Psychological Egoism

  • Philosophical Theories & Ideas
  • Major Philosophers
  • Ph.D., Philosophy, The University of Texas at Austin
  • M.A., Philosophy, McGill University
  • B.A., Philosophy, University of Sheffield

Psychological egoism is the theory that all our actions are basically motivated by self-interest. It is a view endorsed by several philosophers, among them Thomas Hobbes and Friedrich Nietzsche , and has played a role in some game theory .

Why think that all our actions are self-interested?

A self-interested action is one that is motivated by a concern for one’s own interests. Clearly, most of our actions are of this sort. I get a drink of water because I have an interest in quenching my thirst. I show up for work because I have an interest in being paid. But are all our actions self-interested? On the face of it, there seem to be lots of actions that are not. For instance:

  • A motorist who stops to help someone who has broken down.
  • A person giving money to charity.
  • A soldier falling on a grenade to protect others from the explosion.

But psychological egoists think they can explain such actions without abandoning their theory. The motorist might be thinking that one day she, too, could need help. So she supports a culture in which we help those in need. The person giving to charity might be hoping to impress others, or they might be trying to avoid feelings of guilt, or they might be looking for that warm fuzzy feeling one gets after doing a good deed. The soldier falling on the grenade might be hoping for glory, even if only the posthumous kind.

Objections to Psychological Egoism

The first and most obvious objection to psychological egoism is that there are lots of clear examples of people behaving altruistically or selflessly, putting the interests of others before their own. The examples just given illustrate this idea. But as already noted, the psychological egoists think they can explain actions of this kind. But can they? Critics argue that their theory rests on a false account of human motivation.

Take, for instance, the suggestion that people who give to charity, or who donate blood, or who help people in need, are motivated by either a desire to avoid feeling guilty or by a desire to enjoy feeling saintly. This may be true in some cases, but surely it simply isn’t true in many. The fact that I don’t feel guilty or do feel virtuous after performing a certain action may be true. But this is often just a side effect of my action. I didn’t necessarily do it in order to get these feelings.

The difference between selfish and selfless.

Psychological egoists suggest that we are all, at the bottom, quite selfish. Even people who we describe as unselfish are really doing what they do for their own benefit. Those who take unselfish actions at face value, they say, are naïve or superficial.

Against this, though, the critic can argue that the distinction we all make between selfish and unselfish actions (and people) is an important one. A selfish action is one that sacrifices someone else’s interests to my own: e.g. I greedily grab the last slice of cake. An unselfish action is one where I place another person’s interests above my own: e.g. I offer them the last piece of cake, even though I’d like it myself. Perhaps it is true that I do this because I have a desire to help or please others. In that sense, I could be described, in some sense, as satisfying my desires even when I act unselfishly. But this is exactly what an unselfish person is: namely, someone who cares about others, who wants to help them. The fact that I am satisfying a desire to help others is no reason to deny that I am acting selflessly. On the contrary. That’s exactly the sort of desire that unselfish people have.

The appeal of psychological egoism.

Psychological egoism is appealing for two main reasons:

  • it satisfies our preference for simplicity. In science, we like theories that explain diverse phenomena by showing them to all be controlled by the same force. E.g.  Newton’s theory of gravity offers a single principle that explains a falling apple, the orbits of the planets, and the tides. Psychological egoism promises to explain every kind of action by relating them all to one fundamental motive: self-interest
  • it offers a hard-headed, seemingly cynical view of human nature. This appeals to our concern not to be naïve or taken in by appearances.

To its critics, though, the theory is too simple. And being hard-headed is not a virtue if it means ignoring contrary evidence. Consider, for instance how you feel if you watch a film in which a two-year-old girl starts stumbling toward the edge of a cliff. If you’re a normal person, you’ll feel anxious. But why? The film is only a film; it isn’t real. And the toddler is a stranger. Why should you care what happens to her? It isn’t you that is in danger. Yet you do feel anxious. Why? A plausible explanation of this feeling is that most of us have a natural concern for others, perhaps because we are, by nature, social beings. This is a line of criticism advanced by David Hume . 

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Egoism can be a descriptive or a normative position. Psychological egoism, the most famous descriptive position, claims that each person has but one ultimate aim: her own welfare. Normative forms of egoism make claims about what one ought to do, rather than describe what one does do. Ethical egoism claims that it is necessary and sufficient for an action to be morally right that it maximize one's self-interest. Rational egoism claims that it is necessary and sufficient for an action to be rational that it maximize one's self-interest.

1. Psychological Egoism

2. ethical egoism, 3. rational egoism, bibliography, other internet resources, related entries.

All forms of egoism require explication of “self-interest” (or “welfare” or “well-being”). There are two main theories. Preference or desire accounts identify self-interest with the satisfaction of one's desires. Often, and most plausibly, these desires are restricted to self-regarding desires. What makes a desire self-regarding is controversial, but there are clear cases and counter-cases: a desire for my own pleasure is self-regarding; a desire for the welfare of others is not. Objective accounts identify self-interest with the possession of states (such as virtue or knowledge) that are valued independently of whether they are desired. Hedonism, which identifies self-interest with pleasure, is either a preference or an objective account, according to whether what counts as pleasure is determined by one's desires.

