Introduction to Egoism Lecture
Thinking About How We Act: Is It Ever Possible to Act Outside Your Own Interest?
Before we start talking about our first formal normative ethical theory, egoism, I want you to consider a real life example that took place in January 2011. An
engineer was sentenced to 30 years in jail for selling trade secrets to China. He said he did it to pay off his $15,000 mortgage on his home in Hawaii. This seems
immoral. It seems that he should have acted differently; he shouldn’t have been focused only in serving his own interests.
Let me ask you a question: did you find yourself wondering whether this was his second home. But does that really matter? What if he sold trade secrets to save a
stranger’s life? Or his own life? Does that make a difference to how you think about his actions now? How you approach this sort of case—what you consider
relevant to the question whether he acted morally— informs you about how you think about these sorts of things.
In fact, we often act in our own interest and don’t think twice about it (OK, maybe we do think twice, but we still do it). How hard is it to forgive yourself for beating
out that really elderly couple in the car facing you and grabbing that good parking spot. You’re in a hurry!
Some people claim that it’s not even possible to act in a way that doesn’t serve your own interests. That position is known as psychological egoism. And the theory
of ethical egoism (which we’ll get to shortly) is grounded in that psychological theory. We’ll see how they’re related in just a minute, but first I want you to entertain
the question of whether it’s ever possible to act unselfishly, that is, altruistically (which, let’s note, Singer demands we do).
Week 4.2: Selfless Exercise
Come up with an example of what you regard as a totally selfless act (one where your interests don’t figure into the equation at all).
Week 4.3: Psychological Egoism Lecture
Is It Possible to Act Outside Your Own Self-Interest?
Whatever example you came up to illustrate an entirely selfless act, a psychological egoist will
put an egoistic spin on it. Watch how this works: Say your grandmother calls and needs help with something she is unable to handle on her own. Now, today is a
beautiful beach day and you were all ready to hit the sand but in the end you decide to help her. This clearly seems altruistic—a clear counterexample to the theory
that we always act in our own self-interest. Hell, I just acted in grandma’s interest!
But the psychological egoist will deny that you have even offered a counterexample to his theory. He can say a number of things about this situation with grandma.
Before we get to those, however, let’s point out that it is possible that you were acting in your own self-interest. It might be that grandma is loaded and the only
reason you switched gears to help her was that you believed such an action would get you closer to being her heir. Indeed, in this case the egoist would be correct
in saying that you acted in your own self-interest.
But suppose grandma doesn’t have anything of any value that you are looking for—and even if she did, that is not why you decided to help her. How can your
decision in this case to help her be twisted into something about you and your own interests? Easy: don’t you feel good about yourself having made the choice to
help her? You like the sort of person you are when you help others. You feel good about you. There you have it. The action isn’t entirely selfless after all.
Please use the following link to see what we’re talking about here:
OK, maybe that one is too easy. What about this? Suppose you are walking along a busy road and see a child dart out into traffic. Without giving it a second
thought (you’re not thinking, say, about being hailed as a hero), you run out to save the kid, putting your own life at risk.
How can that possibly be seen as self-interested?
Well, the egoist has an answer to this one, too: Didn’t you choose to act? Didn’t you end up doing what you wanted to do (serving yourself in this way)? Nabbed!
In fact, there is a sense in which it seems quite impossible to come up with a situation that a psychological egoist cannot spin into an egoistic action. The egoist
has covered all the bases. Either (a) you really do have selfish or self-interested motives for your actions or (b) you end up
feeling good about what you do or (c) you are doing exactly what you want to do. In any of these ways, you are acting, according to the egoist, self-interestedly.
So, is the egoist right? Are we doomed to serve our own interests?
Read: “Egoism and Moral Scepticism,” by J. Rachels (in the book). Link Below
Rachels Egosim multiple chose assignment
1. The view that people are selfish in everything they do is known as:
b. ethical egoism.
c. psychological egoism.
1. In the story cited by Rachels, Abraham Lincoln claims to have acted selfishly in helping some pigs who had fallen in the mud because:
a. he hoped to buy the pigs from the local farmer who owned them.
b. all of these.
c. he would have lost his peace of mind if he hadn’t helped the pigs.
d. he hoped to impress his traveling companion with his gesture of compassion.
1. An ethical egoist argues that:
a. we are under no obligation to do anything except what is in our own interests.
b. people never act altruistically.
c. all of these
d. it is impossible to promote others’ welfare without sacrificing one’s own interests.
