogue. Regardless of whether or not the empirical evidence renders a decisive verdict on the debate, it has certainly enriched discussion of the issue.

Psychological egoism is a thesis about motivation, usually with a focus on the motivation of human (intentional) action. It is exemplified in the kinds of descriptions we sometimes give of peoples actions in terms of hidden, ulterior motives. A famous story involving Abraham Lincoln usefully illustrates this (see Rachels 2003, p. 69). Lincoln was allegedly arguing that we are all ultimately self-interested when he suddenly stopped to save a group of piglets from drowning. His interlocutor seized the moment, attempting to point out that Lincoln is a living counter-example to his own theory; Lincoln seemed to be concerned with something other than what he took to be his own well-being. But Lincoln reportedly replied: I should have had no peace of mind all day had I gone on and left that suffering old sow worrying over those pigs. I did it to get peace of mind, dont you see?

The psychological egoist holds that descriptions of our motivation, like Lincolns, apply to all of us in every instance. The story illustrates that there are many subtle moves for the defender of psychological egoism to make. So it is important to get a clear idea of the competing egoistic versus altruistic theories and of the terms of the debate between them.

Egoism is often contrasted with altruism. Although the egoism-altruism debate concerns the possibility of altruism in some sense, the ordinary term “altruism” may not track the issue that is of primary interest here. In at least one ordinary use of the term, for someone to act altruistically depends on her being motivated solely by a concern for the welfare of another, without any ulterior motive to simply benefit herself. Altruism here is a feature of the motivation that underlies the action (Sober & Wilson 1998, p. 199). (Another sense of “altruism”often used in a fairly technical sense in biologyis merely behavioral; see 4a.) To this extent, this ordinary notion of altruism is close to what is of philosophical interest. But there are differences. For instance, ordinarily we seem to only apply the term altruism to fairly atypical actions, such as those of great self-sacrifice or heroism. But the debate about psychological egoism concerns the motivations that underlie all of our actions (Nagel 1970/1978, p. 16, n. 1).

Regardless of ordinary terminology, the view philosophers label psychological egoism has certain key features. Developing a clear and precise account of the egoism-altruism debate is more difficult than it might seem at first. To make the task easier, we may begin with quite bare and schematic definitions of the positions in the debate (May 2011, p. 27; compare also Rosas 2002, p. 98):

We will use the term desire here in a rather broad sense to simply mean a motivational mental statewhat we might ordinarily call a motive or reason in at least one sense of those terms. But what is an ultimate desire, and when is it altruistic rather than egoistic? Answering these and related questions will provide the requisite framework for the debate.

We can begin to add substance to our bare theses by characterizing what it is to have an altruistic versus an egoistic desire. As some philosophers have pointed out, the psychological egoist claims that all of ones ultimate desires concern oneself in some sense. However, we must make clear that an egoistic desire exclusively concerns ones own well-being, benefit, or welfare. A malevolent ultimate desire for the destruction of an enemy does not concern oneself, but it is hardly altruistic (Feinberg 1965/1999, 9, p. 497; Sober & Wilson 1998, p. 229).

Similarly, despite its common use in this context, the term selfish is not appropriate here either. The psychological egoist claims that we ultimately only care about (what we consider to be) our own welfare, but this neednt always amount to selfishness. Consider an ultimate desire to take a nap that is well-deserved and wont negatively affect anyone. While this concerns ones own benefit, there is no sense in which it is selfish (Henson 1988, 7; Sober & Wilson 1998, p. 227). The term self-interest is more fitting.

With these points in mind, we can characterize egoistic and altruistic desires in the following way:

Its important that the desire in some sense represents the person as oneself (or, as the case may be, as another). For example, suppose that John wants to help put out a fire in the hair of a man who appears to be in front of him, but he doesnt know that hes actually looking into a mirror, and its his own hair thats ablaze. If Johns desire is ultimate and is simply to help the man with his hair in flames, then it is necessary to count his desire as concerning someone other than himself, even though he is in fact the man with his hair on fire (Oldenquist 1980, pp. 27-8; Sober & Wilson 1998, p. 214).

The reason for the focus on ultimate desires is that psychological egoists dont deny that we often have desires that are altruistic. They do claim, however, that all such altruistic desires ultimately depend on an egoistic desire that is more basic. In other words, we have an ulterior motive when we help othersone that likely tends to fly below the radar of consciousness or introspection.

Thus, we must draw a common philosophical distinction between desires that are for a means to an end and desires for an end in itself. Instrumental desires are those desires one has for something as a means for something else; ultimate desires are those desires one has for something as an end in itself, not as a means to something else (see Sober & Wilson 1998, pp. 217-222). The former are often called extrinsic desires and the latter intrinsic desires (see e.g. Mele 2003 Ch. 1.8.). Desires for pleasure and the avoidance of pain are paradigmatic ultimate desires, since people often desire these as ends in themselves, not as a mere means to anything else. But the class of ultimate desires may include much more than this.

There are two important aspects to highlight regarding how psychological egoism and altruism relate to one another. First, psychological egoism makes a stronger, universal claim that all of our ultimate desires are egoistic, while psychological altruism merely makes the weaker claim that some of our ultimate desires are altruistic. Thus, the former is a monistic thesis, while the latter is a pluralistic thesis (Sober & Wilson 1998, p. 228). Consequently, psychological egoism is easier to refute than the opposing view. If one were to successfully demonstrate that someeven just oneof a persons ultimate desires are altruistic, then we can safely reject psychological egoism. For example, if Thomas removes his heel from anothers gouty toe because he has an ultimate desire that the person benefit from it, then psychological egoism is false.

Second, the positions in the debate are not exactly the denial of one another, provided there are desires that are neither altruistic nor egoistic (Stich, Doris, & Roedder 2010, sect. 2). To take an example from Bernard Williams, a madman might have an ultimate desire for a chimpanzees tea party to be held in the cathedral (1973, p. 263). He does not desire this as a means to some other end, such as enjoyment at the sight of such a spectacle (he might, for example, secure this in his will for after his death). Assuming the desire for such a tea party is neither altruistic nor egoistic (because it doesnt have to do with anyones well-being), would it settle the egoism-altruism debate? Not entirely. It would show that psychological egoism is false, since it would demonstrate that some of our ultimate desires are not egoistic. However, it would not show that psychological altruism is true, since it does not show that some of our ultimate desires are altruistic. Likewise, suppose that psychological altruism is false because none of our ultimate desires concern the benefit of others. If that is true, psychological egoism is not thereby true. It too could be false if we sometimes have ultimate desires that are not egoistic, like the madmans. The point is that the theses are contraries: they cannot both be true, but they can both be false.

Philosophers dont have much sympathy for psychological egoism. Indeed, the only major figures in the history of philosophy to endorse the view explicitly are arguably Thomas Hobbes and Jeremy Bentham. Some might also include Aristotle (compare Feinberg 1965/1999, p. 501) and John Stuart Mill (compare Sidgwick 1874/1907, 1.4.2.1), but there is some room for interpreting them otherwise. Hobbes explicitly states in Leviathan (1651/1991):

no man giveth but with intention of good to himself, because gift is voluntary; and of all voluntary acts, the object is to every man his own good; of which, if men see they shall be frustrated, there will be no beginning of benevolence or trust, nor consequently of mutual help. (Ch. XV, p. 47)

In a similar vein, Bentham famously opens his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1781/1991) with this:

Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. (p. 313)

Here Bentham appears to endorse a specific version of psychological egoism, namely psychological hedonism. This view restricts the kind of self-interest we can ultimately desire to pleasure or the avoidance of pain. Unfortunately, Hobbes and Bentham dont offer much in the way of arguments for these views; they tend to just assume them.

One tempting argument for psychological egoism is based on what seem to be conceptual truths about (intentional) action. For example, many hold that all of ones actions are motivated by ones own desires. This might seem to directly support psychological egoism because it shows that we are all out to satisfy our own desires (compare Hobbes). In his famous Fifteen Sermons, Bishop Butler (1726/1991) anticipates such an argument for the universality of egoistic desires (or self-love) in the following manner:

[B]ecause every particular affection is a mans own, and the pleasure arising from its gratification his own pleasure, or pleasure to himself, such particular affection must be called self-love; according to this way of speaking, no creature whatever can possibly act but merely from self-love. (Sermon XI, p. 366)

However, as Butler goes on to say, this line of argument rests on a mistake or at least a play on words. Many philosophers have subsequently reinforced Butlers objection, often pointing to two intertwined confusions: one based on our desires being ours, another based on equivocation on the word satisfaction. On the former confusion, C. D. Broad says it is true that all impulses belong to a self but it is not true that the object of any of them is the general happiness of the self who owns them (1930/2000, p. 65).

Similarly, the second confusion fails to distinguish between what Bernard Williams calls desiring the satisfaction of ones desire and desiring ones own satisfaction (1973, p. 261). The word satisfaction in the latter case is the more ordinary use involving ones own pleasure or happiness. If all actions are motivated by a desire for this, then psychological egoism is indeed established. But the basic consideration from the theory of action we began with was merely that all actions are motivated by a desire of ones own, which is meant to be satisfied. However, this employs a different notion of satisfaction, which merely means that the person got what she wanted (Feinberg 1965/1999, p. 496). The claim that everyone is out to satisfy their own desires is a fairly uninteresting one, since it doesnt show that we are motivated by self-interest. If Mother Teresa did have an altruistic desire for the benefit of another, it is no count against her that she sought to satisfy itthat is, bring about the benefit of another. This argument for psychological egoism, then, seems to rely on an obviously false view of self-interest as desire-satisfaction.

A major theoretical attraction of psychological egoism is parsimony. It provides a simple account of human motivation and offers a unified explanation of all our actions. Although actions may vary in content, the ultimate source is self-interest: doing well at ones job is merely to gain the favor of ones boss; returning a wallet is merely to avoid the pang of guilt that would follow keeping it; saying thank you for a meal is merely to avoid social reprimand for failing to conform to etiquette; and so on.

One might dispute whether psychological egoism is any more parsimonious than psychological altruism (Sober & Wilson 1998, pp. 292-3). More importantly, however, it is no argument for a view that it is simpler than its competitors. Perhaps we might employ Ockhams Razor as a sort of tie-breaker to adjudicate between two theories when they are equal in all other respects, but this involves more than just simplicity (Sober & Wilson 1998, pp. 293-5). As David Hume puts it, psychological egoism shouldnt be based solely on that love of simplicity which has been the source of much false reasoning in philosophy (1751/1998, p. 166). The heart of the debate then is whether there are other reasons to prefer one view over the other.

Perhaps the psychological egoist neednt appeal to parsimony or erroneous conceptions of self-interest. Bentham, after all, suggests that ordinary experience shows that we are ultimately motivated to gain pleasure or avoid pain (1781/1991, Ch. 3). Perhaps one could extrapolate an argument on behalf of psychological egoism along the following lines (Feinberg 1965/1999, sect. 4, p. 495). Experience shows that people must be taught to care for others with carrots and stickswith reward and punishment. So seemingly altruistic ultimate desires are merely instrumental to egoistic ones; we come to believe that we must be concerned with the interests of others in order to gain rewards and avoid punishment for ourselves (compare the argument in 5a).

This line of reasoning is rather difficult to evaluate given that it rests on an empirical claim about moral development and learning. Ordinary experience does show that sometimes its necessary to impose sanctions on children for them to be nice and caring. But even if this occurs often, it doesn’t support a universal claim that it always does. Moreover, there is a growing body of evidence gathered by developmental psychologists indicating that young children have a natural, unlearned concern for others. There is some evidence, for example, that children as young as 14-months will spontaneously help a person they believe is in need (Warneken & Tomasello 2007). It seems implausible that children have learned at such a young agethat this behavior will be benefit themselves. On the other hand, such empirical results do not necessarily show that the ultimate motivation behind such action is altruistic. The psychological egoist could argue that we still possess ultimately egoistic desires (perhaps we are simply born believing that concern for others will benefit oneself). However, the developmental evidence still undermines the moral education argument by indicating that our concern for the welfare others is not universally learned from birth by sanctions of reward and punishment.

Another argument for psychological egoism relies on the idea that we often blur our conception of ourselves and others when we are benevolent. Consider the paradigm of apparently selfless motivation: concern for family, especially ones children. Francis Hutcheson anticipates the objection when he imagines a psychological egoist proclaiming: Children are not only made of our bodies, but resemble us in body and mind; they are rational agents as we are, and we only love our own likeness in them (1725/1991, p. 279, Raphael sect. 327). And this might seem to be supported by recent empirical research. After all, social psychologists have discovered that we tend to feel more empathy for others we perceive to be in need when they are similar to us in various respects and when we take on their perspective (Batson 1991; see 5b). In fact, some psychologists have endorsed precisely this sort of self-other merging argument for an egoistic view (for example, Cialdini, Brown, Lewis, Luce, and Neuberg 1997).

One might doubt, however, whether a self-other merging account is able to explain helping behavior in an egoistic way. For example, it would be quite implausible to say that we literally believe we exist in two different bodies when feeling empathy for someone. The most credible reading of the proposal is that we conceptually blur the distinction between ourselves and others in the relevant cases. Yet this would seem to require, contrary to fact, that our behavior reflects this blurring. If we think of the boundary between ourselves and another as indeterminate, presumably our helping behavior would reflect such indeterminacy. (For further discussion, see Hutcheson 1725/1991, pp. 279-80; Batson 2011, ch. 6; May 2011.)

Considering the arguments, the case for psychological egoism seems rather weak. But is there anything to be said directly against it? This section examines some of the most famous arguments philosophers have proposed against the view.

Bishop Joseph Butler provides a famous argument against psychological egoism (focusing on hedonism) in his Fifteen Sermons. The key passage is the following:

That all particular appetites and passions are towards external things themselves, distinct from the pleasure arising from them, is manifested from hence; that there could not be this pleasure, were it not for that prior suitableness between the object and the passion: there could be no enjoyment or delight from one thing more than another, from eating food more than from swallowing a stone, if there were not an affection or appetite to one thing more than another. (1726/1991, Sermon XI, p. 365)

Many philosophers have championed this argument, whichElliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson (1998) have dubbed Butlers stone. Broad (1930/2000), for example, writes that Butler killed the theory [of psychological egoism] so thoroughly that he sometimes seems to the modern reader to be flogging dead horses (p. 55).

Butlers idea is that the experience of pleasure upon attaining something presupposes (or at least strongly indicates) a desire for the thing attained, not the pleasure itself. After all, we typically do not experience pleasure upon getting something (like food) unless we want it.The pleasure that accompanies the fulfillment of our desires is often a mere byproduct of our prior desire for the thing that gave us pleasure. Often we feel pleasure upon getting what we want precisely because we wanted what gave us pleasure. Consider, for example, getting second place in a race. This would make a runner happy if she wants to get second place; but it would not if she doesn’t want this at all (e.g. she only wants first place).

While Butler’s version of the argument may be overly ambitious in various respects (Sidgwick1874/1907, 1.4.2.3;Sober and Wilson 1998, p. 278), the best version is probably something like the following (compare the”disinterested benevolence” argument in Feinberg1965/1999, c8):

The basic idea is that pleasure (or self-interest generally) cant be our universal concern because having it sometimespresupposes a desire for something other than pleasure itself.Many philosophers have endorsed this sort of argument, not only against hedonism but more generally against egoism (Hume 1751/1998, App. 2.12; Broad 1950/1952; Nagel 1970/1978, p. 80, n. 1; Feinberg 1965/1999).

Sober and Wilson, however, make the case that such arguments are seriously flawed at least because the conclusion does not follow from the premises (1998, p. 278).That is, the premises, even if true, fail to establish the conclusion. The main problem is that such arguments tell us nothing about which desires are ultimate. Even if the experience of pleasure sometimes presupposes a desire for the pleasurable object, it is still left open whether the desire for what generated the pleasure is merely instrumental to a desire for pleasure (or some other form of self-interest). Consider the following causal chain, using to mean caused (see Sober & Wilson 1998, p. 278):

Desire for food Eating Pleasure

According to Butler, the experience of pleasure upon eating some food allows us to infer the existence of a desire for food. This is all the argument gets us. Yet Butler’s opponent, the egoist, maintains that the desire for food is subsequent to and dependent on an ultimate desire for pleasure (or some other form of self-interest):

Ultimate desire for pleasure Desire for food Eating Pleasure

This egoistic picture is entirely compatible with Butler’s claims about presupposition. So, even if the premises are true, it does not follow that egoism is false.

Butler would need a stronger premise, such as: pleasurepresupposes an ultimate desire for what generated it, not for the resulting benefit. But this revision would plausibly make the argument question-begging. The new premise seems to amount to nothing more than the denial of psychological egoism: sometimes people havean ultimate desire for something other than self-interest. At the very least, the argument is dialectically unhelpfulit offers premises in support of the conclusion that are as controversial as the conclusion is, and for similar reasons.

Still, a general lesson can clearly be gained from arguments like Butler’s. Psychological egoists cannot establish their view simply by pointing to the pleasure or self-benefit that accompanies so many actions. After all, often self-benefit only seems to be what we ultimately desire, though a closer look reveals benefits like pleasure are likely justbyproducts while the proximate desire is for that which generates them. As Hume puts it, sometimes “we are impelled immediately to seek particular objects, such as fame or power, or vengeance without any regard to interest; and when these objects are attained a pleasing enjoyment ensues, as the consequence of our indulged affections” (1751/1998, App. 2.12, emphasis added). Perhaps Butler’s point is best seen as a formidable objection to a certain kind of argument for egoism, rather than a positive argument against the theory.

A simple argument against psychological egoism is that it seems obviously false. As Francis Hutcheson proclaims: An honest farmer will tell you, that he studies the preservation and happiness of his children, and loves them without any design of good to himself (1725/1991, p. 277, Raphael sect. 327). Likewise, Hume rhetorically asks, What interest can a fond mother have in view, who loses her health by assiduous attendance on her sick child, and afterwards languishes and dies of grief, when freed, by its death, from the slavery of that attendance? (1751/1998, App. 2.9, p. 167). Building on this observation, Hume takes the most obvious objection to psychological egoism to be that:

as it is contrary to common feeling and our most unprejudiced notions, there is required the highest stretch of philosophy to establish so extraordinary a paradox. To the most careless observer there appear to be such dispositions as benevolence and generosity; such affections as love, friendship, compassion, gratitude. [] And as this is the obvious appearance of things, it must be admitted, till some hypothesis be discovered, which by penetrating deeper into human nature, may prove the former affections to be nothing but modifications of the latter. (1751/1998, App. 2.6, p. 166)

Here Hume is offering a burden-shifting argument. The idea is that psychological egoism is implausible on its face, offering strained accounts of apparently altruistic actions. So the burden of proof is on the egoist to show us why we should believe the view; yet the attempts so far have hitherto proved fruitless, according to Hume (1751/1998, App. 2.6, p. 166). Similarly, C. D. Broad (1950/1952) and Bernard Williams (1973, pp. 262-3) consider various examples of actions that seem implausible to characterize as ultimately motivated by self-interest.

Given the arguments, it is still unclear why we should consider psychological egoism to be obviously untrue. One might appeal to introspection or common sense; but neither is particularly powerful. First, the consensus among psychologists is that a great number of our mental states, even our motives, are not accessible to consciousness or cannot reliably be reported on through the use of introspection (see, for example, Nisbett and Wilson 1977). While introspection, to some extent, may be a decent source of knowledge of our own minds, it is fairly suspect to reject an empirical claim about potentially unconscious motivations. Besides, one might report universally egoistic motives based on introspection (e.g. Mercer 2001, pp. 229-30). Second, shifting the burden of proof based on common sense is rather limited. Sober and Wilson (1998, p. 288) go so far as to say that we have no business taking common sense at face value in the context of an empirical hypothesis. Even if we disagree with their claim and allow a larger role for shifting burdens of proof via common sense, it still may have limited use, especially when the common sense view might be reasonably cast as supporting either position in the egoism-altruism debate. Here, instead of appeals to common sense, it would be of greater use to employ more secure philosophical arguments and rigorous empirical evidence.

Another popular complaint about psychological egoism is that it seems to be immune to empirical refutation; it is unfalsifiable. And this is often taken to be a criterion for an empirical theory: any view that isnt falsifiable isnt a genuine, credible scientific theory (see Karl Poppers Falsificationism). The worry for psychological egoism is that it will fail to meet this criterion if any commonly accepted altruistic action can be explained away as motivated by some sort of self-interest. Joel Feinberg, for example, writes:

Until we know what they [psychological egoists] would count as unselfish behavior, we cant very well know what they mean when they say that all voluntary behavior is selfish. And at this point we may suspect that they are holding their theory in a privileged positionthat of immunity to evidence, that they would allow no conceivable behavior to count as evidence against it. What they say then, if true, must be true in virtue of the way they defineor redefinethe word selfish. And in that case, it cannot be an empirical hypothesis. (1965/1999, 18, p. 503; see also 14-19)

As we have seen (1b), psychological egoism neednt hold that all our ultimate desires are selfish. But Feinbergs point is that we need to know what would count as empirical evidence against the existence of an egoistic ultimate desire.

This objection to psychological egoism has three substantial problems. First, falsification criteria for empirical theories are problematic and have come under heavy attack. In addition its unclear why we should think the view is false. Perhaps it is a bad scientific theory or a view we shouldnt care much about, but it is not thereby false. Second, any problems that afflict psychological egoism on this front will also apply to the opposing view (Sober & Wilson 1998, p. 290). After all, psychological altruism is a pluralistic thesis that includes both egoistic and altruistic motives. Third, and most importantly, a charitable construal of psychological egoism renders it falsifiable. As we have seen, psychological egoists have a clear account of what would falsify it: an ultimate desire that is not egoistic. While it may be difficult to detect the ultimate motives of people, the view is in principle falsifiable. In fact, it is empirically testable, as we shall see below.

Another popular objection to various forms of psychological egoism is often called the paradox of hedonism, which was primarily popularized by Henry Sidgwick (1874/1907, 2.3.2.3). It is usually directed at psychological hedonism, but the problem can be extended to psychological egoism generally.

When the target is only hedonism, the paradox is that we tend to attain more pleasure by focusing on things other than pleasure. Likewise, when directed at egoism generally, the idea is that we will tend not to benefit ourselves by focusing on our own benefit. Consider someone, Jones, who is ultimately concerned with his own well-being, not the interests of others (the example is adapted from Feinberg 1965/1999, p. 498, sect. 11). Two things will seemingly hold: (a) such a person would eventually lack friends, close relationships, etc. and (b) this will lead to much unhappiness. This seems problematic for a theory that says all of our ultimate desires are for our own well-being.

Despite its popularity, this sort of objection to psychological egoism is quite questionable. There are several worries about the premises of the argument, such as the claim that ultimate concern for oneself diminishes ones own well-being (see Sober & Wilson 1998, p. 280). Most importantly, the paradox is only potentially an issue for a version of egoism that prescribes ultimate concern for oneself, such as normative egoism (Sober & Wilson 1998, p. 280). The futility of ultimate concern for oneself can only undermine claims such as We should only ultimately care about our own well-being since this allegedly would not lead to happiness. But psychological egoism is a descriptive thesis. Even if egoistic ultimate desires lead to unhappiness, that would only show that egoistically motivated people will find this unfortunate.

Despite its widespread rejection among philosophers, philosophical arguments against psychological egoism arent overwhelmingly powerful. However, the theses in this debate are ultimately empirical claims about human motivation. So we can also look to more empirical disciplines, such as biology and psychology, to advance the debate. Biology in particular contains an abundance of literature on altruism. But, as we will see, much of it is rather tangential to the thesis of psychological altruism.

The ordinary (psychological) sense of altruism is different from altruism as discussed in biology. For example, sociobiologists, such as E. O. Wilson, often theorize about the biological basis of altruism by focusing on the behavior of non-human animals. But this is altruism only in the sense of helpful behavior that seems to be at some cost to the helper. It says nothing about the motivations for such behavior, which is of interest to us here. Similarly, altruism is a label commonly used in a technical sense as a problem for evolutionary theory (see Altruism and Group Selection). What we might separately label evolutionary altruism occurs whenever an organism reduces its own fitness and augments the fitness of others regardless of the motivation behind it (Sober & Wilson 1998, p. 199). Distinguishing the psychological sense of altruism from other uses of the term is crucial if we are to look to biology to contribute to the debate on ultimate desires.

Given the multiple uses of terms, discussion of altruism and self-interest in evolutionary theory can often seem directly relevant to the psychological egoism-altruism debate. One might think, for example, that basic facts about evolution show were motivated by self-interest. Consider our desire for water. We have this perhaps solely because it enhanced the evolutionary fitness of our ancestors, by helping them stay alive and thus to propagate their genes. And evolutionary theory plausibly uncovers this sort of gene-centered story for many features of organisms. Richard Dawkins offers us some ideas of this sort. Although he emphasizes that the term selfish, as he applies it to genes, is merely metaphorical, he says we have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth let us try to teach generosity and altruism because we are born selfish (1976/2006, p. 3).

But we should be careful not to let the self-centered origin of our traits overshadow the traits themselves. Even if all of our desires are due to evolutionary adaptations (which is a strong claim), this is only the origin of them. Consider again the desire for water. It might exist only because it can help propagate ones genes, but the desire is still for water, not to propagate ones genes (compare the Genetic Fallacy). As Simon Blackburn points out, Dawkins is following a long tradition in implying that biology carries simple messages for understanding the sociology and psychology of human beings (1998, p. 146). To be fair, in a later edition of The Selfish Gene, Dawkins recognizes his folly and asks the reader to ignore such rogue sentences (p. ix). In any event, we must avoid what Blackburn polemically calls the biologists fallacy of inferring the true psychology of the person from the fact that his or her genes have proved good at replicating over time (p. 147). The point is that we must avoid simple leaps from biology to psychology without substantial argument (see also Stich et al. 2010, sect. 3).

Philosopher Elliott Sober and biologist David Sloan Wilson (1998) have made careful and sophisticated arguments for the falsity of psychological egoism directly from considerations in evolutionary biology. Their contention is the following: Natural selection is unlikely to have given us purely egoistic motives (p. 12). To establish this, they focus on parental care, an other-regarding behavior in humans, whose mechanism is plausibly due to natural selection. Assuming such behavior is mediated by what the organism believes and desires, we can inquire into the kinds of mental mechanisms that could have evolved. The crucial question becomes: Is it more likely that such a mechanism for parental care would, as psychological egoism holds, involve only egoistic ultimate desires? To answer this question, Sober and Wilson focus on just one version of egoism, and what they take to be the most difficult to refute: psychological hedonism (p. 297). The hedonistic mechanism always begins with the ultimate desire for pleasure and the avoidance of pain. The mechanism consistent with psychological altruism, however, is pluralistic: some ultimate desires are hedonistic, but others are altruistic.

According to Sober and Wilson, there are three main factors that could affect the likelihood that a mechanism evolved: availability, reliability, and energetic efficiency (pp. 305-8). First, the genes that give rise to the mechanism must be available in the pool for selection. Second, the mechanism mustnt conflict with the organisms reproductive fitness; they must reliably produce the relevant fitness-enhancing outcome (such as viability of offspring). And third, they must do this efficiently, without yielding a significant cost to the organisms own fitness-enhancing resources. Sober and Wilson find no reason to believe that a hedonistic mechanism would be more or less available or energetically efficient. The key difference, they contend, is reliability: Pluralism was just as available as hedonism, it was more reliable, and hedonism provides no advantage in terms of energetic efficiency (p. 323).

Sober and Wilson make several arguments for the claim that the pluralistic mechanism is more reliable. But one key disadvantage of a hedonistic mechanism, they argue, is that its heavily mediated by beliefs (p. 314). For example, in order to produce parental care given the ultimate desire for pleasure, one must believe that helping ones child will provide one with sufficient pleasure over competing alternative courses of action:

(Ultimate) Desire for Pleasure Believe Helping Provides Most Pleasure Desire to Help

Moreover, such beliefs must be true, otherwise it’s likely the instrumental desire to help will eventually extinguish, and then the fitness-enhancing outcome of parental care wont occur. The pluralistic model, however, is comparatively less complicated since it can just deploy an ultimate desire to help:

(Ultimate) Desire to Help

Since the pluralistic mechanism doesnt rely on as many beliefs, it is less susceptible to lack of available evidence for maintaining them. So yielding the fitness-enhancing outcome of parental care will be less vulnerable to disruption. Sober and Wilson (p. 314) liken the hedonistic mechanism to a Rube Goldberg machine, partly because it accomplishes its goal through overly complex means. Each link in the chain is susceptible to error, which makes the mechanism less reliable at yielding the relevant outcome.

Such arguments have not gone undisputed (see, for example, Stich et al. 2010, sect. 3). Yet they still provide a sophisticated way to connect evolutionary considerations with psychological egoism. In the next section well consider more direct ways for addressing the egoism-altruism debate empirically.

Psychological egoism is an empirical claim; however, considerations from biology provide only one route to addressing the egoism-altruism debate empirically. Another, perhaps more direct, approach is to examine empirical work on the mind itself.

In the 20th century, one of the earliest philosophical discussions of egoism as it relates to research in psychology comes from Michael Slote (1964). He argues that there is at least potentially a basis for psychological egoism in behavioristic theories of learning, championed especially by psychologists such as B. F. Skinner. Slote writes that such theories posit a certain number of basically selfish, unlearned primary drives or motives (like hunger, thirst, sleep, elimination, and sex), and explain all other, higher-order drives or motives as derived genetically from the primary ones via certain laws of reinforcement (p. 530). This theory importantly makes the additional claim that the higher-order motives, including altruistic ones, are not functionally autonomous. That is, they are merely instrumental to (functionally dependent on) the egoistic ultimate desires. According to Slote, the basic support for functional dependence is the following: If we cut off all reinforcement of [the instrumental desire] by primary rewards (rewards of primary [egoistic] drives), then the altruistic desire actually does extinguish (p. 531). Thus, all altruistic desires are merely instrumental to ultimately egoistic ones; we have merely learned through conditioning that benefiting others benefits ourselves. That, according to Slote, is what the behavioristic learning theory maintains.

Like the moral education argument, Slote’s is vulnerable to work in developmental psychology indicating that some prosocial behavior is not conditioned (see 2c). Moreover, behavioristic approaches throughout psychology have been widely rejected in the wake of the cognitive revolution. Learning theorists now recognize mechanisms that go quite beyond the tools of behaviorism (beyond mere classical and operant conditioning). Slote does only claim to have established the following highly qualified thesis: It would seem, then, that, as psychology stands today, there is at least some reason to think that the psychological theory we have been discussing may be true (p. 537); and he appears to reject psychological egoism in his later work. In any event, more recent empirical research is more apt and informative to this debate.