Psychological egoism claims that each person has but one ultimate aim: her own welfare. This allows for action that fails to maximize perceived self-interest, but rules out the sort of behavior psychological egoists like to target -- such as altruistic behavior or motivation by thoughts of duty alone. It allows for weakness of will, since in weakness of will cases I am still aiming at my own welfare; I am weak in that I do not act as I aim. And it allows for aiming at things other than one's welfare, such as helping others, where these things are a means to one's welfare.

Psychological egoism is supported by our frequent observation of self-interested behavior. Apparently altruistic action is often revealed to be self-interested. And we typically motivate people by appealing to their self-interest (through, for example, punishments and rewards).

A common objection to psychological egoism, made famously by Joseph Butler, is that I must desire things other than my own welfare in order to get welfare. Say I derive welfare from playing hockey. Unless I desired, for its own sake, to play hockey, I would not derive welfare from playing. Or say I derive welfare from helping others. Unless I desired, for its own sake, that others do well, I would not derive welfare from helping them. Welfare results from my action, but cannot be the only aim of my action.

The psychological egoist can concede that I must have desires for particular things, such as playing hockey. But there is no need to concede that the satisfaction of these desires is not part of my welfare. My welfare might consist simply in the satisfaction of self-regarding desires. In the case of deriving welfare from helping others, the psychological egoist can again concede that I would not derive welfare without desiring some particular thing, but need not agree that what I desire for its own sake is that others do well. That I am the one who helps them may, for example, satisfy my self-regarding desire for power.

A bigger problem for psychological egoism is that some behavior does not seem to be explained by self-regarding desires. Say a soldier throws himself on a grenade to prevent others from being killed. It does not seem that the soldier is pursuing his perceived self-interest. It is plausible that, if asked, the soldier would have said that he threw himself on the grenade because he wanted to save the lives of others or because it was his duty. He would deny as ridiculous the claim that he acted in his self-interest.

The psychological egoist might reply that the soldier is lying or self-deceived. Perhaps he threw himself on the grenade because he could not bear to live with himself afterwards if he did not do so. He has a better life, in terms of welfare, by avoiding years of guilt. The main problem here is that while this is a possible account of some cases, there is no reason to think it covers all cases. Another problem is that guilt may presuppose that the soldier has a non-self-regarding desire for doing what he takes to be right.

The psychological egoist might reply that some such account must be right. After all, the soldier did what he most wanted to do, and so must have been pursuing his perceived self-interest. In one sense, this is true. If self-interest is identified with the satisfaction of all of one's preferences, then all intentional action is self-interested (at least if intentional actions are always explained by citing preferences, as most believe). Psychological egoism turns out to be trivially true. This would not content defenders of psychological egoism, however. They intend an empirical theory that, like other such theories, it is at least possible to refute by observation.

There is another way to show that the trivial version of psychological egoism is unsatisfactory. We ordinarily think there is a significant difference in selfishness between the soldier's action and that of another soldier who, say, pushes someone onto the grenade to avoid being blown up himself. We think the former is acting unselfishly while the latter is acting selfishly. According to the trivial version of psychological egoism, both soldiers are equally selfish, since both are doing what they most desire.

The psychological egoist might handle apparent cases of self-sacrifice, not by adopting the trivial version, but rather by claiming that facts about the self-interest of the agent explain all behavior. Perhaps as infants we have only self-regarding desires; we come to desire other things, such as doing our duty, by learning that these other things satisfy our self-regarding desires; in time, we pursue the other things for their own sakes.

Even if this picture of development is true, however, it does not defend psychological egoism, since it admits that we sometimes ultimately aim at things other than our welfare. An account of the origins of our non-self-regarding desires does not show that they are really self-regarding. The soldier's desire is to save others, not increase his own welfare, even if he would not have desired to save others unless saving others was, in the past, connected to increasing his welfare.

The psychological egoist must argue that we do not come to pursue things other than our welfare for their own sakes. In principle, it seems possible to show this by showing that non-self-regarding desires do not continue for long once their connection to our welfare is broken. However, evidence for this dependence claim has not been forthcoming.

Faced with these difficulties, the psychological egoist might move to what Gregory Kavka 1986 64-80 calls “predominant egoism:” we act unselfishly only rarely, and then typically where the sacrifice is small and the gain to others is large or where those benefiting are friends, family, or favorite causes. Predominant egoism is not troubled by the soldier counter-example, since it allows exceptions; it is not trivial; and it is empirically plausible.

Ethical egoism claims that it is necessary and sufficient for an action to be morally right that it maximize one's self-interest. (There are possibilities other than maximization. One might, for example, claim that one ought to achieve a certain level of welfare, but that there is no requirement to achieve more. Ethical egoism might also apply to things other than acts, such as rules or character traits. Since these variants are uncommon, and the arguments for and against them are largely the same as those concerning the standard version, I set them aside.)

One issue concerns how much ethical egoism differs in content from standard moral theories. It might appear that it differs a great deal. After all, moral theories such as Kantianism, utilitarianism, and common-sense morality require that an agent give weight to the interests of others. They sometimes require uncompensated sacrifices, particularly when the loss to the agent is small and the gain to others is large. (Say the cost to me of saving a drowning person is getting my shirtsleeve wet.) Ethical egoists can reply, however, that egoism generates many of the same duties to others. The argument runs as follows. Each person needs the cooperation of others to obtain goods such as defense or friendship. If I act as if I give no weight to others, others will not cooperate with me. If, say, I break my promises whenever it is in my direct self-interest to do so, others will not accept my promises, and may even attack me. I do best, then, by acting as if others have weight (provided they act as if I have weight in return).

