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Psychological Egoism - All People are Selfish in Everything They Do

Psychological egoism is the theory that self-interest is the only motive from which anyone ever acts. This is a challenge to morality because morality involves taking into account the interests of others. Today's video breaks down objections to psychological egoism raised by James Rachels.

Rachels identifies two arguments thought to support psychological egoism. The first argument involves the claim that all acts are selfish because the person performing the acts always does what she most wants to do. Rachels raises two objections to this argument.

The second argument for egoism I've dubbed The Rolling Stones argument. All acts are selfish because they aim at the person's self-satisfaction. People always try to attain satisfaction (i.e., a pleasant state of mind). Rachels objects to this argument as well.

This is the first part of the 8th episode of the Exploring Ethics Series. Watch a video version of this post below or scroll past the video to read the blog post.

Rachels' "Egoism and Moral Skepticism"

In the hit TV show “The Good Place” Eleanor Shellstrop (played by Kristen Bell) starts off as a psychological egoist. She believes that if you dig deep enough you’ll find everyone has an angle. Everyone just does good stuff out of their own self-interest.
 
There’s a funny scene at the end of season 2 where Eleanor is trying to be a better person by serving with the group “Clean Energy Crusaders.” As she says to a fellow group member, "I've been nothing but good for, like, six months, and all I have to show for it is this crummy apartment, a lawsuit, a loose caboose, and an overdrawn bank account. Being good is for suckers. What do you even get out of it?”

The lead volunteer calmly replies, “A feeling of fulfillment in your soul.” 

In frustration Eleanor responds, “Gross. That's the grossest sentence I've ever heard, okay?”
 
Later in the show Eleanor undergoes a genuine moral transformation. She starts to do things motivated by a desire to help others. But early in the show she’s a committed psychological egoist—thinking no one really acts from a genuine desire to help others.
 
 
 
 
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You might of even entertained psychological egoist reasoning in the past, as I have. Someone does something morally good and you wonder, “they probably just did that because it makes them look good to others, or gives them that gross sense of fulfillment…in their soul, to paraphrase Eleanor.”
 
What’s wrong with such reasoning? Is psychological egoism defensible? Or is it a pretty bad theory of why people do things? Today we’ll answer these questions. 

Psychological Egoism vs. Ethical Egoism

In Plato’s Republic, Glaucon plays the part of a moral skeptic. He reminds us of the story of Gyges—a shepherd that discovered a magical ring. The ring could make a person invisible. The person could do whatever they wanted without being detected. Gyges used the ring to devious ends—entering the Royal Palace, seducing the Queen, killing the King, and then becoming King himself. With this in mind, Glaucon conduct a thought experiment.
 
Imagine there are two such magical rings. One is given to a virtuous person. The other is given to a scoundrel. If we could follow the two people around and see what thtye do, Glaucon argues that they both would do similar thing.s THe person of virtue would use the ring to self-interested ends, as Glaucon explains:
 
“Now no one, it seems, would be so incorruptible that he would stay on the path of justice, or bring himself to keep away from other people’s possession and not touch them, when he could take whatever he wanted from the marketplace with impunity, go into people’s houses and have sex with anyone he wished, kill or release from prison anyone he wished, and do all the other things that would make him like a god among humans.” (Plato Republic, C.D.C. Reeve Trans. (3rd ed.), Book 2, 360b4-c2)
 
Not only would the just or virtuous person do such things, Glaucon thinks he ought to do them. This highlights the difference between psychological egoism and ethical egoism. 
 
In his paper “Ethical Egoism and Moral Skepticism” philosopher James Rachels argues against both theories. Today we’ll focus on how Rachels argues that psychological egoism is not an acceptable theory.
 
What are the two theories?
 
Psychological egoism is a theory about how we’re actually motivated. It holds that
  • Psychological Egoism: All acts are done either only or ultimately for the sake of self-interest.
Psychological egoism is an empirical theory. It’s a theory about the psychology people have as they’re motivated to do what they do. 
 
By contrast, ethical egoism is a normative theory. It’s a theory about what motivations people ought to have and what they ought to do as a result of those motivations. It holds that:
  • Ethical Egoism: An act is right for a person to perform if and only if that act is in the person’s best interest.
In the second part of this 8th episode, we’ll discuss ethical egoism in depth. Why start with the empirical theory, then? Why does Rachels spend a large chunk of his paper arguing against psychological egoism.
 

The Relationship Between the Two Theories

If psychological egoism is true, that might lend support to ethical egoism. Why think that? Some people think a good normative theory must be such that people could be motivated to follow the theory. If psychological egoism is true, we can only be motivated to act in our own self-interest. So, if a moral theory told us to act in the best interest of others, even when it’s against our self-interest to do so, then that theory wouldn’t be able to motivate us. We could not do what the theory says. Ethical egoism, on the other hand, always instructs people to do what’s in their own self interest.
 