Philosopher Carolyn Morillo (1990) has defended a version of psychological hedonism based on more recent neuroscientific work primarily done on rats. Morillo argues for a strongly monistic theory of motivation that is grounded in internal reward events, which holds that we [ultimately] desire these reward events because we find them to be intrinsically satisfying (p. 173). The support for her claim is primarily evidence that the reward center of the brain, which is the spring of motivation, is the same as the pleasure center, which indicates that the basic reward driving action is pleasure.

Morillo admits though that the idea is “highly speculative” and based on “empirical straws in the wind.” Furthermore, philosopher Timothy Schroeder (2004) argues that later work in neuroscience casts serious doubt on the identification of the reward event with pleasure.In short, by manipulating rats’ brains, neuroscientist Kent Berridge and colleagues have provided substantial evidence thatbeing motivated to get something is entirely separable from “liking” it (that is, from its generating pleasure). Against Morillo, Schroeder concludes that the data are better explained by the hypothesis that the reward center of the brain can indirectly activate the pleasure center than by the hypothesis that either is such a center (p. 81, emphasis added; see also Schroeder, Roskies, and Nichols 2010, pp. 105-6.)

Other empirical work that bears on the existence of altruistic motives can be found in the study of empathy-induced helping behavior. Beginning around the 1980s, C. Daniel Batson and other social psychologists addressed the debate head on by examining such phenomena.Batson (1991; 2011), in particular, argues that the experiments conducted provide evidence for an altruistic model, the empathy-altruism hypothesis, which holds that as empathic feeling for a person in need increases, altruistic motivation to have that persons need relieved increases (1991, p. 72). In other words, the hypothesis states that empathy tends to induce in us ultimate desires for the well-being of someone other than ourselves. If true, this entails that psychological egoism is false.

Batson comes to this conclusion by concentrating on a robust effect of empathy on helping behavior discovered in the 1970s.The empathy-helping relationship is the finding that the experience of relatively high empathy for another perceived to be in need causes people to help the other more than relatively low empathy. However, as Batson recognizes, this doesnt establish psychological altruism, because it doesnt specify whether the ultimate desire is altruistic or egoistic. Given that there can be both egoistic and altruistic explanations of the empathy-helping relationship, Batson and others have devised experiments to test them.

The general experimental approach involves placing ordinary people in situations in which they have an opportunity to help someone they think is in need while manipulating other variables in the situation. The purpose is to provide circumstances in which egoistic versus altruistic explanations of empathy-induced helping behavior make different predictions about what people will do. Different hypotheses then provide either egoistic or altruistic explanations of why the subjects ultimately chose to help or offer to help. (For detailed discussions of the background assumptions involved here, see Batson 1991, pp. 64-67; Sober & Wilson 1998, Ch. 6; Stich, Doris, and Roedder 2010.)

Several egoistic explanations of the empathy-helping relationship are in competition with the empathy-altruism hypothesis.Each one claims that experiences of relatively high empathy (empathic arousal) causes subjects to help simply because it induces an egoistic ultimate desire; the desire to help the other is solely instrumental to the ultimate desire to benefit oneself. However, the experiments seem to rule out all the plausible (and some rather implausible) egoistic explanations. For example, if those feeling higher amounts of empathy help only because they want to reduce the discomfort of the situation, then they should help less frequently when they know their task is over and they can simply leave the experiment without helping. Yet this prediction has been repeatedly disconfirmed (Batson 1991, ch. 8). A host of experiments have similarly disconfirmed a range of egoistic hypotheses. The cumulative results evidently show that the empathy-helping relationship is not put in place by egoistic ultimate desires to either:

Furthermore, according to Batson, the data all conform to the empathy-altruism hypothesis, which claims that empathic arousal induces an ultimate desire for the person in need to be helped (see Batson 1991; for a relatively brief review, see Batson & Shaw 1991).

Some have argued against Batson that there are plausible egoistic explanations not ruled out by the data collected thus far (e.g. Cialdini et al. 1997; Sober & Wilson 1998, Ch. 8; Stich, Doris, and Roedder 2010). However, many egoistic explanations have been tested along similar lines and appear to be disconfirmed. While Batson admits that more studies can and should be done on this topic, he ultimately concludes that we are at least tentatively justified in believing that the empathy-altruism hypothesis is true. Thus, he contends that psychological egoism is false:”Contrary to the beliefs of Hobbes, La Rochefoucauld, Mandeville, and virtually all psychologists, altruistic concern for the welfare of others is within the human repertoire” (1991, p. 174).

It seems philosophical arguments against psychological egoism arent quite as powerful as we might expect given the widespread rejection of the theory among philosophers. So the theory is arguably more difficult to refute than many have tended to suppose. It is important to keep in mind, however, that the theory makes a rather strong, universal claim that all of our ultimate desires are egoistic, making it easy to cast doubt on such a view given that it takes only one counter-example to refute it.

Another important conclusion is that empirical work can contribute to the egoism-altruism debate. There is now a wealth of data emerging in various disciplines that addresses this fascinating and important debate about the nature of human motivation. While some have argued that the jury is still out, it is clear that the rising interdisciplinary dialogue is both welcome and constructive. Perhaps with the philosophical and empirical arguments taken together we can declare substantial progress.

Joshua May Email: joshmay@uab.edu University of Alabama at Birmingham U. S. A.

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Psychological Egoism | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Egoism | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

In philosophy, egoism is the theory that ones self is, or should be, the motivation and the goal of ones own action. Egoism has two variants, descriptive or normative. The descriptive (or positive) variant conceives egoism as a factual description of human affairs. That is, people are motivated by their own interests and desires, and they cannot be described otherwise. The normative variant proposes that people should be so motivated, regardless of what presently motivates their behavior. Altruism is the opposite of egoism. The term egoism derives from ego, the Latin term for I in English. Egoism should be distinguished from egotism, which means a psychological overvaluation of ones own importance, or of ones own activities.

People act for many reasons; but for whom, or what, do or should they actfor themselves, for God, or for the good of the planet? Can an individual ever act only according to her own interests without regard for others interests. Conversely, can an individual ever truly act for others in complete disregard for her own interests? The answers will depend on an account of free will. Some philosophers argue that an individual has no choice in these matters, claiming that a persons acts are determined by prior events which make illusory any belief in choice. Nevertheless, if an element of choice is permitted against the great causal impetus from nature, or God, it follows that a person possesses some control over her next action, and, that, therefore, one may inquire as to whether the individual does, or, should choose a self-or-other-oriented action. Morally speaking, one can ask whether the individual should pursue her own interests, or, whether she should reject self-interest and pursue others interest instead: to what extent are other-regarding acts morally praiseworthy compared to self-regarding acts?

The descriptive egoists theory is called psychological egoism. Psychological egoism describes human nature as being wholly self-centered and self-motivated. Examples of this explanation of human nature predate the formation of the theory, and, are found in writings such as that of British Victorian historian, Macaulay, and, in that of British Reformation political philosopher, Thomas Hobbes. To the question, What proposition is there respecting human nature which is absolutely and universally true?”, Macaulay, replies, “We know of only one . . . that men always act from self-interest.” (Quoted in Garvin.) In Leviathan, Hobbes maintains that, “No man giveth but with intention of good to himself; because gift is voluntary; and of all voluntary acts the object to every man is his own pleasure.” In its strong form, psychological egoism asserts that people always act in their own interests, and, cannot but act in their own interests, even though they may disguise their motivation with references to helping others or doing their duty.

Opponents claim that psychological egoism renders ethics useless. However, this accusation assumes that ethical behavior is necessarily other-regarding, which opponents would first have to establish. Opponents may also exploit counterfactual evidence to criticize psychological egoism surely, they claim, there is a host of evidence supporting altruistic or duty bound actions that cannot be said to engage the self-interest of the agent. However, what qualifies to be counted as apparent counterfactual evidence by opponents becomes an intricate and debatable issue. This is because, in response to their opponents, psychological egoists may attempt to shift the question away from outward appearances to ultimate motives of acting benevolently towards others; for example, they may claim that seemingly altruistic behavior (giving a stranger some money) necessarily does have a self-interested component. For example, if the individual were not to offer aid to a stranger, he or she may feel guilty or may look bad in front of a peer group.

On this point, psychological egoisms validity turns on examining and analyzing moral motivation. But since motivation is inherently private and inaccessible to others (an agent could be lying to herself or to others about the original motive), the theory shifts from a theoretical description of human nature–one that can be put to observational testing–to an assumption about the inner workings of human nature: psychological egoism moves beyond the possibility of empirical verification and the possibility of empirical negation (since motives are private), and therefore it becomes what is termed a closed theory.

A closed theory is a theory that rejects competing theories on its own terms and is non-verifiable and non-falsifiable. If psychological egoism is reduced to an assumption concerning human nature and its hidden motives, then it follows that it is just as valid to hold a competing theory of human motivation such as psychological altruism.

Psychological altruism holds that all human action is necessarily other-centered, and other-motivated. Ones becoming a hermit (an apparently selfish act) can be reinterpreted through psychological altruism as an act of pure noble selflessness: a hermit is not selfishly hiding herself away, rather, what she is doing is not inflicting her potentially ungraceful actions or displeasing looks upon others. A parallel analysis of psychological altruism thus results in opposing conclusions to psychological egoism. However, psychological altruism is arguably just as closed as psychological egoism: with it one assumes that an agents inherently private and consequently unverifiable motives are altruistic. If both theories can be validly maintained, and if the choice between them becomes the flip of a coin, then their soundness must be questioned.

A weak version of psychological egoism accepts the possibility of altruistic or benevolent behavior, but maintains that, whenever a choice is made by an agent to act, the action is by definition one that the agent wants to do at that point. The action is self-serving, and is therefore sufficiently explained by the theory of psychological egoism. Let one assume that person A wants to help the poor; therefore, A is acting egoistically by actually wanting to help; again, if A ran into a burning building to save a kitten, it must be the case that A wanted or desired to save the kitten. However, defining all motivations as what an agent desires to do remains problematic: logically, the theory becomes tautologous and therefore unable to provide a useful, descriptive meaning of motivation because one is essentially making an arguably philosophically uninteresting claim that an agent is motivated to do what she is motivated to do. Besides which, if helping others is what A desires to do, then to what extent can A be continued to be called an egoist? A acts because that is what A does, and consideration of the ethical ought becomes immediately redundant. Consequently, opponents argue that psychological egoism is philosophically inadequate because it sidesteps the great nuances of motive. For example, one can argue that the psychological egoists notion of motive sidesteps the clashes that her theory has with the notion of duty, and, related social virtues such as honor, respect, and reputation, which fill the tomes of history and literature.

David Hume, in his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (Appendix IIOf Self Love), offers six rebuttals of what he calls the selfish hypothesis, an arguably archaic relative of psychological egoism. First, Hume argues that self-interest opposes moral sentiments that may engage one in concern for others, and, may motivate ones actions for others. These moral sentiments include love, friendship, compassion, and gratitude. Second, psychological egoism attempts to reduce human motivation to a single cause, which is a fruitless taskthe “love of simplicityhas been the source of much false reasoning in philosophy.” Third, it is evident that animals act benevolently towards one another, and, if it is admitted that animals can act altruistically, then how can it be denied in humans? Fourth, the concepts we use to describe benevolent behavior cannot be meaningless; sometimes an agent obviously does not have a personal interest in the fortune of another, yet will wish her well. Any attempt to create an imaginary vested interest, as the psychological egoist will attempt, proves futile. Fifth, Hume asserts that we have prior motivations to self-interest; we may have, for example, a predisposition towards vanity, fame, or vengeance that transcends any benefit to the agent. Finally, Hume claims that even if the selfish hypothesis were true, there are a sufficient number of dispositions to generate a wide possibility of moral actions, allowing one person to be called vicious and another humane; and he claims that the latter is to be preferred over the former.

The second variant of egoism is normative in that it stipulates the agent ought to promote the self above other values. Herbert Spencer said, Ethics has to recognize the truth, recognized in unethical thought, that egoism comes before altruism. The acts required for continued self-preservation, including the enjoyments of benefits achieved by such arts, are the first requisites to universal welfare. Unless each duly cares for himself, his care for all others is ended in death, and if each thus dies there remain no others to be cared for. He was echoing a long history of the importance of self-regarding behavior that can be traced back to Aristotles theory of friendship in the Nichomachaean Ethics. In his theory, Aristotle argues that a man must befriend himself before he can befriend others. The general theory of normative egoism does not attempt to describe human nature directly, but asserts how people ought to behave. It comes in two general forms: rational egoism and ethical egoism.

Rational egoism claims that the promotion of ones own interests is always in accordance with reason. The greatest and most provocative proponent of rational egoism is Ayn Rand, whose The Virtue of Selfishness outlines the logic and appeal of the theory. Rand argues that: first, properly defined, selfishness rejects the sacrificial ethics of the Wests Judaic-Christian heritage on the grounds that it is right for man to live his own life; and, Rand argues that, second, selfishness is a proper virtue to pursue. That being said, she rejects the selfless selfishness of irrationally acting individuals: the actor must always be the beneficiary of his action and that man must act for his own rational self-interest. To be ethically selfish thus entails a commitment to reason rather than to emotionally driven whims and instincts.

In the strong version of rational egoism defended by Rand, not only is it rational to pursue ones own interests, it is irrational not to pursue them. In a weaker version, one may note that while it is rational to pursue ones own interests, there may be occasions when not pursuing them is not necessarily irrational.

Critics of rational egoism may claim that reason may dictate that ones interests should not govern ones actions. The possibility of conflicting reasons in a society need not be evoked in this matter; one need only claim that reason may invoke an impartiality clause, in other words, a clause that demands that in a certain situation ones interests should not be furthered. For example, consider a free-rider situation. In marking students papers, a teacher may argue that to offer inflated grades is to make her life easier, and, therefore, is in her self-interest: marking otherwise would incur negative feedback from students and having to spend time counseling on writing skills, and so on. It is even arguably foreseeable that inflating grades may never have negative consequences for anyone. The teacher could conceivably free-ride on the tougher marking of the rest of the department or university and not worry about the negative consequences of a diminished reputation to either. However, impartiality considerations demand an alternative courseit is not right to change grades to make life easier. Here self-interest conflicts with reason. Nonetheless, a Randian would reject the teachers free-riding being rational: since the teacher is employed to mark objectively and impartially in the first place, to do otherwise is to commit a fraud both against the employing institution and the student. (This is indeed an analogous situation explored in Rands The Fountainhead, in which the hero architect regrets having propped up a friends inabilities).

A simpler scenario may also be considered. Suppose that two men seek the hand of one woman, and they deduce that they should fight for her love. A critic may reason that the two men rationally claim that if one of them were vanquished, the other may enjoy the beloved. However, the solution ignores the womans right to choose between her suitors, and thus the mens reasoning is flawed.

In a different scenario, game theory (emanating from John von Neumanns and Oskar Morgensterns Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour, 1944) points to another possible logical error in rational egoism by offering an example in which the pursuit of self-interest results in both agents being made worse off.

This is famously described in the Prisoners Dilemma.

Prisoner A

From the table, two criminals, A and B, face different sentences depending on whether they confess their guilt or not. Each prisoner does not know what his partner will choose and communication between the two prisoners is not permitted. There are no lawyers and presumably no humane interaction between the prisoners and their captors.

Rationally (i.e., from the point of view of the numbers involved), we can assume that both will want to minimize their sentences. Herein lies the rub – if both avoid confessing, they will serve 2 years each a total of 4 years between them. If they both happen to confess, they each serve 5 years each, or 10 years between them.

However they both face a tantalizing option: if A confesses while his partner doesnt confess, A can get away in 6 months leaving B to languish for 10 years (and the same is true for B): this would result in a collective total of 10.5 years served.

For the game, the optimal solution is assumed to be the lowest total years served, which would be both refusing to confess and each therefore serving 2 years each. The probable outcome of the dilemma though is that both will confess in the desire to get off in 6 months, but therefore they will end up serving 10 years in total. This is seen to be non-rational or sub-optimal for both prisoners as the total years served is not the best collective solution.

The Prisoners Dilemma offers a mathematical model as to why self-interested action could lead to a socially non-optimal equilibrium (in which the participants all end up in a worse scenario). To game theorists, many situations can be modeled in a similar way to the classic Prisoners Dilemma including issues of nuclear deterrence, environmental pollution, corporate advertising campaigns and even romantic dates.

Supporters identify a game as any interaction between agents that is governed by a set of rules specifying the possible moves for each participant and a set of outcomes for each possible combination of moves. They add: One is hard put to find an example of social phenomenon that cannot be so described. (Hargreaves-Heap and Varoufakis, p.1).

Nonetheless, it can be countered that the nature of the game artificially pre-empts other possibilities: the sentences are fixed not by the participants but by external force (the game masters), so the choices facing the agents are outside of their control. Although this may certainly be applied to the restricted choices facing the two prisoners or contestants in a game, it is not obvious that every-day life generates such limited and limiting choices. The prisoners dilemma is not to be repeated: so there are no further negotiations based on what the other side chose.

More importantly, games with such restricting options and results are entered into voluntarily and can be avoided (we can argue that the prisoners chose to engage in the game in that they chose to commit a crime and hence ran the possibility of being caught!). Outside of games, agents affect each other and the outcomes in many different ways and can hence vary the outcomes as they interact in real life, communication involves altering the perception of how the world works, the values attached to different decisions, and hence what ought to be done and what potential consequences may arise.

In summary, even within the confines of the Prisoners Dilemma the assumptions that differing options be offered to each such that their self-interest works against the other can be challenged logically, ethically and judicially. Firstly, the collective outcomes of the game can be changed by the game master to produce a socially and individually optimal solution the numbers can be altered. Secondly, presenting such a dilemma to the prisoners can be considered ethically and judicially questionable as the final sentence that each gets is dependent on what another party says, rather than on the guilt and deserved punished of the individual.

Interestingly, repeated games tested by psychologists and economists tend to present a range of solutions depending on the stakes and other rules, with Axelrods findings (The Evolution of Cooperation, 1984) indicating that egotistic action can work for mutual harmony under the principle of tit for tat i.e., an understanding that giving something each creates a better outcome for both.

At a deeper level, some egoists may reject the possibility of fixed or absolute values that individuals acting selfishly and caught up in their own pursuits cannot see. Nietzsche, for instance, would counter that values are created by the individual and thereby do not stand independently of his or her self to be explained by another authority; similarly, St. Augustine would say love, and do as you will; neither of which may be helpful to the prisoners above but which may be of greater guidance for individuals in normal life.

Rand exhorts the application of reason to ethical situations, but a critic may reply that what is rational is not always the same as what is reasonable. The critic may emphasize the historicity of choice, that is, she may emphasize that ones apparent choice is demarcated by, and dependent on, the particular language, culture of right and consequence and environmental circumstance in which an individual finds herself living: a Victorian English gentleman perceived a different moral sphere and consequently horizon of goals than an American frontiersman. This criticism may, however, turn on semantic or contextual nuances. The Randian may counter that what is rational is reasonable: for one can argue that rationality is governed as much by understanding the context (Sartres facticity is a highly useful term) as adhering to the laws of logic and of non-contradiction.

Ethical egoism is the normative theory that the promotion of ones own good is in accordance with morality. In the strong version, it is held that it is always moral to promote ones own good, and it is never moral not to promote it. In the weak version, it is said that although it is always moral to promote ones own good, it is not necessarily never moral to not. That is, there may be conditions in which the avoidance of personal interest may be a moral action.

In an imaginary construction of a world inhabited by a single being, it is possible that the pursuit of morality is the same as the pursuit of self-interest in that what is good for the agent is the same as what is in the agents interests. Arguably, there could never arise an occasion when the agent ought not to pursue self-interest in favor of another morality, unless he produces an alternative ethical system in which he ought to renounce his values in favor of an imaginary self, or, other entity such as the universe, or the agents God. Opponents of ethical egoism may claim, however, that although it is possible for this Robinson Crusoe type creature to lament previous choices as not conducive to self-interest (enjoying the pleasures of swimming all day, and not spending necessary time producing food), the mistake is not a moral mistake but a mistake of identifying self-interest. Presumably this lonely creature will begin to comprehend the distinctions between short, and long-term interests, and, that short-term pains can be countered by long-term gains.

In addition, opponents argue that even in a world inhabited by a single being, duties would still apply; (Kantian) duties are those actions that reason dictates ought to be pursued regardless of any gain, or loss to self or others. Further, the deontologist asserts the application of yet another moral sphere which ought to be pursued, namely, that of impartial duties. The problem with complicating the creatures world with impartial duties, however, is in defining an impartial task in a purely subjective world. Impartiality, the ethical egoist may retort, could only exist where there are competing selves: otherwise, the attempt to be impartial in judging ones actions is a redundant exercise. (However, the Cartesian rationalist could retort that need not be so, that a sentient being should act rationally, and reason will disclose what are the proper actions he should follow.)

If we move away from the imaginary construct of a single beings world, ethical egoism comes under fire from more pertinent arguments. In complying with ethical egoism, the individual aims at her own greatest good. Ignoring a definition of the good for the present, it may justly be argued that pursuing ones own greatest good can conflict with anothers pursuit, thus creating a situation of conflict. In a typical example, a young person may see his greatest good in murdering his rich uncle to inherit his millions. It is the rich uncles greatest good to continue enjoying his money, as he sees fit. According to detractors, conflict is an inherent problem of ethical egoism, and the model seemingly does not possess a conflict resolution system. With the additional premise of living in society, ethical egoism has much to respond to: obviously there are situations when two peoples greatest goods the subjectively perceived working of their own self-interest will conflict, and, a solution to such dilemmas is a necessary element of any theory attempting to provide an ethical system.

The ethical egoist contends that her theory, in fact, has resolutions to the conflict. The first resolution proceeds from a state of nature examination. If, in the wilderness, two people simultaneously come across the only source of drinkable water a potential dilemma arises if both make a simultaneous claim to it. With no recourse to arbitration they must either accept an equal share of the water, which would comply with rational egoism. (In other words, it is in the interest of both to share, for both may enjoy the water and each others company, and, if the water is inexhaustible, neither can gain from monopolizing the source.) But a critic may maintain that this solution is not necessarily in compliance with ethical egoism. Arguably, the critic continues, the two have no possible resolution, and must, therefore, fight for the water. This is often the line taken against egoism generally: that it results in insoluble conflict that implies, or necessitates a resort to force by one or both of the parties concerned. For the critic, the proffered resolution is, therefore, an acceptance of the ethical theory that might is right; that is, the critic maintains that the resolution accepts that the stronger will take possession and thereby gain proprietary rights.

However, ethical egoism does not have to logically result in a Darwinian struggle between the strong and the weak in which strength determines moral rectitude to resources or values. Indeed, the realist position may strike one as philosophically inadequate as that of psychological egoism, although popularly attractive. For example, instead of succumbing to insoluble conflict, the two people could cooperate (as rational egoism would require). Through cooperation, both agents would, thereby, mutually benefit from securing and sharing the resource. Against the critics pessimistic presumption that conflict is insoluble without recourse to victory, the ethical egoist can retort that reasoning people can recognize that their greatest interests are served more through cooperation than conflict. War is inherently costly, and, even the fighting beasts of the wild instinctively recognize its potential costs, and, have evolved conflict-avoiding strategies.

On the other hand, the ethical egoist can argue less benevolently, that in case one man reaches the desired resource first, he would then be able to take rightful control and possession of it the second person cannot possess any right to it, except insofar as he may trade with its present owner. Of course, charitable considerations may motivate the owner to secure a share for the second comer, and economic considerations may prompt both to trade in those products that each can better produce or acquire: the one may guard the water supply from animals while the other hunts. Such would be a classical liberal reading of this situation, which considers the advance of property rights to be the obvious solution to apparently intractable conflicts over resources.

A second conflict-resolution stems from critics fears that ethical egoists could logically pursue their interests at the cost of others. Specifically, a critic may contend that personal gain logically cannot be in ones best interest if it entails doing harm to another: doing harm to another would be to accept the principle that doing harm to another is ethical (that is, one would be equating doing harm with ones own best interests), whereas, reflection shows that principle to be illogical on universalistic criteria. However, an ethical egoist may respond that in the case of the rich uncle and greedy nephew, for example, it is not the case that the nephew would be acting ethically by killing his uncle, and that for a critic to contend otherwise is to criticize personal gain from the separate ethical standpoint that condemns murder. In addition, the ethical egoist may respond by saying that these particular fears are based on a confusion resulting from conflating ethics (that is, self-interest) with personal gain; The ethical egoist may contend that if the nephew were to attempt to do harm for personal gain, that he would find that his uncle or others would or may be permitted to do harm in return. The argument that I have a right to harm those who get in my way is foiled by the argument that others have a right to harm me should I get in the way. That is, in the end, the nephew variously could see how harming another for personal gain would not be in his self-interest at all.

The critics fear is based on a misreading of ethical egoism, and is an attempt to subtly reinsert the might is right premise. Consequently, the ethical egoist is unfairly chastised on the basis of a straw-man argument. Ultimately, however, one comes to the conclusion reached in the discussion of the first resolution; that is, one must either accept the principle that might is right (which in most cases would be evidentially contrary to ones best interest), or accept that cooperation with others is a more successful approach to improving ones interests. Though interaction can either be violent or peaceful, an ethical egoist rejects violence as undermining the pursuit of self-interest.

A third conflict-resolution entails the insertion of rights as a standard. This resolution incorporates the conclusions of the first two resolutions by stating that there is an ethical framework that can logically be extrapolated from ethical egoism. However, the logical extrapolation is philosophically difficult (and, hence, intriguing) because ethical egoism is the theory that the promotion of ones own self-interest is in accordance with morality whereas rights incorporate boundaries to behavior that reason or experience has shown to be contrary to the pursuit of self-interest. Although it is facile to argue that the greedy nephew does not have a right to claim his uncles money because it is not his but his uncles, and to claim that it is wrong to act aggressively against the person of another because that person has a legitimate right to live in peace (thus providing the substance of conflict-resolution for ethical egoism), the problem of expounding this theory for the ethical egoist lies in the intellectual arguments required to substantiate the claims for the existence of rights and then, once substantiated, connecting them to the pursuit of an individuals greatest good.

A final type of ethical egoism is conditional egoism. This is the theory that egoism is morally acceptable or right if it leads to morally acceptable ends. For example, self-interested behavior can be accepted and applauded if it leads to the betterment of society as a whole; the ultimate test rests not on acting self-interestedly but on whether society is improved as a result. A famous example of this kind of thinking is from Adam Smiths The Wealth of Nations, in which Smith outlines the public benefits resulting from self-interested behavior (borrowing a theory from the earlier writer Bernard Mandeville and his Fable of the Bees). Smith writes: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages” (Wealth of Nations, I.ii.2).

As Smith himself admits, if egoistic behavior lends itself to societys detriment, then it ought to be stopped. The theory of conditional egoism is thus dependent on a superior moral goal such as an action being in the common interest, that is, the public good. The grave problem facing conditional egoists is according to what standard ought the limits on egoism be placed? In other words, who or what is to define the nature of the public good? If it is a person who is set up as the great arbitrator of the public, then it is uncertain if there can be a guarantee that he or she is embodying or arguing for an impartial standard of the good and not for his or her own particular interest. If it is an impartial standard that sets the limit, one that can be indicated by any reasonable person, then it behooves the philosopher to explain the nature of that standard.

In most public good theories, the assumption is made that there exists a collective entity over and above the individuals that comprise it: race, nation, religion, and state being common examples. Collectivists then attempt to explain what in particular should be held as the interest of the group. Inevitably, however, conflict arises, and resolutions have to be produced. Some seek refuge in claiming the need for perpetual dialogue (rather than exchange), but others return to the need for force to settle apparently insoluble conflicts; nonetheless, the various shades of egoism pose a valid and appealing criticism of collectivism: that individuals act; groups dont. Karl Poppers works on methodological individualism are a useful source in criticizing collectivist thinking (for example, Poppers The Poverty of Historicism).

Psychological egoism is fraught with the logical problem of collapsing into a closed theory, and hence being a mere assumption that could validly be accepted as describing human motivation and morality, or be rejected in favor of a psychological altruism (or even a psychological ecologism in which all actions necessarily benefit the agents environment).

Normative egoism, however, engages in a philosophically more intriguing dialogue with protractors. Normative egoists argue from various positions that an individual ought to pursue his or her own interest. These may be summarized as follows: the individual is best placed to know what defines that interest, or it is thoroughly the individuals right to pursue that interest. The latter is divided into two sub-arguments: either because it is the reasonable/rational course of action, or because it is the best guarantee of maximizing social welfare.

Egoists also stress that the implication of critics condemnation of self-serving or self-motivating action is the call to renounce freedom in favor of control by others, who then are empowered to choose on their behalf. This entails an acceptance of Aristotles political maxim that “some are born to rule and others are born to be ruled,” also read as “individuals are generally too stupid to act either in their own best interests or in the interests of those who would wish to command them.” Rejecting both descriptions (the first as being arrogant and empirically questionable and the second as unmasking the truly immoral ambition lurking behind attacks on selfishness), egoists ironically can be read as moral and political egalitarians glorifying the dignity of each and every person to pursue life as they see fit. Mistakes in securing the proper means and appropriate ends will be made by individuals, but if they are morally responsible for their actions they not only will bear the consequences but also the opportunity for adapting and learning. When that responsibility is removed and individuals are exhorted to live for an alternative cause, their incentive and joy in improving their own welfare is concomitantly diminished, which will, for many egoists, ultimately foster an uncritical, unthinking mass of obedient bodies vulnerable to political manipulation: when the ego is trammeled, so too is freedom ensnared, and without freedom ethics is removed from individual to collective or government responsibility.

Egoists also reject the insight into personal motivation that others whether they are psychological or sociological “experts” declare they possess, and which they may accordingly fine-tune or encourage to “better ends.” Why an individual acts remains an intrinsically personal and private act that is the stuff of memoirs and literature, but how they should act releases our investigations into ethics of what shall define the good for the self-regarding agent.