It is unlikely that this argument proves that ethical egoism generates all of the standard duties to others. For the argument depends on the ability of others to cooperate with me or attack me should I fail to cooperate. In dealings with others who lack these abilities, the egoist has no reason to cooperate. The duties to others found in standard moral theories are not conditional in this way. I do not, for example, escape a duty to save a drowning person, when I can easily do so, just because the drowning person (or anyone watching) happens never to be able to offer fruitful cooperation or retaliation.

The divergence between ethical egoism and standard moral theories appears in other ways.

First, the ethical egoist will rank as most important duties that bring her the highest payoff. Standard moral theories determine importance at least in part by considering the payoff to those helped. What brings the highest payoff to me is not necessarily what brings the highest payoff to those helped. I might, for example, profit more from helping the local Opera society refurbish its hall than I would from giving to famine relief in Africa, but standard moral theories would rank famine relief as more important than Opera hall improvements.

Second, the cooperation argument cannot be extended to justify extremely large sacrifices, such as the soldier falling on the grenade, that standard moral theories rank either as most important or supererogatory. The cooperation argument depends on a short-term loss (such as keeping a promise that it is inconvenient to keep) being recompensed by a long-term gain (such as being trusted in future promises). Where the immediate loss is one's life (or irreplaceable features such as one's sight), there is no long-term gain, and so no egoist argument for the sacrifice.

An ethical egoist might reply by taking the cooperation argument further. Perhaps I cannot get the benefits of cooperation without converting to some non-egoist moral theory. That is, it is not enough that I act as if others have weight; I must really give them weight. I could still count as an egoist, in the sense that I have adopted the non-egoist theory on egoist grounds.

One problem is that it seems unlikely that I can get the benefits of cooperation only by conversion. Provided I act as if others have weight for long enough, others will take me as giving them weight, and so cooperate, whether I really give them weight or not. In many situations, others will neither have the ability to see my true motivation nor care about it.

Another problem is that conversion can be costly. I might be required by my non-egoist morality to make a sacrifice for which I cannot be compensated (or pass up a gain so large that passing it up will not be compensated for). Since I have converted from egoism, I can no longer reject making the sacrifice or passing up the gain on the ground that it will not pay. It is safer, and seemingly feasible, to remain an egoist while cooperating in most cases. If so, ethical egoism and standard moralities will diverge in some cases. (For discussion of the cooperation argument, see Frank 1988; Gauthier 1986 ch. 6; Kavka 1984 and 1986 pt. II; Sidgwick 1981 II.V.)

There is another way to try to show that ethical egoism and standard moral theories do not differ much. One might hold one particular objective theory of self-interest, according to which my welfare lies in possessing the virtues required by standard moral theories. This requires an argument to show that this particular objective theory gives the right account of self-interest. It also faces a worry for any objective theory: objective theories seem implausible as accounts of welfare. If, say, all my preferences favor my ignoring the plight of others, and these preferences do not rest on false beliefs about issues such as the likelihood of receiving help, it seems implausible (and objectionably paternalistic) to claim that “really” my welfare lies in helping others. I may have a duty to help others, and the world might be better if I helped others, but it does not follow that I am better off by helping others. (For a more optimistic verdict on this strategy, noting its roots in Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and the British Idealists, see Brink 1997.)

Of course the divergence between ethical egoism and standard moral theories need not bother an ethical egoist. An ethical egoist sees egoism as superior to other moral theories. Whether it is superior depends on the strength of the arguments for it. Two arguments are popular.

First, one might argue for a moral theory, as one argues for a scientific theory, by showing that it best fits the evidence. In the case of moral theories, the evidence is usually taken to be our most confident common-sense moral judgments. Egoism fits many of these, such as the requirements of cooperation in ordinary cases. It fits some judgments better than utilitarianism does. For example, it allows one to keep some good, such as a job, for oneself, even if giving the good to someone else would help him slightly more, and it captures the intuition that I need not let others exploit me. The problem is that, as the discussion of the cooperation argument shows, it also fails to fit some of the confident moral judgments we make.

Second, one might argue for a moral theory by showing that it is dictated by non-moral considerations -- in particular, by facts about motivation. It is commonly held that moral judgments must be practical, or capable of motivating those who make them. If psychological egoism were true, this would restrict moral judgments to those made by egoism. Other moral judgments would be excluded since it would be impossible to motivate anyone to follow them.

One problem with this argument is that psychological egoism seems false. Replacing psychological with predominant egoism loses the key claim that it is impossible to motivate anyone to make an uncompensated sacrifice.

The ethical egoist might reply that, if predominant egoism is true, ethical egoism may require less deviation from our ordinary actions than any standard moral theory. But fit with motivation is hardly decisive; any normative theory, including ethical egoism, is intended to guide and criticize our choices, rather than simply endorse whatever we do. When I make an imprudent choice, this does not count against ethical egoism, and in favor of a theory recommending imprudence.

The argument has other problems. One could deny that morality must be practical in the required sense. Perhaps morality need not be practical at all: we do not always withdraw moral judgments when we learn that the agent could not be motivated to follow them. Or perhaps moral judgments must be capable of motivating not just anyone, but only idealized versions of ourselves, free from (say) irrationality. In this case, it is insufficient to describe how we are motivated; what is relevant is a description of how we would be motivated were we rational.

