Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Psychological egoism

A. Psychological egoism
1. Difference between psychological egoism and ethical egoism. Strong psychological egoism is the view that all of our actions are really selfish. Weak psychological egoism is the view that we often, but not always, act out of self interest. Neither doctrine support ethical egoism, the doctrine that we ought to act in our own self interest.
2. Psychological egoism is a descriptive, not a normative theory. It talks about what we actually do, not what we ought to do. Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarian (thoroughly anti-egoist theory) was a psychological egoist.
3. Psychological egoism seems on its face to be false. Perhaps the easiest way to see this is to notices the sacrifices that parents make for the sake of their children.
4. Typically, however, the egoist has a response. The egoist says that all actions are really selfish because they are aimed at some state of, say, the child, the real goal is to satisfy oneself.
5. The 18th century philosopher and clergyman Joseph Butler argued that this defense of psychological egoism is based on a confusion. Invariably when we succeed achieving a goal, we receive some satisfaction. However, it doesn’t follow that the action is aimed at achieving that satisfaction. Rather, the act is aimed at a state of the child, and if it genuinely helps the child, then quite naturally some satisfaction will arise as a byproduct.
6. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of apparently altruistic actions that are in fact selfish. Take, my favorite example, Oprah Winfrey giving cars away. At least some of us might be inclined to suppose that the real purpose of her giving away cars is not the interests of the recipients, but, maybe, ratings???

7 comments:

John W. Loftus said...

Neither doctrine support ethical egoism, the doctrine that we ought to act in our own self interest. Sure they do. If we are in fact selfish then we cannot act otherwise. And if we cannot act otherwise then we should embrace this fact about ourselves. Rather than deny it we need to address it and speak in terms of what one should pursue rationally. It's the rational part of self-interest which makes ethical egoism an ethical theory.

Butler's argument is a classic example of the informal fallacy of the false dilemna. Either we do what we do to receive some satisfaction or we do it to help the child.

Victor Reppert said...

But couldn't it be the case that we always act in our own self-interest, but that this is a regrettable feature of human nature?

OK, how do you deal with the obvious counterevidence against psychological egoism provided by, say, the firefighters on 9/11. What does it mean to say that their actions, which apparently resulted in their risking their lives for others, were really selfish.

John W. Loftus said...

Vic, these firefighters have been trained to do a job. Their reputation is on the line. They have accepted the challenge of seeing how many people they can save. They did not think they would die in the process. Besides, people do risky behavior all of the time, most of it for fun.

Of course, some of them may have been operating from the delusion that God will reward them in heaven. But if this life is all there is, and we will die one way or another, then why not be remembered for doing great deeds? For the egoist that might be the only way for your life to count. If however, someone shirks in the face of responsibility, and saves his life while letting others die, he is known as a coward from that day onward. Sometimes in such a situation as this, it's better to die and be remembered as a great person than to live with the social shame and loss of employment in the only job said person ever wanted to do.

Ilíon said...

VR: "... 6. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of apparently altruistic actions that are in fact selfish. Take, my favorite example, Oprah Winfrey giving cars away. At least some of us might be inclined to suppose that the real purpose of her giving away cars is not the interests of the recipients, but, maybe, ratings???"

Again with this "intentionality" non-sense! ;)

Ilíon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ilíon said...

JL: "But couldn't it be the case that we always act in our own self-interest, but that this is a regrettable feature of human nature?"

VR: "OK, how do you deal with the obvious counterevidence against psychological egoism provided by, say, the firefighters on 9/11. What does it mean to say that their actions, which apparently resulted in their risking their lives for others, were really selfish."

VR has already given an example of human beings acting *not* acting in their own self-interest; apparently we don't always act in our own self-interest.

But, where does this "regrettable" come from? Regardless of the ratio of acts of self-interest to altruistic acts, what does it even *mean* to say that acts of self-interest reflect "a regrettable feature of human nature?"

*Everything* always comes down to things inexplicable under, and contrary to, the atheistic world-view.

One Brow said...

OK, how do you deal with the obvious counterevidence against psychological egoism provided by, say, the firefighters on 9/11. What does it mean to say that their actions, which apparently resulted in their risking their lives for others, were really selfish.
Dr. Reppert, I happen to be in agreement with you here. Whether you consider it to have material or immaterial sources, to be based in the natural or supernatural, it is clear the many humans act in ways that are contradicted by simple self-interest.