Alexander Moseley Email: alexandermoseley@icloud.com United Kingdom

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Egoism | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Ethical Egoism – University of Colorado Boulder

IV. Ethical Egoism

The rough idea behind ethical egoism is that the right thing to do is to look out for your own self-interest.We are morally required only to make ourselves as happy as possible.We have no moral obligations to others. Ayn Rand seems to endorse this idea in the following passages:

“By the grace of reality and the nature of life, man — every man — is an end in himself, he exists for his own sake, and the achievement of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose” (Pojman, p. 74).

“Accept the fact that the achievement of your happiness is the only moral purpose of your life, and that happiness — not pain or mindless self-indulgence — is the proof of your moral integrity … ” (Pojman, 77).

Let’s make these rough thoughts more clear; let’s formulate a criterion of moral rightness based on Rand’s ideas.

A. Formulating Ethical Egoism (EEh)

– Alternative: the alternatives that some agent has at some time are the actions that are open to the agent at that time; they are her “options”; two actions are alternatives to one another when an agent can do either one of them, but not both of them. – Consequences: the consequences of a given act are the things that would happen “as a result” of the act, if it were performed. Note that some subsequent event is a consequence of an act whether it is near in space and time or far away; whether it is something that the agent of the act could reasonably anticipate or not; whether it involves the agent of the act or some distant stranger.

Our version of egoism is going to be a form of consequentialism. A normative theory is a form of consequentialism insofar as it implies that facts about the consequences determine the normative status of acts.

(This leaves open just what it is about the consequences that determine an act’s normative status.Our version of egoism will say that it is the pleasure and pain that befall the agent of the act that are relevant.So we need to say a few words about pleasure and pain.)

Some assumptions about pleasure and pain: – they are feelings, or sensations – each episode of pleasure or pain has an intensity and a duration; these factors determine the amountof pleasure or pain in the episode – the hedon is the unit of measurement of pleasure; the number of hedons in an episode of pleasure is determined by the intensity and duration of the episode of pleasure – the dolor is the unit of measurement of pain; the number of dolors in an episode of pleasure is determined by the intensity and duration of the episode of pain – Pleasures and pains are “commensurable”; that is, if some pleasure contains the same number of hedons as some pain contains dolors, then we can say that there is an much pleasure in the episode of pleasure as there is pain in the episode of pain.(This assumption will enable us to add and subtract pleasure and pains, like the assets and liabilities on an accountant’s balance sheet.)

We can now define hedonic agent utility as the total number of hedons of pleasure that the agent of the act would feel as a consequence of the act if it were performed, minus the total number of dolors of pain that the agent of the act would feel as a consequence of the act if it were performed.

In more rough terms, to the hedonic agent utility of some alternative is how good the alternative would be for the agent, pleasure-pain-wise.

The last concept is that of maximizing: we say that an act maximizes hedonic agent utility when no alternative to that act has a higher hedonic agent utility than it has.

Finally, we can state the theory, EEh (Ethical Egoism, of a hedonistic sort):

EEh: An act is morally right if and only if it maximizes hedonic agent utility.

So this theory is saying that an act is right when there is nothing else the agent could do on that occasion that would lead to a consequence that would be better for him in terms of pleasure and pain.

B. Common Misconceptions about Egoism

1. Immediate Gratification

Egoism is not the doctrine that we should indulge in as much pleasure we can in the short run, without a care for what happens to us in the long run.And EEh does not imply this because, in order to calculate the hedonic agent utility of an action, you need to figure in all the pleasure and pains that would result, no matter how down the line in the future.

2. No Altruism

Egoism also does not imply that we should never act altruistically. Rather, it implies that we may act for the benefit of others so long as that act also maximizes our own hedonic utility. (See Feldman p. 83 for further discussion.)

3. Psychological Egoism

EEh is a doctrine in ethics, a theory about what we morally ought to do. However, there is another doctrine — a doctrine in psychology — that sometimes goes by the name of “egoism”. This other doctrine, “Psychological Egoism,” is a view about how human beings happen to be set up, psychologically speaking. It is not a view at all about what we morally ought to do. Psychological Egoism says that we human beings in fact always pursue our own well-being. That is, we always choose the act that we think will be best for us. We are motivated only by the desire for pleasure and an aversion to pain.

C. Arguments for EEh

1. Closet Utilitarian Argument

The Closet Utilitarian Argument (from Feldman, p. 86) (1) If people act in such a way as to maximize their own self-interest, then humanity will be better off as a whole. (2) People ought to act in whatever way will lead to the betterment of humanity as a whole. (3) Therefore, people ought to act in such a way as to maximize their own self-interest; in other words, egoism is true.

Criticism of premise (1): – Feldman’s case of the selfish art lover (pp. 85-86). – The “Tragedy of the Commons”; the “Prisoner’s Dilemma”

Criticism of premise (2): – See Feldman, p. 87.

D. Arguments Against EEh

1. Moore’s; Baier’s; The Promulgation Argument

(see Feldman, Ch. 6)

2. Feldman’s Refutation of EEh

Feldman’s Refutation of EEh 1. If EEh is true, then it is morally right for the man to steal the money from the pension fund. 2. It is not right for the man to steal the money from the pension fund. 3. Therefore, EEh is not true.

Imagine a treasurer of large pension fund. He is entrusted with keeping track of and investing the retirement savings of all the workers at a company. He discovers, however, that it would be possible for him to steal all the money in the fund and get away with it, leaving all the workers who worked hard to save their money out of luck. Suppose he does this and succeeds, escaping to a South Sea Island to live out the rest of his days indulging in idle pleasure (at the expense of the workers he screwed back home).

Egoism implies that the fact that this action screws over the workers back home is irrelevant. All that is relevant is whether this action is most in the interests of the treasurer. Well, to see exactly what EEh will have to say about this case, we should fill in the details. Here are the treasurer’s alternatives:

The man’s alternativeshedonic agent utility a1: steal the money+10,000 a2: leave the money where it is-3

Let’s say these are his two main alternatives at the time. EEh implies that it would be morally acceptable for this guy to steal the money. Why? — because this act maximizes hedonic agent utility.That is, if he were to perform it, he would get a greater balance of pleasure over pain than he would get if he were to do any of his alternatives.

So we get premise 1:

1. If EEh is true, then it is morally right for the man to steal the money from the pension fund.

But this is clearly not right. EEh is mistaken in this verdict. This act is cruel and selfish. It is utterly immoral. Most everyone, I take it, would be prepared to condemn this man for his actions; and we would think it would be appropriate to punish for his ruthless deeds. So we get premise 2:

2. It is not right for the man to steal the money from the pension fund.

From these two premises, this follows:

3. Therefore, EEh is not true.

This argument is valid: the conclusion follows logically from the premises. The first premise is clearly true. I also think the second premise is true. I think people behave immorally when they do this. Maybe Ayn Rand is willing to accept this consequence. I myself cannot.Can you?

Continued here:

Ethical Egoism – University of Colorado Boulder

Dr. Charles Kay Egoism

Egoism is a teleological theory of ethics that sets as its goal the benefit, pleasure, or greatest good of the oneself alone. It is contrasted with altruism, which is not strictly self-interested, but includes in its goal the interests of others as well. There are at least three different ways in which the theory of egoism can be presented:

This is the claim that humans by nature are motivated only by self-interest . Any act, no matter how altruistic it might seem, is actually motivated by some selfish desire of the agent (e.g., desire for reward, avoidance of guilt, personal happiness). This is a descriptive claim about human nature. Since the claim is universalall acts are motivated by self interestit could be proven false by a single counterexample.

It will be difficult to find an action that the psychological egoist will acknowledge as purely altruistic, however. There is almost always some benefit to ourselves in any action we choose. For example, if I helped my friend out of trouble, I may feel happy afterwards. But is that happiness the motive for my action or just a result of my action? The psychological egoist must demonstrate that the beneficial consequences of an action are actually the motivation of of all of our actions. (Why would it make me happy to see my friend out of trouble if I didnt already care about my friends best interest? Wouldnt that be altruism?)

This is the claim that individuals should always act in their own best interest. It is a normative claim. If ethical egoism is true, that appears to imply that psychological egoism is false: there would be no point to arguing that we ought to do what we must do by nature.

But if altruism is possible, why should it be avoided? Some writers suggest we all should focus our resources on satisfying our own interests, rather than those of others. Society will then be more efficient and this will better serve the interests of all. By referring to the interests of all, however, this approach reveals itself to be a version of utilitarianism, and not genuine egoism. It is merely a theory about how best to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number.

An alternative formulation of ethical egoism states that I ought always to act in my own self-interesteven if this conflicts with the values and interests of otherssimply because that is what I desire most. It is not clear how an altruist could find common ground to argue with such an individualistic ethical egoist, but it is also not clear why such an egoist would ever want to argue against the altruist: Since the individualistic egoist believes that whatever serves his own interests is (morally) right, he will want everyone else to be altruistic. Otherwise they would not serve the egoists own interests! It seems that anyone who truly believed in individualistic ethical egoism could not publicly promote the theory without such inconsistency. Indeed, the self-interest of the egoist is best served by publicly claiming to be an altruist and thereby keeping everyones good favor.

When working with certain economic or sociological models, we may frequently assume that people will act in such a way as to promote their own interests. This is not a normative claim and usually not even a descriptive claim. Instead it is a minimalist assumption used for certain calculations. If we assume only self-interest on the part of all agents, we can determine certain extreme-case (e.g., maximin) outcomes for the model. Implicit in this assumption, although not always stated, is the idea that altruistic behavior on the part of the agents, although not presupposed, would yield outcomes at least as good and probably better.

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Dr. Charles Kay Egoism

Egoism: Examples and Definition | Philosophy Terms

I. Definition

You may think you already know egoism; but youre probably thinking of egotismself-importance, or self-centeredness. In contrast, egoism is the philosophical view that human beings do, or should, always act for their own benefit. Both words are derived from the Latin word for I ego.

Egoism and egotism are quite different. For example, egotists often talk about themselves a lot, not listening to otherswhich makes people dislike them. In contrast, egoists might act very humbly, and pay attention to othersbecause its in their best interests to make people like them and want to treat them well. Egotism is a character trait; egoism is a philosophy.

Even so, you might think that egoists must secretly be egotistsand a lot of philosophers would agree with you. But the point is that egoism does not necessarily violate our usual notions of what is right and wrong. We will return to this questionof whether egoism implies immoralityin other sections.

In fact, some of our highest ideals in the Western worldindividual rights, freedom, and democracydepend on ideas similar to egoism. All of these philosophies depend on the idea that humans normally do or should pursue their own welfare and happiness. The problem, of course, is when your welfare conflicts with someone elsesanother point well discuss below.

But whether you think egoism is right or wrong depends a lot on what kind of egoism youre talking about. The two main kinds of egoism are quite different; descriptive egoism just claims that human being do always act for their own benefit; while normative egoism claims that we should always act for our own benefit.

The most popular variety of descriptive egoism is psychological egoism, which simply claims that whatever a human being does, the ultimate aim is self-benefit. If psychological egoism is correct, it means that even when people appear to act for others benefit, with no concern for themselveswhich is called altruismtheyre actually doing it for their own sake. It doesnt mean that anyone is necessarily trying to be deceptive, or pretending, to help others (although thats a possibility of course). Psychological egoists would say that people may act altruistically because it will be good for them in the long run, or because it makes them feel good when they do it.

There are at least two main categories of psychological egoismdesire-based and objective. The first says that humans are always doing what they desire. For example, even if you say you dont want to do your homework, you do choose to do it; you have the option to not do it, and suffer the consequences. So, you do desire to do your homeworkjust not for its own sake.

But, this kind of psychological egoism seems to be trivially true; it doesnt say why we make what choices we do.

Other kinds of psychological egoism are called objective because they claim that we are always pursuing certain objectives. Some say we always act for pleasure. Others argue that we always pursue whatever we think will bring us the most benefit.

But most philosophers have rejected psychological egoism. For one thing it is probably unprovable because it is a theory about our deepest motivationswhich are private. How could anyone prove whether you help an old lady across the street only for her sake, or because it makes you feel good about yourself? You may not be sure yourself which it is!

But that kind of example is another reason most philosophers reject psychological egoismbecause human beings really do sometimes act for the benefit of others without expecting to any reward for themselves. Altruism; well come back to this debate in section III.

Normative egoism is not about what humans do, but about what they should do. Two kinds of normative egoism are well known:

Ethical egoists may argue that you cannot know what is best for anyone but yourselfand so it is immoral to try. If you try to act in reference to other peoples interests, rather than your own, you can easily do things those people wouldnt want, mess up other peoples lives, or just violate their right to decide what happens to them, which would be immoral. Ethical egoists also might argue that human beings are dependent on one another for survival, so therefore, it is your moral obligation to take care of yourself first, so that others dont have toand so that you have the ability to take care of them. In other words, whats in your best interests is ultimately in everybodys best interests.

Which brings us to rational egoism, which assumes that we should act rationally, which is egoistically. The most famous rational egoist, the writer Ayn Rand, argued strongly against sacrificing ones own interests for others. She argued that not taking full advantage of ones own freedom is immoral because it opposes the natural fulfilment of human potential, which is the best thing for everyone in a society. For example, if I dont work as hard as possible for my own personal success, then I might fail to accomplish many things that would be good for the world.

Nevertheless, many philosophers feel that rational egoism cannot provide a basis for ethical behaviorthat it is, rather, a justification for amorality (no morality), which could be very dangerous.

In the big picture, its worth noting that egoism has been a characteristically Western philosophy since at least Aristotle. Although there were a few ancient Chinese thinkers who had egoistic ideas, in general, egoism is much harder to justify in Eastern thought, where the ego (the personal self) is an illusion that one should try to get over!

In the west, Aristotle is cited for his early contribution to egoism, in the Nicomachean Ethics, where he points out that one must act for ones own benefit in order to be a good friend, or a good citizenbecause you cant do any good for other people if youre not in good condition yourself. However, Aristotle was not really an egoist, because he believed that it was the primary value of helping others that justified helping oneself.

The main ideas of psychological egoism started popping up in Europe during the Reformation (17th century) such as in the writings of philosopher, Thomas Hobbes (see next section for a quote). Hobbes (and others) argued that all voluntary actions are, by definition, egoisticbecause they are voluntary. So, humans are always acting for their own sakes, whether they think so or not.

Many philosophers shared this view during the 18th century, supported by the rationalism of the time. But David Hume, in his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (Appendix IIOf Self Love), set forth some well-known arguments against it. Hume said that psychological egoism denied the reality of such important human feelings as friendship, love, compassion, and gratitude. He also argued that there was no reason to try to reduce the diversity of human motivations to one simple thing. And he pointed out, as many have, that both humans and animals have been observed to act, instinctively for others sakes.

Early normative egoism is often associated with the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche whose ideas about freedom, the will, and the superman, certainly seem to support egoism, and have been used that way, but Nietzsche himself rejected egoism because, he said, being an egoist would have the opposite of the desired effect; it would set other people against you, which is bad for your own success.

The first philosophers to consider themselves egoists were Max Stirner and Henry Sidgwick in the 19th Century. But probably the most popular and controversial spokesperson for egoism was Ayn Rand, who set forth her arguments in The Virtue of Selfishness, and in novels such as Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Adapting some of Nietzsches rhetoric, Rand focused on rational egoism as a rejection of the sacrificial ethics of Christianity; she argued that it is wrong to sacrifice ones own interests for others because it is irrational: the actor must always be the beneficiary of his action and that man must act for his own rational self-interest. Thus, to her, ethical and rational egoism go together. Her perspective owes a lot to Nietzsches rejection of traditional morality and glorification of the individual will.

Over the past 30 years or so, egoism has faced stronger opposition than before because of scientific research showing that (a) humans and animals do have altruistic instincts, (b) selfish decisions are often not in your best interests, and (c) that altruistic behavior is consistent with evolution. When we were evolving, living in small tribes, most people lived around their many relatives, so doing things for others benefitaltruismcould actually spread ones own genes!

Egoism has always been a controversial theory, and we have sketched some of its debates in the previous sectionssuch as whether it can be moral or not, and whether it needs to be.

Another challenge to egoism is whether its even logically possible. Several philosophers have pointed out that it leads to self-contradictions and irresolvable conflicts. For example, Joseph Butler writes that it may be necessary to act un-selfishly in order to receive benefits, which makes egoism self-contradictory. However, we can get around this paradox by just saying that egoism is acting for long-term benefit.

A bigger problem for psychological egoism is that some behavior just doesnt seem egoistic in any sense. Say a soldier throws himself on a grenade to prevent others from being killed. Its hard to say how that could be in the soldiers selfish interests! Hes not going to benefit from it in the long run, or even be able to enjoy the feeling of being a good person. Egoists might argue that the soldier is deceiving himself if he thinks he acted selflessly; perhaps he was sub-consciously motivated to avoid feeling guilty if he didnt sacrifice himself. But then again, feeling that kind of guilt depends on having non-egoistic motivations, doesnt it? An egoist could also argue that since the soldier made a free decision to jump on the grenade, he was, by definition, following his own desires. However, that argument seems like a cop-out; it avoids resolving the question of why the soldier did it.

The major controversy about normative (ethical or rational) egoism is, of course, whether it can be truly ethical at all, since almost all people agree that an ethical system must encourage us to act for the benefit of other human beings. The main points of debate are whether it is desirable or possible to act selflessly, and whether rational selfishness is or is not really the best thing for others. The answers to these questions depend on answers to many other questions: how interdependent are human beings? Is individual freedom more important than social stability? Is individuality an illusion? So, this debate will doubtless not soon be settled!

Ethics has to recognize the truth, recognized in unethical thought, that egoism comes before altruism. The acts required for continued self-preservation, including the enjoyments of benefits achieved by such arts, are the first requisites to universal welfare. Unless each duly cares for himself, his care for all others is ended in death, and if each thus dies there remain no others to be cared for. Herbert Spencer

In this argument for ethical egoism, Herbert Spencer, a 19th century British philosopher, seems to echo Aristotles original justification for some degree of egoismthat a person needs to take care of their own needs and happiness before they can take care of others. Often accused of inconsistency, Spencer was an egoist who also believed that human beings have a natural sense of empathy and should care for each other, although at the same time, he believed that altruism was a relatively recent development in humans.

What interest can a fond mother have in view, who loses her health by assiduous attendance on her sick child, and afterwards languishes and dies of grief, when freed, by its death [the childs], from the slavery of that attendance? David Hume

Hume, a famous opponent of psychological realism, here gives an example that demonstrates several of his arguments against egoism. Hume pointed out that human beings have certain innate non-egoist instincts, such as the compulsion of a mother to sacrifice herself for her children. And even if she does so, selfishly, in order to feel good herself, that doesnt explain why she dies of grief after her child dies.

Altruism is the opposite of egoism the motivation or practice of doing things to benefit others, without expecting any benefit for oneself. However, most of the debates about egoism and altruism are not about whether its good to benefit others or not, which almost everyone agrees on, but whether egoism or altruism are actually beneficial, or even possible.

Just as psychological egoism could be rejected on the basis that its impossible to prove peoples motivations, many philosophers have questioned whether it is possible to prove altruistic motivations either. As descriptions of human nature, egoism and altruism seem to compete on equal grounds; you can pretty much always argue that any action was really motivated by egoism or really altruism, but you cant prove it.

As normative philosophies, about what people should do, most philosophers agree that ethical behavior is behavior which is good for people in generalso you might assume that altruism should win automatically. But there are some pretty good arguments that altruistic action depends on egoist motivations; you might not help that old lady cross the street if you didnt care about feeling good about yourself. And egoists may argue that its immoral to decide whats in other peoples best interests. On the side of altruism is the universal belief that morality means being good to others and the evidence that empathy, compassion, and altruism are natural instincts.

Many popular films feature egoist villainssociopaths who pursue their own gain without regard for others. But Heath Ledgers Joker in Christopher Nolans Dark Knight goes further. Late in the movie he actually sets up a version of The Prisoners Dilemmaa scenario from game theory which philosophers have used to explore the egoism versus altruism debate. The Joker intends to prove to all that his view of human naturepsychological egoismis true. He believes that one or both boats will try to blow up the other one in order to save their own lives, according to the Jokers rulesbut they refuse to cooperate, seemingly proving that humans are not entirely egoistic. Throughout the film, the Joker represents the egoist view as he repeatedly exploits his enemies egoism. But in the end, Batman supposedly demonstrates that altruism is real by taking the fall for a politician he doesnt even likefor the good of the people of Gotham.

Both of the Star Trek films featuring Khan, Captain Kirks worst enemy, explore the consequences of egoist versus altruist views. In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, we learn that Khans murderous anger towards humanity is partly a result of Captain Kirks earlier action of marooning Khan and his people on a then hospitable planetwhich later suffered an environmental disaster killing most of Khans people. This is a clear illustration of the ethical egoists claim that trying to act in others interests may be immoral. Furthermore, Kirks failure to check up on Khan on the planet suggests that Kirk was not really acting altruistically, but rather egoistically, supporting the views of psychological egoism. Meanwhile, Khan believes that he has a natural right to dominate, based on his superior intellect and strength, a view commonly associated with rational egoism and Ayn Rand. Of course in the end, Mr. Spock demonstrates altruism by sacrificing himself to save the rest of the Enterprise crew, repeating an idea clearly meant to prove that altruism is more rational than egoismthe needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

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Egoism: Examples and Definition | Philosophy Terms

Psychological Egoism | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Psychological egoism is the thesis that we are always deep down motivated by what we perceive to be in our own self-interest. Psychological altruism, on the other hand, is the view that sometimes we can have ultimately altruistic motives. Suppose, for example, that Pam saves Jim from a burning office building. What ultimately motivated her to do this? It would be odd to suggest that its ultimately her own benefit that Pam is seeking. After all, shes risking her own life in the process. But the psychological egoist holds that Pams apparently altruistic act is ultimately motivated by the goal to benefit herself, whether she is aware of this or not. Pam might have wanted to gain a good feeling from being a hero, or to avoid social reprimand that would follow had she not helped Jim, or something along these lines.

Several other egoistic views are related to, but distinct from psychological egoism. Unlike ethical egoism, psychological egoism is merely an empirical claim about what kinds of motives we have, not what they ought to be. So, while the ethical egoist claims that being self-interested in this way is moral, the psychological egoist merely holds that this is how we are. Similarly, psychological egoism is not identical to what is often called psychological hedonism. Psychological hedonism restricts the range of self-interested motivations to only pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Thus, it is a specific version of psychological egoism.

The story of psychological egoism is rather peculiar. Though it is often discussed, it hasnt been explicitly held by many major figures in the history of philosophy. It is most often attributed to only Thomas Hobbes (1651) and Jeremy Bentham (1781). Most philosophers explicitly reject the view, largely based on famous arguments from Joseph Butler (1726). Nevertheless, psychological egoism can be seen as a background assumption of several other disciplines, such as psychology and economics. Moreover, some biologists have suggested that the thesis can be supported or rejected directly based on evolutionary theory or work in sociobiology.

While psychological egoism is undoubtedly an empirical claim, there hasnt always been a substantial body of experimental data that bears on the debate. However, a great deal of empirical work beginning in the late 20th century has largely filled the void. Evidence from biology, neuroscience, and psychology has stimulated a lively interdisciplinary dialogue. Regardless of whether or not the empirical evidence renders a decisive verdict on the debate, it has certainly enriched discussion of the issue.

Psychological egoism is a thesis about motivation, usually with a focus on the motivation of human (intentional) action. It is exemplified in the kinds of descriptions we sometimes give of peoples actions in terms of hidden, ulterior motives. A famous story involving Abraham Lincoln usefully illustrates this (see Rachels 2003, p. 69). Lincoln was allegedly arguing that we are all ultimately self-interested when he suddenly stopped to save a group of piglets from drowning. His interlocutor seized the moment, attempting to point out that Lincoln is a living counter-example to his own theory; Lincoln seemed to be concerned with something other than what he took to be his own well-being. But Lincoln reportedly replied: I should have had no peace of mind all day had I gone on and left that suffering old sow worrying over those pigs. I did it to get peace of mind, dont you see?

The psychological egoist holds that descriptions of our motivation, like Lincolns, apply to all of us in every instance. The story illustrates that there are many subtle moves for the defender of psychological egoism to make. So it is important to get a clear idea of the competing egoistic versus altruistic theories and of the terms of the debate between them.

Egoism is often contrasted with altruism. Although the egoism-altruism debate concerns the possibility of altruism in some sense, the ordinary term “altruism” may not track the issue that is of primary interest here. In at least one ordinary use of the term, for someone to act altruistically depends on her being motivated solely by a concern for the welfare of another, without any ulterior motive to simply benefit herself. Altruism here is a feature of the motivation that underlies the action (Sober & Wilson 1998, p. 199). (Another sense of “altruism”often used in a fairly technical sense in biologyis merely behavioral; see 4a.) To this extent, this ordinary notion of altruism is close to what is of philosophical interest. But there are differences. For instance, ordinarily we seem to only apply the term altruism to fairly atypical actions, such as those of great self-sacrifice or heroism. But the debate about psychological egoism concerns the motivations that underlie all of our actions (Nagel 1970/1978, p. 16, n. 1).

Regardless of ordinary terminology, the view philosophers label psychological egoism has certain key features. Developing a clear and precise account of the egoism-altruism debate is more difficult than it might seem at first. To make the task easier, we may begin with quite bare and schematic definitions of the positions in the debate (May 2011, p. 27; compare also Rosas 2002, p. 98):

We will use the term desire here in a rather broad sense to simply mean a motivational mental statewhat we might ordinarily call a motive or reason in at least one sense of those terms. But what is an ultimate desire, and when is it altruistic rather than egoistic? Answering these and related questions will provide the requisite framework for the debate.

We can begin to add substance to our bare theses by characterizing what it is to have an altruistic versus an egoistic desire. As some philosophers have pointed out, the psychological egoist claims that all of ones ultimate desires concern oneself in some sense. However, we must make clear that an egoistic desire exclusively concerns ones own well-being, benefit, or welfare. A malevolent ultimate desire for the destruction of an enemy does not concern oneself, but it is hardly altruistic (Feinberg 1965/1999, 9, p. 497; Sober & Wilson 1998, p. 229).

Similarly, despite its common use in this context, the term selfish is not appropriate here either. The psychological egoist claims that we ultimately only care about (what we consider to be) our own welfare, but this neednt always amount to selfishness. Consider an ultimate desire to take a nap that is well-deserved and wont negatively affect anyone. While this concerns ones own benefit, there is no sense in which it is selfish (Henson 1988, 7; Sober & Wilson 1998, p. 227). The term self-interest is more fitting.

With these points in mind, we can characterize egoistic and altruistic desires in the following way:

Its important that the desire in some sense represents the person as oneself (or, as the case may be, as another). For example, suppose that John wants to help put out a fire in the hair of a man who appears to be in front of him, but he doesnt know that hes actually looking into a mirror, and its his own hair thats ablaze. If Johns desire is ultimate and is simply to help the man with his hair in flames, then it is necessary to count his desire as concerning someone other than himself, even though he is in fact the man with his hair on fire (Oldenquist 1980, pp. 27-8; Sober & Wilson 1998, p. 214).

The reason for the focus on ultimate desires is that psychological egoists dont deny that we often have desires that are altruistic. They do claim, however, that all such altruistic desires ultimately depend on an egoistic desire that is more basic. In other words, we have an ulterior motive when we help othersone that likely tends to fly below the radar of consciousness or introspection.

Thus, we must draw a common philosophical distinction between desires that are for a means to an end and desires for an end in itself. Instrumental desires are those desires one has for something as a means for something else; ultimate desires are those desires one has for something as an end in itself, not as a means to something else (see Sober & Wilson 1998, pp. 217-222). The former are often called extrinsic desires and the latter intrinsic desires (see e.g. Mele 2003 Ch. 1.8.). Desires for pleasure and the avoidance of pain are paradigmatic ultimate desires, since people often desire these as ends in themselves, not as a mere means to anything else. But the class of ultimate desires may include much more than this.

There are two important aspects to highlight regarding how psychological egoism and altruism relate to one another. First, psychological egoism makes a stronger, universal claim that all of our ultimate desires are egoistic, while psychological altruism merely makes the weaker claim that some of our ultimate desires are altruistic. Thus, the former is a monistic thesis, while the latter is a pluralistic thesis (Sober & Wilson 1998, p. 228). Consequently, psychological egoism is easier to refute than the opposing view. If one were to successfully demonstrate that someeven just oneof a persons ultimate desires are altruistic, then we can safely reject psychological egoism. For example, if Thomas removes his heel from anothers gouty toe because he has an ultimate desire that the person benefit from it, then psychological egoism is false.

Second, the positions in the debate are not exactly the denial of one another, provided there are desires that are neither altruistic nor egoistic (Stich, Doris, & Roedder 2010, sect. 2). To take an example from Bernard Williams, a madman might have an ultimate desire for a chimpanzees tea party to be held in the cathedral (1973, p. 263). He does not desire this as a means to some other end, such as enjoyment at the sight of such a spectacle (he might, for example, secure this in his will for after his death). Assuming the desire for such a tea party is neither altruistic nor egoistic (because it doesnt have to do with anyones well-being), would it settle the egoism-altruism debate? Not entirely. It would show that psychological egoism is false, since it would demonstrate that some of our ultimate desires are not egoistic. However, it would not show that psychological altruism is true, since it does not show that some of our ultimate desires are altruistic. Likewise, suppose that psychological altruism is false because none of our ultimate desires concern the benefit of others. If that is true, psychological egoism is not thereby true. It too could be false if we sometimes have ultimate desires that are not egoistic, like the madmans. The point is that the theses are contraries: they cannot both be true, but they can both be false.

Philosophers dont have much sympathy for psychological egoism. Indeed, the only major figures in the history of philosophy to endorse the view explicitly are arguably Thomas Hobbes and Jeremy Bentham. Some might also include Aristotle (compare Feinberg 1965/1999, p. 501) and John Stuart Mill (compare Sidgwick 1874/1907, 1.4.2.1), but there is some room for interpreting them otherwise. Hobbes explicitly states in Leviathan (1651/1991):

no man giveth but with intention of good to himself, because gift is voluntary; and of all voluntary acts, the object is to every man his own good; of which, if men see they shall be frustrated, there will be no beginning of benevolence or trust, nor consequently of mutual help. (Ch. XV, p. 47)

In a similar vein, Bentham famously opens his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1781/1991) with this:

Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. (p. 313)

Here Bentham appears to endorse a specific version of psychological egoism, namely psychological hedonism. This view restricts the kind of self-interest we can ultimately desire to pleasure or the avoidance of pain. Unfortunately, Hobbes and Bentham dont offer much in the way of arguments for these views; they tend to just assume them.