1. What, according to Rachels, determines whether an action is selfish or not?
a. the object of the action
b. both of these
c. neither of these
d. the result of the action
1. Rachels argues that the mere fact that I am acting on my wants does not mean that I am acting selfishly.
1. According to Rachels, a person who derives satisfaction from helping others is a selfish person.
1. According to Rachels, selfishness and self-interest are not the same thing.
1. The rational egoist cannot advocate that egoism be universally adopted.
Ethical Egoism: Joseph Butler Reading (Fifteen Sermons excerpts)
Note: Ignore the fact that there are highlighted passages in this reading. They are highlighted only for the assignment you’ll be doing on Butler.
(1).[Therefore it is not a true representation of mankind, to affirm that they are wholly governed by self- love, the love of power and sensual appetites: since, as on
the one hand, they are often actuated by these, without any regard to right or wrong; so on the other, it is manifest fact, that the same persons, the generality, are
frequently Influenced by friendship, compassion, gratitude, and even general abhorrence of what is base, and linking of what is fair and just,
takes its turn amongst
the other motives of action…
The chief design of the eleventh discourse, is to state the notion of self-love and disinterestedness, in order to show that benevolence is not more unfriendly to
self-love, than any other particular affection whatever. There is a strange affectation in many people of explaining away all particular affections, and representing
the whole of life as nothing but one continued exercise of self-love. Hence arises that surprising confusion and perplexity in the Epicureans of old, Hobbs, the
author of Reflections, Sentences, et Maximes Morales, and this whole set of writers; the confusion of calling actions interested, which are done in contradiction to
the most manifest known interest, merely for the gratification of a present passion. [One need only look into Torquatus’s account of the Epicurean system, in
Cicero’s first book, De Finibus, to see in what a surprising manner this was done by them. Thus, the desire of praise, and of being beloved, he explains to no other
than desire of safety: Regard to our country, even in the most virtuous character, to be nothing but regard to ourselves. The author of Reflections, &c. Morales,
says, “curiosity proceeds from interest, or pride; which pride also would doubtless have been explained to be self-love;” (Page 85. Ed. 1725)-as if there were no
passions in mankind, as desire of esteem, or of being beloved, or of knowledge. Hobbs’ account of the affections of good-will and pity, are instances of the same
kind.] Now, all this confusion might easily be avoided, by stating to ourselves wherein the idea of self-love in general consists, as distinguished from all particular
movements, towards particular external objects; the appetites of sense, resentment, compassion, curiosity, ambition, and the rest. When this is done, if the words
selfish and interested cannot be parted with, but must be applied to every thing; yet, (2) to avoid such total confusion of all language, let the distinction be made by
epithets; and the first may be called cool, or settled selfishness, and the other passionate, or sensual selfishness. But the most natural way of speaking plainly is,
to call the first only, self-love, and the actions proceeding from it, interested; [26/27] and to say of the latter, that they are not love to ourselves, but movements
towards somewhat external, –honor, power, the harm, or good, of another. And that the pursuit of these external objects, so far as it proceeds from these
movements (for it may proceed from self-love,) is no otherwise interested, than as every action of every creature must, from the nature of the thing, be; for no one
can act but from a desire, or choice, or preference of his own.
even of one’s own, has for its principle general self-love, or some particular passion. But this need create no confusion in the ideas themselves of self-love and
particular passions. We distinctly discern what one is, and what the other are; though we may be un- certain how far one or the other influences us. And though,
from this uncertainty, it cannot, but be, that there will be different opinions concerning mankind, as more or less governed by interest; and some will ascribe actions
to self-love, which others will ascribe to particular passions; yet it is absurd to say, that mankind are wholly actuated by either; since it is manifest that both have
their influence. For as, on the one hand, men form a general notion of interest, some placing it in one thing, and some in another, and have a considerable regard to
it throughout the course of their life, which is owing to self-love; so, on the other hand, they are often set on work by the particular passions themselves, and a
considerable part of life is spent in the actual gratification of them; i.e. is employed, not by self-love, but by the passions.
(4).Besides, the very idea of an interested pursuit, necessarily presupposes particular passions or appetites; since the very idea of interest, or happiness, consists in
this, that an appetite; or affection, enjoys its object. It is not because we love ourselves that we find delight in such and such objects, but because we have
particular affections [27/28] towards him. Take away these affections, and you leave self-love nothing at all to employ itself about; no end, or object, for it to
purpose, excepting that of avoiding pain. Indeed, the Epicureans, who maintained that absence of pain was the highest happiness, might, consistently with
themselves, deny all affection, and, if they had so pleased, every sensual appetite too. But the very idea of interest, or happiness, other than absence of pain,
implies particular appetites or passions; these being necessary to constitute that interest or happiness.
