Psychological Egoism Just Isn't True. And I'm Not Saying That Just 'Cause It's in my Self-Interest, Either
In a recent post, I commented that arguments for psychological egoism are laughably bad and that I thus wasn’t going to address them further. Tom, quite fairly, called me out on the claim, asking whether I could provide either a summary or a link to a good argument against PE. So in what follows, I’ll attempt to show why psychological egoism is a doctrine that ought to be rejected.
First, we should probably explain what psychological egoism actually is. Or rather, we’ll start with what it’s not. PE is not a normative theory; it is not a claim about how people ought to behave. Rather, PE is a descriptive claim, a claim about human psychology. Formally, PE maintains that, as a matter of fact, all human beings are always selfish. Proponents of PE have included Thrasymachus from Plato’s Republic, Thomas Hobbes, Jeremy Bentham and Ayn Rand. (Right now, I’m hearing the old Sesame Street song. You know. “One of these things just doesn’t belong here…”). The trouble, of course, is that on its surface, PE is just, well, false. Plenty of people do plenty of unselfish actions. I give money to charity. I help an old lady cross the street. I buy my son a book at the bookstore and pass on getting one for myself. I give my girlfriend the last glass of wine. All of these acts appear, on the surface, to be unselfish acts.
Of course, the PE has an explanation. One strategy to take is to offer what James Rachels has called the wants argument. Here’s the argument:
- Everyone always does whatever he/she most wants to do.
- Always doing whatever one wants to do is selfish.
- Therefore people are always selfish.
This is indeed an argument for PE. It’s just a really crummy one. Indeed, it’s an example of the fallacy known as a definitional dodge, salvaging the argument by changing the meaning of a word (“selfish” in this case) into something not generally recognized as being what the word means. Consider: the claim that the PE is making here is that selfish just means “always doing whatever one wants to do.” Or in other words, because all of our actions have the general form
Miller most wants _________
it must be the case that all of our actions are selfish. Whatever action goes into the blank, be it “to save the starving” or “to steal from the poor,” the action will be selfish because, in either case, I will simply be doing whatever it is that I most want to do.
The problem, however, is that saying “Miller most wants X” is not what we generally mean by the word “selfish.” Rather, whether or not I am selfish depends upon what does into the blank space. The mere form of this statement does not make Miller selfish. Rather, the question of whether Miller is selfish depends upon what goes in the blank. If I want only my own happiness regardless of the consequences to others, then I am selfish. If I want other people to be well-off even at some cost to my own happiness, then I am unselfish. To say that everyone is selfish because we all do whatever we most want to do is to misuse the word “selfish.”
A second possible argument for PE is what Rachels calls the satisfaction argument. The form of the argument is pretty similar to the form of the wants argument:
- We always perform whatever action will give us the most satisfaction.
- Performing the action that maximizes our own satisfaction is selfish.
- Therefore we are always selfish.
As with the first argument, the difficulty here will be with (2). Consider the following example, cited in just about every intro-level paper on psychological egoism:
Mr. Lincoln once remarked to a fellow-passenger on an old-time mud-coach that all men were prompted by selfishness in doing good. His fellow-passenger was antagonizing this position when they were passing over a corduroy bridge that panned a slough. As they crossed this bridge they espied an old razorbacked sow on the bank making a terrible noise because her pigs had got into the slough and were in danger of drowning. As the old coach began to climb the hill, Mr. Lincoln jumped out, ran back, and lifted the little pigs out of the mud and water and placed them on the bank. When he returned, his companion remarked: “Now Abe, where does selfishness come in on this little episode?” Why bless your soul, Ed, that was the very essence of selfishness. I should have had no peace of mind all day had I gone on and left that suffering old sow worrying over those pigs. I did it to get peace of mind, don’t you see?”
To see why this is a bad argument, let’s change the example slightly. Suppose pretty much the same example except that this time, I am in
The problem, once again, is that the fact that I satisfy my preferences isn’t by itself enough to show that I act selfishly. Rather, whether or not I am selfish depends on what kinds of preferences I actually have. To the extent that I get satisfaction from helping others, I am unselfish. To the extent that I fail to get satisfaction from helping others and instead get satisfaction only when I help myself, I am selfish. To put the point another way, to say that I get satisfaction from X is to say that I already had some preference for X or some desire to X. And it is the prior preference for or desire to X that is either selfish or unselfish. The fact that I act on that preference or desire is not itself evidence that I act selfishly.