One tempting argument for psychological egoism is based on what seem to be conceptual truths about (intentional) action. For example, many hold that all of ones actions are motivated by ones own desires. This might seem to directly support psychological egoism because it shows that we are all out to satisfy our own desires (compare Hobbes). In his famous Fifteen Sermons, Bishop Butler (1726/1991) anticipates such an argument for the universality of egoistic desires (or self-love) in the following manner:

[B]ecause every particular affection is a mans own, and the pleasure arising from its gratification his own pleasure, or pleasure to himself, such particular affection must be called self-love; according to this way of speaking, no creature whatever can possibly act but merely from self-love. (Sermon XI, p. 366)

However, as Butler goes on to say, this line of argument rests on a mistake or at least a play on words. Many philosophers have subsequently reinforced Butlers objection, often pointing to two intertwined confusions: one based on our desires being ours, another based on equivocation on the word satisfaction. On the former confusion, C. D. Broad says it is true that all impulses belong to a self but it is not true that the object of any of them is the general happiness of the self who owns them (1930/2000, p. 65).

Similarly, the second confusion fails to distinguish between what Bernard Williams calls desiring the satisfaction of ones desire and desiring ones own satisfaction (1973, p. 261). The word satisfaction in the latter case is the more ordinary use involving ones own pleasure or happiness. If all actions are motivated by a desire for this, then psychological egoism is indeed established. But the basic consideration from the theory of action we began with was merely that all actions are motivated by a desire of ones own, which is meant to be satisfied. However, this employs a different notion of satisfaction, which merely means that the person got what she wanted (Feinberg 1965/1999, p. 496). The claim that everyone is out to satisfy their own desires is a fairly uninteresting one, since it doesnt show that we are motivated by self-interest. If Mother Teresa did have an altruistic desire for the benefit of another, it is no count against her that she sought to satisfy itthat is, bring about the benefit of another. This argument for psychological egoism, then, seems to rely on an obviously false view of self-interest as desire-satisfaction.

A major theoretical attraction of psychological egoism is parsimony. It provides a simple account of human motivation and offers a unified explanation of all our actions. Although actions may vary in content, the ultimate source is self-interest: doing well at ones job is merely to gain the favor of ones boss; returning a wallet is merely to avoid the pang of guilt that would follow keeping it; saying thank you for a meal is merely to avoid social reprimand for failing to conform to etiquette; and so on.

One might dispute whether psychological egoism is any more parsimonious than psychological altruism (Sober & Wilson 1998, pp. 292-3). More importantly, however, it is no argument for a view that it is simpler than its competitors. Perhaps we might employ Ockhams Razor as a sort of tie-breaker to adjudicate between two theories when they are equal in all other respects, but this involves more than just simplicity (Sober & Wilson 1998, pp. 293-5). As David Hume puts it, psychological egoism shouldnt be based solely on that love of simplicity which has been the source of much false reasoning in philosophy (1751/1998, p. 166). The heart of the debate then is whether there are other reasons to prefer one view over the other.

Perhaps the psychological egoist neednt appeal to parsimony or erroneous conceptions of self-interest. Bentham, after all, suggests that ordinary experience shows that we are ultimately motivated to gain pleasure or avoid pain (1781/1991, Ch. 3). Perhaps one could extrapolate an argument on behalf of psychological egoism along the following lines (Feinberg 1965/1999, sect. 4, p. 495). Experience shows that people must be taught to care for others with carrots and stickswith reward and punishment. So seemingly altruistic ultimate desires are merely instrumental to egoistic ones; we come to believe that we must be concerned with the interests of others in order to gain rewards and avoid punishment for ourselves (compare the argument in 5a).

This line of reasoning is rather difficult to evaluate given that it rests on an empirical claim about moral development and learning. Ordinary experience does show that sometimes its necessary to impose sanctions on children for them to be nice and caring. But even if this occurs often, it doesn’t support a universal claim that it always does. Moreover, there is a growing body of evidence gathered by developmental psychologists indicating that young children have a natural, unlearned concern for others. There is some evidence, for example, that children as young as 14-months will spontaneously help a person they believe is in need (Warneken & Tomasello 2007). It seems implausible that children have learned at such a young agethat this behavior will be benefit themselves. On the other hand, such empirical results do not necessarily show that the ultimate motivation behind such action is altruistic. The psychological egoist could argue that we still possess ultimately egoistic desires (perhaps we are simply born believing that concern for others will benefit oneself). However, the developmental evidence still undermines the moral education argument by indicating that our concern for the welfare others is not universally learned from birth by sanctions of reward and punishment.

Another argument for psychological egoism relies on the idea that we often blur our conception of ourselves and others when we are benevolent. Consider the paradigm of apparently selfless motivation: concern for family, especially ones children. Francis Hutcheson anticipates the objection when he imagines a psychological egoist proclaiming: Children are not only made of our bodies, but resemble us in body and mind; they are rational agents as we are, and we only love our own likeness in them (1725/1991, p. 279, Raphael sect. 327). And this might seem to be supported by recent empirical research. After all, social psychologists have discovered that we tend to feel more empathy for others we perceive to be in need when they are similar to us in various respects and when we take on their perspective (Batson 1991; see 5b). In fact, some psychologists have endorsed precisely this sort of self-other merging argument for an egoistic view (for example, Cialdini, Brown, Lewis, Luce, and Neuberg 1997).

One might doubt, however, whether a self-other merging account is able to explain helping behavior in an egoistic way. For example, it would be quite implausible to say that we literally believe we exist in two different bodies when feeling empathy for someone. The most credible reading of the proposal is that we conceptually blur the distinction between ourselves and others in the relevant cases. Yet this would seem to require, contrary to fact, that our behavior reflects this blurring. If we think of the boundary between ourselves and another as indeterminate, presumably our helping behavior would reflect such indeterminacy. (For further discussion, see Hutcheson 1725/1991, pp. 279-80; Batson 2011, ch. 6; May 2011.)

Considering the arguments, the case for psychological egoism seems rather weak. But is there anything to be said directly against it? This section examines some of the most famous arguments philosophers have proposed against the view.

Bishop Joseph Butler provides a famous argument against psychological egoism (focusing on hedonism) in his Fifteen Sermons. The key passage is the following:

That all particular appetites and passions are towards external things themselves, distinct from the pleasure arising from them, is manifested from hence; that there could not be this pleasure, were it not for that prior suitableness between the object and the passion: there could be no enjoyment or delight from one thing more than another, from eating food more than from swallowing a stone, if there were not an affection or appetite to one thing more than another. (1726/1991, Sermon XI, p. 365)

Many philosophers have championed this argument, whichElliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson (1998) have dubbed Butlers stone. Broad (1930/2000), for example, writes that Butler killed the theory [of psychological egoism] so thoroughly that he sometimes seems to the modern reader to be flogging dead horses (p. 55).

Butlers idea is that the experience of pleasure upon attaining something presupposes (or at least strongly indicates) a desire for the thing attained, not the pleasure itself. After all, we typically do not experience pleasure upon getting something (like food) unless we want it.The pleasure that accompanies the fulfillment of our desires is often a mere byproduct of our prior desire for the thing that gave us pleasure. Often we feel pleasure upon getting what we want precisely because we wanted what gave us pleasure. Consider, for example, getting second place in a race. This would make a runner happy if she wants to get second place; but it would not if she doesn’t want this at all (e.g. she only wants first place).

While Butler’s version of the argument may be overly ambitious in various respects (Sidgwick1874/1907, 1.4.2.3;Sober and Wilson 1998, p. 278), the best version is probably something like the following (compare the”disinterested benevolence” argument in Feinberg1965/1999, c8):

The basic idea is that pleasure (or self-interest generally) cant be our universal concern because having it sometimespresupposes a desire for something other than pleasure itself.Many philosophers have endorsed this sort of argument, not only against hedonism but more generally against egoism (Hume 1751/1998, App. 2.12; Broad 1950/1952; Nagel 1970/1978, p. 80, n. 1; Feinberg 1965/1999).

Sober and Wilson, however, make the case that such arguments are seriously flawed at least because the conclusion does not follow from the premises (1998, p. 278).That is, the premises, even if true, fail to establish the conclusion. The main problem is that such arguments tell us nothing about which desires are ultimate. Even if the experience of pleasure sometimes presupposes a desire for the pleasurable object, it is still left open whether the desire for what generated the pleasure is merely instrumental to a desire for pleasure (or some other form of self-interest). Consider the following causal chain, using to mean caused (see Sober & Wilson 1998, p. 278):

Desire for food Eating Pleasure

According to Butler, the experience of pleasure upon eating some food allows us to infer the existence of a desire for food. This is all the argument gets us. Yet Butler’s opponent, the egoist, maintains that the desire for food is subsequent to and dependent on an ultimate desire for pleasure (or some other form of self-interest):

Ultimate desire for pleasure Desire for food Eating Pleasure

This egoistic picture is entirely compatible with Butler’s claims about presupposition. So, even if the premises are true, it does not follow that egoism is false.

Butler would need a stronger premise, such as: pleasurepresupposes an ultimate desire for what generated it, not for the resulting benefit. But this revision would plausibly make the argument question-begging. The new premise seems to amount to nothing more than the denial of psychological egoism: sometimes people havean ultimate desire for something other than self-interest. At the very least, the argument is dialectically unhelpfulit offers premises in support of the conclusion that are as controversial as the conclusion is, and for similar reasons.

Still, a general lesson can clearly be gained from arguments like Butler’s. Psychological egoists cannot establish their view simply by pointing to the pleasure or self-benefit that accompanies so many actions. After all, often self-benefit only seems to be what we ultimately desire, though a closer look reveals benefits like pleasure are likely justbyproducts while the proximate desire is for that which generates them. As Hume puts it, sometimes “we are impelled immediately to seek particular objects, such as fame or power, or vengeance without any regard to interest; and when these objects are attained a pleasing enjoyment ensues, as the consequence of our indulged affections” (1751/1998, App. 2.12, emphasis added). Perhaps Butler’s point is best seen as a formidable objection to a certain kind of argument for egoism, rather than a positive argument against the theory.

A simple argument against psychological egoism is that it seems obviously false. As Francis Hutcheson proclaims: An honest farmer will tell you, that he studies the preservation and happiness of his children, and loves them without any design of good to himself (1725/1991, p. 277, Raphael sect. 327). Likewise, Hume rhetorically asks, What interest can a fond mother have in view, who loses her health by assiduous attendance on her sick child, and afterwards languishes and dies of grief, when freed, by its death, from the slavery of that attendance? (1751/1998, App. 2.9, p. 167). Building on this observation, Hume takes the most obvious objection to psychological egoism to be that:

as it is contrary to common feeling and our most unprejudiced notions, there is required the highest stretch of philosophy to establish so extraordinary a paradox. To the most careless observer there appear to be such dispositions as benevolence and generosity; such affections as love, friendship, compassion, gratitude. [] And as this is the obvious appearance of things, it must be admitted, till some hypothesis be discovered, which by penetrating deeper into human nature, may prove the former affections to be nothing but modifications of the latter. (1751/1998, App. 2.6, p. 166)

Here Hume is offering a burden-shifting argument. The idea is that psychological egoism is implausible on its face, offering strained accounts of apparently altruistic actions. So the burden of proof is on the egoist to show us why we should believe the view; yet the attempts so far have hitherto proved fruitless, according to Hume (1751/1998, App. 2.6, p. 166). Similarly, C. D. Broad (1950/1952) and Bernard Williams (1973, pp. 262-3) consider various examples of actions that seem implausible to characterize as ultimately motivated by self-interest.

Given the arguments, it is still unclear why we should consider psychological egoism to be obviously untrue. One might appeal to introspection or common sense; but neither is particularly powerful. First, the consensus among psychologists is that a great number of our mental states, even our motives, are not accessible to consciousness or cannot reliably be reported on through the use of introspection (see, for example, Nisbett and Wilson 1977). While introspection, to some extent, may be a decent source of knowledge of our own minds, it is fairly suspect to reject an empirical claim about potentially unconscious motivations. Besides, one might report universally egoistic motives based on introspection (e.g. Mercer 2001, pp. 229-30). Second, shifting the burden of proof based on common sense is rather limited. Sober and Wilson (1998, p. 288) go so far as to say that we have no business taking common sense at face value in the context of an empirical hypothesis. Even if we disagree with their claim and allow a larger role for shifting burdens of proof via common sense, it still may have limited use, especially when the common sense view might be reasonably cast as supporting either position in the egoism-altruism debate. Here, instead of appeals to common sense, it would be of greater use to employ more secure philosophical arguments and rigorous empirical evidence.

Another popular complaint about psychological egoism is that it seems to be immune to empirical refutation; it is unfalsifiable. And this is often taken to be a criterion for an empirical theory: any view that isnt falsifiable isnt a genuine, credible scientific theory (see Karl Poppers Falsificationism). The worry for psychological egoism is that it will fail to meet this criterion if any commonly accepted altruistic action can be explained away as motivated by some sort of self-interest. Joel Feinberg, for example, writes:

Until we know what they [psychological egoists] would count as unselfish behavior, we cant very well know what they mean when they say that all voluntary behavior is selfish. And at this point we may suspect that they are holding their theory in a privileged positionthat of immunity to evidence, that they would allow no conceivable behavior to count as evidence against it. What they say then, if true, must be true in virtue of the way they defineor redefinethe word selfish. And in that case, it cannot be an empirical hypothesis. (1965/1999, 18, p. 503; see also 14-19)

As we have seen (1b), psychological egoism neednt hold that all our ultimate desires are selfish. But Feinbergs point is that we need to know what would count as empirical evidence against the existence of an egoistic ultimate desire.

This objection to psychological egoism has three substantial problems. First, falsification criteria for empirical theories are problematic and have come under heavy attack. In addition its unclear why we should think the view is false. Perhaps it is a bad scientific theory or a view we shouldnt care much about, but it is not thereby false. Second, any problems that afflict psychological egoism on this front will also apply to the opposing view (Sober & Wilson 1998, p. 290). After all, psychological altruism is a pluralistic thesis that includes both egoistic and altruistic motives. Third, and most importantly, a charitable construal of psychological egoism renders it falsifiable. As we have seen, psychological egoists have a clear account of what would falsify it: an ultimate desire that is not egoistic. While it may be difficult to detect the ultimate motives of people, the view is in principle falsifiable. In fact, it is empirically testable, as we shall see below.

Another popular objection to various forms of psychological egoism is often called the paradox of hedonism, which was primarily popularized by Henry Sidgwick (1874/1907, 2.3.2.3). It is usually directed at psychological hedonism, but the problem can be extended to psychological egoism generally.

When the target is only hedonism, the paradox is that we tend to attain more pleasure by focusing on things other than pleasure. Likewise, when directed at egoism generally, the idea is that we will tend not to benefit ourselves by focusing on our own benefit. Consider someone, Jones, who is ultimately concerned with his own well-being, not the interests of others (the example is adapted from Feinberg 1965/1999, p. 498, sect. 11). Two things will seemingly hold: (a) such a person would eventually lack friends, close relationships, etc. and (b) this will lead to much unhappiness. This seems problematic for a theory that says all of our ultimate desires are for our own well-being.

Despite its popularity, this sort of objection to psychological egoism is quite questionable. There are several worries about the premises of the argument, such as the claim that ultimate concern for oneself diminishes ones own well-being (see Sober & Wilson 1998, p. 280). Most importantly, the paradox is only potentially an issue for a version of egoism that prescribes ultimate concern for oneself, such as normative egoism (Sober & Wilson 1998, p. 280). The futility of ultimate concern for oneself can only undermine claims such as We should only ultimately care about our own well-being since this allegedly would not lead to happiness. But psychological egoism is a descriptive thesis. Even if egoistic ultimate desires lead to unhappiness, that would only show that egoistically motivated people will find this unfortunate.

Despite its widespread rejection among philosophers, philosophical arguments against psychological egoism arent overwhelmingly powerful. However, the theses in this debate are ultimately empirical claims about human motivation. So we can also look to more empirical disciplines, such as biology and psychology, to advance the debate. Biology in particular contains an abundance of literature on altruism. But, as we will see, much of it is rather tangential to the thesis of psychological altruism.

The ordinary (psychological) sense of altruism is different from altruism as discussed in biology. For example, sociobiologists, such as E. O. Wilson, often theorize about the biological basis of altruism by focusing on the behavior of non-human animals. But this is altruism only in the sense of helpful behavior that seems to be at some cost to the helper. It says nothing about the motivations for such behavior, which is of interest to us here. Similarly, altruism is a label commonly used in a technical sense as a problem for evolutionary theory (see Altruism and Group Selection). What we might separately label evolutionary altruism occurs whenever an organism reduces its own fitness and augments the fitness of others regardless of the motivation behind it (Sober & Wilson 1998, p. 199). Distinguishing the psychological sense of altruism from other uses of the term is crucial if we are to look to biology to contribute to the debate on ultimate desires.

Given the multiple uses of terms, discussion of altruism and self-interest in evolutionary theory can often seem directly relevant to the psychological egoism-altruism debate. One might think, for example, that basic facts about evolution show were motivated by self-interest. Consider our desire for water. We have this perhaps solely because it enhanced the evolutionary fitness of our ancestors, by helping them stay alive and thus to propagate their genes. And evolutionary theory plausibly uncovers this sort of gene-centered story for many features of organisms. Richard Dawkins offers us some ideas of this sort. Although he emphasizes that the term selfish, as he applies it to genes, is merely metaphorical, he says we have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth let us try to teach generosity and altruism because we are born selfish (1976/2006, p. 3).

But we should be careful not to let the self-centered origin of our traits overshadow the traits themselves. Even if all of our desires are due to evolutionary adaptations (which is a strong claim), this is only the origin of them. Consider again the desire for water. It might exist only because it can help propagate ones genes, but the desire is still for water, not to propagate ones genes (compare the Genetic Fallacy). As Simon Blackburn points out, Dawkins is following a long tradition in implying that biology carries simple messages for understanding the sociology and psychology of human beings (1998, p. 146). To be fair, in a later edition of The Selfish Gene, Dawkins recognizes his folly and asks the reader to ignore such rogue sentences (p. ix). In any event, we must avoid what Blackburn polemically calls the biologists fallacy of inferring the true psychology of the person from the fact that his or her genes have proved good at replicating over time (p. 147). The point is that we must avoid simple leaps from biology to psychology without substantial argument (see also Stich et al. 2010, sect. 3).

Philosopher Elliott Sober and biologist David Sloan Wilson (1998) have made careful and sophisticated arguments for the falsity of psychological egoism directly from considerations in evolutionary biology. Their contention is the following: Natural selection is unlikely to have given us purely egoistic motives (p. 12). To establish this, they focus on parental care, an other-regarding behavior in humans, whose mechanism is plausibly due to natural selection. Assuming such behavior is mediated by what the organism believes and desires, we can inquire into the kinds of mental mechanisms that could have evolved. The crucial question becomes: Is it more likely that such a mechanism for parental care would, as psychological egoism holds, involve only egoistic ultimate desires? To answer this question, Sober and Wilson focus on just one version of egoism, and what they take to be the most difficult to refute: psychological hedonism (p. 297). The hedonistic mechanism always begins with the ultimate desire for pleasure and the avoidance of pain. The mechanism consistent with psychological altruism, however, is pluralistic: some ultimate desires are hedonistic, but others are altruistic.

According to Sober and Wilson, there are three main factors that could affect the likelihood that a mechanism evolved: availability, reliability, and energetic efficiency (pp. 305-8). First, the genes that give rise to the mechanism must be available in the pool for selection. Second, the mechanism mustnt conflict with the organisms reproductive fitness; they must reliably produce the relevant fitness-enhancing outcome (such as viability of offspring). And third, they must do this efficiently, without yielding a significant cost to the organisms own fitness-enhancing resources. Sober and Wilson find no reason to believe that a hedonistic mechanism would be more or less available or energetically efficient. The key difference, they contend, is reliability: Pluralism was just as available as hedonism, it was more reliable, and hedonism provides no advantage in terms of energetic efficiency (p. 323).

Sober and Wilson make several arguments for the claim that the pluralistic mechanism is more reliable. But one key disadvantage of a hedonistic mechanism, they argue, is that its heavily mediated by beliefs (p. 314). For example, in order to produce parental care given the ultimate desire for pleasure, one must believe that helping ones child will provide one with sufficient pleasure over competing alternative courses of action:

(Ultimate) Desire for Pleasure Believe Helping Provides Most Pleasure Desire to Help

Moreover, such beliefs must be true, otherwise it’s likely the instrumental desire to help will eventually extinguish, and then the fitness-enhancing outcome of parental care wont occur. The pluralistic model, however, is comparatively less complicated since it can just deploy an ultimate desire to help:

(Ultimate) Desire to Help

Since the pluralistic mechanism doesnt rely on as many beliefs, it is less susceptible to lack of available evidence for maintaining them. So yielding the fitness-enhancing outcome of parental care will be less vulnerable to disruption. Sober and Wilson (p. 314) liken the hedonistic mechanism to a Rube Goldberg machine, partly because it accomplishes its goal through overly complex means. Each link in the chain is susceptible to error, which makes the mechanism less reliable at yielding the relevant outcome.

Such arguments have not gone undisputed (see, for example, Stich et al. 2010, sect. 3). Yet they still provide a sophisticated way to connect evolutionary considerations with psychological egoism. In the next section well consider more direct ways for addressing the egoism-altruism debate empirically.

Psychological egoism is an empirical claim; however, considerations from biology provide only one route to addressing the egoism-altruism debate empirically. Another, perhaps more direct, approach is to examine empirical work on the mind itself.

In the 20th century, one of the earliest philosophical discussions of egoism as it relates to research in psychology comes from Michael Slote (1964). He argues that there is at least potentially a basis for psychological egoism in behavioristic theories of learning, championed especially by psychologists such as B. F. Skinner. Slote writes that such theories posit a certain number of basically selfish, unlearned primary drives or motives (like hunger, thirst, sleep, elimination, and sex), and explain all other, higher-order drives or motives as derived genetically from the primary ones via certain laws of reinforcement (p. 530). This theory importantly makes the additional claim that the higher-order motives, including altruistic ones, are not functionally autonomous. That is, they are merely instrumental to (functionally dependent on) the egoistic ultimate desires. According to Slote, the basic support for functional dependence is the following: If we cut off all reinforcement of [the instrumental desire] by primary rewards (rewards of primary [egoistic] drives), then the altruistic desire actually does extinguish (p. 531). Thus, all altruistic desires are merely instrumental to ultimately egoistic ones; we have merely learned through conditioning that benefiting others benefits ourselves. That, according to Slote, is what the behavioristic learning theory maintains.

Like the moral education argument, Slote’s is vulnerable to work in developmental psychology indicating that some prosocial behavior is not conditioned (see 2c). Moreover, behavioristic approaches throughout psychology have been widely rejected in the wake of the cognitive revolution. Learning theorists now recognize mechanisms that go quite beyond the tools of behaviorism (beyond mere classical and operant conditioning). Slote does only claim to have established the following highly qualified thesis: It would seem, then, that, as psychology stands today, there is at least some reason to think that the psychological theory we have been discussing may be true (p. 537); and he appears to reject psychological egoism in his later work. In any event, more recent empirical research is more apt and informative to this debate.

Philosopher Carolyn Morillo (1990) has defended a version of psychological hedonism based on more recent neuroscientific work primarily done on rats. Morillo argues for a strongly monistic theory of motivation that is grounded in internal reward events, which holds that we [ultimately] desire these reward events because we find them to be intrinsically satisfying (p. 173). The support for her claim is primarily evidence that the reward center of the brain, which is the spring of motivation, is the same as the pleasure center, which indicates that the basic reward driving action is pleasure.

Morillo admits though that the idea is “highly speculative” and based on “empirical straws in the wind.” Furthermore, philosopher Timothy Schroeder (2004) argues that later work in neuroscience casts serious doubt on the identification of the reward event with pleasure.In short, by manipulating rats’ brains, neuroscientist Kent Berridge and colleagues have provided substantial evidence thatbeing motivated to get something is entirely separable from “liking” it (that is, from its generating pleasure). Against Morillo, Schroeder concludes that the data are better explained by the hypothesis that the reward center of the brain can indirectly activate the pleasure center than by the hypothesis that either is such a center (p. 81, emphasis added; see also Schroeder, Roskies, and Nichols 2010, pp. 105-6.)

Other empirical work that bears on the existence of altruistic motives can be found in the study of empathy-induced helping behavior. Beginning around the 1980s, C. Daniel Batson and other social psychologists addressed the debate head on by examining such phenomena.Batson (1991; 2011), in particular, argues that the experiments conducted provide evidence for an altruistic model, the empathy-altruism hypothesis, which holds that as empathic feeling for a person in need increases, altruistic motivation to have that persons need relieved increases (1991, p. 72). In other words, the hypothesis states that empathy tends to induce in us ultimate desires for the well-being of someone other than ourselves. If true, this entails that psychological egoism is false.

Batson comes to this conclusion by concentrating on a robust effect of empathy on helping behavior discovered in the 1970s.The empathy-helping relationship is the finding that the experience of relatively high empathy for another perceived to be in need causes people to help the other more than relatively low empathy. However, as Batson recognizes, this doesnt establish psychological altruism, because it doesnt specify whether the ultimate desire is altruistic or egoistic. Given that there can be both egoistic and altruistic explanations of the empathy-helping relationship, Batson and others have devised experiments to test them.

The general experimental approach involves placing ordinary people in situations in which they have an opportunity to help someone they think is in need while manipulating other variables in the situation. The purpose is to provide circumstances in which egoistic versus altruistic explanations of empathy-induced helping behavior make different predictions about what people will do. Different hypotheses then provide either egoistic or altruistic explanations of why the subjects ultimately chose to help or offer to help. (For detailed discussions of the background assumptions involved here, see Batson 1991, pp. 64-67; Sober & Wilson 1998, Ch. 6; Stich, Doris, and Roedder 2010.)

Several egoistic explanations of the empathy-helping relationship are in competition with the empathy-altruism hypothesis.Each one claims that experiences of relatively high empathy (empathic arousal) causes subjects to help simply because it induces an egoistic ultimate desire; the desire to help the other is solely instrumental to the ultimate desire to benefit oneself. However, the experiments seem to rule out all the plausible (and some rather implausible) egoistic explanations. For example, if those feeling higher amounts of empathy help only because they want to reduce the discomfort of the situation, then they should help less frequently when they know their task is over and they can simply leave the experiment without helping. Yet this prediction has been repeatedly disconfirmed (Batson 1991, ch. 8). A host of experiments have similarly disconfirmed a range of egoistic hypotheses. The cumulative results evidently show that the empathy-helping relationship is not put in place by egoistic ultimate desires to either:

Furthermore, according to Batson, the data all conform to the empathy-altruism hypothesis, which claims that empathic arousal induces an ultimate desire for the person in need to be helped (see Batson 1991; for a relatively brief review, see Batson & Shaw 1991).

Some have argued against Batson that there are plausible egoistic explanations not ruled out by the data collected thus far (e.g. Cialdini et al. 1997; Sober & Wilson 1998, Ch. 8; Stich, Doris, and Roedder 2010). However, many egoistic explanations have been tested along similar lines and appear to be disconfirmed. While Batson admits that more studies can and should be done on this topic, he ultimately concludes that we are at least tentatively justified in believing that the empathy-altruism hypothesis is true. Thus, he contends that psychological egoism is false:”Contrary to the beliefs of Hobbes, La Rochefoucauld, Mandeville, and virtually all psychologists, altruistic concern for the welfare of others is within the human repertoire” (1991, p. 174).

It seems philosophical arguments against psychological egoism arent quite as powerful as we might expect given the widespread rejection of the theory among philosophers. So the theory is arguably more difficult to refute than many have tended to suppose. It is important to keep in mind, however, that the theory makes a rather strong, universal claim that all of our ultimate desires are egoistic, making it easy to cast doubt on such a view given that it takes only one counter-example to refute it.

Another important conclusion is that empirical work can contribute to the egoism-altruism debate. There is now a wealth of data emerging in various disciplines that addresses this fascinating and important debate about the nature of human motivation. While some have argued that the jury is still out, it is clear that the rising interdisciplinary dialogue is both welcome and constructive. Perhaps with the philosophical and empirical arguments taken together we can declare substantial progress.

Joshua May Email: joshmay@uab.edu University of Alabama at Birmingham U. S. A.

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Psychological Egoism | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Egoism | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

In philosophy, egoism is the theory that ones self is, or should be, the motivation and the goal of ones own action. Egoism has two variants, descriptive or normative. The descriptive (or positive) variant conceives egoism as a factual description of human affairs. That is, people are motivated by their own interests and desires, and they cannot be described otherwise. The normative variant proposes that people should be so motivated, regardless of what presently motivates their behavior. Altruism is the opposite of egoism. The term egoism derives from ego, the Latin term for I in English. Egoism should be distinguished from egotism, which means a psychological overvaluation of ones own importance, or of ones own activities.

People act for many reasons; but for whom, or what, do or should they actfor themselves, for God, or for the good of the planet? Can an individual ever act only according to her own interests without regard for others interests. Conversely, can an individual ever truly act for others in complete disregard for her own interests? The answers will depend on an account of free will. Some philosophers argue that an individual has no choice in these matters, claiming that a persons acts are determined by prior events which make illusory any belief in choice. Nevertheless, if an element of choice is permitted against the great causal impetus from nature, or God, it follows that a person possesses some control over her next action, and, that, therefore, one may inquire as to whether the individual does, or, should choose a self-or-other-oriented action. Morally speaking, one can ask whether the individual should pursue her own interests, or, whether she should reject self-interest and pursue others interest instead: to what extent are other-regarding acts morally praiseworthy compared to self-regarding acts?

The descriptive egoists theory is called psychological egoism. Psychological egoism describes human nature as being wholly self-centered and self-motivated. Examples of this explanation of human nature predate the formation of the theory, and, are found in writings such as that of British Victorian historian, Macaulay, and, in that of British Reformation political philosopher, Thomas Hobbes. To the question, What proposition is there respecting human nature which is absolutely and universally true?”, Macaulay, replies, “We know of only one . . . that men always act from self-interest.” (Quoted in Garvin.) In Leviathan, Hobbes maintains that, “No man giveth but with intention of good to himself; because gift is voluntary; and of all voluntary acts the object to every man is his own pleasure.” In its strong form, psychological egoism asserts that people always act in their own interests, and, cannot but act in their own interests, even though they may disguise their motivation with references to helping others or doing their duty.