So it makes sense for Rachels to investigate the merits of psychological egoism. If it’s true, then it might support ethical egoism. Yet, and here’s why ethical egoism needs to be investigated even after Rachels rips apart psychological egoism, whether ethical egoism is true does not depend on whether psychological egoism is true. That is, ethical egoism could be true even if psychological egoism is false. This comes out as Rachels characterizes ethical egoism:
 
“the view that, regardless of how men do in fact behave, they have no obligation to do anything except what is in their own interests…a person is always justified in doing what is in his own interests, regardless of the effect on others.”
 
As you can see in that quote, apart from how people actually behave, they have no obligation to do anything other that what’s in their own interests. Yet, if it turns out people actually always do what’s in their own self-interest that might (with further arguments) lend support to the idea that that’s how they ought to behave. But how they ought to behave doesn’t rely on how people actually behave regarding whether it’s true or not. Claiming otherwise would commit the famous is-ought fallacy of trying to derive a normative claim from an empirical claim.

Two Arguments  for Psychological Egoism

Argument 1: Involves the claim that all acts are selfish because they pursue the strongest desire.

I’m writing this  during the COVID-19 global pandemic. Times are hard. Imagine that you lost your job, which many people have. It’s a struggle to make rent. Out of the blue a friend offers to help cover your rent. She’s still employed and wants to help out. Isn’t this an unselfish act? Doesn’t this show people don’t always act out of self-interest? 
 
According to this first argument for psychological egoism, supposed voluntary acts of kindness like your friend covering your rent are not unselfish. Your friend is just doing what she most wants to do. If she didn’t most desire to help you, she wouldn’t have helped you. And your friend doing what she most wants to do just is acting in our own self-interest. So people only really are motivated to do stuff out of self-interest.
 
We can make the argument more precise as follows:
 
(1) Provided that an act is done voluntarily, the agent always does what she most wants to do.
(2) Doing what one wants to do just is acting in one’s own interest i.e. acting out of self-interest.
 so,
(3) The only motive from which anyone ever acts is self-interest.
 
Do you think this is a good argument? Rachels doesn’t think so, as he says, “this argument is so bad that it would not deserve to be taken seriously except for the fact that so many otherwise intelligent people have been taken in by it.” Why is the argument “so bad” according to Rachels?
 

Rachels’ First Objection to Argument 1 - People Don’t Always Act Based on Their Strongest Desire

Rachels identifies premise (1) in the argument as problematic. It’s false that all voluntary acts involve people doing always what they most what to do. There are two types of acts that aren’t done because they’re what the person wants to do, much less most wants to do. What makes an act selfish is not whether or not the agent wants to do it. What makes it selfish, if it is, is the purpose or goal of the action.
 
Acts that are Means to Desired Ends
The first type of acts we don’t want to do but we still do are acts that are means to an end. You may not want to go get a physical. They can be pretty unpleasant. But they’re a means to maintaining good health. You may not want to go to work on a Monday.
 
But you need to work as a means to keeping your job and earning a paycheck. 
 
Yet an egoist might respond that the ends are wanted, so we’re still acting in accordance with what we want. If the egoist makes this move, she still has to deal with the second set of acts.
 
Acts Believed to be Obligatory
Sometimes people do things out of obligation. They don’t want to perform a certain act, and there’s not a goal they want to achieve as a result of the act, but they feel obligated to do it and do it for that reason alone.
 
Imagine your friend borrows your car for the weekend. Sunday night rolls around. She’s exhausted from the weekend. The last thing she wants to do is return your car. Yet, she promised she’d return it Sunday so you can have it for work during the week. 
 
But, wait! Couldn’t the egoist respond that you want to keep your promises, so you’re still doing what you want to do?
 
Rachels argues this won’t work. As he explains, “if I have promised to do something, and if I do not want to do it, then it is simply false to say that I want to keep my promise. In such cases we feel a conflict precisely because we do not want to do what we feel obligated to do.”
 
Your friend returning your car is like this. She doesn’t want to do what she’s obligated herself to do. She does it despite not wanting to keep her promise.
 

Rachels’ Second Objection to Argument 1

Here Rachels strengthens his case against Argument 1 for Psychological Egoism. For the sake of argument, he grants the truth of premise (1), namely that everything people voluntarily do is what they most want to do. Then he targets premise (2). Recall that premise equates doing what you want to do with acting out of self-interest.
 
Let’s return to the case of your friend paying your rent because you’ve hit hard financial times. 
 
Imagine that your friend wants to pay your rent to help you. Does the fact that your friend wants to do this mean that she’s acting out of self-interest? Rachels doesn’t think so. 
 
If your friend enjoys helping her friends, even when it means sacrificing her own finances, it doesn’t follow your friend covering your rent is her acting out of self-interest. Your friend’s act is not motivated by self-interest. It’s motivated by a desire to promote your well-being, which is connected to your ability to maintain steady housing.
 
As Rachels concludes: “it is the object of a want that determines whether it is selfish or not. The mere fact that I am acting on my wants does not mean that I am acting selfishly; that depends on what it is that I want. If I want only my own good, and care nothing for others, then I am selfish; but if I also want other people to be well-off and happy, and if I act on that desire, then my action is not selfish. So much for this argument.”
 
