Monday, July 22, 2013

Why Should We Care About Psychological Egoism?

Psychological Egoism is the theory that all human actions are aimed at avoiding some personal loss or gaining some personal benefit.  I've found it surprising that so many philosophy textbooks for ethics courses have a chapter or two devoted to this theory, since it's merely a descriptive/psychological theory and not an ethical theory.  Even if it were true, why should ethicists really care?  Russ Shafer-Landau presents an interesting argument for why we should:
(1) If psychological egoism is true, then we can't be altruistic.
(2) If we can't be altruistic, then it can't be our duty to be altruistic.
(3) Therefore, if psychological egoism is true, then it can't be our duty to be altruistic.
(4) Psychological egoism is true.
(5) Therefore, it can't be our duty to be altruistic.
As Shafer-Landau suggests, the upshot of this argument is that "most of what we take for granted about the ethical life would turn out to be mistaken" if psychological egoism is true. So maybe I've been hasty in thinking that ethicists shouldn't concern themselves with this theory.  I'm curious what readers of this blog think about psychological egoism (generally speaking) and about the argument above (more specifically).

16 comments:

Karynne Woodard said...

We should care about Psychological egoism because if it is true then we have no moral obligations to anyone but to ourselves. We would only decide factors based on our needs. However, most people will agree that we do have heroes and act altruistically. And just because we do something does not mean that we try to avoid something bad. Sometimes we do make a decision that brings us an unpleasant situation.
Also just because we are egotists and our only duty is to ourselves does not mean we can not have altruistic actions. Based on a world it is better for a person in the long run to help a neighbor or society. This might be seen as helping ourselves, but we are also doing it to help others. It is an action that benefits others.
Just cause our duty is to ourselves, if psychological egoism is true, does not mean that we can not be altruistic in our intentions and that is what counts in moral decisions. What helps the world not just you.

Yeet Chien Tan said...

In my opinion, I think psychological egoism somehow exists among human beings.However, based on its fundamental meaning which is about avoiding personal loss or gaining personal benefit when carrying out any actions, it is also debatable

One of its argument is about when we are doing something, we are motivated by our strongest desire. This in turn makes us to pursue self-interest. Indeed, this argument about psychological egoism is objectionable because possessing strong desire does not necessary mean pursing own self interest as our actions can be for welfare or for relatives.

Relating to the Implications of Egoism Argument, therefore, I think that although psychological egoism may exist, it is not impossible for us to be altruistic. I strongly think that under certain circumstances, we will adopt the concept of altruism. For instance, engaging in charitable activity or saving someone from being beaten up.

Jake Seymer said...

I think that psychological egoism is present in about 80% of our everyday lives. Most of the time people are motivated from self interest. They are concerned with what they can get out of a situation. I feel that it is even more true in the U.S. where people live more fast paced lives that focus on possessions and on hoarding money. The business world seems to fit this model very well because you don't usually see corporations considering the feelings of others unless its for PR.

However I still do believe that there are cases of true altruism which destroys the foundations of this theory. Specifically the argument that expectations do not match out aim helps to flush out the point that altruistic actions do not need to be motivated by self interest. (I expect to get praise for helping old people, but that's not why I do it). I think that this argument points out the significance of this theory to ethicist because if it holds it proves that ethics is a lie. We cannot be bound to a moral system which relies on our relations with others if we are physically incapable of not acting for ourselves.

Kah Yee Yap said...

I agree partly with the psychological egoism theory that most people act out of their pursuit of self-interest. It is true that majority of people commit actions to benefit themselves for the most part but I believe that there are still true cases of altruism somewhere in the world and I am quite optimistic about that. Otherwise, the conventional morality that we have been holding on all this while is just a sham. For example, an individual helping an old woman to cross the road even though he knows that he will be late for his interview is doing so because he sincerely wants to offer his help for the aged. It is difficult to explain in this case why he is considered to be pursuing his own interest if he expect that he will be worse off and lose a potential job opportunity. Egoists might claim that he is trying to elicit praises for being kind but from my viewpoint, it is hard to see how receiving compliments is far better off than getting employed.

With regard to the argument in specific, I think the first three premises are plausible. However, I have doubts concerning the fourth premise. It would be hasty to claim that psychological evidence is true. With so many evidences contradicting psychological egoism and the lack of a particularly compelling argument to support this theory, it is tough to point to the truth of psychological egoism. The doubts surrounding this premise might be able to prove that psychological egoism is not that true after all.