Finally, if I do not believe that some action is ultimately in my self-interest, it follows from psychological egoism that I cannot aim to do it. But say I am wrong: the action is in my self-interest. Ethical egoism then says that it is right for me to do something I cannot aim to do. It violates practicality just as any other moral theory does.

So far I have considered arguments for ethical egoism. There are two standard arguments against it.

The first is that ethical egoism is inconsistent in various ways. Say ethical egoism recommends that A and B both go a certain hockey game, since going to the game is in the self-interest of each. Unfortunately, only one seat remains. Ethical egoism, then, recommends an impossible state of affairs. Or say that I am A and an ethical egoist. I both claim that B ought to go to the game, since that is in her self-interest, and I do not want B to go to the game, since B's going to the game is against my self-interest.

Against the first inconsistency charge, the ethical egoist can reply that ethical egoism provides no neutral ranking of states of affairs. It recommends to A that A go to the game, and to B that B go to the game, but is silent on the value of A and B both attending the game.

Against the second inconsistency charge, the ethical egoist can claim that she morally recommends that B go to the game, although she desires that B not go. This is no more odd than claiming that my opponent in a game would be wise to adopt a particular strategy, while desiring that he not do so. True, the ethical egoist is unlikely to recommend ethical egoism to others, to blame others for violations of what ethical egoism requires, to justify herself to others on the basis of ethical egoism, or to express moral attitudes such as forgiveness and resentment. These publicity worries may disqualify ethical egoism as a moral theory, but do not show inconsistency.

The second standard argument against ethical egoism is just that: ethical egoism does not count as a moral theory. One might set various constraints on a theory's being a moral theory. Many of these constraints are met by ethical egoism -- the formal constraints, for example, that moral claims must be prescriptive and universalizable. Ethical egoism issues prescriptions – “do what maximizes your self-interest” -- and it issues the same prescriptions for people in relevantly similar situations. But other constraints are problematic for ethical egoism: perhaps a moral theory must sometimes require uncompensated sacrifices; or perhaps it must supply a single, neutral ranking of actions that each agent must follow in cases where interests conflict; or perhaps it must respect principles such as “that I ought to do x is a consideration in favor of others not preventing me from doing x;” or perhaps it must be able to be made public in the way, just noted, that ethical egoism cannot. (For sample discussions of these two objections, see Baier 1958 189-191; Campbell 1972; Frankena 1973 18-20; Kalin 1970; Moore 1903 96-105.)

The issue of what makes for a moral theory is contentious. An ethical egoist could challenge whatever constraint is deployed against her. But a neater reply is to move to rational egoism, which makes claims about what one has reason to do, ignoring the topic of what is morally right. This gets at what ethical egoists intend, while skirting the issue of constraints on moral theories. After all, few if any ethical egoists think of egoism as giving the correct content of morality, while also thinking that the rational thing to do is determined by some non-egoist consideration. One could then, if one wished, argue for ethical egoism from rational egoism and the plausible claim that the best moral theory must tell me what I have most reason to do.

Rational egoism claims that it is necessary and sufficient for an action to be rational that it maximize one's self-interest. (As with ethical egoism, there are variants which drop maximization or evaluate rules or character traits rather than actions. There are also variants which make the maximization of self-interest necessary but not sufficient, or sufficient but not necessary, for an action to be rational. Again, I set these aside.)

Like ethical egoism, rational egoism needs arguments to support it. One might cite our most confident judgments about rational action and claim that rational egoism best fits these. The problem is that our most confident judgments about rational action seem to be captured by a different, extremely popular theory -- the instrumental theory of rationality. According to the instrumental theory, it is necessary and sufficient, for an action to be rational, that it maximize the satisfaction of one's preferences. Since psychological egoism seems false, it may be rational for me to make an uncompensated sacrifice for the sake of others, for this may be what, on balance, best satisfies my (strong, non-self-interested) preferences. This conflict with the instrumental theory is a major problem for rational egoism.

The rational egoist might reply that the instrumental theory is equally a problem for any standard moral theory that claims to give an account of what one ought rationally, or all things considered, to do. If, for example, a utilitarian claims that I have most reason to give to charity, since that maximizes the general happiness, I could object that giving to charity cannot be rational given my particular preferences, which are for things other than the general happiness.

A different problem for rational egoism is that it appears arbitrary. Suppose I claim that I ought to maximize the welfare of blue-eyed people, but not of other people. Unless I can explain why blue-eyed people are to be preferred, my claim looks arbitrary, in the sense that I have given no reason for the different treatments. As a rational egoist, I claim that I ought to maximize the welfare of one person (myself). Unless I can explain why I should be preferred, my claim looks equally arbitrary.

One reply is to argue that non-arbitrary distinctions can be made by one's preferences. Say I like anchovies and hate broccoli. This makes my decision to buy anchovies rather than broccoli non-arbitrary. Similarly, my preference for my own welfare makes my concentration on my own welfare non-arbitrary.

There are two problems for this reply.

First, we do not always take preferences to establish non-arbitrary distinctions. If I defend favoring blue-eyed people simply by noting that I like blue-eyed people, without any justification for my liking, this seems unsatisfactory. The rational egoist must argue that hers is a case where preferences are decisive.

Second, if psychological egoism is false, I might lack a preference for my own welfare. It would follow that for me, a distinction between my welfare and that of others would be arbitrary, and the rational egoist claim that each ought to maximize his own welfare would be unjustified when applied to me. The proposal that preferences establish non-arbitrary distinctions supports the instrumental theory better than rational egoism.

