6.1 Psychological Egoism: What’s in it for me?

Where the world comes in my way – and it comes in my way everywhere – I consume it to quiet the hunger of my egoism. For me you are nothing but – my food, even as I too am fed upon and turned to use by you.

—Max Stirner

Calling egoism a theory of ethics may seem to stretch the meaning of the word “ethics” to the breaking point, since egoism denies that we can or should really care about ethical rules. But since advocates of egoism make explicit claims about the relationship between ethics and rationality, any discussion of philosophical ethics cannot avoid dealing with egoism. Egoists claim, in fact, that rationality undermines the possibility of ethics as it has been traditionally understood. To the extent that we follow reason, as opposed to customary authority, we can and should cease to be concerned with ethics. It is not that we will suddenly be cold to the needs and desires of others where we previously kept these interests close to our hearts. It is that we will recognize certain things about the way the world and human beings work that will compel us to give up certain ways of looking at the world. But I am getting ahead of myself here.

Egoism is not a single theory, but two separate theories that make different, even though related, claims about human action and decision-making. These separate theories are known as “Psychological Egoism” and for want of a better term, “Ethical Egoism.” Psychological Egoism is the view that we cannot be unselfish even if we may want to be. Ethical Egoism, on the other hand, is the view that we should not be unselfish even though we can be.

Two varieties of egoism

  • Psychological egoism: a descriptive theory about the nature of human decision-making. It claims that all decisions are by definition self-serving and so ethics is impossible.

  • Ethical Egoism: a normative theory about what is best for all of us. It claims, somewhat paradoxically, that the best way to help others is to help yourself and so ethics is wrong.

Psychological egoism (PE) makes a very straightforward claim: we cannot be unselfish. That is, certain facts about human psychology prevent unselfish or “altruistic” behavior from being a live option. This may sound outrageous, but defenders of PE think that there is a compelling case that can be made for this view. Note that PE is not claiming that we should not be unselfish. That is what Ethical Egoism claims and is a very different can of worms. PE presents itself as a hard-nosed and realistic view that simply reports on the way things are – “let’s just face it, we all have an agenda, and anyone who denies this is a fool.” According to Psychological Egoism, a careful and rational assessment of the evidence concerning human behavior, shows that ethical rules do not make very much sense, since we cannot really ever put others first. That is, “altruism,” (acting selflessly, putting others needs and interests before one’s own) is not really possible. We will examine the arguments for this view in a moment.

Implications of psychological egoism

Clearly if PE were true, this would have an enormous impact on our lives. If we simply cannot ever really be unselfish, at best we are confused when we talk about ethics and and worst we are deceiving ourselves about human nature. Whatever the case may be, PE compels us to give up talking about others’ needs and interests, and gives us a clear license to put ourselves first. This may sound appealing – it relieves us from the burdens that go with ethical demands to help others, and frees us to pursue our own self-interest without the guilt feelings that society has traditionally encouraged us to feel when we put ourselves first. Furthermore, the view that we never are really unselfish strikes some people as a realistic antidote to the idealistic tone of ethics. If PE is true, describing human actions in terms of what we should and shouldn’t do, in terms of duties and obligations, etc. is simply unrealistic and we should give it up. The ethical perspective would be revealed to be obsolete from the new, more realistic standpoint of Psychological Egoism. On the other hand, if PE is true, we would not really ever have any grounds for complaint about the way others treat us. If nobody really can be unselfish, what right would we ever have to ask others to take our interests seriously and not try to take advantage of us?