Opponents claim that psychological egoism renders ethics useless. However, this accusation assumes that ethical behavior is necessarily other-regarding, which opponents would first have to establish. Opponents may also exploit counterfactual evidence to criticize psychological egoism surely, they claim, there is a host of evidence supporting altruistic or duty bound actions that cannot be said to engage the self-interest of the agent. However, what qualifies to be counted as apparent counterfactual evidence by opponents becomes an intricate and debatable issue. This is because, in response to their opponents, psychological egoists may attempt to shift the question away from outward appearances to ultimate motives of acting benevolently towards others; for example, they may claim that seemingly altruistic behavior (giving a stranger some money) necessarily does have a self-interested component. For example, if the individual were not to offer aid to a stranger, he or she may feel guilty or may look bad in front of a peer group.

On this point, psychological egoisms validity turns on examining and analyzing moral motivation. But since motivation is inherently private and inaccessible to others (an agent could be lying to herself or to others about the original motive), the theory shifts from a theoretical description of human nature–one that can be put to observational testing–to an assumption about the inner workings of human nature: psychological egoism moves beyond the possibility of empirical verification and the possibility of empirical negation (since motives are private), and therefore it becomes what is termed a closed theory.

A closed theory is a theory that rejects competing theories on its own terms and is non-verifiable and non-falsifiable. If psychological egoism is reduced to an assumption concerning human nature and its hidden motives, then it follows that it is just as valid to hold a competing theory of human motivation such as psychological altruism.

Psychological altruism holds that all human action is necessarily other-centered, and other-motivated. Ones becoming a hermit (an apparently selfish act) can be reinterpreted through psychological altruism as an act of pure noble selflessness: a hermit is not selfishly hiding herself away, rather, what she is doing is not inflicting her potentially ungraceful actions or displeasing looks upon others. A parallel analysis of psychological altruism thus results in opposing conclusions to psychological egoism. However, psychological altruism is arguably just as closed as psychological egoism: with it one assumes that an agents inherently private and consequently unverifiable motives are altruistic. If both theories can be validly maintained, and if the choice between them becomes the flip of a coin, then their soundness must be questioned.

A weak version of psychological egoism accepts the possibility of altruistic or benevolent behavior, but maintains that, whenever a choice is made by an agent to act, the action is by definition one that the agent wants to do at that point. The action is self-serving, and is therefore sufficiently explained by the theory of psychological egoism. Let one assume that person A wants to help the poor; therefore, A is acting egoistically by actually wanting to help; again, if A ran into a burning building to save a kitten, it must be the case that A wanted or desired to save the kitten. However, defining all motivations as what an agent desires to do remains problematic: logically, the theory becomes tautologous and therefore unable to provide a useful, descriptive meaning of motivation because one is essentially making an arguably philosophically uninteresting claim that an agent is motivated to do what she is motivated to do. Besides which, if helping others is what A desires to do, then to what extent can A be continued to be called an egoist? A acts because that is what A does, and consideration of the ethical ought becomes immediately redundant. Consequently, opponents argue that psychological egoism is philosophically inadequate because it sidesteps the great nuances of motive. For example, one can argue that the psychological egoists notion of motive sidesteps the clashes that her theory has with the notion of duty, and, related social virtues such as honor, respect, and reputation, which fill the tomes of history and literature.

David Hume, in his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (Appendix IIOf Self Love), offers six rebuttals of what he calls the selfish hypothesis, an arguably archaic relative of psychological egoism. First, Hume argues that self-interest opposes moral sentiments that may engage one in concern for others, and, may motivate ones actions for others. These moral sentiments include love, friendship, compassion, and gratitude. Second, psychological egoism attempts to reduce human motivation to a single cause, which is a fruitless taskthe “love of simplicityhas been the source of much false reasoning in philosophy.” Third, it is evident that animals act benevolently towards one another, and, if it is admitted that animals can act altruistically, then how can it be denied in humans? Fourth, the concepts we use to describe benevolent behavior cannot be meaningless; sometimes an agent obviously does not have a personal interest in the fortune of another, yet will wish her well. Any attempt to create an imaginary vested interest, as the psychological egoist will attempt, proves futile. Fifth, Hume asserts that we have prior motivations to self-interest; we may have, for example, a predisposition towards vanity, fame, or vengeance that transcends any benefit to the agent. Finally, Hume claims that even if the selfish hypothesis were true, there are a sufficient number of dispositions to generate a wide possibility of moral actions, allowing one person to be called vicious and another humane; and he claims that the latter is to be preferred over the former.

The second variant of egoism is normative in that it stipulates the agent ought to promote the self above other values. Herbert Spencer said, Ethics has to recognize the truth, recognized in unethical thought, that egoism comes before altruism. The acts required for continued self-preservation, including the enjoyments of benefits achieved by such arts, are the first requisites to universal welfare. Unless each duly cares for himself, his care for all others is ended in death, and if each thus dies there remain no others to be cared for. He was echoing a long history of the importance of self-regarding behavior that can be traced back to Aristotles theory of friendship in the Nichomachaean Ethics. In his theory, Aristotle argues that a man must befriend himself before he can befriend others. The general theory of normative egoism does not attempt to describe human nature directly, but asserts how people ought to behave. It comes in two general forms: rational egoism and ethical egoism.

Rational egoism claims that the promotion of ones own interests is always in accordance with reason. The greatest and most provocative proponent of rational egoism is Ayn Rand, whose The Virtue of Selfishness outlines the logic and appeal of the theory. Rand argues that: first, properly defined, selfishness rejects the sacrificial ethics of the Wests Judaic-Christian heritage on the grounds that it is right for man to live his own life; and, Rand argues that, second, selfishness is a proper virtue to pursue. That being said, she rejects the selfless selfishness of irrationally acting individuals: the actor must always be the beneficiary of his action and that man must act for his own rational self-interest. To be ethically selfish thus entails a commitment to reason rather than to emotionally driven whims and instincts.

In the strong version of rational egoism defended by Rand, not only is it rational to pursue ones own interests, it is irrational not to pursue them. In a weaker version, one may note that while it is rational to pursue ones own interests, there may be occasions when not pursuing them is not necessarily irrational.

Critics of rational egoism may claim that reason may dictate that ones interests should not govern ones actions. The possibility of conflicting reasons in a society need not be evoked in this matter; one need only claim that reason may invoke an impartiality clause, in other words, a clause that demands that in a certain situation ones interests should not be furthered. For example, consider a free-rider situation. In marking students papers, a teacher may argue that to offer inflated grades is to make her life easier, and, therefore, is in her self-interest: marking otherwise would incur negative feedback from students and having to spend time counseling on writing skills, and so on. It is even arguably foreseeable that inflating grades may never have negative consequences for anyone. The teacher could conceivably free-ride on the tougher marking of the rest of the department or university and not worry about the negative consequences of a diminished reputation to either. However, impartiality considerations demand an alternative courseit is not right to change grades to make life easier. Here self-interest conflicts with reason. Nonetheless, a Randian would reject the teachers free-riding being rational: since the teacher is employed to mark objectively and impartially in the first place, to do otherwise is to commit a fraud both against the employing institution and the student. (This is indeed an analogous situation explored in Rands The Fountainhead, in which the hero architect regrets having propped up a friends inabilities).

A simpler scenario may also be considered. Suppose that two men seek the hand of one woman, and they deduce that they should fight for her love. A critic may reason that the two men rationally claim that if one of them were vanquished, the other may enjoy the beloved. However, the solution ignores the womans right to choose between her suitors, and thus the mens reasoning is flawed.

In a different scenario, game theory (emanating from John von Neumanns and Oskar Morgensterns Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour, 1944) points to another possible logical error in rational egoism by offering an example in which the pursuit of self-interest results in both agents being made worse off.

This is famously described in the Prisoners Dilemma.

Prisoner A

From the table, two criminals, A and B, face different sentences depending on whether they confess their guilt or not. Each prisoner does not know what his partner will choose and communication between the two prisoners is not permitted. There are no lawyers and presumably no humane interaction between the prisoners and their captors.

Rationally (i.e., from the point of view of the numbers involved), we can assume that both will want to minimize their sentences. Herein lies the rub – if both avoid confessing, they will serve 2 years each a total of 4 years between them. If they both happen to confess, they each serve 5 years each, or 10 years between them.

However they both face a tantalizing option: if A confesses while his partner doesnt confess, A can get away in 6 months leaving B to languish for 10 years (and the same is true for B): this would result in a collective total of 10.5 years served.

For the game, the optimal solution is assumed to be the lowest total years served, which would be both refusing to confess and each therefore serving 2 years each. The probable outcome of the dilemma though is that both will confess in the desire to get off in 6 months, but therefore they will end up serving 10 years in total. This is seen to be non-rational or sub-optimal for both prisoners as the total years served is not the best collective solution.

The Prisoners Dilemma offers a mathematical model as to why self-interested action could lead to a socially non-optimal equilibrium (in which the participants all end up in a worse scenario). To game theorists, many situations can be modeled in a similar way to the classic Prisoners Dilemma including issues of nuclear deterrence, environmental pollution, corporate advertising campaigns and even romantic dates.

Supporters identify a game as any interaction between agents that is governed by a set of rules specifying the possible moves for each participant and a set of outcomes for each possible combination of moves. They add: One is hard put to find an example of social phenomenon that cannot be so described. (Hargreaves-Heap and Varoufakis, p.1).

Nonetheless, it can be countered that the nature of the game artificially pre-empts other possibilities: the sentences are fixed not by the participants but by external force (the game masters), so the choices facing the agents are outside of their control. Although this may certainly be applied to the restricted choices facing the two prisoners or contestants in a game, it is not obvious that every-day life generates such limited and limiting choices. The prisoners dilemma is not to be repeated: so there are no further negotiations based on what the other side chose.

More importantly, games with such restricting options and results are entered into voluntarily and can be avoided (we can argue that the prisoners chose to engage in the game in that they chose to commit a crime and hence ran the possibility of being caught!). Outside of games, agents affect each other and the outcomes in many different ways and can hence vary the outcomes as they interact in real life, communication involves altering the perception of how the world works, the values attached to different decisions, and hence what ought to be done and what potential consequences may arise.

In summary, even within the confines of the Prisoners Dilemma the assumptions that differing options be offered to each such that their self-interest works against the other can be challenged logically, ethically and judicially. Firstly, the collective outcomes of the game can be changed by the game master to produce a socially and individually optimal solution the numbers can be altered. Secondly, presenting such a dilemma to the prisoners can be considered ethically and judicially questionable as the final sentence that each gets is dependent on what another party says, rather than on the guilt and deserved punished of the individual.

Interestingly, repeated games tested by psychologists and economists tend to present a range of solutions depending on the stakes and other rules, with Axelrods findings (The Evolution of Cooperation, 1984) indicating that egotistic action can work for mutual harmony under the principle of tit for tat i.e., an understanding that giving something each creates a better outcome for both.

At a deeper level, some egoists may reject the possibility of fixed or absolute values that individuals acting selfishly and caught up in their own pursuits cannot see. Nietzsche, for instance, would counter that values are created by the individual and thereby do not stand independently of his or her self to be explained by another authority; similarly, St. Augustine would say love, and do as you will; neither of which may be helpful to the prisoners above but which may be of greater guidance for individuals in normal life.

Rand exhorts the application of reason to ethical situations, but a critic may reply that what is rational is not always the same as what is reasonable. The critic may emphasize the historicity of choice, that is, she may emphasize that ones apparent choice is demarcated by, and dependent on, the particular language, culture of right and consequence and environmental circumstance in which an individual finds herself living: a Victorian English gentleman perceived a different moral sphere and consequently horizon of goals than an American frontiersman. This criticism may, however, turn on semantic or contextual nuances. The Randian may counter that what is rational is reasonable: for one can argue that rationality is governed as much by understanding the context (Sartres facticity is a highly useful term) as adhering to the laws of logic and of non-contradiction.

Ethical egoism is the normative theory that the promotion of ones own good is in accordance with morality. In the strong version, it is held that it is always moral to promote ones own good, and it is never moral not to promote it. In the weak version, it is said that although it is always moral to promote ones own good, it is not necessarily never moral to not. That is, there may be conditions in which the avoidance of personal interest may be a moral action.

In an imaginary construction of a world inhabited by a single being, it is possible that the pursuit of morality is the same as the pursuit of self-interest in that what is good for the agent is the same as what is in the agents interests. Arguably, there could never arise an occasion when the agent ought not to pursue self-interest in favor of another morality, unless he produces an alternative ethical system in which he ought to renounce his values in favor of an imaginary self, or, other entity such as the universe, or the agents God. Opponents of ethical egoism may claim, however, that although it is possible for this Robinson Crusoe type creature to lament previous choices as not conducive to self-interest (enjoying the pleasures of swimming all day, and not spending necessary time producing food), the mistake is not a moral mistake but a mistake of identifying self-interest. Presumably this lonely creature will begin to comprehend the distinctions between short, and long-term interests, and, that short-term pains can be countered by long-term gains.

In addition, opponents argue that even in a world inhabited by a single being, duties would still apply; (Kantian) duties are those actions that reason dictates ought to be pursued regardless of any gain, or loss to self or others. Further, the deontologist asserts the application of yet another moral sphere which ought to be pursued, namely, that of impartial duties. The problem with complicating the creatures world with impartial duties, however, is in defining an impartial task in a purely subjective world. Impartiality, the ethical egoist may retort, could only exist where there are competing selves: otherwise, the attempt to be impartial in judging ones actions is a redundant exercise. (However, the Cartesian rationalist could retort that need not be so, that a sentient being should act rationally, and reason will disclose what are the proper actions he should follow.)

If we move away from the imaginary construct of a single beings world, ethical egoism comes under fire from more pertinent arguments. In complying with ethical egoism, the individual aims at her own greatest good. Ignoring a definition of the good for the present, it may justly be argued that pursuing ones own greatest good can conflict with anothers pursuit, thus creating a situation of conflict. In a typical example, a young person may see his greatest good in murdering his rich uncle to inherit his millions. It is the rich uncles greatest good to continue enjoying his money, as he sees fit. According to detractors, conflict is an inherent problem of ethical egoism, and the model seemingly does not possess a conflict resolution system. With the additional premise of living in society, ethical egoism has much to respond to: obviously there are situations when two peoples greatest goods the subjectively perceived working of their own self-interest will conflict, and, a solution to such dilemmas is a necessary element of any theory attempting to provide an ethical system.

The ethical egoist contends that her theory, in fact, has resolutions to the conflict. The first resolution proceeds from a state of nature examination. If, in the wilderness, two people simultaneously come across the only source of drinkable water a potential dilemma arises if both make a simultaneous claim to it. With no recourse to arbitration they must either accept an equal share of the water, which would comply with rational egoism. (In other words, it is in the interest of both to share, for both may enjoy the water and each others company, and, if the water is inexhaustible, neither can gain from monopolizing the source.) But a critic may maintain that this solution is not necessarily in compliance with ethical egoism. Arguably, the critic continues, the two have no possible resolution, and must, therefore, fight for the water. This is often the line taken against egoism generally: that it results in insoluble conflict that implies, or necessitates a resort to force by one or both of the parties concerned. For the critic, the proffered resolution is, therefore, an acceptance of the ethical theory that might is right; that is, the critic maintains that the resolution accepts that the stronger will take possession and thereby gain proprietary rights.

However, ethical egoism does not have to logically result in a Darwinian struggle between the strong and the weak in which strength determines moral rectitude to resources or values. Indeed, the realist position may strike one as philosophically inadequate as that of psychological egoism, although popularly attractive. For example, instead of succumbing to insoluble conflict, the two people could cooperate (as rational egoism would require). Through cooperation, both agents would, thereby, mutually benefit from securing and sharing the resource. Against the critics pessimistic presumption that conflict is insoluble without recourse to victory, the ethical egoist can retort that reasoning people can recognize that their greatest interests are served more through cooperation than conflict. War is inherently costly, and, even the fighting beasts of the wild instinctively recognize its potential costs, and, have evolved conflict-avoiding strategies.

On the other hand, the ethical egoist can argue less benevolently, that in case one man reaches the desired resource first, he would then be able to take rightful control and possession of it the second person cannot possess any right to it, except insofar as he may trade with its present owner. Of course, charitable considerations may motivate the owner to secure a share for the second comer, and economic considerations may prompt both to trade in those products that each can better produce or acquire: the one may guard the water supply from animals while the other hunts. Such would be a classical liberal reading of this situation, which considers the advance of property rights to be the obvious solution to apparently intractable conflicts over resources.

A second conflict-resolution stems from critics fears that ethical egoists could logically pursue their interests at the cost of others. Specifically, a critic may contend that personal gain logically cannot be in ones best interest if it entails doing harm to another: doing harm to another would be to accept the principle that doing harm to another is ethical (that is, one would be equating doing harm with ones own best interests), whereas, reflection shows that principle to be illogical on universalistic criteria. However, an ethical egoist may respond that in the case of the rich uncle and greedy nephew, for example, it is not the case that the nephew would be acting ethically by killing his uncle, and that for a critic to contend otherwise is to criticize personal gain from the separate ethical standpoint that condemns murder. In addition, the ethical egoist may respond by saying that these particular fears are based on a confusion resulting from conflating ethics (that is, self-interest) with personal gain; The ethical egoist may contend that if the nephew were to attempt to do harm for personal gain, that he would find that his uncle or others would or may be permitted to do harm in return. The argument that I have a right to harm those who get in my way is foiled by the argument that others have a right to harm me should I get in the way. That is, in the end, the nephew variously could see how harming another for personal gain would not be in his self-interest at all.

The critics fear is based on a misreading of ethical egoism, and is an attempt to subtly reinsert the might is right premise. Consequently, the ethical egoist is unfairly chastised on the basis of a straw-man argument. Ultimately, however, one comes to the conclusion reached in the discussion of the first resolution; that is, one must either accept the principle that might is right (which in most cases would be evidentially contrary to ones best interest), or accept that cooperation with others is a more successful approach to improving ones interests. Though interaction can either be violent or peaceful, an ethical egoist rejects violence as undermining the pursuit of self-interest.

A third conflict-resolution entails the insertion of rights as a standard. This resolution incorporates the conclusions of the first two resolutions by stating that there is an ethical framework that can logically be extrapolated from ethical egoism. However, the logical extrapolation is philosophically difficult (and, hence, intriguing) because ethical egoism is the theory that the promotion of ones own self-interest is in accordance with morality whereas rights incorporate boundaries to behavior that reason or experience has shown to be contrary to the pursuit of self-interest. Although it is facile to argue that the greedy nephew does not have a right to claim his uncles money because it is not his but his uncles, and to claim that it is wrong to act aggressively against the person of another because that person has a legitimate right to live in peace (thus providing the substance of conflict-resolution for ethical egoism), the problem of expounding this theory for the ethical egoist lies in the intellectual arguments required to substantiate the claims for the existence of rights and then, once substantiated, connecting them to the pursuit of an individuals greatest good.

A final type of ethical egoism is conditional egoism. This is the theory that egoism is morally acceptable or right if it leads to morally acceptable ends. For example, self-interested behavior can be accepted and applauded if it leads to the betterment of society as a whole; the ultimate test rests not on acting self-interestedly but on whether society is improved as a result. A famous example of this kind of thinking is from Adam Smiths The Wealth of Nations, in which Smith outlines the public benefits resulting from self-interested behavior (borrowing a theory from the earlier writer Bernard Mandeville and his Fable of the Bees). Smith writes: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages” (Wealth of Nations, I.ii.2).

As Smith himself admits, if egoistic behavior lends itself to societys detriment, then it ought to be stopped. The theory of conditional egoism is thus dependent on a superior moral goal such as an action being in the common interest, that is, the public good. The grave problem facing conditional egoists is according to what standard ought the limits on egoism be placed? In other words, who or what is to define the nature of the public good? If it is a person who is set up as the great arbitrator of the public, then it is uncertain if there can be a guarantee that he or she is embodying or arguing for an impartial standard of the good and not for his or her own particular interest. If it is an impartial standard that sets the limit, one that can be indicated by any reasonable person, then it behooves the philosopher to explain the nature of that standard.

In most public good theories, the assumption is made that there exists a collective entity over and above the individuals that comprise it: race, nation, religion, and state being common examples. Collectivists then attempt to explain what in particular should be held as the interest of the group. Inevitably, however, conflict arises, and resolutions have to be produced. Some seek refuge in claiming the need for perpetual dialogue (rather than exchange), but others return to the need for force to settle apparently insoluble conflicts; nonetheless, the various shades of egoism pose a valid and appealing criticism of collectivism: that individuals act; groups dont. Karl Poppers works on methodological individualism are a useful source in criticizing collectivist thinking (for example, Poppers The Poverty of Historicism).

Psychological egoism is fraught with the logical problem of collapsing into a closed theory, and hence being a mere assumption that could validly be accepted as describing human motivation and morality, or be rejected in favor of a psychological altruism (or even a psychological ecologism in which all actions necessarily benefit the agents environment).

Normative egoism, however, engages in a philosophically more intriguing dialogue with protractors. Normative egoists argue from various positions that an individual ought to pursue his or her own interest. These may be summarized as follows: the individual is best placed to know what defines that interest, or it is thoroughly the individuals right to pursue that interest. The latter is divided into two sub-arguments: either because it is the reasonable/rational course of action, or because it is the best guarantee of maximizing social welfare.

Egoists also stress that the implication of critics condemnation of self-serving or self-motivating action is the call to renounce freedom in favor of control by others, who then are empowered to choose on their behalf. This entails an acceptance of Aristotles political maxim that “some are born to rule and others are born to be ruled,” also read as “individuals are generally too stupid to act either in their own best interests or in the interests of those who would wish to command them.” Rejecting both descriptions (the first as being arrogant and empirically questionable and the second as unmasking the truly immoral ambition lurking behind attacks on selfishness), egoists ironically can be read as moral and political egalitarians glorifying the dignity of each and every person to pursue life as they see fit. Mistakes in securing the proper means and appropriate ends will be made by individuals, but if they are morally responsible for their actions they not only will bear the consequences but also the opportunity for adapting and learning. When that responsibility is removed and individuals are exhorted to live for an alternative cause, their incentive and joy in improving their own welfare is concomitantly diminished, which will, for many egoists, ultimately foster an uncritical, unthinking mass of obedient bodies vulnerable to political manipulation: when the ego is trammeled, so too is freedom ensnared, and without freedom ethics is removed from individual to collective or government responsibility.

Egoists also reject the insight into personal motivation that others whether they are psychological or sociological “experts” declare they possess, and which they may accordingly fine-tune or encourage to “better ends.” Why an individual acts remains an intrinsically personal and private act that is the stuff of memoirs and literature, but how they should act releases our investigations into ethics of what shall define the good for the self-regarding agent.

Alexander Moseley Email: alexandermoseley@icloud.com United Kingdom

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Egoism | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Dr. Charles Kay Egoism

Egoism is a teleological theory of ethics that sets as its goal the benefit, pleasure, or greatest good of the oneself alone. It is contrasted with altruism, which is not strictly self-interested, but includes in its goal the interests of others as well. There are at least three different ways in which the theory of egoism can be presented:

This is the claim that humans by nature are motivated only by self-interest . Any act, no matter how altruistic it might seem, is actually motivated by some selfish desire of the agent (e.g., desire for reward, avoidance of guilt, personal happiness). This is a descriptive claim about human nature. Since the claim is universalall acts are motivated by self interestit could be proven false by a single counterexample.

It will be difficult to find an action that the psychological egoist will acknowledge as purely altruistic, however. There is almost always some benefit to ourselves in any action we choose. For example, if I helped my friend out of trouble, I may feel happy afterwards. But is that happiness the motive for my action or just a result of my action? The psychological egoist must demonstrate that the beneficial consequences of an action are actually the motivation of of all of our actions. (Why would it make me happy to see my friend out of trouble if I didnt already care about my friends best interest? Wouldnt that be altruism?)

This is the claim that individuals should always act in their own best interest. It is a normative claim. If ethical egoism is true, that appears to imply that psychological egoism is false: there would be no point to arguing that we ought to do what we must do by nature.

But if altruism is possible, why should it be avoided? Some writers suggest we all should focus our resources on satisfying our own interests, rather than those of others. Society will then be more efficient and this will better serve the interests of all. By referring to the interests of all, however, this approach reveals itself to be a version of utilitarianism, and not genuine egoism. It is merely a theory about how best to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number.

An alternative formulation of ethical egoism states that I ought always to act in my own self-interesteven if this conflicts with the values and interests of otherssimply because that is what I desire most. It is not clear how an altruist could find common ground to argue with such an individualistic ethical egoist, but it is also not clear why such an egoist would ever want to argue against the altruist: Since the individualistic egoist believes that whatever serves his own interests is (morally) right, he will want everyone else to be altruistic. Otherwise they would not serve the egoists own interests! It seems that anyone who truly believed in individualistic ethical egoism could not publicly promote the theory without such inconsistency. Indeed, the self-interest of the egoist is best served by publicly claiming to be an altruist and thereby keeping everyones good favor.

When working with certain economic or sociological models, we may frequently assume that people will act in such a way as to promote their own interests. This is not a normative claim and usually not even a descriptive claim. Instead it is a minimalist assumption used for certain calculations. If we assume only self-interest on the part of all agents, we can determine certain extreme-case (e.g., maximin) outcomes for the model. Implicit in this assumption, although not always stated, is the idea that altruistic behavior on the part of the agents, although not presupposed, would yield outcomes at least as good and probably better.

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Dr. Charles Kay Egoism

Psychological Egoism | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Psychological egoism is the thesis that we are always deep down motivated by what we perceive to be in our own self-interest. Psychological altruism, on the other hand, is the view that sometimes we can have ultimately altruistic motives. Suppose, for example, that Pam saves Jim from a burning office building. What ultimately motivated her to do this? It would be odd to suggest that its ultimately her own benefit that Pam is seeking. After all, shes risking her own life in the process. But the psychological egoist holds that Pams apparently altruistic act is ultimately motivated by the goal to benefit herself, whether she is aware of this or not. Pam might have wanted to gain a good feeling from being a hero, or to avoid social reprimand that would follow had she not helped Jim, or something along these lines.

Several other egoistic views are related to, but distinct from psychological egoism. Unlike ethical egoism, psychological egoism is merely an empirical claim about what kinds of motives we have, not what they ought to be. So, while the ethical egoist claims that being self-interested in this way is moral, the psychological egoist merely holds that this is how we are. Similarly, psychological egoism is not identical to what is often called psychological hedonism. Psychological hedonism restricts the range of self-interested motivations to only pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Thus, it is a specific version of psychological egoism.

The story of psychological egoism is rather peculiar. Though it is often discussed, it hasnt been explicitly held by many major figures in the history of philosophy. It is most often attributed to only Thomas Hobbes (1651) and Jeremy Bentham (1781). Most philosophers explicitly reject the view, largely based on famous arguments from Joseph Butler (1726). Nevertheless, psychological egoism can be seen as a background assumption of several other disciplines, such as psychology and economics. Moreover, some biologists have suggested that the thesis can be supported or rejected directly based on evolutionary theory or work in sociobiology.

While psychological egoism is undoubtedly an empirical claim, there hasnt always been a substantial body of experimental data that bears on the debate. However, a great deal of empirical work beginning in the late 20th century has largely filled the void. Evidence from biology, neuroscience, and psychology has stimulated a lively interdisciplinary dialogue. Regardless of whether or not the empirical evidence renders a decisive verdict on the debate, it has certainly enriched discussion of the issue.

Psychological egoism is a thesis about motivation, usually with a focus on the motivation of human (intentional) action. It is exemplified in the kinds of descriptions we sometimes give of peoples actions in terms of hidden, ulterior motives. A famous story involving Abraham Lincoln usefully illustrates this (see Rachels 2003, p. 69). Lincoln was allegedly arguing that we are all ultimately self-interested when he suddenly stopped to save a group of piglets from drowning. His interlocutor seized the moment, attempting to point out that Lincoln is a living counter-example to his own theory; Lincoln seemed to be concerned with something other than what he took to be his own well-being. But Lincoln reportedly replied: I should have had no peace of mind all day had I gone on and left that suffering old sow worrying over those pigs. I did it to get peace of mind, dont you see?

The psychological egoist holds that descriptions of our motivation, like Lincolns, apply to all of us in every instance. The story illustrates that there are many subtle moves for the defender of psychological egoism to make. So it is important to get a clear idea of the competing egoistic versus altruistic theories and of the terms of the debate between them.

Egoism is often contrasted with altruism. Although the egoism-altruism debate concerns the possibility of altruism in some sense, the ordinary term “altruism” may not track the issue that is of primary interest here. In at least one ordinary use of the term, for someone to act altruistically depends on her being motivated solely by a concern for the welfare of another, without any ulterior motive to simply benefit herself. Altruism here is a feature of the motivation that underlies the action (Sober & Wilson 1998, p. 199). (Another sense of “altruism”often used in a fairly technical sense in biologyis merely behavioral; see 4a.) To this extent, this ordinary notion of altruism is close to what is of philosophical interest. But there are differences. For instance, ordinarily we seem to only apply the term altruism to fairly atypical actions, such as those of great self-sacrifice or heroism. But the debate about psychological egoism concerns the motivations that underlie all of our actions (Nagel 1970/1978, p. 16, n. 1).

Regardless of ordinary terminology, the view philosophers label psychological egoism has certain key features. Developing a clear and precise account of the egoism-altruism debate is more difficult than it might seem at first. To make the task easier, we may begin with quite bare and schematic definitions of the positions in the debate (May 2011, p. 27; compare also Rosas 2002, p. 98):

We will use the term desire here in a rather broad sense to simply mean a motivational mental statewhat we might ordinarily call a motive or reason in at least one sense of those terms. But what is an ultimate desire, and when is it altruistic rather than egoistic? Answering these and related questions will provide the requisite framework for the debate.

We can begin to add substance to our bare theses by characterizing what it is to have an altruistic versus an egoistic desire. As some philosophers have pointed out, the psychological egoist claims that all of ones ultimate desires concern oneself in some sense. However, we must make clear that an egoistic desire exclusively concerns ones own well-being, benefit, or welfare. A malevolent ultimate desire for the destruction of an enemy does not concern oneself, but it is hardly altruistic (Feinberg 1965/1999, 9, p. 497; Sober & Wilson 1998, p. 229).