The observation, that benevolence is no more disinterested than any of the common particular passions, seems of itself worth being taken notice of; but is insisted
upon to obviate that scorn, which one sees rising upon the faces of people, who are said to know the world, when mention is made of a disinterested, generous, or
public spirited action. The truth of that observation might be made to appear in a more formal manner of proof: for, whoever will consider all the possible respects
and relations which any particular affection can have to self-love and private interest, will, I think, see demonstrably, that benevolence is not ill any respect more at
variance with self- love, than any other particular affection whatever, but that it is, in every respect, at least as friendly to it.
If the observation be true, it follows, that self-love and benevolence, virtue and interest, are not to be opposed, but only to be distinguished from each other; in the
same way as virtue and any other particular affection, love of arts, suppose, are to be distinguished. Everything is what it is, and not another thing. The goodness,
or badness of actions, does not arise from hence, that the epithet, interested, or disinterested, may be applied to them, any more than that any other indifferent
epithet, suppose inquisitive or jealous may, or may not, be applied to them; not from their being attended with present or future pleasure or pain, but from their
being what they are; namely, what becomes such creatures as we are, what the state of the case requires, or the contrary. Or, in other words, we may judge and
determine that an action [28/29] is morally good or evil, before we so much as consider, whether it be interested or disinterested. This consideration no more
comes in to determine, whether an action be virtuous, than to determine whether it be resentful. Self-love, in its due degree, is as just and morally good as any
whatever. Benevolence towards particular persons may be to a degree of weakness, and so be blameable. And disinterestedness is so far from being in itself
commendable, that the utmost possible depravity, which we can in imagination conceive, is that of disinterested cruelty.
Neither does there appear any reason to wish self-love were weaker in the generality of the world, than it is. — The influence which it has, seems plainly owing to its
being constant and habitual, which it cannot but be, and not to the degree or strength of it. Every caprice of the imagination, every curiosity of the understanding,
every affection of the heart, is perpetually showing its weakness, by prevailing over it. Men daily, hourly, sacrifice the greatest known interest to fancy,
inquisitiveness, love, or hatred, any vagrant inclination. The thing to be lamented is, not that men have so great regard to their own good or interest ,in the present
world, for they have not enough; but that they have so little to the good of others. And this seems plainly owing to their being so much engaged in it the
atification of particular passions unfriendly to benevolence, and which happen to be most prevalent in them, much more than to self-love. As a proof of this
may be observed, that there is character more void of friendship, gratitude, natural affection, love to their country, common justice, or more equally and
uniformly hard-hearted, than the abandoned in, what is called, the way of pleasure — hard-hearted and totally without feeling in behalf of others; except when they
cannot escape the sight of distress, and so are interrupted by it in their pleasures. And yet it is ridiculous to call such an abandoned course of pleasure interested,
when the person engaged in it knows beforehand, and goes on under the feeling and [29/30] apprehension, that it will be as ruinous to himself, as to those who
depend upon him.
Upon the whole, if the generality of mankind were to cultivate within themselves the principle of self-love; if they were to accustom themselves often to sit down
and consider, what was the greatest happiness they were capable of attaining for themselves in this life; and if self-love were so strong and prevalent, as that they
would uniformly pursue this their supposed chief temporal good without being diverted from it by any particular passion, it would manifestly prevent numberless
follies and vices. This was in a great measure the Epicurean system of philosophy. It is indeed by no means the religious, or even moral institution of life. Yet, with
all the mistakes men would fall into about interest; it would be less mischievous than the extravagancies of mere appetite, will, and pleasure. For certainly self-love,
though confined to the interest of this life, is, of the two, a much better guide than passion, which has absolutely no bound nor measure, but what is set to it by this
self-love, or moral considerations.
Butler Essay Assignment
Question 1 (10 points)
1. The electronic Butler reading assignment has four highlighted areas. Choose one of the highlighted passages, and using your own words as much as
possible, try to capture what you think Butler is saying. This might require a line-by-line translation on your part in order to understand what he’s saying—however,
rather than submitting a line-by-line answer, try summarizing what you have learned instead.
Week 4.8: General Criticisms of Egoism Lecture
So far, we have examined the theory of ethical egoism by looking at the first two (mostly the first) premises of the argument for it (the theory of psychological
egoism). Let’s turn now to some general criticisms aimed at psychological egoism, ethical egoism, and the combination of the two. (It’s important to understand
which theory (or combination of theories) a specific criticism is aimed at to appreciate it.)
