Answering the Case Against Psychological Egoism

Is our only ultimate motive or ultimate chief motive for all that we do based around what we think we can get out of it? If the answer is yes then we are psychologically egoists.


Think of it this way.  Joanna is in dire need of help or she will suffer terribly.  Only you can help.  If you cannot do it unless you find even 1% of a benefit in helping for yourself then it follows that though the 99% is about her you are weighing you against her.  You are still what matters.


You help her not for her but for yourself.  She is not helped because she is suffering but because you want to help her.
Few care for psychological egoism and wish to refute it.
Here are attempted refutations.
1 If you say that everybody is an egoist all the time, you are saying something that is impossible to test. You can’t see anybody else’s motives. What is to stop you from saying that psychological altruism is true? What is to stop you saying that psychological egoism is true either? Both theories are unverifiable. Somebody could be a recluse for altruistic reasons. It could be because they think they have nothing good to offer anybody. Or they think they could be a recluse because they don't want to offer good to anybody.
Reply to 1
Even if you look inside yourself you may not see reasons why the altruistic act you did was not really as other-centred as it seems.  Good results of your actions and how good you feel for doing them blind you to the selfish motives.


The refutation certainly shows that nobody has the right to tell somebody not to assume psychological egoism!
2 "Just because an intention, desire, motive or thought is mine does not mean it is about me.  I really can give."


Reply to 2, It does not mean it is not about me either.  It is always a mixture of motives I have, think I have and motives deep down that I am not even aware of.  I am a creature that intends, desires, and has motives and thoughts so to exercise them is just good for me.  It is just good to do them even if there are problems with them in other ways.  So in that sense it is all about me.  Others are an afterthought.
3 "If psychological egoism is true, then we do everything we do to make ourselves happy. But if we pursue happiness we won’t get it. If we simply just get on with life and do good for others and forget about it, it is then that happiness comes. Happiness is a by-product."
Reply to 3
Selfishness cannot be refuted by going wrong!
The claim is that because we wreck our happiness and weaken it if we pursue it all the time that psychological egoism must be false. But the mistake in this argument is in thinking that forgetting about happiness is not self-interest. It is self-interest. If you intend to forget about how happy you are in order to feel happiness that is self-interest.

4 People are interested in other people. They are not just interested in themselves. People love, are grateful to, are friendly to, and show compassion to, others.
Reply to 4

To love is to value. To value means to take pleasure in them. Altruistic love is a contradiction. You want your wife not just to enjoy loving you but to love you BECAUSE she enjoys it. The altruistic wife can enjoy loving you but as soon as she starts loving being with you rather than loving you that is when it starts to work. You don’t want her to love you altruistically. Altruism says love is sacrifice. It says the wife who agonisingly helps you from day to day and gets no pleasure from it is the wife who truly loves not the one who enjoys being your partner.
Life is full of horrendous dangers. We switch off our perception of that in order to be able to smile. Rationally, we think we want to be loved for ourselves - altruism. But it is not that simple. We use self-deception to believe that those who look after us because of the benefits we provide them love us and not the benefits.
We know it is in our best interest to be interested in other people. It is egoistic.
5 People have very different interests. Different things make them happy so egoism is not true. If psychological egoism were true, the man who saves lives would have the same self-interest motive as a man who does not save them but prefers to sleep in bed. But he does not. The actions prove that.
Reply to 5
This has no relationship at all to the issue. Does people having different interests, people preferring to nurse rather than to teach children, prove that altruism isn’t true?
Suppose you have two men who want to be happy. Does that mean the two of them have to go about it in the same way? People see things differently.
6 People do not do everything they to do please themselves and satisfy their own interests for people can want something badly and still be unsatisfied when they get it.
Reply to 6
That has nothing to do with the issue of whether or not egoism is true. Egoism does not necessarily mean that you will go after what you think has the most pleasure in it or what consequences will provide the best service for your interest. Egoism is about fulfilling the desire to act.
7 People don’t always do what they perceive to be in their best interest. People smoke too much for example. People will engage in dangerous sports such as motor racing. And people make mistakes about what is in their best interest. If I were offered a pill to make me wrongly think I had provided for my family forever so that I could feel happy for life would I take it? No so psychological egoism is false.
Reply to 7


Arrogance is taken as self-interest.  You are risking for you are convinced enough you are too special for anything bad to happen to you.

8 People often have a mixture of motives for what they do. Some of the motives may be altruistic, some egoistic and some may even be egotistic. Psychological egoism denies this so it is false. If a person is altruistic and is rewarded for it, that reinforces and encourages the altruistic behaviour in future. So even though the person is not motivated by looking for the reward, the reward increases the tendency to be altruistic. Self-interest and caring about the welfare of others are not necessarily incompatible. For example, a doctor can be nice to his patients though he just cares about himself. He is nice because he knows that the patients will find another doctor if he is not.
Reply to 8

We refuted the mixture idea as having any relevance when we looked at Joanne at the start of this page.  Selfless motives don't work by themselves.  Only the egoist one works. 