Similarly, despite its common use in this context, the term selfish is not appropriate here either. The psychological egoist claims that we ultimately only care about (what we consider to be) our own welfare, but this neednt always amount to selfishness. Consider an ultimate desire to take a nap that is well-deserved and wont negatively affect anyone. While this concerns ones own benefit, there is no sense in which it is selfish (Henson 1988, 7; Sober & Wilson 1998, p. 227). The term self-interest is more fitting.

With these points in mind, we can characterize egoistic and altruistic desires in the following way:

Its important that the desire in some sense represents the person as oneself (or, as the case may be, as another). For example, suppose that John wants to help put out a fire in the hair of a man who appears to be in front of him, but he doesnt know that hes actually looking into a mirror, and its his own hair thats ablaze. If Johns desire is ultimate and is simply to help the man with his hair in flames, then it is necessary to count his desire as concerning someone other than himself, even though he is in fact the man with his hair on fire (Oldenquist 1980, pp. 27-8; Sober & Wilson 1998, p. 214).

The reason for the focus on ultimate desires is that psychological egoists dont deny that we often have desires that are altruistic. They do claim, however, that all such altruistic desires ultimately depend on an egoistic desire that is more basic. In other words, we have an ulterior motive when we help othersone that likely tends to fly below the radar of consciousness or introspection.

Thus, we must draw a common philosophical distinction between desires that are for a means to an end and desires for an end in itself. Instrumental desires are those desires one has for something as a means for something else; ultimate desires are those desires one has for something as an end in itself, not as a means to something else (see Sober & Wilson 1998, pp. 217-222). The former are often called extrinsic desires and the latter intrinsic desires (see e.g. Mele 2003 Ch. 1.8.). Desires for pleasure and the avoidance of pain are paradigmatic ultimate desires, since people often desire these as ends in themselves, not as a mere means to anything else. But the class of ultimate desires may include much more than this.

There are two important aspects to highlight regarding how psychological egoism and altruism relate to one another. First, psychological egoism makes a stronger, universal claim that all of our ultimate desires are egoistic, while psychological altruism merely makes the weaker claim that some of our ultimate desires are altruistic. Thus, the former is a monistic thesis, while the latter is a pluralistic thesis (Sober & Wilson 1998, p. 228). Consequently, psychological egoism is easier to refute than the opposing view. If one were to successfully demonstrate that someeven just oneof a persons ultimate desires are altruistic, then we can safely reject psychological egoism. For example, if Thomas removes his heel from anothers gouty toe because he has an ultimate desire that the person benefit from it, then psychological egoism is false.

Second, the positions in the debate are not exactly the denial of one another, provided there are desires that are neither altruistic nor egoistic (Stich, Doris, & Roedder 2010, sect. 2). To take an example from Bernard Williams, a madman might have an ultimate desire for a chimpanzees tea party to be held in the cathedral (1973, p. 263). He does not desire this as a means to some other end, such as enjoyment at the sight of such a spectacle (he might, for example, secure this in his will for after his death). Assuming the desire for such a tea party is neither altruistic nor egoistic (because it doesnt have to do with anyones well-being), would it settle the egoism-altruism debate? Not entirely. It would show that psychological egoism is false, since it would demonstrate that some of our ultimate desires are not egoistic. However, it would not show that psychological altruism is true, since it does not show that some of our ultimate desires are altruistic. Likewise, suppose that psychological altruism is false because none of our ultimate desires concern the benefit of others. If that is true, psychological egoism is not thereby true. It too could be false if we sometimes have ultimate desires that are not egoistic, like the madmans. The point is that the theses are contraries: they cannot both be true, but they can both be false.

Philosophers dont have much sympathy for psychological egoism. Indeed, the only major figures in the history of philosophy to endorse the view explicitly are arguably Thomas Hobbes and Jeremy Bentham. Some might also include Aristotle (compare Feinberg 1965/1999, p. 501) and John Stuart Mill (compare Sidgwick 1874/1907, 1.4.2.1), but there is some room for interpreting them otherwise. Hobbes explicitly states in Leviathan (1651/1991):

no man giveth but with intention of good to himself, because gift is voluntary; and of all voluntary acts, the object is to every man his own good; of which, if men see they shall be frustrated, there will be no beginning of benevolence or trust, nor consequently of mutual help. (Ch. XV, p. 47)

In a similar vein, Bentham famously opens his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1781/1991) with this:

Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. (p. 313)

Here Bentham appears to endorse a specific version of psychological egoism, namely psychological hedonism. This view restricts the kind of self-interest we can ultimately desire to pleasure or the avoidance of pain. Unfortunately, Hobbes and Bentham dont offer much in the way of arguments for these views; they tend to just assume them.

One tempting argument for psychological egoism is based on what seem to be conceptual truths about (intentional) action. For example, many hold that all of ones actions are motivated by ones own desires. This might seem to directly support psychological egoism because it shows that we are all out to satisfy our own desires (compare Hobbes). In his famous Fifteen Sermons, Bishop Butler (1726/1991) anticipates such an argument for the universality of egoistic desires (or self-love) in the following manner:

[B]ecause every particular affection is a mans own, and the pleasure arising from its gratification his own pleasure, or pleasure to himself, such particular affection must be called self-love; according to this way of speaking, no creature whatever can possibly act but merely from self-love. (Sermon XI, p. 366)

However, as Butler goes on to say, this line of argument rests on a mistake or at least a play on words. Many philosophers have subsequently reinforced Butlers objection, often pointing to two intertwined confusions: one based on our desires being ours, another based on equivocation on the word satisfaction. On the former confusion, C. D. Broad says it is true that all impulses belong to a self but it is not true that the object of any of them is the general happiness of the self who owns them (1930/2000, p. 65).

Similarly, the second confusion fails to distinguish between what Bernard Williams calls desiring the satisfaction of ones desire and desiring ones own satisfaction (1973, p. 261). The word satisfaction in the latter case is the more ordinary use involving ones own pleasure or happiness. If all actions are motivated by a desire for this, then psychological egoism is indeed established. But the basic consideration from the theory of action we began with was merely that all actions are motivated by a desire of ones own, which is meant to be satisfied. However, this employs a different notion of satisfaction, which merely means that the person got what she wanted (Feinberg 1965/1999, p. 496). The claim that everyone is out to satisfy their own desires is a fairly uninteresting one, since it doesnt show that we are motivated by self-interest. If Mother Teresa did have an altruistic desire for the benefit of another, it is no count against her that she sought to satisfy itthat is, bring about the benefit of another. This argument for psychological egoism, then, seems to rely on an obviously false view of self-interest as desire-satisfaction.

A major theoretical attraction of psychological egoism is parsimony. It provides a simple account of human motivation and offers a unified explanation of all our actions. Although actions may vary in content, the ultimate source is self-interest: doing well at ones job is merely to gain the favor of ones boss; returning a wallet is merely to avoid the pang of guilt that would follow keeping it; saying thank you for a meal is merely to avoid social reprimand for failing to conform to etiquette; and so on.

One might dispute whether psychological egoism is any more parsimonious than psychological altruism (Sober & Wilson 1998, pp. 292-3). More importantly, however, it is no argument for a view that it is simpler than its competitors. Perhaps we might employ Ockhams Razor as a sort of tie-breaker to adjudicate between two theories when they are equal in all other respects, but this involves more than just simplicity (Sober & Wilson 1998, pp. 293-5). As David Hume puts it, psychological egoism shouldnt be based solely on that love of simplicity which has been the source of much false reasoning in philosophy (1751/1998, p. 166). The heart of the debate then is whether there are other reasons to prefer one view over the other.

Perhaps the psychological egoist neednt appeal to parsimony or erroneous conceptions of self-interest. Bentham, after all, suggests that ordinary experience shows that we are ultimately motivated to gain pleasure or avoid pain (1781/1991, Ch. 3). Perhaps one could extrapolate an argument on behalf of psychological egoism along the following lines (Feinberg 1965/1999, sect. 4, p. 495). Experience shows that people must be taught to care for others with carrots and stickswith reward and punishment. So seemingly altruistic ultimate desires are merely instrumental to egoistic ones; we come to believe that we must be concerned with the interests of others in order to gain rewards and avoid punishment for ourselves (compare the argument in 5a).

This line of reasoning is rather difficult to evaluate given that it rests on an empirical claim about moral development and learning. Ordinary experience does show that sometimes its necessary to impose sanctions on children for them to be nice and caring. But even if this occurs often, it doesn’t support a universal claim that it always does. Moreover, there is a growing body of evidence gathered by developmental psychologists indicating that young children have a natural, unlearned concern for others. There is some evidence, for example, that children as young as 14-months will spontaneously help a person they believe is in need (Warneken & Tomasello 2007). It seems implausible that children have learned at such a young agethat this behavior will be benefit themselves. On the other hand, such empirical results do not necessarily show that the ultimate motivation behind such action is altruistic. The psychological egoist could argue that we still possess ultimately egoistic desires (perhaps we are simply born believing that concern for others will benefit oneself). However, the developmental evidence still undermines the moral education argument by indicating that our concern for the welfare others is not universally learned from birth by sanctions of reward and punishment.

Another argument for psychological egoism relies on the idea that we often blur our conception of ourselves and others when we are benevolent. Consider the paradigm of apparently selfless motivation: concern for family, especially ones children. Francis Hutcheson anticipates the objection when he imagines a psychological egoist proclaiming: Children are not only made of our bodies, but resemble us in body and mind; they are rational agents as we are, and we only love our own likeness in them (1725/1991, p. 279, Raphael sect. 327). And this might seem to be supported by recent empirical research. After all, social psychologists have discovered that we tend to feel more empathy for others we perceive to be in need when they are similar to us in various respects and when we take on their perspective (Batson 1991; see 5b). In fact, some psychologists have endorsed precisely this sort of self-other merging argument for an egoistic view (for example, Cialdini, Brown, Lewis, Luce, and Neuberg 1997).

One might doubt, however, whether a self-other merging account is able to explain helping behavior in an egoistic way. For example, it would be quite implausible to say that we literally believe we exist in two different bodies when feeling empathy for someone. The most credible reading of the proposal is that we conceptually blur the distinction between ourselves and others in the relevant cases. Yet this would seem to require, contrary to fact, that our behavior reflects this blurring. If we think of the boundary between ourselves and another as indeterminate, presumably our helping behavior would reflect such indeterminacy. (For further discussion, see Hutcheson 1725/1991, pp. 279-80; Batson 2011, ch. 6; May 2011.)

Considering the arguments, the case for psychological egoism seems rather weak. But is there anything to be said directly against it? This section examines some of the most famous arguments philosophers have proposed against the view.

Bishop Joseph Butler provides a famous argument against psychological egoism (focusing on hedonism) in his Fifteen Sermons. The key passage is the following:

That all particular appetites and passions are towards external things themselves, distinct from the pleasure arising from them, is manifested from hence; that there could not be this pleasure, were it not for that prior suitableness between the object and the passion: there could be no enjoyment or delight from one thing more than another, from eating food more than from swallowing a stone, if there were not an affection or appetite to one thing more than another. (1726/1991, Sermon XI, p. 365)

Many philosophers have championed this argument, whichElliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson (1998) have dubbed Butlers stone. Broad (1930/2000), for example, writes that Butler killed the theory [of psychological egoism] so thoroughly that he sometimes seems to the modern reader to be flogging dead horses (p. 55).

Butlers idea is that the experience of pleasure upon attaining something presupposes (or at least strongly indicates) a desire for the thing attained, not the pleasure itself. After all, we typically do not experience pleasure upon getting something (like food) unless we want it.The pleasure that accompanies the fulfillment of our desires is often a mere byproduct of our prior desire for the thing that gave us pleasure. Often we feel pleasure upon getting what we want precisely because we wanted what gave us pleasure. Consider, for example, getting second place in a race. This would make a runner happy if she wants to get second place; but it would not if she doesn’t want this at all (e.g. she only wants first place).

While Butler’s version of the argument may be overly ambitious in various respects (Sidgwick1874/1907, 1.4.2.3;Sober and Wilson 1998, p. 278), the best version is probably something like the following (compare the”disinterested benevolence” argument in Feinberg1965/1999, c8):

The basic idea is that pleasure (or self-interest generally) cant be our universal concern because having it sometimespresupposes a desire for something other than pleasure itself.Many philosophers have endorsed this sort of argument, not only against hedonism but more generally against egoism (Hume 1751/1998, App. 2.12; Broad 1950/1952; Nagel 1970/1978, p. 80, n. 1; Feinberg 1965/1999).

Sober and Wilson, however, make the case that such arguments are seriously flawed at least because the conclusion does not follow from the premises (1998, p. 278).That is, the premises, even if true, fail to establish the conclusion. The main problem is that such arguments tell us nothing about which desires are ultimate. Even if the experience of pleasure sometimes presupposes a desire for the pleasurable object, it is still left open whether the desire for what generated the pleasure is merely instrumental to a desire for pleasure (or some other form of self-interest). Consider the following causal chain, using to mean caused (see Sober & Wilson 1998, p. 278):

Desire for food Eating Pleasure

According to Butler, the experience of pleasure upon eating some food allows us to infer the existence of a desire for food. This is all the argument gets us. Yet Butler’s opponent, the egoist, maintains that the desire for food is subsequent to and dependent on an ultimate desire for pleasure (or some other form of self-interest):

Ultimate desire for pleasure Desire for food Eating Pleasure

This egoistic picture is entirely compatible with Butler’s claims about presupposition. So, even if the premises are true, it does not follow that egoism is false.

Butler would need a stronger premise, such as: pleasurepresupposes an ultimate desire for what generated it, not for the resulting benefit. But this revision would plausibly make the argument question-begging. The new premise seems to amount to nothing more than the denial of psychological egoism: sometimes people havean ultimate desire for something other than self-interest. At the very least, the argument is dialectically unhelpfulit offers premises in support of the conclusion that are as controversial as the conclusion is, and for similar reasons.

Still, a general lesson can clearly be gained from arguments like Butler’s. Psychological egoists cannot establish their view simply by pointing to the pleasure or self-benefit that accompanies so many actions. After all, often self-benefit only seems to be what we ultimately desire, though a closer look reveals benefits like pleasure are likely justbyproducts while the proximate desire is for that which generates them. As Hume puts it, sometimes “we are impelled immediately to seek particular objects, such as fame or power, or vengeance without any regard to interest; and when these objects are attained a pleasing enjoyment ensues, as the consequence of our indulged affections” (1751/1998, App. 2.12, emphasis added). Perhaps Butler’s point is best seen as a formidable objection to a certain kind of argument for egoism, rather than a positive argument against the theory.

A simple argument against psychological egoism is that it seems obviously false. As Francis Hutcheson proclaims: An honest farmer will tell you, that he studies the preservation and happiness of his children, and loves them without any design of good to himself (1725/1991, p. 277, Raphael sect. 327). Likewise, Hume rhetorically asks, What interest can a fond mother have in view, who loses her health by assiduous attendance on her sick child, and afterwards languishes and dies of grief, when freed, by its death, from the slavery of that attendance? (1751/1998, App. 2.9, p. 167). Building on this observation, Hume takes the most obvious objection to psychological egoism to be that:

as it is contrary to common feeling and our most unprejudiced notions, there is required the highest stretch of philosophy to establish so extraordinary a paradox. To the most careless observer there appear to be such dispositions as benevolence and generosity; such affections as love, friendship, compassion, gratitude. [] And as this is the obvious appearance of things, it must be admitted, till some hypothesis be discovered, which by penetrating deeper into human nature, may prove the former affections to be nothing but modifications of the latter. (1751/1998, App. 2.6, p. 166)

Here Hume is offering a burden-shifting argument. The idea is that psychological egoism is implausible on its face, offering strained accounts of apparently altruistic actions. So the burden of proof is on the egoist to show us why we should believe the view; yet the attempts so far have hitherto proved fruitless, according to Hume (1751/1998, App. 2.6, p. 166). Similarly, C. D. Broad (1950/1952) and Bernard Williams (1973, pp. 262-3) consider various examples of actions that seem implausible to characterize as ultimately motivated by self-interest.

Given the arguments, it is still unclear why we should consider psychological egoism to be obviously untrue. One might appeal to introspection or common sense; but neither is particularly powerful. First, the consensus among psychologists is that a great number of our mental states, even our motives, are not accessible to consciousness or cannot reliably be reported on through the use of introspection (see, for example, Nisbett and Wilson 1977). While introspection, to some extent, may be a decent source of knowledge of our own minds, it is fairly suspect to reject an empirical claim about potentially unconscious motivations. Besides, one might report universally egoistic motives based on introspection (e.g. Mercer 2001, pp. 229-30). Second, shifting the burden of proof based on common sense is rather limited. Sober and Wilson (1998, p. 288) go so far as to say that we have no business taking common sense at face value in the context of an empirical hypothesis. Even if we disagree with their claim and allow a larger role for shifting burdens of proof via common sense, it still may have limited use, especially when the common sense view might be reasonably cast as supporting either position in the egoism-altruism debate. Here, instead of appeals to common sense, it would be of greater use to employ more secure philosophical arguments and rigorous empirical evidence.

Another popular complaint about psychological egoism is that it seems to be immune to empirical refutation; it is unfalsifiable. And this is often taken to be a criterion for an empirical theory: any view that isnt falsifiable isnt a genuine, credible scientific theory (see Karl Poppers Falsificationism). The worry for psychological egoism is that it will fail to meet this criterion if any commonly accepted altruistic action can be explained away as motivated by some sort of self-interest. Joel Feinberg, for example, writes:

Until we know what they [psychological egoists] would count as unselfish behavior, we cant very well know what they mean when they say that all voluntary behavior is selfish. And at this point we may suspect that they are holding their theory in a privileged positionthat of immunity to evidence, that they would allow no conceivable behavior to count as evidence against it. What they say then, if true, must be true in virtue of the way they defineor redefinethe word selfish. And in that case, it cannot be an empirical hypothesis. (1965/1999, 18, p. 503; see also 14-19)

As we have seen (1b), psychological egoism neednt hold that all our ultimate desires are selfish. But Feinbergs point is that we need to know what would count as empirical evidence against the existence of an egoistic ultimate desire.

This objection to psychological egoism has three substantial problems. First, falsification criteria for empirical theories are problematic and have come under heavy attack. In addition its unclear why we should think the view is false. Perhaps it is a bad scientific theory or a view we shouldnt care much about, but it is not thereby false. Second, any problems that afflict psychological egoism on this front will also apply to the opposing view (Sober & Wilson 1998, p. 290). After all, psychological altruism is a pluralistic thesis that includes both egoistic and altruistic motives. Third, and most importantly, a charitable construal of psychological egoism renders it falsifiable. As we have seen, psychological egoists have a clear account of what would falsify it: an ultimate desire that is not egoistic. While it may be difficult to detect the ultimate motives of people, the view is in principle falsifiable. In fact, it is empirically testable, as we shall see below.

Another popular objection to various forms of psychological egoism is often called the paradox of hedonism, which was primarily popularized by Henry Sidgwick (1874/1907, 2.3.2.3). It is usually directed at psychological hedonism, but the problem can be extended to psychological egoism generally.

When the target is only hedonism, the paradox is that we tend to attain more pleasure by focusing on things other than pleasure. Likewise, when directed at egoism generally, the idea is that we will tend not to benefit ourselves by focusing on our own benefit. Consider someone, Jones, who is ultimately concerned with his own well-being, not the interests of others (the example is adapted from Feinberg 1965/1999, p. 498, sect. 11). Two things will seemingly hold: (a) such a person would eventually lack friends, close relationships, etc. and (b) this will lead to much unhappiness. This seems problematic for a theory that says all of our ultimate desires are for our own well-being.

Despite its popularity, this sort of objection to psychological egoism is quite questionable. There are several worries about the premises of the argument, such as the claim that ultimate concern for oneself diminishes ones own well-being (see Sober & Wilson 1998, p. 280). Most importantly, the paradox is only potentially an issue for a version of egoism that prescribes ultimate concern for oneself, such as normative egoism (Sober & Wilson 1998, p. 280). The futility of ultimate concern for oneself can only undermine claims such as We should only ultimately care about our own well-being since this allegedly would not lead to happiness. But psychological egoism is a descriptive thesis. Even if egoistic ultimate desires lead to unhappiness, that would only show that egoistically motivated people will find this unfortunate.

Despite its widespread rejection among philosophers, philosophical arguments against psychological egoism arent overwhelmingly powerful. However, the theses in this debate are ultimately empirical claims about human motivation. So we can also look to more empirical disciplines, such as biology and psychology, to advance the debate. Biology in particular contains an abundance of literature on altruism. But, as we will see, much of it is rather tangential to the thesis of psychological altruism.

The ordinary (psychological) sense of altruism is different from altruism as discussed in biology. For example, sociobiologists, such as E. O. Wilson, often theorize about the biological basis of altruism by focusing on the behavior of non-human animals. But this is altruism only in the sense of helpful behavior that seems to be at some cost to the helper. It says nothing about the motivations for such behavior, which is of interest to us here. Similarly, altruism is a label commonly used in a technical sense as a problem for evolutionary theory (see Altruism and Group Selection). What we might separately label evolutionary altruism occurs whenever an organism reduces its own fitness and augments the fitness of others regardless of the motivation behind it (Sober & Wilson 1998, p. 199). Distinguishing the psychological sense of altruism from other uses of the term is crucial if we are to look to biology to contribute to the debate on ultimate desires.

Given the multiple uses of terms, discussion of altruism and self-interest in evolutionary theory can often seem directly relevant to the psychological egoism-altruism debate. One might think, for example, that basic facts about evolution show were motivated by self-interest. Consider our desire for water. We have this perhaps solely because it enhanced the evolutionary fitness of our ancestors, by helping them stay alive and thus to propagate their genes. And evolutionary theory plausibly uncovers this sort of gene-centered story for many features of organisms. Richard Dawkins offers us some ideas of this sort. Although he emphasizes that the term selfish, as he applies it to genes, is merely metaphorical, he says we have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth let us try to teach generosity and altruism because we are born selfish (1976/2006, p. 3).

But we should be careful not to let the self-centered origin of our traits overshadow the traits themselves. Even if all of our desires are due to evolutionary adaptations (which is a strong claim), this is only the origin of them. Consider again the desire for water. It might exist only because it can help propagate ones genes, but the desire is still for water, not to propagate ones genes (compare the Genetic Fallacy). As Simon Blackburn points out, Dawkins is following a long tradition in implying that biology carries simple messages for understanding the sociology and psychology of human beings (1998, p. 146). To be fair, in a later edition of The Selfish Gene, Dawkins recognizes his folly and asks the reader to ignore such rogue sentences (p. ix). In any event, we must avoid what Blackburn polemically calls the biologists fallacy of inferring the true psychology of the person from the fact that his or her genes have proved good at replicating over time (p. 147). The point is that we must avoid simple leaps from biology to psychology without substantial argument (see also Stich et al. 2010, sect. 3).

Philosopher Elliott Sober and biologist David Sloan Wilson (1998) have made careful and sophisticated arguments for the falsity of psychological egoism directly from considerations in evolutionary biology. Their contention is the following: Natural selection is unlikely to have given us purely egoistic motives (p. 12). To establish this, they focus on parental care, an other-regarding behavior in humans, whose mechanism is plausibly due to natural selection. Assuming such behavior is mediated by what the organism believes and desires, we can inquire into the kinds of mental mechanisms that could have evolved. The crucial question becomes: Is it more likely that such a mechanism for parental care would, as psychological egoism holds, involve only egoistic ultimate desires? To answer this question, Sober and Wilson focus on just one version of egoism, and what they take to be the most difficult to refute: psychological hedonism (p. 297). The hedonistic mechanism always begins with the ultimate desire for pleasure and the avoidance of pain. The mechanism consistent with psychological altruism, however, is pluralistic: some ultimate desires are hedonistic, but others are altruistic.

According to Sober and Wilson, there are three main factors that could affect the likelihood that a mechanism evolved: availability, reliability, and energetic efficiency (pp. 305-8). First, the genes that give rise to the mechanism must be available in the pool for selection. Second, the mechanism mustnt conflict with the organisms reproductive fitness; they must reliably produce the relevant fitness-enhancing outcome (such as viability of offspring). And third, they must do this efficiently, without yielding a significant cost to the organisms own fitness-enhancing resources. Sober and Wilson find no reason to believe that a hedonistic mechanism would be more or less available or energetically efficient. The key difference, they contend, is reliability: Pluralism was just as available as hedonism, it was more reliable, and hedonism provides no advantage in terms of energetic efficiency (p. 323).

Sober and Wilson make several arguments for the claim that the pluralistic mechanism is more reliable. But one key disadvantage of a hedonistic mechanism, they argue, is that its heavily mediated by beliefs (p. 314). For example, in order to produce parental care given the ultimate desire for pleasure, one must believe that helping ones child will provide one with sufficient pleasure over competing alternative courses of action:

(Ultimate) Desire for Pleasure Believe Helping Provides Most Pleasure Desire to Help

Moreover, such beliefs must be true, otherwise it’s likely the instrumental desire to help will eventually extinguish, and then the fitness-enhancing outcome of parental care wont occur. The pluralistic model, however, is comparatively less complicated since it can just deploy an ultimate desire to help:

(Ultimate) Desire to Help

Since the pluralistic mechanism doesnt rely on as many beliefs, it is less susceptible to lack of available evidence for maintaining them. So yielding the fitness-enhancing outcome of parental care will be less vulnerable to disruption. Sober and Wilson (p. 314) liken the hedonistic mechanism to a Rube Goldberg machine, partly because it accomplishes its goal through overly complex means. Each link in the chain is susceptible to error, which makes the mechanism less reliable at yielding the relevant outcome.

Such arguments have not gone undisputed (see, for example, Stich et al. 2010, sect. 3). Yet they still provide a sophisticated way to connect evolutionary considerations with psychological egoism. In the next section well consider more direct ways for addressing the egoism-altruism debate empirically.

Psychological egoism is an empirical claim; however, considerations from biology provide only one route to addressing the egoism-altruism debate empirically. Another, perhaps more direct, approach is to examine empirical work on the mind itself.

In the 20th century, one of the earliest philosophical discussions of egoism as it relates to research in psychology comes from Michael Slote (1964). He argues that there is at least potentially a basis for psychological egoism in behavioristic theories of learning, championed especially by psychologists such as B. F. Skinner. Slote writes that such theories posit a certain number of basically selfish, unlearned primary drives or motives (like hunger, thirst, sleep, elimination, and sex), and explain all other, higher-order drives or motives as derived genetically from the primary ones via certain laws of reinforcement (p. 530). This theory importantly makes the additional claim that the higher-order motives, including altruistic ones, are not functionally autonomous. That is, they are merely instrumental to (functionally dependent on) the egoistic ultimate desires. According to Slote, the basic support for functional dependence is the following: If we cut off all reinforcement of [the instrumental desire] by primary rewards (rewards of primary [egoistic] drives), then the altruistic desire actually does extinguish (p. 531). Thus, all altruistic desires are merely instrumental to ultimately egoistic ones; we have merely learned through conditioning that benefiting others benefits ourselves. That, according to Slote, is what the behavioristic learning theory maintains.

Like the moral education argument, Slote’s is vulnerable to work in developmental psychology indicating that some prosocial behavior is not conditioned (see 2c). Moreover, behavioristic approaches throughout psychology have been widely rejected in the wake of the cognitive revolution. Learning theorists now recognize mechanisms that go quite beyond the tools of behaviorism (beyond mere classical and operant conditioning). Slote does only claim to have established the following highly qualified thesis: It would seem, then, that, as psychology stands today, there is at least some reason to think that the psychological theory we have been discussing may be true (p. 537); and he appears to reject psychological egoism in his later work. In any event, more recent empirical research is more apt and informative to this debate.

Philosopher Carolyn Morillo (1990) has defended a version of psychological hedonism based on more recent neuroscientific work primarily done on rats. Morillo argues for a strongly monistic theory of motivation that is grounded in internal reward events, which holds that we [ultimately] desire these reward events because we find them to be intrinsically satisfying (p. 173). The support for her claim is primarily evidence that the reward center of the brain, which is the spring of motivation, is the same as the pleasure center, which indicates that the basic reward driving action is pleasure.

Morillo admits though that the idea is “highly speculative” and based on “empirical straws in the wind.” Furthermore, philosopher Timothy Schroeder (2004) argues that later work in neuroscience casts serious doubt on the identification of the reward event with pleasure.In short, by manipulating rats’ brains, neuroscientist Kent Berridge and colleagues have provided substantial evidence thatbeing motivated to get something is entirely separable from “liking” it (that is, from its generating pleasure). Against Morillo, Schroeder concludes that the data are better explained by the hypothesis that the reward center of the brain can indirectly activate the pleasure center than by the hypothesis that either is such a center (p. 81, emphasis added; see also Schroeder, Roskies, and Nichols 2010, pp. 105-6.)

Other empirical work that bears on the existence of altruistic motives can be found in the study of empathy-induced helping behavior. Beginning around the 1980s, C. Daniel Batson and other social psychologists addressed the debate head on by examining such phenomena.Batson (1991; 2011), in particular, argues that the experiments conducted provide evidence for an altruistic model, the empathy-altruism hypothesis, which holds that as empathic feeling for a person in need increases, altruistic motivation to have that persons need relieved increases (1991, p. 72). In other words, the hypothesis states that empathy tends to induce in us ultimate desires for the well-being of someone other than ourselves. If true, this entails that psychological egoism is false.

Batson comes to this conclusion by concentrating on a robust effect of empathy on helping behavior discovered in the 1970s.The empathy-helping relationship is the finding that the experience of relatively high empathy for another perceived to be in need causes people to help the other more than relatively low empathy. However, as Batson recognizes, this doesnt establish psychological altruism, because it doesnt specify whether the ultimate desire is altruistic or egoistic. Given that there can be both egoistic and altruistic explanations of the empathy-helping relationship, Batson and others have devised experiments to test them.

The general experimental approach involves placing ordinary people in situations in which they have an opportunity to help someone they think is in need while manipulating other variables in the situation. The purpose is to provide circumstances in which egoistic versus altruistic explanations of empathy-induced helping behavior make different predictions about what people will do. Different hypotheses then provide either egoistic or altruistic explanations of why the subjects ultimately chose to help or offer to help. (For detailed discussions of the background assumptions involved here, see Batson 1991, pp. 64-67; Sober & Wilson 1998, Ch. 6; Stich, Doris, and Roedder 2010.)