Indeed, the very claim that humans always act to satisfy their preferences is itself incoherent. As Joel Feinberg points out, the very formulation of the theory leads to an infinite regress. Consider:
And so on, ad infinitum.
“All men desire only satisfaction”
“Satisfaction of what?”
“Satisfaction of their desires.”
“Their desires for what?”
“Their desires for satisfaction.”
“Satisfaction of what?”
In short, the claim that people are always selfish because they always act to satisfy their preferences is (a) false, since it “selfish” means something entirely different, and (b) not even really coherent in the first place.
Perhaps, then, we could reformulate PE yet again.
S: P acts selfishly in performing A iff A benefits P and A harms Q and P ignores the harm that A causes to Q.
Self-interest, on the other hand, we might define as
SI: P acts self-interestedly in performing A if A will benefit P.To act self-interestedly, in other words, is to act in such a way as to benefit myself. Selfishness implies an additional step, one in which I actively harm (or at the very least, actively ignore the harm my action might cause) someone else. The reformulated version of PE, then, would hold that people always act self-interestedly. Unfortunately, this won’t do, either. It’s just plainly false. There are a number of activities that people perform that are not in their self-interest. I might ignore the signs that I have cancer. Or have sex with a prostitute without wearing a condom. Or ride a motorcycle without wearing a helmet. Or smoke two packs of cigarettes a day. All of these actions might well give me pleasure. Not a single one of them is in my self-interest, though.
There is, however, one final version of the theory. Let’s try it one more time:
PE: people always act in such a way as to maximize their expected utility.This is probably the strongest version of PE that there is. It does, however, suffer from the problem that it looks to be empirically false. Plenty of people claim that they don’t do this sort of thing when they act. The typical PE response here is that people who claim not to act in such a way as to maximize their expected utility are really just deceiving themselves.
It’s hard to know where to start analyzing this baldly elitist claim. Do I begin with the arrogance of your claiming to somehow have a better understanding of what goes on in my head than I have? Tempting, but, elitist as it sounds, it may very well be the case that some experts have a better understanding of my psychology (or rather, my brain chemistry, but I’m speaking loosely here for a moment) than I have. So instead, I’ll point out that a defense of PE that rests upon the claim that most people deceive themselves regularly about their motives is, quite simply, no longer within the realm of empirical science. Alex Moseley explains the problem nicely:
On this point, psychological egoism’s validity turns on examining and analyzing moral motivation. But since motivation is inherently private and inaccessible to others (an agent could be lying to herself or to others about the original motive), the theory shifts from a theoretical description of human nature--one that can be put to observational testing--to an assumption about the inner workings of human nature: psychological egoism moves beyond the possibility of empirical verification and the possibility of empirical negation (since motives are private), and therefore it becomes what is termed a “closed theory.”
A closed theory is a theory that rejects competing theories on its own terms and is non-verifiable and non-falsifiable. If psychological egoism is reduced to an assumption concerning human nature and its hidden motives, then it follows that it is just as valid to hold a competing theory of human motivation such as psychological altruism.
Moseley goes on to offer a quick sketch of psychological altruism, or the view that all our actions are motivated by altruistic behavior. Like PE, PA cannot be refuted by empirical evidence, since, after all, any empirical evidence can be explained away as an act of self-deception. PA is also a closed theory, one that will in fact explain the world just as well as PE (since, again, nothing can really count as empirical evidence against either claim). In the end, our decision to side with PE rather than PA will be arbitrary; one might as well just flip a coin. A coin flip, however, is hardly an appealing way of determining the account of moral motivation that we’re going to use as the backdrop for the science of economics.
What does appear to be true is that humans are largely motivated by self-interest. That weak claim is enough to get economics off the ground. It does mean, however, that sometimes we will perform actions that are not motivated by our own self-interest. At times, we act altruistically. We’re just more complicated than the PE wants to admit.