6.2 Arguments for psychological egoism

These implications of PE are the kinds of things that we would have to buy, if it were true. So far we haven’t been given any reason to suppose that it is in fact true. So let us take a look at the arguments that might be offered in its defense. There are two main arguments in defense of PE. The first is a purely theoretical argument. It is based on an analysis of rational decision-making and claims that because of certain facts about the way we make decisions, these decisions are always selfish.

When I make a decision, I am attempting to fulfill my goals since I cannot act on anyone else’s goals.
But acting for the sake of fulfilling my goals is acting selfishly.

Since the same point applies equally to everyone, we are all always selfish.

What this argument is claiming is that if we think about what is involved in rational action in general, we will soon realize that it has to be selfish by definition. Since my reasons for action are nobody’s but my own, they must be oriented toward my own good. After all this is what it means to act rationally – rational action is action that effectively realizes one’s goals. But since these goals have to be my goals, otherwise they would fail to motivate my decisions, it clearly seems to follow that I have no choice but to act for my own sake. Acting for someone else’s goals is just impossible by definition. But acting for one’s own goals exclusively is just what it means to be selfish. Hence PE must be true.

A second argument for Psychological Egoism is an empirical argument. It does not rest on the claim that we are selfish by definition, even though that is what PE ultimately claims. Instead it appeals to evidence about real human behavior in the real world.

If psychological egoism were false we should be able to find a real example of selfless or altruistic behavior.
But there are no such examples.

So psychological egoism is true.

Well this argument may just seem silly. Aren’t there in fact are plenty of examples of real altruistic behavior out there? Sure some people are selfish, but there are many people who help other people at no apparent gain to themselves. Here are a few ordinary examples:

  • A person gives all of their extra money, after paying their bills and buying groceries, to charity and does so anonymously.
  • Another person stops to help the victim of an accident on the highway even though doing so makes them late for an important meeting.
  • Someone else spends their weekends volunteering at the hospital.

The strategy of reinterpreting motives

As you may already suspect, a defender of Psychological Egoism has an answer to this objection. The second argument for PE does not instantly fall apart under the weight of these apparent counterexamples. This is because, according to PE, they are only apparent examples of altruism – on closer examination these apparently altruistic acts can be shown to really be based on underlying selfish motives. Take the case of a person who gives to charity anonymously. Isn’t there likely to be a selfish motive in this? Perhaps this person feels guilty for having as much money as she has and decides that the best way to make herself feel better is to give a large anonymous donation to a charity. Or maybe it is a way of avoiding paying taxes on the rest of her money – if you do it right, donating to charity can save you money on your taxes by lowering your tax bracket. The same kind of argument can apply in the other cases as well. Can’t we reinterpret the motives of people who help strangers in a way that makes them seem less altruistic and more selfish? Once again, the motives for helping people might be to relieve one’s own guilt feelings, or to enjoy the feeling of being a hero, or the fame that goes with getting your picture in the paper as the heroic rescuer of that poor, helpless victim of the accident. Volunteering? Well, that looks great on your resume, plus it is a great way to meet people without having to buy them drinks, etc. This line of reasoning is intended to provide additional support in defense of PE against the objection that people “obviously” do not always act on the basis of selfish motives.

Something may strike you as suspicious about this line of thinking and especially about the egoist’s response to the apparent counterexamples we have just mentioned. If so, your intuitions are on the right track. It is difficult, however, to pinpoint exactly what is wrong here. In order to clarify things a bit, we need to digress for a moment and talk about the nature of empirical theories and what sorts of evidence they appeal to. This short excursion into the territory of the philosophy of science will reveal the big problem with the second argument for PE.

If we are to have a good reason to accept a theory, we need some evidence to support that theory. But, how much evidence do we need? Well, it seems that the more evidence we have, the more well-confirmed our theory is and the more reason we have to believe that it is true. Suppose someone asks me to believe his theory that NASA faked the Apollo 11 moon landing. Before I buy this theory, I’ll want to see the evidence. If the only evidence he offers is that he doesn’t believe that such an accomplishment was possible given the primitive state of technology in 1969, I still do not have much reason to be convinced. But if more and more evidence appears to support this claim then my initial skepticism might have to give way to a belief that maybe he is right. What evidence might help convince me?

  • A top NASA official publicly admits that the space program faked the moon landings.
  • Investigators find and photographically document an abandoned movie studio in the Arizona desert that is filled with exact copies of the lunar landing modules and other equipment that appeared in the original TV footage of the “moon landing.”
  • Reels of film with outtakes from the TV broadcast footage are found in a warehouse in Arkansas, and this footage shows microphones and other stage equipment on the surface of the “moon.”
  • The Chinese land on the moon and fail to find any evidence of a prior American landing in a thorough search of the American landing area.