Several egoistic explanations of the empathy-helping relationship are in competition with the empathy-altruism hypothesis.Each one claims that experiences of relatively high empathy (empathic arousal) causes subjects to help simply because it induces an egoistic ultimate desire; the desire to help the other is solely instrumental to the ultimate desire to benefit oneself. However, the experiments seem to rule out all the plausible (and some rather implausible) egoistic explanations. For example, if those feeling higher amounts of empathy help only because they want to reduce the discomfort of the situation, then they should help less frequently when they know their task is over and they can simply leave the experiment without helping. Yet this prediction has been repeatedly disconfirmed (Batson 1991, ch. 8). A host of experiments have similarly disconfirmed a range of egoistic hypotheses. The cumulative results evidently show that the empathy-helping relationship is not put in place by egoistic ultimate desires to either:

Furthermore, according to Batson, the data all conform to the empathy-altruism hypothesis, which claims that empathic arousal induces an ultimate desire for the person in need to be helped (see Batson 1991; for a relatively brief review, see Batson & Shaw 1991).

Some have argued against Batson that there are plausible egoistic explanations not ruled out by the data collected thus far (e.g. Cialdini et al. 1997; Sober & Wilson 1998, Ch. 8; Stich, Doris, and Roedder 2010). However, many egoistic explanations have been tested along similar lines and appear to be disconfirmed. While Batson admits that more studies can and should be done on this topic, he ultimately concludes that we are at least tentatively justified in believing that the empathy-altruism hypothesis is true. Thus, he contends that psychological egoism is false:”Contrary to the beliefs of Hobbes, La Rochefoucauld, Mandeville, and virtually all psychologists, altruistic concern for the welfare of others is within the human repertoire” (1991, p. 174).

It seems philosophical arguments against psychological egoism arent quite as powerful as we might expect given the widespread rejection of the theory among philosophers. So the theory is arguably more difficult to refute than many have tended to suppose. It is important to keep in mind, however, that the theory makes a rather strong, universal claim that all of our ultimate desires are egoistic, making it easy to cast doubt on such a view given that it takes only one counter-example to refute it.

Another important conclusion is that empirical work can contribute to the egoism-altruism debate. There is now a wealth of data emerging in various disciplines that addresses this fascinating and important debate about the nature of human motivation. While some have argued that the jury is still out, it is clear that the rising interdisciplinary dialogue is both welcome and constructive. Perhaps with the philosophical and empirical arguments taken together we can declare substantial progress.

Joshua May Email: joshmay@uab.edu University of Alabama at Birmingham U. S. A.

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Psychological Egoism | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Egoism: Examples and Definition | Philosophy Terms

I. Definition

You may think you already know egoism; but youre probably thinking of egotismself-importance, or self-centeredness. In contrast, egoism is the philosophical view that human beings do, or should, always act for their own benefit. Both words are derived from the Latin word for I ego.

Egoism and egotism are quite different. For example, egotists often talk about themselves a lot, not listening to otherswhich makes people dislike them. In contrast, egoists might act very humbly, and pay attention to othersbecause its in their best interests to make people like them and want to treat them well. Egotism is a character trait; egoism is a philosophy.

Even so, you might think that egoists must secretly be egotistsand a lot of philosophers would agree with you. But the point is that egoism does not necessarily violate our usual notions of what is right and wrong. We will return to this questionof whether egoism implies immoralityin other sections.

In fact, some of our highest ideals in the Western worldindividual rights, freedom, and democracydepend on ideas similar to egoism. All of these philosophies depend on the idea that humans normally do or should pursue their own welfare and happiness. The problem, of course, is when your welfare conflicts with someone elsesanother point well discuss below.

But whether you think egoism is right or wrong depends a lot on what kind of egoism youre talking about. The two main kinds of egoism are quite different; descriptive egoism just claims that human being do always act for their own benefit; while normative egoism claims that we should always act for our own benefit.

The most popular variety of descriptive egoism is psychological egoism, which simply claims that whatever a human being does, the ultimate aim is self-benefit. If psychological egoism is correct, it means that even when people appear to act for others benefit, with no concern for themselveswhich is called altruismtheyre actually doing it for their own sake. It doesnt mean that anyone is necessarily trying to be deceptive, or pretending, to help others (although thats a possibility of course). Psychological egoists would say that people may act altruistically because it will be good for them in the long run, or because it makes them feel good when they do it.

There are at least two main categories of psychological egoismdesire-based and objective. The first says that humans are always doing what they desire. For example, even if you say you dont want to do your homework, you do choose to do it; you have the option to not do it, and suffer the consequences. So, you do desire to do your homeworkjust not for its own sake.

But, this kind of psychological egoism seems to be trivially true; it doesnt say why we make what choices we do.

Other kinds of psychological egoism are called objective because they claim that we are always pursuing certain objectives. Some say we always act for pleasure. Others argue that we always pursue whatever we think will bring us the most benefit.

But most philosophers have rejected psychological egoism. For one thing it is probably unprovable because it is a theory about our deepest motivationswhich are private. How could anyone prove whether you help an old lady across the street only for her sake, or because it makes you feel good about yourself? You may not be sure yourself which it is!

But that kind of example is another reason most philosophers reject psychological egoismbecause human beings really do sometimes act for the benefit of others without expecting to any reward for themselves. Altruism; well come back to this debate in section III.

Normative egoism is not about what humans do, but about what they should do. Two kinds of normative egoism are well known:

Ethical egoists may argue that you cannot know what is best for anyone but yourselfand so it is immoral to try. If you try to act in reference to other peoples interests, rather than your own, you can easily do things those people wouldnt want, mess up other peoples lives, or just violate their right to decide what happens to them, which would be immoral. Ethical egoists also might argue that human beings are dependent on one another for survival, so therefore, it is your moral obligation to take care of yourself first, so that others dont have toand so that you have the ability to take care of them. In other words, whats in your best interests is ultimately in everybodys best interests.

Which brings us to rational egoism, which assumes that we should act rationally, which is egoistically. The most famous rational egoist, the writer Ayn Rand, argued strongly against sacrificing ones own interests for others. She argued that not taking full advantage of ones own freedom is immoral because it opposes the natural fulfilment of human potential, which is the best thing for everyone in a society. For example, if I dont work as hard as possible for my own personal success, then I might fail to accomplish many things that would be good for the world.

Nevertheless, many philosophers feel that rational egoism cannot provide a basis for ethical behaviorthat it is, rather, a justification for amorality (no morality), which could be very dangerous.

In the big picture, its worth noting that egoism has been a characteristically Western philosophy since at least Aristotle. Although there were a few ancient Chinese thinkers who had egoistic ideas, in general, egoism is much harder to justify in Eastern thought, where the ego (the personal self) is an illusion that one should try to get over!

In the west, Aristotle is cited for his early contribution to egoism, in the Nicomachean Ethics, where he points out that one must act for ones own benefit in order to be a good friend, or a good citizenbecause you cant do any good for other people if youre not in good condition yourself. However, Aristotle was not really an egoist, because he believed that it was the primary value of helping others that justified helping oneself.

The main ideas of psychological egoism started popping up in Europe during the Reformation (17th century) such as in the writings of philosopher, Thomas Hobbes (see next section for a quote). Hobbes (and others) argued that all voluntary actions are, by definition, egoisticbecause they are voluntary. So, humans are always acting for their own sakes, whether they think so or not.

Many philosophers shared this view during the 18th century, supported by the rationalism of the time. But David Hume, in his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (Appendix IIOf Self Love), set forth some well-known arguments against it. Hume said that psychological egoism denied the reality of such important human feelings as friendship, love, compassion, and gratitude. He also argued that there was no reason to try to reduce the diversity of human motivations to one simple thing. And he pointed out, as many have, that both humans and animals have been observed to act, instinctively for others sakes.

Early normative egoism is often associated with the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche whose ideas about freedom, the will, and the superman, certainly seem to support egoism, and have been used that way, but Nietzsche himself rejected egoism because, he said, being an egoist would have the opposite of the desired effect; it would set other people against you, which is bad for your own success.

The first philosophers to consider themselves egoists were Max Stirner and Henry Sidgwick in the 19th Century. But probably the most popular and controversial spokesperson for egoism was Ayn Rand, who set forth her arguments in The Virtue of Selfishness, and in novels such as Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Adapting some of Nietzsches rhetoric, Rand focused on rational egoism as a rejection of the sacrificial ethics of Christianity; she argued that it is wrong to sacrifice ones own interests for others because it is irrational: the actor must always be the beneficiary of his action and that man must act for his own rational self-interest. Thus, to her, ethical and rational egoism go together. Her perspective owes a lot to Nietzsches rejection of traditional morality and glorification of the individual will.

Over the past 30 years or so, egoism has faced stronger opposition than before because of scientific research showing that (a) humans and animals do have altruistic instincts, (b) selfish decisions are often not in your best interests, and (c) that altruistic behavior is consistent with evolution. When we were evolving, living in small tribes, most people lived around their many relatives, so doing things for others benefitaltruismcould actually spread ones own genes!

Egoism has always been a controversial theory, and we have sketched some of its debates in the previous sectionssuch as whether it can be moral or not, and whether it needs to be.

Another challenge to egoism is whether its even logically possible. Several philosophers have pointed out that it leads to self-contradictions and irresolvable conflicts. For example, Joseph Butler writes that it may be necessary to act un-selfishly in order to receive benefits, which makes egoism self-contradictory. However, we can get around this paradox by just saying that egoism is acting for long-term benefit.

A bigger problem for psychological egoism is that some behavior just doesnt seem egoistic in any sense. Say a soldier throws himself on a grenade to prevent others from being killed. Its hard to say how that could be in the soldiers selfish interests! Hes not going to benefit from it in the long run, or even be able to enjoy the feeling of being a good person. Egoists might argue that the soldier is deceiving himself if he thinks he acted selflessly; perhaps he was sub-consciously motivated to avoid feeling guilty if he didnt sacrifice himself. But then again, feeling that kind of guilt depends on having non-egoistic motivations, doesnt it? An egoist could also argue that since the soldier made a free decision to jump on the grenade, he was, by definition, following his own desires. However, that argument seems like a cop-out; it avoids resolving the question of why the soldier did it.

The major controversy about normative (ethical or rational) egoism is, of course, whether it can be truly ethical at all, since almost all people agree that an ethical system must encourage us to act for the benefit of other human beings. The main points of debate are whether it is desirable or possible to act selflessly, and whether rational selfishness is or is not really the best thing for others. The answers to these questions depend on answers to many other questions: how interdependent are human beings? Is individual freedom more important than social stability? Is individuality an illusion? So, this debate will doubtless not soon be settled!

Ethics has to recognize the truth, recognized in unethical thought, that egoism comes before altruism. The acts required for continued self-preservation, including the enjoyments of benefits achieved by such arts, are the first requisites to universal welfare. Unless each duly cares for himself, his care for all others is ended in death, and if each thus dies there remain no others to be cared for. Herbert Spencer

In this argument for ethical egoism, Herbert Spencer, a 19th century British philosopher, seems to echo Aristotles original justification for some degree of egoismthat a person needs to take care of their own needs and happiness before they can take care of others. Often accused of inconsistency, Spencer was an egoist who also believed that human beings have a natural sense of empathy and should care for each other, although at the same time, he believed that altruism was a relatively recent development in humans.

What interest can a fond mother have in view, who loses her health by assiduous attendance on her sick child, and afterwards languishes and dies of grief, when freed, by its death [the childs], from the slavery of that attendance? David Hume

Hume, a famous opponent of psychological realism, here gives an example that demonstrates several of his arguments against egoism. Hume pointed out that human beings have certain innate non-egoist instincts, such as the compulsion of a mother to sacrifice herself for her children. And even if she does so, selfishly, in order to feel good herself, that doesnt explain why she dies of grief after her child dies.

Altruism is the opposite of egoism the motivation or practice of doing things to benefit others, without expecting any benefit for oneself. However, most of the debates about egoism and altruism are not about whether its good to benefit others or not, which almost everyone agrees on, but whether egoism or altruism are actually beneficial, or even possible.

Just as psychological egoism could be rejected on the basis that its impossible to prove peoples motivations, many philosophers have questioned whether it is possible to prove altruistic motivations either. As descriptions of human nature, egoism and altruism seem to compete on equal grounds; you can pretty much always argue that any action was really motivated by egoism or really altruism, but you cant prove it.

As normative philosophies, about what people should do, most philosophers agree that ethical behavior is behavior which is good for people in generalso you might assume that altruism should win automatically. But there are some pretty good arguments that altruistic action depends on egoist motivations; you might not help that old lady cross the street if you didnt care about feeling good about yourself. And egoists may argue that its immoral to decide whats in other peoples best interests. On the side of altruism is the universal belief that morality means being good to others and the evidence that empathy, compassion, and altruism are natural instincts.

Many popular films feature egoist villainssociopaths who pursue their own gain without regard for others. But Heath Ledgers Joker in Christopher Nolans Dark Knight goes further. Late in the movie he actually sets up a version of The Prisoners Dilemmaa scenario from game theory which philosophers have used to explore the egoism versus altruism debate. The Joker intends to prove to all that his view of human naturepsychological egoismis true. He believes that one or both boats will try to blow up the other one in order to save their own lives, according to the Jokers rulesbut they refuse to cooperate, seemingly proving that humans are not entirely egoistic. Throughout the film, the Joker represents the egoist view as he repeatedly exploits his enemies egoism. But in the end, Batman supposedly demonstrates that altruism is real by taking the fall for a politician he doesnt even likefor the good of the people of Gotham.

Both of the Star Trek films featuring Khan, Captain Kirks worst enemy, explore the consequences of egoist versus altruist views. In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, we learn that Khans murderous anger towards humanity is partly a result of Captain Kirks earlier action of marooning Khan and his people on a then hospitable planetwhich later suffered an environmental disaster killing most of Khans people. This is a clear illustration of the ethical egoists claim that trying to act in others interests may be immoral. Furthermore, Kirks failure to check up on Khan on the planet suggests that Kirk was not really acting altruistically, but rather egoistically, supporting the views of psychological egoism. Meanwhile, Khan believes that he has a natural right to dominate, based on his superior intellect and strength, a view commonly associated with rational egoism and Ayn Rand. Of course in the end, Mr. Spock demonstrates altruism by sacrificing himself to save the rest of the Enterprise crew, repeating an idea clearly meant to prove that altruism is more rational than egoismthe needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

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Egoism: Examples and Definition | Philosophy Terms

The Differences Between Utilitarianism & Ethical Egoism …

Consequentialism is a moral theory that states that the consequences of one’s actions are the basis for any morality or judgment toward that action. Both utilitarianism and ethical egoism are theories within consequentialism that focus on the outcome of conduct as the primary motivation of that action and any critique of whether or not that conduct is ethical. The major difference between utilitarianism and ethical egoism is where those acts are directed.

Utilitarianism focuses on the idea of the greater good. Essentially, this ethical theory intends to maximize good for the the most people. The moral worth of any action is judged by how much good results for all sentient beings. While some individuals may suffer from these actions, utilitarianism holds that the conduct may still be ethical if it does more good for a greater number of people than it harms.

Ethical egoism, also known simply as egoism, holds that moral conduct ought to be judged through self-interest. Egoism states that the good consequences for the individual agent outweigh the consequences placed upon others. In egoism, actions could be considered ethical for the individual if the one taking the action is benefited, while any benefit or detriment to the welfare of others is a side effect and not as important as the consequences for the individual.

The primary differences between these two theories, keeping in mind that there are numerous sub-theories within each branch of thought, is the value placed between the individual and others. In utilitarianism, the most ethical action may be that which harms the individual agent but maximizes the positive impact for the most people overall, essentially placing the emphasis on the whole as opposed to the individual. In egoism, the individual has a greater value than others, thus it is ethical to act in one’s own self-interest even if it may potentially harm others.

Utilitarianism seeks to maximize good by minimizing harm to all while egoism seeks to maximize good by keeping the individual happy. In utilitarianism, actions must be judged on the amount of people (or beings) that benefit from the action as opposed to how many the same action may potentially harm. Proponents argue that utilitarianism results in a greater sum of benefit to its harm, based upon outcome and not intention. However, critics of utilitarianism argue that following the interest of the greater good may result in tremendous harm to a large number of individuals.

Meanwhile, egoists argue that acting in self-interest can result in position action because the individual knows best how to benefit his own self, and if everyone were to act in the interest of others, then the general welfare of all would decrease as they are never working for their own good. Egoists trust that others will act in their own interests, thus making it unnecessary to take action solely for their benefit.

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The Differences Between Utilitarianism & Ethical Egoism …

On Albert Einstein’s peaceful musings – The Livingston County News

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One of the smartest people that ever lived, Albert Einstein, wasnt just a scientific genius; he was also one of the 20th centurys strongest peace advocates.

Einstein believed that, if there had been a stronger alliance of countries against fascism in the 1930s, the World War of the 1940s would have been prevented. Because of this, Einstein was a strong advocate of the abolition of war through the creation of a world government composed of nations that shared their military forces in order to prevent nationalist nations from starting wars. What follows are excerpts from some of his writings about peace

Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding. You cannot subjugate a nation forcibly unless you wipe out every man, woman, and child. Unless you wish to use such drastic measures, you must find a way of settling your disputes without resort to arms.

If unrestricted egoism leads to dire consequences in our economic life, it is still worse as a guide in international relations. Only the absolute repudiation of war can be of any use here. Without disarmament there can be no lasting peace.

The opposition to this unquestionably necessary advance lies in the unhappy traditions of the people which are passed on like an inherited disease from generation to generation because of our faulty educational machines. Of course the main supports of this tradition are military training and the larger industries.

This topic brings me to that worst outcrop of the herd nature, the military system. That a man can take pleasure in marching in formation to the strains of a band is enough to make me despise him. He has only been given his big brain by mistake; a backbone was all he needed. How despicable and ignoble war is. It is my conviction that killing under the cloak of war is nothing but an act of murder. Is it not terrible to be forced by the community to deeds which every individual feels to be most despicable crimes? Only a few have had the moral greatness to resist; they are in the true heroes.

A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move to higher levels. In the light of new knowledge, a world authority and an eventual world state are not just desirable in the name of brotherhood, they are necessary for survival. Today we must abandon competition and secure cooperation. Past thinking and methods did not prevent world wars. Future thinking must prevent wars.

Taken on the whole, I would believe that Gandhis views were the most enlightened of all the political men in our time. We should strive to do things in his spirit… not to use violence in fighting for our cause, but by non-participation in what we believe is evil.

The way to joyful and happy existence is everywhere through renunciation and self-limitation. Where can the strength of such a process come from? Only from those who have had the chance in their early years to fortify their minds and broaden their outlook through study. Only if the statesmen have, to urge them forward, the will to peace of a decisive majority in their respective countries, can they arrive at their important goal. It is not the task of the individual who lives in this critical time merely to await results and to criticize. He must serve this great cause as well as he can.

We have emerged from a world war in which we had to accept the degradingly low ethical standards of the enemy. But instead of feeling liberated from his standards, and set free to restore the sanctity of human life and the safety of noncombatants, we are in effect making the low standards of the enemy in the last war our own. Unless Americans come to recognize that they are not stronger in the world because they have the bomb, but weaker because of their vulnerability to atomic attack, they are not likely to conduct their policy in a spirit that furthers the arrival at an understanding.

Genesee Valley Citizens for Peace was established in 1972. For more information on the organization, go to http://www.gvcp.org. The preceding essay is the result of a collaboration among several GVCP members.

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On Albert Einstein’s peaceful musings – The Livingston County News

The Courage to Face a Lifetime: On the Enduring Value of Ayn Rand’s Philosophy – IAI News

Over thirty million copies of English-language editions of Ayn Rands books have been sold since the 1940s, with many more in dozens of other languages, and sales have not slowed down [1]. This articles sub-title captures the heart of why her workespecially her fictionhas enduring appeal, despite academia and the popular press being generally…

Over thirty million copies of English-language editions of Ayn Rands books have been sold since the 1940s, with many more in dozens of other languages, and sales have not slowed down [1]. This articles sub-title captures the heart of why her workespecially her fictionhas enduring appeal, despite academia and the popular press being generally hostile even to the mention of her name. The quotation appears in the last part of The Fountainhead, Rands 1943 novel that put her on the cultural map. A young man recently graduated from college rides his bicycle through the hills of Pennsylvania, wondering whether life is worth living and whether he should pursue his dream of being a composer. He longs to see others achievements as tangible products of their quest for happiness, if only to see that its possible. Suddenly, he is confronted with a newly finished summer home community that seems to spring organically from the sides of the hills. He notices a man perched on a boulder who serenely gazes over the beautiful homes in the valley below. After finding out that the manHoward Roarkis the architect responsible for the scene before them, he thanks Roark and confidently rides off into his future armed with the courage to face a lifetime.

Many readers have been inspired by these words, amazed at the story unfolding before their eyes. Its unusual to encounter literature that embodies such benevolent, life-affirming values. This is an extraordinary kind of Heros Journey. Filled not only with heroes meeting challenges with the assistance of friends against ones foes, it also contains the message that philosophy mattersfor everyone. How well or poorly your life goes depends on whether you hold the right ideas or not. The Fountainheadas well as Rands 1957 magnum opus, Atlas Shruggedpaints a world where happiness and joy are attainable through using ones mind to pursue ones passion with integrity and to face and overcome obstacles with reality-oriented determination. Its a universe where achievement is possible; self-esteem is earned through productive work; and voluntary interactions foster intensely rewarding personal, social, and professional relationships. And its a reality that any person can choose to help create every day of ones life.

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“Rand’s work contains the message that philosophy mattersfor everyone. How well or poorly your life goes depends on whether you hold the right ideas or not.” ___

Journeying through the rest of Rands corpusher fiction as well as her non-fiction philosophy, which she named Objectivismis challenging and rewarding. The essentials of Objectivism are: reality exists, we can know reality objectively through our senses and the use of reason, ones own happiness is ones highest moral purpose (egoism), limited government is justified only for the protection of individual rights, people should be free to trade the fruits of their work (capitalism), and the purpose of art is to project and experience in concrete form ones vision of life. Many people have been engaged and inspired by these ideas, ideally using them as springboards for further thought about whats true and how best to live. There are also many who reject Rands ideas, though few of those have bothered to read her work carefully (or at all) before passing judgment on it.

A small sample of vitriol hurled at Rands work in popular media includes: complete lack of charity; execrable claptrap and a personality as compelling as a sledge hammer; crackpot . . . an historical anachronism and a wretched novelist; an absurd philosophy and a total crock. [2] Both supporters and detractors of her work have also noted the derision that many philosophers have for it, dismissing her work contemptuously on the basis of hearsay or laugh[ing] out of the room anyone bringing up her name [3]. Add to the vitriol some of the oft-repeated myths about Rands views:

(1) She is Conservative and high priestess of the acute Right on the American political spectrum. [4]

(2) She takes Nietzschean individualism to an extreme. [5]

(3) In upholding selfishness, individuals should never care about anyone else, even regarding them as totally expendable tools to be manipulated. At best, charity or benevolence is a minor virtue. [6]

(4) She was an unabashed apologist for dog-eat-dog capitalism, allowing the rich to cozy up to government in plutocratic fashion. [7]

The ad hominem attacks above are best brushed aside into the dustbin of history. Mischaracterizations can be dispelled by examining Rands work for what it says. First, Rands views dont fit neatly into either the political Right or Left. She was a radical for individual rights who rejected the false dichotomy between personal and economic freedom, and rejected being labeled Conservative or Libertarian. A portion of the Rightnamely, some Libertarians and Tea Party membershave supported parts of Rands theory. However, a staunch anti-religion naturalist, she angers many on the Right by defending rights to abortion, free speech, and drugs regardless of her own stance on the moral worth of those activities. She angers the Left even more by opposing welfare-state redistribution and defending rights to private property and keeping ones income. [8]

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“Rands defense of capitalism is grounded in her view of egoism. We each need to create the material and spiritual values needed to live as humans. We gain immeasurably through exchanging values voluntarily with others.” ___

Regarding the second myth, Rand read some of Friedrich Nietzsches works when she was in college. She undeniably shares with him a polemical writing style and acknowledges that she admires his sense of mans potential for greatness. This is stated at the same time, though, as Rand expresses her profound disagreement with what she sees as Nietzsches mysticism, irrationalism, subordination of reason to the will-to-power, and malevolent view of the world. [9] Her greatest intellectual debt is owed instead to Aristotlemetaphysical and epistemological realist and defender of reason and virtue ethicswho she regarded as the greatest of all philosophers. [10]

The third myth vanishes when we examine Rands version of egoism. An egoist is one who regards oneself as the ultimatenot the onlybeneficiary of ones actions. Heroes in all of Rands novels risk their lives for the sake of valuesincluding other peoplethey hold dear. She defends ones choice to assist strangers in emergency and everyday contexts out of good will toward other living beings, so long as doing so is not a sacrificial duty that jeopardizes ones well-being. Rand even dubs as psychopaths those who are totally indifferent to anything living. [11] How does this square with egoism? It begins with a proper conception of the self. We are human beingsnot animalswith a reasoning mind to be integrated with ones emotions. Goals worth pursuing for ones long-term survival can be achieved only in certain ways, namely, by exercising virtues such as rationality, productiveness, pride, independence, integrity, honesty, and justice. These virtues demand the best of our selves, precluding the initiation of force against other persons or attempts to gain benefits from them through deceit or fraud. [12]

The fourth myth has been the most persistent, for defending capitalism on moral grounds requires fighting against millennia of prejudice against money-making. Think, for example, of the Biblical proverb of how its easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to gain entrance to Heaven or how Shylock is scorned for making money on loans in Shakespeares The Merchant of Venice. Rands defense of capitalism is grounded in her view of egoism. We each need to create the material and spiritual values needed to live as humans. We gain immeasurably through exchanging values voluntarily with others. Rand calls this the trader principle. Those who seek to gain resources through coercive meansthe ones Rand depicts as villains in her novelsare either private criminals or political cronies who violate individual rights. Genuine businessmen dont seek political favors or otherwise subvert the rule of law. When free to trade voluntarily, they innovate, produce job opportunities, and increase living standards. In short, they create wealth by applying their minds to the task of living, leading to win-win outcomes. [13]

___

“President Donald Trump is an alleged Ayn Rand acolyte”, but being a fan of Rands work is not the same as understanding her views, applying them properly, or living up to them consistently in ones own life.” ___

It should be apparent by now why so many people find Rands work appealing. Her views, thoughlike any otherscan and should be scrutinized, critiqued, and developed where needed. Philosophers who have taken her work seriously disagree about how to understand some of Rands key ideas. For example, there are rival interpretations of what she means by the claim that our ultimate aim is life, or survival as man qua man, and whether this is equivalent to eudaimonism, the view that flourishing (which centrally involves virtue) is our ultimate aim. [14] Some eudaimonists argue that virtue, not life, is the ultimate value and that it might conflict with egoism, which would create problems for Rands ethical theory. More than anything, though, Rands philosophical system is under-developed in some ways. She herself refers to her non-fiction collections as outlines, previews, and introductions to material that she had intended to write book-length treatments of (though she didnt end up doing so). [15]

Having addressed some of the most significant misunderstandings of Objectivism, we can ask: What accounts for the persistent hostility and misrepresentation? The reasons are several. Some people might assume that such depictions accurately represent Rands views, and then they repeat those falsehoods. Such individuals can instead withhold comment until dispelling their ignorance of the source rather than rely on someone elses judgments about it.

Others read Rands work and disagree partially or entirely with her views. This is unsurprising, given that she challenges many sacred cows, including religion, altruism, determinism, collectivism, and subjectivism. While a relative few in this category engage in fair and honest discussion about her ideas [16], many either misunderstand Rand and end up mischaracterizing her views or willfully misrepresent them to dissuade others from taking her seriously. Its unfortunately easier to demonize ones opponents than to argue with them.

For others, their rejection of Rand is based less on the content of her views than on her sense of life. Its fashionable, especially among academics and public intellectuals, to be jaded, cynical, and ironic. Rands workwith its hallmarks of benevolence and heroismthankfully exhibits none of these. It instead offers a spirit of youthful optimism that provides resilience needed to achieve a good life and endure with grace lifes unavoidable challenges. In addition, professional philosophers are put off by Rands dearth of footnotes and bibliographical apparatus as well as her non-analytic, polemical style that attacks others views with little exposition of them.

___

“Whether one agrees with Rands provocative views or not, its valuable for philosophers to take them seriously and study them carefully. Her theory provides a systematic alternative to other schools of thought and challenges the academys conventional wisdom to keep us on our intellectual toes” ___

Yet others, who claim to be fans or supporters of Rands work, accidentally contribute to perpetuating falsehoods about her views. One need only look to a list of some prominent politicians and entrepreneurs to see this phenomenon. For example, President Donald Trump is an alleged Ayn Rand acolyte, accused of stack[ing] his cabinet with fellow Objectivists, such as Rex Tillerson and Michael Pompeo. In addition, Travis Kalanicks ignominious fall from the heights of Uber CEO-hood has been described as the latest Icarus-like plunge of a prominent Rand follower, and Andrew Pudzer, an avid Ayn Rand reader, withdrew from his nomination as Secretary of Labor due to allegations of worker mistreatment at his fast-food chains [17]. These individuals may have been inspired by reading Rands works to follow their lifes path. However, one is hard-pressed to call any of them Objectivists, since they either reject key tenets of Rands theory by being religious or have chosen to act in some ways antithetical to it by cutting crony deals or performing other vicious deeds. Being a fan of Rands work is not the same as understanding her views, applying them properly, or living up to them consistently in ones own life. There are plenty of good people living their lives in a principled waywhether as CEOs, teachers, or mechanicswho have been inspired by Rands ideas. Their moral decency doesnt make headline news, though.

Whether one agrees with Rands provocative views or not, its valuable for philosophers to take them seriously and study them carefully. Her theory provides a systematic alternative to other schools of thought and challenges the academys conventional wisdom to keep us on our intellectual toes. She reframes traditional philosophical questions in ways that cut through what she considers to be false dichotomies: mind/body, reason/emotion, moral/practical, duty/utility, intrinsic/subjective, nature/nurture. This leaves conceptual space to offer and defend a third way on a range of significant philosophical issues.

Rand offers Objectivism as a philosophy for living, not just contemplating, not just existing and getting by. We have minds equipped to deal with the world, a world where we can be efficacious. So long as there are individuals committed to their own happiness, voluntary cooperation, reaching for the best within themselves, and creating the social and political institutions needed for achieving these values in a free and responsible way, Rands work will continue to speak to countless numbers of people in all walks of life. But dont take myor anyone elsesword for it. Exercise the virtue of independence and read Rands work for yourself. Youll see firsthand what the enduring appeal is all about.