Let’s call the first criticism the falsifiability criticism—it’s aimed only at psychological egoism. Here’s how it goes. According to some philosophers, in order for
something to have meaning at all it needs to be falsifiable. That doesn’t mean you need to show that it’s false but, rather, that you know what it would take to
show that it’s false. For instance, suppose there is a table before me. And I say, “This table is green.” I know what it would take to falsify that statement – for the
table not to be green (perhaps it looks green only because there is a green light shining on it). But a psychological egoist interprets all actions as ultimately self-‐
interested. It’s impossible to falsify the psychological egoist’s claim. Because even if you act and it’s not for self-‐satisfaction and it’s not for selfish reasons the
fact that you acted at all means, for the psychological egoist, that you were doing what you wanted to do and in that sense the act was self-‐interested. So
according to some philosophers, because psychological egoism is not falsifiable, it is meaningless.
Another criticism is aimed at the combination of psychological egoism and ethical egoism. We’ll call it the pointless criticism. It goes like this: If you accept the
theory of psychological egoism (that we always and necessarily act in our own self-‐interest), then ethical egoism (which says that we ought to act in our own
self-‐interest) is pointless. Normative theories are supposed to tell you how to act, but what’s the point of telling people that they should act in an
egoistic way if they can act only in that way.
The third criticism we’ll call absurd consequences. This criticism is also aimed at the
combination of psychological egoism and ethical egoism and it goes like this. If we can’t avoid doing what we ought to be doing, then we’re always doing what we
ought to be doing.
According to psychological egoism, we can’t avoid doing what ethical egoism says we ought to be doing (acting in our own self-‐interest). Therefore, were always
acting in a morally perfect way and no one can do anything wrong. But this is clearly false.
Rachels introduces another criticism: the universalizability criticism. According to this criticism, a rational egoist cannot advocate that ethical egoism be adopted
universally. Given that an ethical egoist wants a world in which his own interests are maximized, he’d have to insist on egoism for himself while advocating altruism
for others in the hopes that they would serve his interests. But an ethical theory should apply to everyone—shouldn’t it? Not just to me.
Another general criticism is that if ethical egoism is true and I ought only to serve my own interests, then it seems that I’m not entitled to make any kind of moral
evaluation about others’ behavior if their behavior doesn’t involve me and my pleasure or pain. (So I may not come to any moral conclusions after learning about
someone killing babies in another region of the world that doesn’t affect me?) But that doesn’t seem correct. An ethical theory should provide a way to determine
for any action whether it’s right or wrong (regardless of its relationship to me).
Egoism Short Answer Exam
1. Psychological egoism is the theory that
a. People ought not to act in their own self-interest
b. People don’t always act in their own self-interest
c. People always act in their own self-interest
d. People ought to act in their own self-interest
1. Ethical egoism is the theory that
a. People ought to act in their own self-interest
b. People always act in their own self-interest
c. People don’t always act in their own self-interest.
d. People ought not to act in their own self-interest
1. The ethical egoist may base his theory on psychological egoism (that is, it wouldn’t be inconsistent to do so)
1. One criticism of psychological egoism is that
a. It is meaningless because the way a psychological egoist argues, it cannot be proven false even in theory
b. It is falsifiable because people always act in their own interest
c. It is falsifiable because people do act for others sometimes
d. It is meaningless because people do act for others sometimes
1. A psychological egoist will say that a person who gives to charity is acting in his own self-interest because
a. None of these
b. He will feel good about himself in giving
c. He will expect others to help him when he needs help
d. He doesn’t give everything to charity
1. One criticism of ethical egoism and p
sychological egoism is that
a. Both of these
b. If psychological egoism is true, then ethical egoism is pointless
c. Neither of these
d. If ethical egoism is true, then psychological egoism is pointless
1. When John, without even giving it a second thought, sacrifices his own life to save another, the psychological egoist will interpret this act in the following
a. None of these
b. Because John would die in the end, he would never know whether he helped anyone
c. John thought about it and realized that he’d be considered a hero so he gave up his own life to be remembered this way
d. Because John acted at all, he did what he wanted to do
1. Altruism is, for Grant, good if one party benefits from the action
1. According to Rand, if I want to help others this is still, strictly speaking, a sacrifice.
1. Ethical egoism leads to psychological egoism
Egoism Short Answer Exam
Question 1 (10 points)
1. A common view of ethics is that in acting, we should consider not just ourselves but others as well. An ethical egoist, however, insists that our actions
must serve our own interests, and to demand otherwise is unethical (as Rand would put it: evil). In a paragraph, state what you think about this—which side do you
land on. (Note that this is more of a thought exercise—getting you to think about your view on all of this—than it is an information dump. Please give reasons for
your position; I am looking for you to think deeply about your reaction to egoism.