So my latest "Values Analysis" class (sophomore level ethics class) seems, on the whole anyway, to be a particularly jaded bunch. Although it is typical in an ethics class to find that a fair number of people think that psychological egoism is true, in this class the number might be as high as 50% (maybe higher).
Clearly, psychological egoism is a very demanding theory, as it is far more demanding than mere pessimism about human altruism. I can believe in altruism but be a pessimist about how often it actually emerges in the world. But the psychological egoist thinks that altruism (again, where it is seen as separate from self-interest) is impossible, not just unlikely or rare.
I'm curious what factors I should attribute the increase in belief in this thesis to. If I were teaching at a different school, one with a lot of poor students, or students who had lived through inner-city ghetto conditions growing up, I could understand it. Seen from that grim perspective on life, the world sure looks like the kind of place in which altruism is a fiction. But my students do not come from these backgrounds at all. Quite the opposite.
So I'm left wondering what it is. One possibility: if you believe in psychological egoism, it does provide you with a "free pass" to oneself in all future situations where you don't help another person in a situation where you don't perceive a way to benefit personally. A psychological egoist might reason that there's no reason to feel bad about such a situation -- it's not rational, after all, to feel guilty about something you couldn't do (be motivated to perform altruistic acts) in the first place. This leaves me wondering if belief in psychological egoism may be more prevalent in the top and bottom rungs of the socio-economic ladder. Those at the top believe in it because it allows them to guiltlessly keep what they have; those at the bottom believe it because their experiences lead them to this conclusion.
That's one possibility, though it's a grim one that I'd hope isn't the real reason. Anyone have any other suggestions? My explanation requires a bit of cynicism, and hopefully that's just the New Yorker in me speaking. :)