***

[1] Allan Gotthelf and Gregory Salmieri, eds., A Companion to Ayn Rand (Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2016), p. 15 n. 1.

[2] Bruce Cook, Ayn Rand: A Voice in the Wilderness, Catholic World, vol. 201 (May 1965), p. 121; John Kobler, The Curious Cult of Ayn Rand, The Saturday Evening Post (November 11, 1961), p. 99; Dora Jane Hamblin, The Cult of Angry Ayn Rand, Life (April 7, 1967), p. 92; Geoffrey James, Top 10 Reasons Ayn Rand Was Dead Wrong, CBS News Moneywatch (September 16, 2010), accessed online at: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/top-10-reasons-ayn-rand-was-dead-wrong/.

[3] Neera Badhwar and Roderick Long, Ayn Rand, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (September 19, 2016), accessed online at: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ayn-rand/; James Stewart, As a Guru, Ayn Rand May Have Limits. Ask Travis Kalanick, The New York Times (July 13, 2017), accessed online at: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/13/business/ayn-rand-business-politics-uber-kalanick.html.

[4] Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, Psyching Out Ayn Rand, Ms. (September 1978), p. 24. See also, e.g., Jonathan Chait, Wealthcare: Ayn Rand and the Invincible Cult of Selfishness on the American Right, New Republic (September 14, 2009), accessed online at: https://newrepublic.com/article/69239/wealthcare-0; Jennifer Burns, Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 4.

[5] Stewart, As a Guru, Ayn Rand May Have Limits. See also, e.g., Gene Bell-Villada, On Nabakov, Ayn Rand, and the Libertarian Mind (Newcastle on Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2013), chap. 5.

[6] See James, Top 10 Reasons Ayn Rand Was Dead Wrong, Skikha Dalmia, Where Ayn Rand Went Wrong, Forbes (November 4, 2009), accessed online at: https://www.forbes.com/2009/11/03/where-ayn-rand-went-wrong-opinions-columnists-shikha-dalmia.html, and Michael Huemer, Why I Am Not an Objectivist, accessed online at: http://www.owl232.net/rand.htm, for the former view, and Badhwar and Long, Ayn Rand, for the latter.

[7] Gerald Jonas, Reviewed This Week (four sci-fi novels), The New York Times (August 30, 1998), accessed online at: http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/08/30/reviews/980830.30scifit.html. See also, e.g., James, Top 10 Reasons Ayn Rand Was Dead Wrong and James Hohmann, The Daily 202: Ayn Rand Acolyte Donald Trump Stacks His Cabinet with Fellow Objectivists, The Washington Post (December 13, 2016), accessed online at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/paloma/daily-202/2016/12/13/daily-202-ayn-rand-acolyte-donald-trump-stacks-his-cabinet-with-fellow-objectivists/584f5cdfe9b69b36fcfeaf3b/?utm_term=.d56b46b8c78c.

[8] Rands public policy views are scattered over dozens of essays, but a general synthesis can be found in John David Lewis and Gregory Salmieri, A Philosopher on Her Times, in Gotthelf and Salmieri, A Companion to Ayn Rand, pp. 351-402.

[9] Ayn Rand, Introduction, in her The Fountainhead, 25th anniversary ed. (New York: New American Library, 1968), p. x.

[10] Ayn Rand, The Objectivist Ethics, in her The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1964), p. 14.

[11] Ayn Rand, The Ethics of Emergencies, in Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, pp. 43-44.

[12] Rand, The Objectivist Ethics, pp. 22-32.

[13] See Rand, The Objectivist Ethics, pp. 32-34, and Ayn Rand, What Is Capitalism? and Americas Persecuted Minority: Big Business, in her Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (New York: Signet, 1966), pp. 11-34 and 44-62.

[14] See, e.g., Allan Gotthelf, The Morality of Life, in Gotthelf and Salmieri, A Companion to Ayn Rand, pp. 73-104; Gregory Salmieri, Egoism and Altruism, in Gotthelf and Salmieri, A Companion to Ayn Rand, pp. 130-56; Neera Badhwar, Well-Being: Happiness in a Worthwhile Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014); Lester Hunt, Flourishing Egoism, Social Philosophy and Policy, vol. 16, no. 1 (1999), pp. 72-95; and Roderick Long, Reason and Value: Aristotle versus Ayn Rand (Poughkeepsie, NY: Objectivist Center, 2000).

[15] The task of developing Objectivist-inspired work that interprets and fleshes out lacunae in Rands system falls to others. See, e.g., Tara Smith, Ayn Rands Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Tara Smith, Judicial Review in an Objective Legal System (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015); and Allan Gotthelf and James Lennox, eds., Concepts and Their Role in Knowledge: Reflections on Objectivist Epistemology (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013). All of these works engage with the wider philosophical literature in ways that Rand did not.

[16] One such exception is an excellent piece by John Piper; see his The Ethics of Ayn Rand: Appreciation and Critique, Desiring God (June 1, 1979; revised October 9, 2007), accessed online at: http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/the-ethics-of-ayn-rand. A Christian who thinks that Rand is mistaken about rejecting theism, Piper nonetheless offers a careful, nuanced articulation of her ethical egoism. Would that all critics were to take such care with the views of their interlocutors.

[17] Hohmann, The Daily 202: Ayn Rand Acolyte Donald Trump Stacks His Cabinet with Fellow Objectivists; Stewart, As A Guru, Ayn Rand May Have Limits.

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The Courage to Face a Lifetime: On the Enduring Value of Ayn Rand’s Philosophy – IAI News

egoism | philosophy | Britannica.com

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egoism | philosophy | Britannica.com

IDF Medics to Learn Groundbreaking Trauma Procedure – Breaking Israel News

Choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed. Deuteronomy 30:19 (The Israel Bible)

IDF medics operate a field hospital of injured Syrians near Israels northern border. (IDF Blog)

For the first time in Israels history, top surgeons throughout Israel and the Israel Defense Force (IDF) gathered to learn a new medical technique which stops bleeding in cases of trauma without an incision. Trauma specialists from South Africa, the US and Sweden came to the Holy Land to teach and demonstrate the groundbreaking procedure. The workshop took place on Kibbutz Lahav in Israels southern region, with eighty medical personnel in attendance.

LIBI USA is honored to have sponsored this trailblazing three-day workshop which will, no doubt, save lives in Israel and worldwide, shared Dr. John A.I. Grossman, Chairman of LIBI USA, the official welfare fund of the IDF, with Breaking Israel News. It was also a unique opportunity for medical professionals to unite in Israel, as saving lives is a Jewish and Israeli priority.

Dr. Grossman referred to the Biblical commandment of pikuach nefesh, the preservation of human life. This commandment, derived from the Book of Leviticus, is so basic to Judaism is that it takes precedence over all others.

So you shall keep My statutes and My judgments, by which a man may live if he does them. Leviticus 18:5

The Talmud emphasizes that one should live by the commandments, not die by them. One who is zealous in saving a life is praised and one who hesitates to save a life is considered as one who has shed the persons blood themselves, which the sages describe as piety of madness. In fact, to save and preserve a life, one must desecrate the Sabbath and even eat on the fast day of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year.

This is a new technique which requires specialized training in a controlled setting to master, explained Colonel (res.) Dr. Ofer Merin, Director of the Trauma Unit and Preparedness of Mass Casualty Events at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem and Commander of the IDF Field Hospital and General Staffs Surgical Hospital Unit, to Breaking Israel News. We are truly grateful to Dr. Grossman and LIBI USA for funding these life-saving workshops as simulated trauma scenarios with the use of REBOA are crucial to master this new technique.

Resuscitative Endovascular Balloon Occlusion of the Aorta, or REBOA, is used when a person is rapidly bleeding to death. It involves the placement of a flexible catheter balloon into the aorta to control haemorrhaging in traumatic injuries and then inflating the balloon, which stops the bleeding.

The head of the Trauma and Combat Medicine Branch for the IDF, Lieutenant Colonel Dr. Avraham Yitzhak, was part of the team of experts learning and assessing the effectiveness and practicality of using REBOA on Israeli soldier trauma victims. This important workshop united civilian and army surgeons to train in the cutting edge REBOA technology. Because of this workshop, the IDF might have an additional way to save lives, Dr. Yitzhak told Breaking Israel News. We are grateful to LIBI USA for sponsoring these days.

Dr. Yitzhak also discussed the IDFs commitment to pikuach nefesh. IDF physicians have three levels of oaths they take concerning the saving of lives, he said. We have the Hippocratic Oath, which every doctor in the world is obligated to uphold. In addition, we have the Oath of Maimonides and the oath of the Israeli Medical Corp, My Brothers Keeper.

The essence of the Oath of Maimonides, named for its originator, a 12th century scholar of Jewish law and philosophy, is to watch over the life and health of Gods creatures without egoism.

The essence of the Israeli Medics Oath is that medics will give everything, including their own lives, for the State of Israel and its people and will treat friend or foe alike, in all conditions, and never leave anyone in the field.

In Israel, we tend to be busy with trying to live fulfilling lives or dieing at the hands of our enemies, shared Dr. Yitzhak. IDF medics risk their lives to give correct care to everyone, including wounded Syrians across our border, humanitarian aid to people all over the world and even medical care to our enemies.

Unfortunately, we havent taken the time and arent good at explaining to the world how ethical, moral and valuing of life we are. This workshop helps to build that knowledge worldwide and gain life-saving skills in addition.

To donate to LIBI USA and support the IDF, please visit here.

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IDF Medics to Learn Groundbreaking Trauma Procedure – Breaking Israel News

Orwell vs Huxley vs Zamyatin: Who would win a dystopian fiction contest? – Scroll.in

In a city of glass, where people who are just Numbers living in glass-brick houses, and everyones daily routine is determined by the Tables of the Hours set down by the Well-Doer, one particular Number, D-503, is developing a dangerous affliction. He is nurturing a soul. This could put his life and that of his loved ones in mortal danger, because in this future One State, where logic rules, sex is rationed and love banned, a budding soul is an indication of developing individuality and separateness. But the state believes: nobody is one, but one of. We are so alike…

We, Yevgeny Zamyatins chilling account of a future world state ruled by Reason is arguably one of the granddads of dystopia. Initially available as secret samizdat editions (1921) in the erstwhile Soviet Union, the book was smuggled out of USSR and first appeared in English in 1924 published by EP Dutton, New York. The novel was an immediate hit in western intellectual circles though its author, under attack from Soviet authorities, had to seek exile in France where he died in poverty. Here perhaps for the first time, fiction had engaged head on with the imagined workings of a totalitarian dictatorship in a manner never attempted before.

But did dystopian fiction really hit the road with Zamyatins We? Leaving aside the academic argument that any fictional work about a utopia has the elements of a dystopia embedded in it and that such writing about a utopia takes us back all the way to Platos Republic and Thomas Mores Utopia, let us look at this snippet from a short story written in 1891 by the well-known humorist author Jerome Klapka Jerome. A man has woken up from 1000-year-long sleep, and finds himself in London where he needs a bath:

No; we are not allowed to wash ourselves. You must wait until half-past four, and then you will be washed for tea. Be washed! I cried. Who by?

The State. He said that they had found they could not maintain their equality when people were allowed to wash themselves. Some people washed three or four times a day, while others never touched soap and water from one years end to the other, and in consequence there got to be two distinct classes, the Clean and the Dirty.

This story about London, 1,000 years after a socialist revolution, is a snapshot introduction to dystopia, where the best laid plans for a state of equality have resulted in completely undesirable consequences. Jeromes story seems to have influenced and inspired the anti-utopian fiction that followed.

A running theme and essentially what lies at the heart of all dystopian writing is the conflict of freedom and happiness. In Zamyatins book, the government of the One State (United State in Zilboorgs translation) has curtailed all freedoms. A poet talking about paradise tells the character D-503 how Adam and Eve were offered a choice between happiness without freedom, and freedom without happiness, and how they stupidly chose the latter. The government of the One State claims to have restored this lost happiness to its subjects.

Its a pity that this mighty little book is hardly ever discussed in this country. Our introduction to dystopian fiction has been through the works of two British authors Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. Some would of course mention here Jack Londons The Iron Heel, popular in the last century and of which a Bengali translation also exists. But for most others, it is the prophetic vision of Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four which between them, introduced us to the dystopian tradition a kind of writing, increasingly popular in our present times, when we always seem to be a step away from the scary possibilities of an anti-utopia.

Huxleys novel, published in 1932, which ended up in some of the top reading lists of our times, presents us with a nightmarish vision of a distant future where genetic modification, hypnopaedia and Pavlovian conditioning have created a caste-system based on intelligence and aptitude. The uncanny clairvoyance of this work and its literary brilliance have ensured its place in the pantheon of dystopia before which all practitioners of this form pay obeisance or offer a hat tip.

Numerous works come to mind and it could be a literary detectives favourite pastime to spot traces of Brave New World in the works of Margaret Atwood, to hear its echo in a scene from David Mitchell or perhaps to remember, while reading Doris Lessings Mara and Dann, how those bands of men in post ice age Ifrik (Africa) who all looked the same, resemble Huxleys Bokanovsky groups of individuals created from single embryos.

True to the dystopian school, the question of freedom versus happiness is also central to Huxleys plot. There we find a primitive world of freedom and instincts existing within the ordered dystopia of the World State, in an electric-fenced New Mexican reservation from which we get John or The Savage, one of the principal characters of the book. Again, in one of many poignant scenes of this novel, the sleep-learning specialist, Bernard Marx and the foetus technician, Lenina Crowne, hover over the dark frothing waves of the English channel in their helicopter, and Lenina says:

I dont know what you mean. I am free. Free to have the most wonderful time. Everybodys happy nowadays.

He laughed.

Yes, Everybodys happy nowadays. We begin giving the children that at five. But wouldnt you like to be free to be happy in some other way, Lenina? In your own way, for example; not in everybody elses way.

Quite obviously the similarities between We and Brave New World are not hard to find and in fact, while reviewing Zamyatins book, George Orwell went so far as to say Huxleys novel might have been partly derived from We, which Huxley later denied.

In fact this equally applies to Nineteen Eighty-Four, which seems to have drawn quite a bit of inspiration from the Russian novelist. Charringtons antique shop and the shabby little room upstairs which has preserved an old world charm seems to echo the Antique House in Zamyatins We, just as the character OBrien, who pretends to be a member of the secret Brotherhood working against Big Brother in Nineteen Eighty-Four reminds us of the character S-4711, one of the Guardians in We. But the DNA of dystopian fiction has many common sources and certain foundational themes, so it is nothing out of the ordinary to discover traits of one work in the storyline or characters of another.

Orwells Nineteen Eighty-Four, published in 1949, a book stamped for ever in the psyche of all freedom-loving individuals, was set in the dehumanised totalitarian state of Oceania ruled by Big Brother. Here the protagonist Winston Smith works at the Ministry of Truth, which is responsible for propaganda. Similarly the Ministry of Peace is responsible for War while the Ministry of Love conducts torture and maintains law and order.

Surveillance, the cruelty of the state and the Partys quest for absolute power are the running themes of Orwells novel, which brings it closer to Zamyatins We, while the dystopia of Brave New World, milder on the surface but with an ending equally dehumanising, is managed through genetic engineering, mental conditioning, fostering of consumerism and the use of the magic drug soma.

Like the other two books, Nineteen Eighty-four also delves into the freedom-versus-happiness question. As the protagonist Winston Smith is incarcerated and tortured in the chambers of the Ministry of Love by the large and burly OBrien, who is an Inner Party member, many thoughts pass through his mind:

He knew in advance what OBrien would say. That the Party did not seek power for its own ends, but only for the good of the majority. That it sought power because men in the mass were frail cowardly creatures who could not endure liberty or face the truth, and must be ruled over and systematically deceived by others who were stronger than themselves. That the choice for mankind lay between freedom and happiness, and that, for the great bulk of mankind, happiness was better.

Greater good and happiness have almost always been the guiding principle for utopias which have often morphed into dystopias depending on what we are looking for. In her essay about Brave New World, Margaret Atwood lucidly illustrates this point when she writes:

Brave New World is either a perfect-world utopia or its nasty opposite, a dystopia, depending on your point of view: its inhabitants are beautiful, secure and free from diseases and worries, though in a way we like to think we would find unacceptable.

In our present times when the assaults on freedom by despots, increased surveillance from the humble CCTVs to the Five Eyes Alliance, climate change and its looming dangers, new gene technologies and the frankenfood threat and above all runaway consumerism have pushed us closer to dystopian scenarios, we find Huxley and Orwell drawing hordes of readers. Let us take a little time to look back at these three foundational works of a robust literary tradition.

A few weeks ago a certain method of ante-natal care with its roots in ayurveda, championed by the Garbh Vigyan Sanskar project of Arogya Bharati, was in the news for promising the best babies in the world. This drew the criticism it deserves. Critics cited ethical issues and lack of scientific knowledge but the fact remains that genetic engineering has reached a stage where we are only a few decades away from creating so-called designer babies using methods like Easy PGD (Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis). Brave New World naturally comes to mind as does Margaret Atwoods works.

It is the year 632 AF (After Ford), Henry Ford having acquired a god-like stature, we are in the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre where humans are produced in bottles, and, using various techniques right from the embryonic stage, are predesigned to be intelligent, stupid, morons, hard workers and so on.

The opening chapter sets the tone with powerful descriptions that blend scientific language with evocative use of words. The Director of the London Hatchery, Thomas, is showing some students the facilities for storing bottled embryos which are subjected to various shocks, chemical stimulations and processes that will slot them into lives of Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas or Epsilons the lowest in the caste rank:

And in effect the sultry darkness into which the students now followed him was visible and crimson, like the darkness of closed eyes on a summers afternoon. The bulging flanks of row on receding row and tier above tier of bottles glinted with innumerable rubies, and among the rubies moved the dim red spectres of men and women with purple eyes and all the symptoms of lupus. The hum and rattle of machinery faintly stirred the air.

The story is plotted at one level around the conflicts between the Alpha-plus sleep-learning specialist Bernard Marx and Thomas, the Director. Everyone feels that there is something wrong with Bernards conditioning because he is not reconciled to his destiny of a super-intelligent Alpha like the others. He doesnt enjoy wasteful games like Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy, is averse to promiscuous sex which is the norm, and is not happy with his condition, unlike other citizens of the World State. The Director has warned him a few times, threatening to send him off on exile to Iceland but things havent changed.

At this juncture Bernard and the foetus technician Lenina go on a holiday to the New Mexican reservation of Malpais where, they come across the ageing Linda and her son, the yellow haired John (the Savage), among the villagers. It turns out that John the Savage is the Director Thomas naturally born child. Thomas had abandoned Linda after he lost her in a storm while on a visit to the reservation.

The hard contours of a dystopian society do not yield easily to the literary approach but Brave New World is a master class in how it should be done. With its carefully etched characters, the scintillating wit, a brilliant mix of irony and laughter, and the well-oiled engine of a plot centred on the tensions between Thomas, Bernard and Lenina, this book easily surpasses the other two in literary qualities if not also in the diamond-edge of its satire.

Bernard sees an opportunity to teach the Director a lesson. He brings John and Linda back to London with him where, in a hilarious scene, the Savage, runs and falls on his knees before the Director and a roomful of Hatchery workers:

…John! she called. John!

He came in at once, paused for a moment just inside the door, looked round, then soft on his moccasined feet strode quickly across the room, fell on his knees in front of the Director, and said in a clear voice: My father!

The word (for father was not so much obscene as with its connotation of something at one remove from the loathsomeness and moral obliquity of child-bearing merely gross, a scatological rather than a pornographic impropriety); the comically smutty word relieved what had become a quite intolerable tension. Laughter broke out, enormous, almost hysterical, peal after peal, as though it would never stop. My father and it was the Director! My father! Oh Ford, oh Ford!

John The Savage, who has read only one book in his life The Complete Works of William Shakespeare becomes somewhat of a celebrity; an oddity in fact for his language is peppered with the quotes from the Bard, in Londons elite circles. But he finds the life of this brave new world, quoting from Shakespeares The Tempest, hard to digest, falls in love with Lenina, openly incites rebellion by throwing away soma rations, and finally meets a sad end.

In his Foreword to a new edition of the book written in 1946, Huxley wrote that if he would write the book again he would give the Savage a third option between the primitive Indian reservation of New Mexico and the utopian London. This would be in a place of decentralised economics, human-centric science, cooperation and the pursuit of mans Final End. Such a society he did attempt to portray in his last book, Island, which never climbed the heights of Brave New World.

Orwells novel, unlike Huxleys, foregrounds the harshness of totalitarian rule and the political philosophy that begets such a monster. While the Huxleian dystopia is a sort of soma-infused, predestination-soaked, pseudo-paradise, in Orwells Oceania and Airstrip One (England) deadly torture and surveillance by the Thought Police (which is always on the lookout for thoughtcrime) helps to maintain public order.

There is continuous war among the three world powers, Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia, and rocket bombs fall now and then on London. Big Brother, whose picture is everywhere, rules Oceania with an iron hand where, at the Ministry of Truth, Winston Smith works at revising historical facts.

The ruling political ideology is Ingsoc (English Socialism) and power belongs to Inner Party members (with Big Brother at the top) followed by Outer Party and finally the hapless proles who dont count for much.

Winston begins to keep a diary in his room, away from the gaze of the two way telescreen, where he records the internal restless monologue running through his head, his observations and innermost thoughts. He knows that if this is discovered he will be put to death. Yet he writes on the beautiful creamy paper, DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER.

The story develops slowly and the beginning drags a bit where the way of life in Airstrip One lived through the characters, the iron hand of the Party, the worship of Hate and the workings of the various ministries are drilled into the readers mind in a mechanical fashion. Perhaps this treatment suits the subject and is meant to echo the heartlessness of the ruling powers and the emptiness of lives, giving the reader a sense of all that is lost in this Orwellian anti-utopia.

Winston falls in love with Julia who works in the Fiction Department, churning out novels and finds a refuge for both of them in a little room above Mr Charringtons antiques shop. In this little shop and the room above it, the old world of beautiful objects seems to be preserved in a time capsule.

It was a heavy lump of glass, curved on one side, flat on the other, making almost a hemisphere. There was a peculiar softness, as of rainwater, in both the colour and the texture of the glass. At the heart of it, magnified by the curved surface, there was a strange, pink, convoluted object that recalled a rose or a sea anemone.

What is it? said Winston, fascinated.

Thats coral, that is, said the old man. It must have come from the Indian Ocean. They used to kind of embed it in the glass. That wasnt made less than a hundred years ago. More, by the look of it.

Its a beautiful thing, said Winston.

It is a beautiful thing, said the other appreciatively. But theres not many thatd say so nowadays.

But soon Winston and Julia are snared by OBrien, an Inner Party member who pretends to belong to the secret Brotherhood conspiring the downfall of the Party. OBrien arranges to send him a forbidden book The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, by Emmanuel Goldstein, which he reads in the apparent safety of the room above Charringtons shop. But soon enough they are arrested.

Torture follows, Winston confesses to real and imaginary crimes and the final defeat comes next when he and Julia betray each other. With this defeat of love it seems there is nothing left to defend anymore. And surely enough, we find a changed Winston in the final pages.

The enduring quality of Orwells novel flows from the lengths he goes to in describing the propaganda machinery, the degree of surveillance, the means of torture, and the dehumanising effects of totalitarianism which includes among other things, children spying on and reporting against their parents and the development of a precise official language called Newspeak, much of which, in various degrees, are to be found in the world today. And once again, all these powers lording over these dystopias concur on one singular aspect they are enemies of freedom. Freedom is Slavery is one of the party slogans of Big Brothers Oceania.

Zamyatins We, like Nineteen Eighty-Four begins with a somewhat flat narration and almost one-dimensional characters which we soon realise is a way to portray how human beings have been reduced to cogs in a wheel and. in this case, just numbers. But here we do have a slightly curious plot to draw our attention.

The narrator, D-503, is the builder of the spaceship Integral, which will carry the message of happiness from the One State to other worlds with the hope of subjugating their inhabitants to the rule of Reason. The book is a collection of records kept by the narrator and is marked by mannerisms and a curious mathematical vocabulary which is an echo of the rule of logic and mathematics that guides the life of the numbers inhabiting the earth and which also establishes the fact that D-503 is a mathematician. This is from a report in the State newspaper and as we have seen in the other works it begins with an attack on freedom and an emphasis on the desirability of happiness:

One thousand years ago, your heroic ancestors subjected the whole earth to the power of the One State. A still more glorious task is before you: the integration of the indefinite equation of the Cosmos by the use of glass, electric, fire-breathing Integral. Your mission is to subjugate to the grateful yoke of reason the unknown beings who live on other planets and who are perhaps still in the primitive state of freedom. If they will not understand that we are bringing them a mathematically-faultless happiness, our duty will be to force them to be happy. But before we take up arms, we shall try the power of words.

In this future state, Guardians, who are the secret police, keep tabs on everyone and crime is punished with torture and execution by The Machine. Sex is rationed with a system of pink slips and, as the story progresses, a female number, O-90 with lovely blue eyes is assigned to D-503. People are allowed to lower the curtains of their transparent apartments only for these assigned hours of physical intimacy.

But soon enough our narrator meets another woman, I-330, whip-like with dazzling white teeth, and gets strongly attracted to her. They have a tryst in his flat where, breaking the rules, they smoke and imbibe a greenish alcoholic drink, probably absinthe.

I-330 invites him to the Ancient House which is at the edge of the Green Wall that surrounds the city of glass. Meanwhile the whip-like woman, who is a secret revolutionary belonging to the MEPHI, impresses upon him to take command of the trial launch of the Integral and land it outside the Green Wall. The plan succeeds but the Guardians have infiltrated their ranks and so they have to return.

The Wall, border, fence, etcetera constitute a standard trope of dystopia, separating the realm of civilisation and happiness from the areas inhabited by primitives, where reason still doesnt have a foothold. Where, often, independence, driven out from dystopia, has found a somewhat comfortable refuge.

Family is another structure that those in power in these anti-utopias hate because it represents what Bertrand Russell in The Scientific Outlook a book which some say might have had an influence on Huxley describes as a loyalty which competes with loyalty to the State. Sure enough, family bonds are tenuous in Nineteen Eighty-Four, where it has become an extension of the Thought Police while in Brave New World and We, the family unit no longer exists.

The rule of logic and mathematics in every sphere of life in Zamyatins novel is echoed in D-503s descriptions I noticed her brows that rose to the temples in an acute angle like the sharp corners of an X, while the growing irrationality within himself is thus recorded, Now I no longer live in our clear, rational world; I live in the ancient nightmare world, the world of square roots of minus one. The square root of minus one as all students of high school maths know is the imaginary number i which in this context would stand for individuality and separateness to be contrasted with the faceless collective We of Zamyatins world.

On the Great day of Unanimity each year, when a farcical election is held to return power to the Well-Doer (Benefactor in future translations), it is suddenly found that many have risen in dissent, refusing to vote for the leader. The MEPHI has spread its roots and a ruthless counter-offensive begins. Large sections of the population, including D-503, are subject to The Operation to remove the centre of fancy from their brains which will turn them into human tractors. In the end, the narrators fate is somewhat similar to Winstons in Nineteen Eighty-Four, while I-330 and others are tortured and sentenced to death.

Zamyatins We is a book that grows upon you as you read it for the first, second or third time. With its mathematical similes, the cold antiseptic settings through which faceless numbers, robbed of imagination and independence, go about fulfilling their duties to the state, always under the shadow of the Well-Doer and his murderous Machine, the book reminds us about all that is precious in our lives, all that is worth fighting for till the last of our breath.

There have been many debates as to who was right about the future Orwell or Huxley? It has been pointed out that with the fall of the Soviet Union the Orwellian world of a totalitarian dictatorship collapsed for ever. But still in corners of the world like North Korea, we find situations that seem to be taken straight out of Nineteen Eighty-Four, just as in Trump-era United States, we find echoes of censorship and control over facts imagined by Orwell.

However, in predicting the course science might take, and in imagining the possibility that humanity would squander away freedom at the altar of desire and consumerism, Huxleys Brave New World stands out as a book more conscious of the pulse of rulers and ruled alike.

In his 1958 book Brave New World Revisited which among other things predicts how thw population explosion will become a strain on the worlds resources, Huxley, comparing his dystopia to Orwells, wrote:

The society described in Nineteen Eighty-Four is a society controlled almost exclusively by punishment and the fear of punishment. In the imaginary world of my own fable, punishment is infrequent and generally mild. The nearly perfect control exercised by the government is achieved by systematic reinforcement of desirable behaviour, by many kinds of nearly non-violent manipulation, both physical and psychological, and by genetic standardisation.

Huxleys insights that non-violent manipulation works far better than terror and that the trivial pleasures of a consumer culture will steal freedom from us are an apt characterisation of our times. Neil Postman beautifully summarises the work of these two authors, when he writes:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture.

Reading these three books and reflecting on the above words, it wouldnt be a thoughtcrime to believe that we are already swimming breathlessly in the choppy waters of a dystopian present.

Rajat Chaudhuri is a Charles Wallace Trust, Korean Arts Council-InKo and Hawthornden Castle fellow. He has advocated on climate change issues at the United Nations and has recently finished writing his fourth work of fiction about environmental disaster.

Excerpt from:

Orwell vs Huxley vs Zamyatin: Who would win a dystopian fiction contest? – Scroll.in

Mailbag: The limits of ethical egoism – Albany Democrat Herald

Richard Hirschi’s June 14 letter quoted Ayn Rand as if her words were holy writ. Rand disciples should see on Google “Problems with Ayn Rand’s philosophy.” They’ll find several logical fallacies in her position of ethical egoism.

Also, they should consider the current occupant of the White House, a perfect example of egoism run amok. Everything is about him, either for him or against him. He is centered on praise and attention at all times. These are also the characteristics of spoiled kids. Everything is about what they want, and what they hate. If they don’t grow up and accept society’s norms, they’ll be Mr. Trump or Ayn Rand (who was a lot like Trump in her private life).

We who have grown up are not thieves, as Rand claimed, nor are we collectivists, as Hirschi wrote. We own property, stock, businesses, etc. We just want to avoid what happened to Kansas under Gov. Brownback. The state cut taxes for the rich and businesses, forcing steep cuts in funding for public schools, highways, and other needed services (check it online). It didn’t improve the economy as promised. It just left the state broke, with a lousy credit rating.

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Mailbag: The limits of ethical egoism – Albany Democrat Herald


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