9 Self-interest and caring about the self-interests of others are compatible. You can do both at the one time. You can care about others and yourself at the one time.
Reply to 9
The argument says that you can look out for yourself (egoism) and others (altruism) at the one time.
If you are in a football team you will be interested and playing football not only for yourself but for the team. You work as one.
This seems to prove the point made in 9.
Let us take a closer look.
Caring for others means you want to please yourself by seeing them happy. It is about you not them. They benefit from your selfishness. Caring for others is self-interest in this sense. It is not altruism at all.
The argument actually has nothing at all to do with refuting psychological egoism. This failure of the argument to refute psychological egoism proves that psychological egoism is true. How do we know? Because what else could opponents of psychological egoism say in order to try and refute it?
The irrelevance of the argument is proven by the fact that even egotism and caring about the self-interests of others is compatible. The egotist will rob an old lady to feed his child. And yet we know that the caring is bad and totally selfish. It couldn't be further from altruism. The caring is done in such a way that it is bad caring.
We all know that if we encourage others to be happy and this is so that we will selfishly benefit from being around happier people - unhappy people make you unhappy - that there is nothing wrong with that. It is what we all do. The argument that encouraging people to be selfish is self-destructive overlooks that we are not talking about the absurdity of a dictator encouraging other people to become dictators too which will only lead to him being toppled off his perch. We are talking about people getting along and not about rivalry. The attractiveness and wisdom of egoism show that we should assume everybody is an egoist.
10 You only feel good about having done good deeds because you value such deeds. You don’t value them just because you feel good after them. Egoism is untrue for it says you only do what makes you feel good.
Reply to 10
Yet these are the people who say you can value deeds without feeling good about them. If you have to turn off your child’s life support to prevent her suffering you will not feel good though you value this action.
11 A child and a man are in the sea after a shipwreck. The man lets go of a log to let the child hold on to it instead. A man agrees to be tortured to death by kidnappers so that a woman they are holding may go free. These are examples of totally unselfish behaviour.
Reply to 11
A man challenging his love rival to a duel though he knows the rival will win can hardly be described as an altruist. So he must be an egoist or an egotist. Since he is doing wrong, he must be an egotist. Egoism does not deny that the mind can make the person think in such a way that the best interests for the person are misperceived. The man thinks he is doing the best thing by challenging the rival to a duel. The risk to his life hasn’t sunk in and he won’t let it sink in.
The man who lets the child use the log and the man who is tortured to save the woman have done the same thing. Their behaviour does not prove that they are altruistic. They may know that death and suffering are real but may not feel it enough and if they don’t feel it enough they will prefer to let the other person live. I said prefer.  It is what they desire. They fulfil a desire by doing so. They are not doing it to feel good after. They are doing it because the pleasure they see in doing the act attracts them. They value it. It attracts them – in other word it says to them, “Do me and as you do me you will be fulfilled for as long as you do me.”
Intelligent people can do stupid things. Some people do smart things while thinking they are stupid and want or mean to be stupid in doing them. If you can be stupid, you can calculate 15+15=30. Just because it is right, does not prove that your faculty of intelligence did it, not the stupidity. Can a soldier wilfully getting blown to bits to save his comrades be doing it because he is stupid? If he is, then he is doing it to not be altruistic but to be stupid. After all, the risk of stupidity increases when there is great stress and earth-shattering choices have to be made.
The soldier certainly is seeing life at its worst - that is his experience. It would not be hard to jump on the grenade then. It's like an opportunity to escape life.
Those who say they don't believe in psychological egoism often have to come up with extreme examples such as that of soldier to justify their belief in altruism. They never say that if we look inside we will see how unselfish we can be. Telling!
And besides, the examples even if they worked, do not refute psychological egoism completely. What they would do at best is just show there are exceptions - possibly rare. But it is not clear that they really are exceptions.
Religious people are offended by psychological egoism for they advocate altruism and a love for God free from all self-interest. But they keep members in the religion and get converts by dwelling on the issue of, "The meaning of life? What is it all about?" But when we do good things for others and find that happiness just appears in us it follows that the question is really irrelevant. The emphasis put on the question shows they are not the disciples of altruism and selflessness they pretend to be. At best they are religious manipulators. They distract us from the most important principle of all and rob it of its supremacy. That is bad in itself.
We judge something as stupid because of the crazy results. But it is really a faculty in the person that causes stupidity. Thus a stupid person can succeed tremendously in life not thought skill but through luck. If we judge them by the results we will see them as geniuses but they are far from that.
Even intelligent persons are stupid in some areas. The potential for stupidity differs from person to person.
12 The other idea that animals act altruistically so we can do it too is related to this one.
Reply to 12
Animals don’t think of the future or understand that they can suffer and die if they take such and such an action. We can. A dog attacking a bigger dog that attacks his adored mother is not behaving altruistically but ignorantly.
13 Some people want fame though fame is tormenting and means you have no privacy. Some people risk their lives and wellbeing needlessly to take revenge.
Reply to 13
Such behaviour is seen as extreme egoism or egotism. How it can be thought that people suffering to gain and keep fame and risking their lives for revenge is supposed to prove the falsity of psychological egoism is a mystery! If people risk their lives for revenge and are extreme egoists then why can’t they risk their lives in a good way as well and still be egoists, though not extreme ones?
14 If psychological egoism is true then the moral theory of ethical egoism is true. Though it is true that ethical egoism does not require belief in psychological egoism it is true that psychological egoism demands belief in ethical egoism. If we can’t be other than self-interested then it follows that we ought to be self-interested for we cannot do anything different. But even if altruism is possible, the ethical egoist says that egoism is right, it is what ought to be done. Ethical egoism is bad. It says that Hitler didn’t do wrong by hurting the Jews but by degrading himself to do such things. Had he been a man with good self-esteem and self-respect he wouldn’t have carried out such actions. He didn’t have a strong and noble ego. He didn’t see that to love himself properly he had to love other people.
Reply to 14
Even if ethical egoism is indeed bad, that does not give anybody the right to condemn psychological egoism. Just because a truth has bad results doesn’t mean it is not a truth. The logic in the argument is otherwise correct.
There is nothing wrong with saying Hitler should have used his ego or self-esteem to appreciate other people when he couldn’t help it.
If we are naturally egoists, it seems stupid to say we should be ethical egoists for we have no choice but to be egoists. Unless you believe that free will is an illusion, we do have a choice. The choice is between egoism and egotism.
Ethical egoism when correctly understood, tells you that you find your happiness in helping others. Virtue is its own reward. The egoist wants others to be selfish all the time but in the wisest way for that benefits all.
Ethical egoism does not say that there is necessarily a conflict between my happiness and that of others. If you are truly well-balanced you will make others happier which in turn makes you feel safer and makes you happier. If altruism were true, it would tell you to welcome suffering to help others. That can only make you fear goodness and others. It takes away your sense of safety.
Does the egoist assume that her or his interests come before everybody else’s?  Is that not her or him claiming to matter more than other people even if he or she treats others in an excellent way all the time? This would be the case if the egoist only helped the sick in order to feel good afterwards. But if the egoist finds joy and fulfilment in simply doing the act regardless of what may come after be it happiness or disappointment the egoist in practice is treating others as equals. He might not be able to think it but who cares? The person who refuses to take what is best in life to let others have it is still putting his or her own interests first in her or his own way. It depends on what he or she wants out of life.
The advice problem. Egoist John wants you to give him a loan. You are an egoist too and don’t want to give the loan. He can’t advise you to not give the loan for it is best for him if you do. He does therefore psychological egoism is untrue.
The solution to the problem is that John will feel he demeans himself if he gets the loan against your will. He wants to honour himself by doing the right thing. It is egoistic to honour yourself.  
15 The egoists who say that egoism is simply doing what you want to do only imagine they are espousing egoism. That is not egoism. You can want to do things for reasons that have nothing to do with your interests. If you do things because of your interests that is egoism. If you do things for reasons, that could be altruism. For example, “I want to get John’s medicine for him because I want him to get well though it won’t do me any good”, that is altruism.