Chen Huey Tsan said...

At a glance, psychological egoism seems to be true and has strong arguments. I do think that we do things out of our own self-interest most of the time. For example, we strive in studies to be able to gain knowledge and be successful in life. However, I would think that does not mean that we can't be altruistic.

In my opinion, if psychological egoism is true, we won't have sincerity and compassion. We actually do have sincerity and we don't always think if the benefits outweigh the setbacks. For instance, a person sacrifices himself and blocked a bullet for his loved one. He gets praised and remembered as a noble person but he is dead. I would think that his life is much more valuable than the praise and credit that he'll get. He is not doing it out of his self-interest because he is dead. He must have done it because he loves his beloved and would want her to live. Thus, I am doubtful about premise 2 because I think it is possible to be altruistic.

Heather Wittrock said...

If psychological egoism were true, ethicists (as well as everybody else) should be very concerned. All morals would be mistaken. This means that we no longer have any duty or obligation to one another. The only thing valuable is ones self and acts of altruism would be selfish...and that sounds like a recipe for disaster.
The argument is strong and it is hard to prove it right or wrong. I do think that premise 4 is wrong. The story Russ tells, to me, is proof that premise 4 is false. There is no reason, guilty conscious or not, somebody would jump on a grenade for some personal gain or to avoid some personal loss. He obviously did not gain a thing and the suffered a pretty extreme loss. This story is the only proof I need that some people do act altruistically.

Cristina Olvera said...

I think that psychological egoism is false in all of its totally. If we look at the majority of the population and the way that we think, it is inconstant with the ideology of the psychological egoists. Most people take into consideration feelings of others, state laws, and the consequences that their actions may have on others. There are those that don't think like the majority and have no regards for anyone else only themselves and those people do fit the criteria of the egoists. I think that this way of thinking is only a way out for those that are selfish and don't have any desire to assimilate to societies acceptable norms.
Altruism is a psychological response that we as human beings have towards loved ones and even complete strangers when we see them in danger. We feel compelled to rush to their aid and that feeling is one that cannot be denied with a mere ill-conceived psychological theory.

Noratikah Ali said...

I think that psychological egoism is partly true. In most cases, people do act according to their personal interest. However, i feel that it is not impossible to be altruisic because sometimes people have the feelings to act for the sake of other persons. For example, imagine that there is an accident and a witness act immediately to save the person who has involved in the accident. This can happen and we act because we want to save the other person. Therefore, if people can act for the sake of others, psychological egoism cannot be true and premise 4 should be false.

Woojai Jang said...

This specific argument is valid but not sound. That is because no one can know for sure whether premise (4) is true. I mean, how could anyone possibly know that? If PE is true, then most of our moral values are mistaken because they are based on the idea that we can—and should—be altruistic. It is a strong claim. So, if someone were to make such a claim, he or she should have a strong argument for it. But, as we talked about it in class, saying “if you look deep inside” or “if you really know your mind” is not one. Until that person comes up with good argument for PE—which no one has yet done so—I think, as Russ says in his book, we can reject it.

Yuan Xu said...

Psychological Egoism sounds persuasive. It explains most of our desires in the daily life. When people make decisions, they think about their personal losses and benefits. After balancing between losses and benefits, people make decision based on that judgment.

However, I do not agree that all people take actions aimed at avoiding personal losses or gaining certain personal benefits. In particular, there are some situations existing when people are altruistic. For example, people would like to take risk to save someone who is drowning in the river. Psychological Egoism may argue that those people risk their lives but still gain recognition and appreciation which may be important for them. I doubt this argument. Whenever we do things, those actions will always bring unexpectedly side effects or benefits. We cannot take side effects too seriously. For example, I strongly agree that those “heroes” do gain self-esteem by saving others. But we cannot agree on the side-effects as their main motivation for saving others, especially when the cost is too huge such as loss of their own personal lives. Therefore, I do not think Psychological Egoism is that important because it does not seem to be sound for me.

Zhen Ming said...

Although psychological egotism is a descriptive theory describing how humans behave, it is still very important to cover it because its existence will falsify everything be believe about moral ethics. I my mind, there is no doubt that humans sometimes do thing for others for their own personal interest. However, there will still be some special cases that fall within an exception.

