Thursday, February 24, 2011


Sometimes, even in the middle of what seem to be acts of philanthropy or altruism, people can be motivated purely by self-interest rather than a feeling of wanting to help others. If someone obtains personal benefits from doing a good thing, either directly or indirectly, then their altruism is colored by their own self-interest, which may be the underlying reason for doing a good thing in the first place. Many philosophers believe that the basic motivation for every human action is self-interest, regardless of what the outcome or outward purpose of the action seems to be. People in agreement with the idea believe it is a true phenomenon because the nature of human psychology reveals its truth, and it is empirically supported that humans act in their own self-interest all the time.
Friedrich Nietzsche, a German philosopher who was a psychological egoist, explained that in cases such as these, impulses of compassion arise from projecting our own identity onto the other person. Some hypothetical examples he gives to illustrate this idea are the example of a person feeling compelled to save a drowning person, or someone feeling horrified by watching a fistfight and attempting to break it up. In such cases, a person unconsciously ignores threats to their own safety, because the suffering of another person feels threatening to our own happiness. Watching someone else suffer makes us vulnerable to our own misfortunes, so relieving that suffering can also relieve our own personal sentiments.
Because many human actions appear altruistic, such as helping someone gratuitously or sacrificing self, it may seem that psychological egoism is a falsehood. For example, it seems incorrect to assume that a mother who falls ill because of long hours tending her sick child does so because of self interests. However, psychological egoists say that helping other people in such a way is ultimately driven by some type of self-interest, be it the expectation of reciprocal actions, the desire for respect or admiration, or the expectation of being rewarded in an afterlife. Being helpful to others is simply instrumental for achieving goals that are, ultimately, selfish in nature.
If a soldier sacrifices his life by jumping atop a grenade to save his platoon, there is no time left for the soldier to experience any positive feelings for having given his life. However, a psychological egoist would argue that the soldier is still able, albeit briefly, to experience good feelings by knowing that he is giving his life to ensure the survival of other soldiers, or that he is avoiding emotional pain he would feel if he did not do so. Although one’s actions may not cause pleasure or avoid pain in a recognizable, long-term fashion, one’s expectation of these outcomes is the main factor in them making the decision to perform an action.
(By Buzzle Staff and Agencies at
People are motivated by their own interests and desires, and they cannot be described otherwise. People act for many reasons; but for whom, or what, do or should they act—for themselves, for God, or for the good of the planet? Can an individual ever act only according to her own interests without regard for others’ interests? Conversely, can an individual ever truly act for others in complete disregard for her own interests? The answers will depend on an account of free will.
It certainly appears that people sometimes act in ways that are not in accord with their own interests: the soldier who falls on the grenade to save his buddies, the person who runs into the busy street to save a child about to be run over, etc. One might be perfectly self-interested and look out for the interests of others — e.g., a shopkeeper who never cheats his customers simply because he knows honesty is good for business...
Psychological egoism is only true if you adopt what Rachels calls the strategy of redefining motives. That is, you insist on claiming that people are “really” acting selfishly even when they appear to be acting unselfishly.
You see your child run into a busy street. A car is driving very fast toward the child. You see that you can save the child’s life if you run out into the street and grab the child in your arms. Realizing this, do you now stop and calculate how much happiness you’ll receive if you save the child? Do you say to yourself, “Gee, it would make me feel really good to save my child, so I guess I’ll do it” No. You feel good after saving the child because you saved the child. You didn’t save the child in order to feel good…
Thomas Hobbes gives a version of psychological egoism in Leviathan; so does Thrasymachus, a character in Plato's Republic (Plato has Socrates disagree with him). Both Hobbes and Thrasymachus think that psychological egoism is true: that human are, at best, indifferent to everything except what directly benefits them. Thus, we must re-think our views about what’s moral. Hobbes and Thrasymachus urge a “new” normative ethics, which states that it is morally right to pursue self-interest and wrong not to.
(Psychological Egoism and Ethical Egoism by Sandra LaFave, West Valley College at
Consider a free-rider situation. In marking students’ papers, a teacher may argue that to offer inflated grades is to make her life easier, and, therefore, is in her self-interest: marking otherwise would incur negative feedback from students and having to spend time counseling on writing skills, and so on. It is even arguably foreseeable that inflating grades may never have negative consequences for anyone. The teacher could conceivably free-ride on the tougher marking of the rest of the department or university and not worries about the negative consequences of a diminished reputation to either. However, impartiality considerations demand an alternative course—it is not right to change grades to make life easier. Here self-interest conflicts with reason.