Another reply to the arbitrariness worry is to claim that certain distinctions just are non-arbitrary. Which distinctions these are is revealed by looking at whether we ask for justifications of the relevance of the distinction. In the case of my maximizing of the welfare of the blue-eyed, we do ask for a justification; we do not take “because they're blue-eyed” as an adequate defense of a reason to give to the blue-eyed. In the case of my maximizing my own welfare, however, “because it will make me better off” may seem a reasonable justification; we do not quickly ask “why does that matter?”

Debate over rational egoism was revitalized by Parfit 1984 pts. II-III. Parfit gives two main arguments against rational egoism. Both focus on the rational egoist's attitude toward the future: the rational egoist holds that the time at which some good comes is by itself irrelevant, so that, for example, I ought to sacrifice a small present gain for a larger future gain.

First, one could challenge rational egoism, not only with the instrumental theory, but also with the “present-aim” theory of rationality. According to the present-aim theory, I have most reason to do what maximizes the satisfaction of my present desires. Even if all of these desires are self-regarding, the present-aim theory need not coincide with rational egoism. Suppose I know that in the future I will desire a good pension, but I do not now desire a good pension for myself in the future; I have different self-regarding desires. Suppose also that, looking back from the end of my life, I will have maximized my welfare by contributing now to the pension. Rational egoism requires that I contribute now. The present-aim theory does not. It claims that my reasons are relative not only to who has a desire -- me rather than someone else – but also to when the desire is held -- now rather than in the past or future. One reason the present-aim theory is important is that it shows there is a coherent, more minimal alternative to rational egoism. The rational egoist cannot argue that egoism is the most minimal theory, and that standard moral theories, by requiring more of people, require special, additional justification.

Second, Parfit argues for a theory of personal identity according to which what matters is (in part) the connections between my present mental states and the mental states of my future self. These connections take the form of persisting desires, character traits, and memories. Since these can decrease between my present and future selves, it is implausible to claim, as the rational egoist does, that I now should care equally about my present self and all my future selves.

Psychological Egoism

  • Broad, C. D., 1971, “Egoism as a Theory of Human Motives,” in Broad, Broad's Critical Essays in Moral Philosophy , London: George Allen and Unwin.
  • Butler, J., 1900, Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel , in The Works of Bishop Butler , ed. J. H. Bernard, London: Macmillan, Sermons I and XI.
  • Feinberg, J., 1978 “Psychological Egoism,” in Feinberg, Reason and Responsibility , fourth edition (and other editions), Belmont: Wadsworth.
  • Hume, D., 1975, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals , in Enquiries , ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge and P. H. Nidditch, Oxford: Oxford University Press, Appendix II.
  • Kavka, G., 1986, Hobbesian Moral and Political Theory , Princeton: Princeton University Press, 35-44, 51-64.
  • Sidgwick, H., 1981, The Methods of Ethics , seventh edition, Indianapolis: Hackett, I.IV.
  • Slote, M. A., 1964, “An Empirical Basis for Psychological Egoism,” Journal of Philosophy 61: 530-537.

Ethical Egoism

  • Baier, K., 1958, The Moral Point of View , Ithaca: Cornell.
  • Brink, D., 1997, "Self-love and Altruism," Social Philosophy and Policy 14: 122-157.
  • Campbell, R., 1972, "A Short Refutation of Ethical Egoism," Canadian Journal of Philosophy 2: 249-54.
  • Frank, R. H., 1988, Passions Within Reason , New York: Norton.
  • Frankena, W. K., 1973, Ethics , Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.
  • Gauthier, D., 1986, Morals By Agreement , Oxford: Clarendon.
  • Hobbes, T., 1968, Leviathan , ed. C. B. Macpherson, Harmondsworth: Penguin, chs. 14-15.
  • Kalin, J., 1970, "In Defense of Egoism," in D. Gauthier, Morality and Rational Self-Interest , Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.
  • Kavka, G., 1984, “The Reconciliation Project,” in Morality, Reason, and Truth , ed. D. Copp and D. Zimmerman, Totowa: Rowman and Allanheld.
  • Kavka, G., 1986, Part II.
  • McConnell, T. C. 1978, “The Argument from Psychological Egoism to Ethical Egoism,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 56: 41-47.
  • Moore, G.E., 1903, Principia Ethica , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Sidgwick, H., 1981, II.I, II.V, and concluding ch.

Rational Egoism

  • Brink, D. 1992, “Sidgwick and the Rationale for Rational Egoism,” in Essays on Henry Sidgwick , ed. B. Schultz, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Kagan, S., 1986, “The Present-Aim Theory of Rationality,” Ethics 96: 746-759.
  • Parfit, D., 1984, Reasons and Persons , Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Parfit, D., 1986, Reply to Kagan, Ethics , 96: 843-846, 868-869.
  • Shaver, R. 1999, Rational Egoism , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Essay On Psychological Egoism

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Topic: Law , Philosophy , Psychology , Investment , Belief , Ethics , Thinking , Supreme Court