To some extend, this theory seems to be very plausible. In many ways we can all try to phrase our actions into pursuing self-interest, despite the fact that sometimes we are really acting altruistically. If psychological egotism is true, then it will give support for ethical egotism, making some of our immorally seemed actions to be morally correct. Therefore, for the argument that moral ethics really exist within every human being, we cannot accept psychological egotism. Nevertheless, although many findings falsify its viewpoint, it can still be true to some extend.

I my belief, the existence of moral ethics do not matter. Whether we are pursuing self-interest or acting altruistically, the matter of the fact is that we do the right thing despite the reason behind it.

Max Haraldsen said...

The idea is important because it describes how we behave. If it is true, that means humans only perform actions to help their self-interest. This would go against the philosophical prescriptive theories that say actions are morally right because they fulfill some form of altruism. This includes utilitarianism, Deontology, and many forms of religion. If psychological egoism were true, it would be impossible to follow any of these beliefs. Philosophical beliefs on what makes an action right or wrong would focus on self-interest, as ethical egoism does. A theory like ethical egoism would become the standard instead of an outlier not believed by many of the philosophical community. Essentially, psychological egoism being true would mean philosophers would have to re-evaluate their moral beliefs.

Enrique Franco said...

I happen to think that there’s a lot more truth to psychological egoism than is given in this book. Every species has this natural urge to continue its existence, the drive to survive. It seems almost arrogant to think that humans are without this latent trait present in all living creatures. Therefore every action will have some connection to our will to endure. However, we’re also a species that live in communities with lives intertwined with others. It seems, at least to me, only natural that what best serves our continued existence will at times be helping others. If I’m doing so exceedingly well while my neighbors continue spiraling into economic depression then failing to help them will likely decrease my wellbeing.
In regards to the argument above I remain a little skeptical. I do believe humans are capable of altruistic. They’re just rare. The soldier who sacrificed his life would be a great example. Part of why we find these heroes so praiseworthy is that they made the conscious choice to act against their natural impulse. Morality is a matter concerning choice; psychological egoism is a theory concerning natural human impulse. I don’t think acceptance of one has to come at the expense of the other.

Jeff Collins said...

I think that psychological egoism is true for the most part. I would say that 85% of the time it is true because a lot of people do things and act out of their own self interest. I also believe that the other 15% of the time people are acting altruistically. I know that these two thoughts contradict each other, but I find it hard to believe that everything that is done in this world is done out of self-interest. I believe that people are very interested in attaining personal gain and avoiding losses, but I think that people are also worried about their loved ones attaining their own gains and avoiding their own losses. When it come down to it, I think it is very hard to concretely say that number 4 is true all of the time.

Zhantao Xu said...

If psychological egoism is true, then we do not have the duty to be altruistic. We do not need to discuss ethics or morality anymore because we do not have any responsibilities to anyone but only to ourselves. Under such situation, we only need to make decisions based on our needs. For example, if killing someone can make us be happiness or better-off, we are obligated to do it.
However, in the reality we need heroes or altruistic people. Also, sometimes we make decisions which may cause bad consequences to us or even result in our death. When our beloved person faces dangerous, we have high possibility to sacrifice our life in order to save him/her. This concept is against psychological egoism, because psychological egoism suggests that we aim to avoid personal loss or gain personal benefits. Premises 4 seems to be too absolute when we are still making judgments of psychological egoism. Psychological egoism somehow exists, I agree. But it cannot be the theme of our society.

Anonymous said...

I believe that psychological egoism is true on all accounts. It is a theory about human motives. Every decision in life is a value judgement, and we always choose what we perceived to be in our own best self interest. This theory goes hand-in-hand with "social exchange theory". In the example of the soldier falling on the grenade to save his fellow comrads, he could have taken this action for any number of selfish reasons. We don't have enough information to draw a conclusion. We don't know how much he valued his own life, but one thing is for sure, he became a legend... a hero. Not bad, huh! Some people sign up as a soldier with the sole purpose of becoming a hero. That's their life's goal. Fulfilling one's own desires, and accomplishing one's own goals is selfish every single time. It just so happens that sometimes when you fulfill your own desires, you happen to help others. I feel that most people disagree with psychological egoism because they don't fully understand their own psychology. They have tricked themselves into believing that selflessness is possible. I believe we're hard-wired for self benefit. It's not immoral or anything... it's just the way it is.