Thursday, March 7, 2013

Joel Feinberg: Psychological Egoism

**This is from guest blogger, Michael Dean**

Psychological Egoism is the position that the ultimate motive of all actions is selfish. It is not the position that everyone should be motivated by selfish desires, but rather that they are motivated by selfish desires. This is supposed to be a psychological fact of human motivations. Joel Feinberg presents a multitude of arguments against psychological egoistic hedonism. Of particular interest to me is the “Paradox of Hedonism.” As Feinberg states, “an exclusive desire for happiness is the surest way to prevent happiness from coming into being.” This is the paradox, one cannot be happy by seeking happiness alone. Something besides happiness must be the means to that end. This is analogous to the tennis player who only enjoys tennis when she wins. Her desire to win makes her anxious during her matches, and thus she does not play well and loses. The only way for her to win is to relax and enjoy the game, win or lose. Once she is no longer playing to win, she relaxes and thus wins. Only by letting go of the desire to enjoy winning a game is she able to enjoy the pleasure of winning a game It may be true that happiness is all that is valuable in many of these cases, but this does not entail that the ends of our desires is always happiness, though it may often be a by-product. Another analogy is that of friendship. One cannot truly enjoy a friendship if the end goal of engaging in the friendship is the joys of the friendship. The desire for happiness alone will often, and perhaps necessarily, alienate desiring individual from achieving the desire. The only way to achieve the desire is to no longer desire it. I think the paradox is a successful refutation of psychological egoistic hedonism, and I hope my analogies illuminate how the paradox is cashed out in everyday examples.

On an interesting and related note, I’ve noticed something about a similar, but somewhat opposite argument from psychological egoistic hedonism. This argument might propose that it is a psychological fact that everyone is motivated by a desire to avoid suffering. It’s interesting this sort of argument does not fall victim to the same type of paradox that a desire for happiness does. Buddhist philosophy proposes that everything suffering is a fact of life and that everything we do is to avoid suffering (forgive me for the very basic and sweeping statements of Buddhist philosophy, I’m not well read on the subject). Further, they claim the solution to avoiding suffering is enlightenment. An interest facet of enlightenment is that to achieve it one cannot desire it, this is a very interesting parallel to the discussion of psychological egoistic hedonism which deserves more consideration.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.


Anonymous said...

It's hard to follow these arguments. But let me put the following thought out there.

Can you achieve happiness by (only) acting out of a desire for happiness? Well, this is rather puzzling. If one unpacks the notion of happiness to include getting satisfaction from relationships with others, getting a sense of self-worth from achievements at work,getting a feeling of support and belonging by having close relationships with family members, feeling pride from having and being a good friend, etc., then one could act out of a desire for these things which would be subsumed under the desire for happiness. Desiring happiness per se would make no sense if this is what is meant by it.

Your thoughts?

Michael Dean Hebert said...

Sorry, if you mean that it's hard to follow my arguments. I can try to explicate further if that's the case. I apologize, I was a little tired when I wrote up the post.

Is your point that there a variety of 'happinesses' which are entwined in an experience such that they can't come apart, (e.g. a feeling of pride and being/having a good friend) such that we can't even make sense of the notion of 'desiring happiness alone'? If so, it's an interesting argument, but I feel that I can still intuitively make sense of the notion of desiring happiness alone. So I'm missing something or I'm misunderstanding the force of the conclusion. Can you help me clarify?