Published: 02/10/2020


Psychological egoism is a controversial philosophical concept that is founded on the belief that people always pursue their self interest. In straightforward terms, psychological egoism is based on the presumption that an individual will always engage in an activity with the aim of gaining, either directly or indirectly. According to the proponents of psychological egoism, even when a person offers to help a person in need, they have an intention of gaining, either directly or indirectly. Ethical egoism, on the other hand, is based on the belief that not all people seek to prioritize self interest, but all people ought to do so. As can be noted, the difference between the two is the fact that the former is the reflection of reality, and the latter is the normative presumption. In the second part of Plato’s The Republic, Glaucon is introduced as a philosopher that is concerned with the concept of justice. His arguments are a reflection of psychological hedonism, a common variety of psychological egoism. Psychological hedonism is founded on the belief that “human beings seek to maximize pleasure and minimize pain” (Plato 33). Ethical egoism is not in line with Glaucon’s arguments because in seeking to explain justice, Glaucon says that there is absolutely no point in preventing people from engaging in injustice, if at all they can get away with it. In illustrating how his arguments support psychological egoism, Glaucon tells the story of a just man who finds magical item that can make him invisible. Knowing that his actions are inconsequential, he engages in injustices. Further, Glaucon argues that being unjust makes one powerful to the extent that he can buy the just title. Clearly therefore, Glaucon’s argument upholds psychological egoism which focuses on outcomes. It is debatable, whether or not psychological egoism implies ethical egoism. In point of fact, psychological egoism is closely related to ethical egoism because ethical egoism recognizes the paramount status of psychological egoism. Ethical egoism is founded on psychological egoism because, essentially, ethical egoism argues that, even if not all people observe psychological egoism, all people ought to do so. In simple terms, ethical egoism is psychological egoism limited by consequences, morals and expectations of the social contract.

Works cited

Plato, , G R. F. Ferrari, and Tom Griffith. The Republic. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Print


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Ethical and Psychological Egoism, Essay Example

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Egoism specifically is a concept of self-interest or the well-being of self. In philosophy egoism is concerned with where a person’s motivation is centered through their own goals and interests. There are two variants to the theory; descriptive (positive) and normative. Descriptive egoism is referred to as psychological egoism and ethical egoism is a normative variant. How individuals act and behave have a variety of causes and factors. People can act out for their own good or the good of others. Philosophers have differing opinions on the matter. Some theorists believe individuals have control over actions and how decisions are made which will affect others. Differing viewpoints argue that individuals’ act based on previous experiences and therefore, have limited choice in decision making. Psychological and ethical egoism is concerned with the philosophical and psychological issues in which a person deals with in making choices throughout their life.

Psychological egoism as an empirical theory commits the fallacy of hasty generalization or converse accident (Ethics, 2009). A fallacy of presumption, converse accident occurs when generalization or assumption is made based on insufficient evidence or carelessly gathering information. For example, a person is forced to deal with a rude cashier at a local store. In turn, the presumption is that all cashiers at that particular store are all rude. Simply a converse accident is taking one or more atypical events and making a generalization based on these events (Ethics, 2009).

Psychological egoism assuming that all people will act out of self-interest is false. Individuals have actions which are not always in their best interest, such as smoking cigarettes or using illegal drugs. Performing an action that a person wants to regardless of the consequences is not selfish. Psychological egoism in true form is selfish actions. People who help others are not always doing so in order to obtain a self-interest gain. Some individuals will act against self-interest to follow their conscience (Ethics, 2009).

Ethical egoism is concerned with how a person ‘ought’ to act or behave. There are two versions to this theory; strong and weak. The strong version of ethical egoism promotes the concept which details the moral obligation a person has to always support what is in their self-interest. Furthermore it is immoral not to promote behavior that is not in ones best interest. Moseley (2006) argues that there could never be an occasion when an agent ought not to pursue self-interest in favor of another morality.

The weak version of ethical egoism similar to the strong version supports the concept that it is a moral obligation to promote one’s best interest. However, the variation in the two is demonstrated by the weak version’s philosophy that it is not necessarily ever moral to promote self-interest. Therefore, there may be conditions in which the avoidance of personal interest may be a moral action (Moseley, 2006). Situations can arise in which it is more important to ignore self-interest in making moral conclusions.

Psychological and ethical egoism theories may appear to be similar; however, there are vast differences. The basic similarity they share is the fact that a person’s ego is involved, and an element of self-interest is involved in basic human actions. The most significant difference is that psychological egoism states that we always do what is in our own self-interest, while ethical egoism suggests that we should do what is in our best interest (Davison, 2006). Motivation is also a difference between the two. Psychological egoism has selfishness as the predominant motivation factor. Ethical egoism motivation stems from doing what is right and morally just.

Motivating factors for why people act the way they do depends on the amount of free will a person has and their own moral and ethical makeup. Psychological egoism motivation factors could include the notion of social duty resulting in respect and reputation. However, since the outcome of an action and the true motivation behind it is private to the individual person. Psychological egoism moves beyond the possibility of empirical verification and the possibility of empirical negation, since motives are private (Moseley, 2006).

Ethical egoism motivation factors for humans also include the same principles; however, the choice may not be a moral decision but rather a mistake in identifying self-interest. Such as being shipwrecked and swimming in a beautiful pool of water all day instead of spending the time searching and gathering food to be able to live. This person would eventually begin to see the distinctions between short and long-term interests (Moseley, 2006).

Selfishness and self-interest differ in distinctions between the two. Selfishness is a disregard for others and placing ones’ own interest first. Self-interest can also be seen as placing oneself ahead of others; however, it can also mean taking care of oneself while taking others into consideration.  It is human nature to look after oneself. The difference is selfishness only takes the individual into deliberation. Selfishness is short-term thinking while self-interest looks at the whole scenario and not just the promise of a quick reward.