Of course no such real evidence like exists. The point is a more general point about how theories need to appeal to sufficient evidence if we are they are to be convincing theories. It seems that the more evidence a theory has the more believable it becomes. But there is a catch – we shouldn’t have too much evidence for a theory. Consider the following case of a theory with unlimited evidence, the theory that there is a massive conspiracy against me personally. I might mention the following evidence in support of this theory:

  • The person who almost ran me over when I was walking across the street this morning is clearly in on the conspiracy.
  • Yesterday I asked someone if they were in on the conspiracy against me, and they nervously replied “Of course not.” Obviously a lie!
  • Even my best friend laughed when I asked him, and then admitted to being in on the conspiracy.

I could go on mentioning more and more “evidence” for this theory, otherwise known as “paranoia.” And in fact, if I were in the grip of genuine paranoia, I would have an unlimited amount of evidence at my disposal. Whatever counterexamples anyone could come up with to try to calm my fears could easily be explained away as still more evidence in favor of the conspiracy against me. Clearly there is a problem here. The problem with paranoia, considered as an empirical theory – a claim about what is really going on in the world – is not that there is no evidence for it. Instead, the problem is that there is no possible evidence that might count against it. In philosophical jargon it is “non-falsifiable.”

All empirical theories not only need evidence to support them, they also need to be falsifiable, that is, there has to be at least the possibility that they could be wrong. Note that “falsifiable” does not mean the same thing as “false,” or “falsified.” Such theories are obviously no good – they have failed the tests that we have given them and should be rejected. Falsifiable theories are theories that might not be true, even if the only such theories that are worth our time are ones that have not yet been shown to be false. But legitimate theories have to be at least capable of being tested with tests that they might possibly fail. After all, if the only tests you give a theory are tests that it cannot possibly fail, have you really learned anything new about anything by testing your theory? In fact it is better to say that non-falsifiable theories are not even really theories that make claims about how the world really is – instead they are assumptions that we project onto the world with no evidence whatsoever.

To return to Psychological Egoism, it now appears that this too is a non-falsifiable theory, just like paranoia. The “tests” that the theory was given in our discussion above were the apparent counterexamples – cases where it appears that people are in fact not operating based only on selfish motives. PE of course had a ready answer to all of these challenges – all we have to do is come up with some possible hidden motive that explains away the appearance of altruism and the theory is back in business. But this is a game that the defender of PE cannot possibly lose. We can always reinterpret others’ motives in way that undermines the appearance of altruism. As a result, however, PE loses any claim it may have had to be a genuine theory about what human behavior is really like and is revealed to be nothing but a cynical projection of selfish motives onto all human action. The strategy of reinterpreting motives, which seemed like a promising way to defend PE, in fact renders it non-falsifiable and hence empty of real empirical content. It reveals nothing about the world, but everything about the assumptions of the person defending this “theory.” Someone in the grips of Psychological Egoism is thus probably also suffering from a severe case of confirmation bias.

But what about the first argument? This argument claimed that we could see that human behavior has to be selfish to the extent that it is rational simply because we all are only capable of making decisions that fulfill our own goals. Rational decision-making is decision-making that realizes one’s own goals and so it is bound to be selfish the argument concludes. A little reflection on this argument, however, reveals a subtle problem. Does the fact that a goal is my own goal have to mean that my interests alone are at stake in the attempt to satisfy that goal? Only if we assume that I cannot have goals that involve helping other people. But why should we assume this? PE claims that my goals are always my goals, and so they must be selfish. But doesn’t this mix up two different meanings of the expression “my goals?” Clearly it is true that my goals are my own – if they are going to get my body moving, they have to be in my own head. That is a trivial truth of human psychology – it is so obvious that there usually isn’t much point mentioning it. The thoughts in your head cannot cause me to do anything, at least in any direct way. But “my goals” might also mean, “my goals, as opposed to your goals” in a situation where both cannot be satisfied simultaneously. If my goal is to rob you of all of your money and your goal is to prevent me from doing that this is the meaning of the expression “my goals” that is appropriate. But these two meanings are different, so if our argument uses both of these meanings as if they were equivalent, it is guilty of the fallacy of equivocation. Thus the first argument is revealed to be invalid, since it equivocates on the meaning of the expression “my goals.”

Thus we can see that both arguments for PE ultimately fail. As a result, however cynical we may sometimes feel about the possibility of genuine altruism, we must leave open the possibility that we are at least capable of being altruistic. Whew! It takes philosophers an enormously long time to establish the simplest of points. Well, at least we can now respond definitively to the cynics who assert that by definition everything we do is selfish.