If the object of my want is the good of another person, then I am not acting selfishly. I’m not acting out of self-interest alone. This undermines premise 2 in the argument, which holds that doing what you want just is acting out of self-interest. 
 
What do you think about the doubts Rachels raised to premises 1 and 2? Do you find his counters equally plausible and effective? If not, how might an egoist reply to Rachels? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
 

Argument 2: All acts are selfish because they aim at the agent’s self-satisfaction

This argument might be dubbed The Rolling Stones argument. As Mick Jagger laments in their famous song, “I can’t get no satisfaction. ‘Cause I try, and I try, and I try, and I try.” That reminds me of Maroon 5’s song featuring Christina Aguilera, “Moves like Jagger.” Anyway, argument 2 holds that all we desire to do is achieve self-satisfaction—a pleasant state of consciousness.
 
Going back to your friend helping you pay rent, your friend probably feels good for doing so. The object of your friend wanting to help you is that nice state of mind. The real goal isn’t bringing about good for you by helping you keep a roof over your head. The real point of all supposed unselfish acts is to make the do-gooder, well, feel good. The point isn’t doing good for others.
 
More specifically, the argument goes like:
 
(1) So-called unselfish actions always produce a sense of self-satisfaction.
(2) This sense of self-satisfaction is a pleasant state of consciousness.
       So,
(3) The point of the action is to achieve a pleasant state of consciousness.
 

Support for Argument 2 - A Story About US President Abe Lincoln

Rachels explains how Abe Lincoln once presented Argument 2:
 
"Mr. Lincoln once remarked to a fellow-passenger on an old-time mud-coach that all men were prompted by selfishness in doing good. His fellow-passenger was antagonizing this position when they were passing over a corduroy bridge that spanned a slough. As they crossed this bridge they espied an old razor-backed sow on the bank making a terrible noise because her pigs had got into the slough and were in danger of drowning. As the old coach began to climb the hill, Mr. Lincoln called out, “Driver, can’t you stop just a moment?” Then Mr. Lincoln jumped out, ran back, and lifted the little pigs out of the mud and water and placed them on the bank. When he returned, his companion remarked: “Now, Abe, where does selfishness come in on this little episode?” “Why, bless your soul, Ed, that was the very essence of selfishness. 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, don’t you see?”
 
The response to this argument is similar to the last response Rachels gave to Argument 1. Just because Abe had “peace of mind” from saving the piglets it doesn’t follow that he’s acting selfishly. Rather the fact that saving the little pigs gave him peace of mind is evidence that he’s a compassionate person that cares bout the good of others. As Rachels remarks, “If a man were truly selfish, why should it bother his conscience that others suffer—much less pigs?”
 
This also holds for your friend helping you make rent. She may get a good feeling from helping you, but the fact that she has the goal of helping you, even if only to get a good feeling, shows she’s not solely concerned with what she gets out of it. 
 
Argument 2 reverses how things actually go. We don’t want to get a sense of self-satisfaction and then find different things to do to achieve that pleasurable state of mind. Instead, as Rachels argues by way of illustration, “we desire all sorts of different things—money, a new fishing boat, to be a better chess player, to get a promotion in our work, etc.—and because we desire these things, we derive satisfaction from attaining them. And so, if someone desires the welfare and happiness of another person, he will derive satisfaction from that; but this does not mean that this satisfaction is the object of his desire, or that he is in any way selfish on account of it.”
 
This undermines argument 2 by showing the the argument is not deductively valid. Even assuming the premises are true the conclusion doesn’t necessarily follow. Even if it’s true that we get a pleasant state of mind when our acts are successful, it doesn’t follow that we always act to bring about that nice state of mind. It’s possible for the conclusion of the argument to be false. It’s not true that the point of the action is to achieve a pleasant state of consciousness.
 
Rachels thinks he’s shown that Psychological Egoism is a weak theory of why we actually do what we do. What do you think? Next time we’ll look at Rachels argument against ethical egoism.
 
Until then, keep thinking ethically and living wisely. Keep living The Philosophical Life!
 
Watch other videos in the Exploring Ethics Series:
- Episode 1 - Moral Reasoning by Socrates: https://youtu.be/rLTPKjSb5yI
- Episode 2 - Plato's Crito: https://youtu.be/VU8L0KUv5iw
- Episode 3 - Plato's Phaedo: https://youtu.be/ew31N4dGEVM
- Episode 4 – Moral Subjectivism: https://youtu.be/vA_9rt_lrgQ
- Episode 5 - God and Morality: https://youtu.be/e7Xq0wFGSi0
- Episode 6 - Cultural Relativism: https://youtu.be/3zG7duw0HXQ
- Episode 7 - Nagel on Right and Wrong: https://youtu.be/3uoNCciEYao
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Reference: James Rachels, "Egoism and Moral Skepticism," Chapter 8 in Exploring Ethics (2020, 5th ed.), Steven M. Cahn (ed.), Oxford University Press.
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