The theories of psychological and ethical egoism may seem similar to one another; however, the concepts are quite different.  The reasons for human behavior and actions inherently will always be a mystery. People act for many reasons and the philosophical theories of egoism and human motivation are difficult to ascertain on a definitive level due to a person’s private thoughts and motivations.

Ethics . (2009). Retrieved from

Davison, Brandi. (2006). Ethical and Psychological Egoism. Retrieved from

Moseley, Alexander. (2006). Egoism: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from

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The Theory of Psychological Egoism Essay

Introduction, ethical theory subscribers, reference list.

The story of Tony, Claire and Beth confirms the theory of psychological egoism. According to the theory of psychological egoism, everyone is selfish and this is built in the nature of human beings. We therefore can not avoid acting selfishly.

Tony, Claire and Beth in one way or another have decided to give up their comfort to support another’s life. Each one of them is providing support to another’s life in order to gain some fame or feel good about himself or herself although their acts may seem acts of self-sacrifice.

According to Psychological egoism, self-less good deeds do not exist. Beth feels good about herself for providing support for her sick mother. She becomes too busy with her mother and forgets about the emotional needs of Tony.

Claire also decides to offer support to both Beth and Tony, but this is seen an opportunity to feel good about herself and be popular to the two and most likely to ward off future bad events. Tony also offers his support to Beth so as to maintain the relationship between them.

To satisfy his ego, Tony decides to get into another relationship behind Beth’s back. Tony took advantage of Beth’s situation because he was sure he would get away with it (Rosentand, 2005).

According to the theory of ethical egoism, we should always be selfish in our actions in order to protect or achieve our interest. Proponents and believers of ethical egoism are guided by utilitarianism where actions are guided by the consequences it could have on the individual.

The consequences of the action taken by the individual have to be beneficial to him or her. We should therefore treat others in a way that gives an opportunity to receive the same treatment should the same thing happen to us.

Having in mind that what goes around could sometimes come around; a subscriber to the theory of ethical egoism knowing he or she could also be cheated on may decide to tell Beth the truth in order to strengthen the relationship between them.

This would give him or her opportunity to be told the truth whenever his or her fiancée cheats behind his or her back. To some subscribers of ethical egoism, it would not matter how the relationship ends as long as he or she maintains a close friendship with Beth.

The golden rule guiding ethical egoist usually emphasizes the self and not others. Subscribers of ethical egoism believe that it is okay to treat others in a manner that would work to your advantage as long as you are sure you will benefit from it.

This means that in this case, whatever happens to the relationship is the least of a proponent’s problem as long as he or she maintains friendship with Beth.

On the other hand, a subscriber to the theory may decide to keep the secret as if he or she knows nothing about what the problem could have been. This could be driven by the fact that he or she would also not want his or her relationships to be interfered with should he or she also decide to cheat on his or her fiancée.

This is likely to be done by those who want to shield Tony and could even decide to give Beth other excuses for Tony’s past behavior. Such a subscriber believes that by defending Tony, he or she would receive the same when caught in the same situation.

According to the theory of psychological egoism, Tony had applied his invisibility during Beth’s commitment to her mother to satisfy his emotional needs. His perceived invisibility led him into temptation which made him involve in a short temporary relationship.

However, such weak characters have to be punished or at least made to realize their mistakes. Tony’s act of selfishness should be counseled and Beth be made to know before they get married regardless of how good he had been to Beth. He has to be held accountable for his deeds because actions are results of decisions.

However, the counseling should involve both Tony and Beth together. This would help each one them understand his or her mistake leading to the situation. I would counsel Tony to make him reveal what he did and what had led to the temptation and also make Beth understand the part she played in causing the situation.

They would therefore both understand what they aught to have done and each be made to apologize for his or her part. Making Tony understand that cheating on his fiancée was not the best and well thought solution would be the most fundamental part of the counseling.

The counseling would help both of them move forward without any doubts about each other and would also make them free to discuss their feelings about each other.

From Tony, Claire and Beth’s love story, it is not wise to take the ethical theory perspective in solving the problem. It is appropriate to consider better ethical systems which rise above utilitarianism. The position taken should consider the moral rules as well as duties of each person in making the relationship prosper.

Rosentand, N. (2005). The moral of the story. An introduction to ethics , 5 th ed. New York: McGraw Hill Publishers.

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Essay: Psychological egoism and ethical egoism