Suppose that two men seek the hand of one woman, and they deduce that they should fight for her love. A critic may reason that the two men rationally claim that if one of them were vanquished, the other may enjoy the beloved. However, the solution ignores the woman’s right to choose between her suitors, and thus the men’s reasoning is flawed.
A critic may contend that personal gain logically cannot be in one’s best interest if it entails doing harm to another: doing harm to another would be to accept the principle that doing harm to another is ethical (that is, one would be equating “doing harm” with “one’s own best interests”), whereas, reflection shows that principle to be illogical on universalistic criteria. However, in the case of the rich uncle and greedy nephew, for example, it is not the case that the nephew would be acting ethically by killing his uncle, and that for a critic to contend otherwise is to criticize personal gain from the separate ethical standpoint that condemns murder. In addition, a respond may say that these particular fears are based on a confusion resulting from conflating ethics (that is, self-interest) with personal gain; if the nephew were to attempt to do harm for personal gain, that he would find that his uncle or others would or may be permitted to do harm in return. The argument that “I have a right to harm those who get in my way” is foiled by the argument that “others have a right to harm me should I get in the way.” That is, in the end, the nephew variously could see how harming another for personal gain would not be in his self-interest at all.
(Alexander Moseley at
The assertion that people act in a purely egoist manner has several problems. Taken in the most literal sense, egoism can easily be proven false. People may be motivated by a myriad of feelings such as anger, fear, love, compassion, pride, a sense of justice, or a desire for knowledge. The theory assumes some ambiguity and fuses intentions and consequences. For example, a cigarette smoker acts on his desire to smoke; smoking causes health problems that are not in one's best interest. Oftentimes, one's desires can lead to behaviors and consequences that are not in one's best interest, though the initial action may have provided pleasure or avoided pain.
Common sense and folk psychology assumes that people tend to act in their own interests. Today's culture reflects an interest in self-improvement, self-esteem, and self-gratification. The "X-generation" has also been called the "Me-generation," as rampant consumerism focuses young people on immediate gratification and reflects no example of community responsibility or consideration for others. In fact, the market economy is founded on the assumption that self-interested, competing parties will produce the greatest good.
Yet, interestingly, our culture provides examples of both self- and other-centered paradigms. There are countless examples of people who act in the interests of others, sacrificing their own comfort and safety, to help fellow human beings, living creatures, or the physical environment. The acts of kindness, rescuing, generosity, self-sacrifice, and advocacy cover the spectrum of needs.
(Egoism by Dee Ann Sherwood at
The values required for man’s survival qua man—which means: the values required for human survival—not the values produced by the desires, the emotions, the “aspirations,” the feelings, the whims or the needs of irrational brutes, who have never outgrown the primordial practice of human sacrifices, have never discovered an industrial society and can conceive of no self-interest but that of grabbing the loot of the moment.
There is a fundamental moral difference between a man who sees his self-interest in production and a man who sees it in robbery. The evil of a robber does not lie in the fact that he pursues his own interests, but in what he regards as to his own interest; not in the fact that he pursues his values, but in what he chose to value; not in the fact that he wants to live, but in the fact that he wants to live on a subhuman level.
Since all values have to be gained and/or kept by men’s actions, any breach between actor and beneficiary necessitates an injustice: the sacrifice of some men to others, of the actors to the nonactors, of the moral to the immoral. Nothing could ever justify such a breach, and no one ever has.
The actor must always be the beneficiary of his action and that man must act for his own rational self-interest. But his right to do so is derived from his nature as man and from the function of moral values in human life—and, therefore, is applicable only in the context of a rational, objectively demonstrated and validated code of moral principles which define and determine his actual self-interest. It is not a license “to do as he pleases” and it is not applicable to the altruists’ image of a “selfish” brute nor to any man motivated by irrational emotions, feelings, urges, wishes or whims.
A similar type of error is committed by the man who declares that since man must be guided by his own independent judgment, any action he chooses to take is moral if he chooses it. One’s own independent judgment is the means by which one must choose one’s actions, but it is neither a moral criterion nor a moral validation: only reference to a demonstrable principle can validate one’s choices. Just as man cannot survive by any random means, but must discover and practice the principles which his survival requires, so man’s self-interest cannot be determined by blind desires or random whims, but must be discovered and achieved by the guidance of rational principles.
(Selfishness by Harry Binswanger at

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