Psychological Egoism

September 5th, 2010 by Kara in News

Psychological egoism is the claim that all individuals act to promote their own interests, and that this aim is the ultimate goal of all individual behavior. This claim does not suggest that individuals always succeed in this endeavor; it only claims that individuals always intend to promote their self-interests.

One notable (and sometimes misunderstood) aspect of psychological egoism is that it does not entail that individuals do not perform other-regarding actions or suggest that they always avoid personal sacrifices. In many cases, it can be to one’s self-interest to make a sacrifice, such as doing a friend a favor, because the immediate sacrifice will be met with proportional benefits in the future, such as increased trust and a reciprocated favor in the future.

Unlike ethical egoism, psychological egoism makes no claims regarding how people ought to behave. Rather, it is a claim about how people actually behave: They perform actions which promote their own welfare.

Although psychological egoism is consistent with many observations of human behavior, claiming that all human behavior can be explained as an attempt to further an individual’s self-interest proves quite challenging. Some individuals seem to commit acts which have no clear benefit to their own welfare and sometimes virtually no hope of conferring a benefit to them. Acts of extraordinary self-sacrifice are difficult to explain if one accepts psychological egoism. A soldier who hurls himself on top of a grenade (thereby guaranteeing his own death) to prevent the deaths of his fellow soldiers does not seem to be acting to promote his own welfare in any conceivable way. One might claim that the guilt the soldier would have experienced if he had survived and let others die would have been overwhelming and that it was in his self-interest to avoid such guilt. This scenario may account for some instances of self-sacrifice (although it seems questionable to assume that everyone believes no life at all is preferable to a guilt-ridden life), but it cannot account for all of them.

In financial ethics, whistle blowing frequently seems to be against the actor’s interests. Consider the case of Jeffrey Wigand, a former vice president of research and development at a branch of the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation in Louisville, Kentucky. Wigand gained national recognition when he publicly announced that Brown & Williamson manipulated the ingredients in their cigarettes to increase the nicotine levels in cigarette smoke, potentially increasing their addictiveness.

Although Wigand’s actions are morally commendable, the whistle blowing and subsequent lawsuit forced him to make meaningful sacrifices. He earned about $300,000 per year while working for Brown & Williamson; he now makes about $60,000 per year promoting an anti-smoking message to children and adolescents. Following his announcement, he faced harassment and death threats, and the stress of the ensuing lawsuit likely contributed to his wife divorcing him. Wigand attained a Ph. D. in biochemistry and is an intelligent person; we cannot think that he did not know these consequences were likely when he made the decision to release the information. The notion that Wigand exposed the unethical practices of Brown & Williamson for personal gain seems absurd.

Although it can be difficult to explain, human beings do not always behave exclusively to promote their own interests. Nevertheless, one might contend that these self-sacrificing actions are rare and adopt a stance of predominant egoism, a less extreme and more plausible hypothesis about self-interested behavior.

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