Psychological egoism is a term used to describe the strong interrelation between individual human action and personal will. The theory explains human action in terms of the urge to pursue some desire meaning that every action must flow from a desire. But this claim gets head-on into conflict with our own experiences as well as those of others whereby certain actions result from other motives other than the mere desire to do the particular action (Graham 22-23). According to the psychological egoism theory, all human actions originate from selfish desires. Although people are capable of desiring or ultimately pursuing their own self-interest, psychological egoists neither deny the fact that people are sometimes concerned about the welfare or well-being of others; arguing that such concern exists only if what is good for others is perceived to be good for oneself as well. A person may for example desire the happiness of another only if it is a means to his/her own happiness. The theory therefore tries to disagree with the fact that purely benevolent and altruistic desires and actions do not exist (Shafer-Landau 183).
Selfish act vs. Self-interest act
A selfish act is one in which an individual always labors to get the best for himself/herself with no concern over what effects or harm such an action may cause to others. The sole purpose here is to fulfill one’s personal self-interest and selfish acts are always done for personal gain at the advantage of others (Graham 4). According to the psychological egoists, in every action men have their own self interests at the fore-front and that as human nature dictates, they are not capable of anything beyond that. Selfishness is universal, a consequence rather than a coincidence and is determined by already pre-existing psychological laws. On of the version of psychological egoism put forward by Jeremy Bentham states that all voluntary human behavior results from an ultimate selfish motive that is guided by a strong desire for personal pleasure. For these theorists, a simple action like a friendly smile is only an invitation for an approval nod from the recipient (Shafer-Landau 184-185).
A self-interest act on the other hand is done with the intention of achieving a desire or particular purpose and despite the fact that different human beings have totally different desires which operate simultaneously; psychological egoists argue that all these desires are the object of individual self interest. But self interested acts are carried out with the well-being of others in mind; the results of which are long term because by taking consideration of others, one is able to cultivate some community support that invites response from others whenever one is in need. Psychological egoism asserts that self interest is part of human nature and that people only do things because they want to do them. But this approach is wrong because if all things were done willingly, then there would be no internal struggle to fulfill some desires or perform some actions. This perception also fails to differentiate between good and bad people. Psychological egoists deny the fact that some actions like giving alms to the poor or giving a colleague a ride to town are practically out of selfless motives (Furrow 66-67).
The approach taken by psychological egoists that all human motives are self-interested cannot be true, and if it were true, certain motivations such as generosity, kindness and compassion which are paradigmatically moral would then become morally optional. Any attempt to justify psychological egoism as holding some truth would drastically alter the human perception of what in reality is a moral life. Such non-selfish ends however greatly contribute to the participant’s happiness (Shafer-Landau 144, 172).
Furrow, Dwight. Ethics: Key Concepts in Philosophy. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005.
Graham, Gordon. Eight Theories of Ethics. London: Routledge, 2004.
Shafer-Landau, Russ. Ethical Theory: An Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007.