Reply to 15
If John is a good person John will want me to get something out of what I do for him. He will want me to feel good about it. He will not want me to be doing anything for him for the sake of being selfless. So it only looks like I am honouring John when I behave altruistically towards him. My altruism is really a refusal to honour him. The girlfriend doesn’t want a boyfriend who doesn’t care about the good feelings and the benefits he gets out of being with her and loving her.
Reasons are only reasons because you fulfil yourself by having them. The writer who has no interest in authoring children’s books and who hands in a romantic novel to the publisher will never have the desire to write children’s books as a reason for having become a writer. Your desires cause your reasons. If you want to be rational you listen to reason and you think. If you want to be deluded you will be deluded.
You might say that that you want to be a pilot for it is exciting. Desire makes it seem exciting to you. The desire gives you the reason.
Desire is behind it all. The existence of reasons has nothing whatsoever to do with supporting the idea that we can be other than egoistic or egotistic. And that is because acceptance of the reasons by us is based on how attractive and pleasing we find that acceptance.

Last of all
Psychological egoism is incapable of any refutation. Not only that, but the nature of desire proves that it is true and that altruism and egotism are to be rejected.
Not only that if psychological egoism were refuted that would not be much of a consolation. We would still have the suspicion that that we never are really free from selfish motives to contend with.

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