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I have always looked at myself as an unselfish person with a good sense of empathy towards my friends and other people. I have always thought about egoism as something solely negative. That was before I knew the true meaning and concept of the word. Now I am no longer so sure; is it possible to be an absolute altruist? Is it possible to keep going on an absolute altruistic line of life without any egoistic subsidiary interference? Psychological egoism is a human beings factual motivation in life. Psychological egoism builds around that our intended actions are always controlled by our own interests, wishes and motives. We are motivated by a wish to accomplish a sort of self-fulfillment, meaning that our actions in all aspects of our lives (from buying a sandwich because we are hungry, to studying for an exam to get a good grade) are all done because it is for our own beneficial interests, wishes and motives. The definition for ethical egoism is basically ‘how we ought to act’. Ethical egoism builds itself around the idea that the best way to promote collective reimbursement, is to follow self-interests. By always striving for our own personal self-fulfillment a person will better be able to promote what is in the best interest of the community, more so than always striving to promote the community’s interests. A person is able to hold a sociable role that supports the general public by taking care of his or her own well-being and self-interest first. The relationship between psychological egoism and ethical egoism is very clear. Since ethical egoism states that the best way to promote the welfare of others is by promoting your own self-interest, they kind of go hand in hand. But they are different since psychological egoism focus only on self-fulfillment and self-interest. The term ego means self. A body without an ego is just empty, without a soul. To deny one’s own ego is to deny one’s own mental existence, which is naturally not good for one’s mental health. To have a good mental health involves being an integrated and harmonized human being. This anticipates that you are an egoist. Without good mental health and personal harmony one does not make the right choices for either yourself or the welfare of other people around you. The word altruism was first used by the French philosopher, Auguste Comte. Every human beings moral purpose is to serve others well-being on the expense of your own values. Altruism considers personal interest as something negative. Self-interest is per definition unmoral. It seems like being an altruist is to go against one’s self and breaking the connection between actions and beliefs, interests, and moral thoughts. It seems that in the altruistic model one constantly is trying to please other people and letting other’s needs and interests control their own actions. By always doing this there will be a constant split between one’s actions and one’s ego, making it very hard to be a harmonized human being. Being raised in an altruistic way seems to like living in a constant conflict with one’s self. By living a life of constant conflict with one’s self, there must be a big chance of developing poor self-confidence and irrational guilt. Guilt is something you experience when something is in conflict with your own moral belief. Rational guilt is to feel guilt when one actually harms others. That type of guilt is good, because it aids learning to show consideration when it comes to others and their feelings. But irrational guilt, feeling guilty when you have not done anything wrong, is never positive. By reflecting about altruism, the feeling that altruism can create guilt in times when one does not do what other people want becomes apparent. That could make it very hard to say no, which lead to situations of victimization and being taken advantage of. In many situations in life, it is important to have a self-defense to protect one ‘s self and interests. The concept of a self-defense will always be egoistic, and involves the sub consciousness sense what is right or wrong. If a person believes that it’s wrong to think about themselves and feel guilty to do acts that are in their own interests, it gets very hard to make the right decisions. It makes you self-destructive to feel irrational guilt all the time. One has no emotional support for your own actions. To have personal opinions, it’s necessary to have sub-conscious support. The sub-consciousness needs to work for the personal best interest, because if the sub-consciousness gives priority to other’s beliefs, it will increase one’s sensitivity to criticism. To be sensitive to criticism is the same as being sensitive to other people’s thoughts. It might seem logical that collectivism and altruism are important values to collaborate socially. This is completely wrong. Social competence is a quality of the individual. To work socially is to work as an individual in relation to other people, and to work as an individual one needs to be an egoist. It is not possible to become social by denying one’s ego. Altruistic behavior makes it easier for other people to manipulate feelings and actions. Confidence anticipates that one can trust their own sub-consciousness. Insecurity is driven by a lack of support from the sub-conscious. An altruistic belief leads to being very influenced by other people’s beliefs, and becoming insecure in social situations. It is also hard to work socially, if one is sensitive to criticism, and feel irrational guilt. Altruism makes one a target of outside control, which makes a self-controlled life problematic. In conclusion, there is little to no room for altruism where egoism dominates. Altruists get motivated by what other people believe is best, and it seems like they need to be part of a collective were they can agree with others and feel safe. By having this as a priority the world would not develop without egoism, because to gain full potential one needs a sense of inner motivation to reveal their talents and gain a knowledge of who they really are and of what they as a single person can become capable.

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    Psychological and ethical egoism is concerned with the philosophical and psychological issues in which a person deals with in making choices throughout their life. Psychological egoism as an empirical theory commits the fallacy of hasty generalization or converse accident (Ethics, 2009). A fallacy of presumption, converse accident occurs when ...

  18. The Theory of Psychological Egoism

    Ethical Theory Subscribers. According to the theory of ethical egoism, we should always be selfish in our actions in order to protect or achieve our interest. Proponents and believers of ethical egoism are guided by utilitarianism where actions are guided by the consequences it could have on the individual. The consequences of the action taken ...

  19. Psychological egoism Essays

    Psychological Egoism Psychological egoism is a thesis on motivation, more specifically the intentional motivation of humans. The theory claims that all behavior stems from human self-centeredness and that humans act out of selfishness, by doing only what is in their own best interest.

  20. Psychological Egoism Essay Example For FREE

    Psychological Egoism confines human ambition to a single cause, but we are all motivated to do what we are motivated to do. Attempting to define each and every reason by each and every person for each and every act, consciously and/or subconsciously, is impossible and can't be reduced to one cause. The desire to preserve and protect one's ...

  21. Egoism Essay

    Egoism is an ethical theory that treats self-interest as the foundation of morality.However, egoism is divided into two,one known as ethical egoism and the other is psychological egoism. The two revolve around the idea of self-interest. These types of egoist value their own interests over others. However, many of people have egotistic interior.

  22. Psychological Egoism Essays

    Psychological Egoism Psychological egoism is a reflex that every person has to orient themselves toward their own welfare. Through this, it follows that every one of his (or her) voluntary actions is some good to himself. If someone gives away the last piece of bread to someone else, it is because they want to look like a better person. Due to ...

  23. Essay: Psychological egoism and ethical egoism

    Since ethical egoism states that the best way to promote the welfare of others is by promoting your own self-interest, they kind of go hand in hand. But they are different since psychological egoism focus only on self-fulfillment and self-interest. The term ego means self. A body without an ego is just empty, without a soul.