Abstract: Psychological egoism, the view that people act solely in their own interest, is defined and shown not to be a meaningful ethical philosophy.
I. The distinction between psychological egoism and ethical egoism reflects the contrast of “is” verses “ought,” “fact” verses “value,” or “descriptive” verses “prescriptive.”
II. By way of clarification of relevant terms, James Rachels, among others, points out common confusion concerning selfishness and self-interest.
III. The Refutation of Psychological Egoism: arguments to the conclusion that the generalization everyone acts from the motive of self-interest is false.
IV.Interestingly enough, the same objections can be raised against the view termed, “psychological altruism”: all persons act from the motive of helping others, and all actions are done from other-regarding motives. (Psychological altruism is a view advanced only from the position of a “devil’s advocate.”)
V. As a final note, it should be mentioned that psychological egoism can’t be saved by psychoanalytic theory. I.e., Freud’s notion of the unconscious raises the possibility that we have unconscious desires and can act against our conscious inclinations. If it is argued that we always unconsciously seek our self-interest, then this view is untestable and circular as well.
Consider the following passage from Freud’s Interpretations of Dreams*:
“A contradiction to my theory of dream produced by another of my women patients (the cleverest of all my dreamers) was resolved more simply, but upon the same pattern: namely that the nonfulfillment of one wish meant the fulfillment of another. One day I had been explaining to her that dreams are fulfillments of wishes. Next day she brought me a dream in which she was traveling down with her mother-in-law to the place in the country where they were to spend their holidays together. Now I knew that she had violently rebelled against the idea of spending the summer near her mother-in-law and that a few days earlier she had successfully avoided the propinquity she dreaded by engaging rooms in a far distant resort. And now her dream had undone the solution she had wished for; was not this the sharpest contradiction of my theory that in dreams wishes are fulfilled? No doubt; and it was only necessary to follow the dreams logical consequence in order to arrive at its interpretation. The dream showed that I was wrong. Thus it was her wish that I might be wrong, and her dream showed that wish fulfilled (italics original)”
*Sigmund Freud, The Interpretations of Dreams (New York: Avon, 1966), 185.
“We Are Not Always Selfish”: (this site) A classic discussion of the many facets of ethical egoism in notes on James Rachel’s work.
Altruism “in-built” in humans: BBC report of discovery of altruistic behavior in infants summarized from the journal Science.
“Studies Show Chimps to Be Collaborative.”: A summary of an article from Science News describing research indicating that chimpanzees cooperate without the expectation of reward.
“Egoism”: Explanation of egoism and altruism with a brief summary of refutations and defenses excerpted from Richard Kraut’s “Egoism” in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Ethical Egoism: (this site) The various forms of ethical egoism are defined. Standard objections to ethical egoism are evaluated, and the conclusion is drawn that ethical egoism is incomplete.
Go here to see the original: