Tuesday, September 11, 2007

In the Age of Psychological Egoism

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. :)


  1. For some students it may just be one of their first experiences with a theory that has a remarkable amount of explanatory power. The ease of being able to construct an egoist explanation for almost any action can be very alluring and make one feel as if one has the right explanation. (Not only is all of human action explainable, but it's easily explainable with one simple principle!) In a complicated world where all your studies seem to be so over your head, that can be reassuring. As I tell my students: "Beware of ideas that are too simple."

    I'd like to think that's the real explanation, but unfortunately students at that level also tend to not draw thick lines between the descriptive and the prescriptive. So some kind of bleeding over into ethical egoism seems inevitable. I don't think they do it to reassure themselves, though, as most of them do like to think of themselves as good people, and not just by an egoist standard. Many of them also are fond of idealizing love, which can get in the way.

    I do think you're right that people who believe in psychological egoism will be more concentrated in the upper and lower classes, but that's not where most college students that I teach come from.

  2. Adam,

    I think that's certainly a good explanation for some of it. In a sea of hard to understand material (in such a class), it's nice to get thrown a simple theory with all-encompassing explanatory power! Still, the students I have who seem to embrace PE seem to think it's not just a good explanatory theory, they seem to think it's really not such a bad view of humanity either. Many have commented in this way: what's wrong with being always self-interested? So I wonder whether there's something else going on there as well. But I could be wrong -- they could always be "posing" publicly for some reason.

  3. Chris, you're definitely right about the 'posing' aspect of it. PE lets students play their Thrasymachus card, since it functions as a deflationary thesis: Students encounter arguments that they morally ought to do such-and-such, where such-and-such, is altruistic. If PE is true, then all those arguments, however sound, are not action guiding and can be dismissed. PE stops ethical inquiry, which (in light of many students learning models, where inquiry is itself uncomfortable) many students are happy to do.

    In my experience, students who claim to believe psychological egoism often don't, or believe a fairly weak version of it. For instance, many of them make the mistake (articulated well by Feinberg, I believe) of confusing goals of the self with self-interested goals. If you suppose that all human action is explained teleologically, in terms of our pursuing goals, it doesn't follow from the fact that these goals are our goals that these are self-interested goals. This is a subtle point that many students don't ever seem to grasp fully: If psychological egoism is to be an interesting (even falsifiable) thesis, then 'self-interest' must designate something more specific than any goal or desire that one has.

    The second mistake is that students sometimes have extremely simple models of motivation, models that fail to acknowledge the possibility of mixed motives, etc. It's one thing to say that people are ultimately motivated to act by selfish motives, another to say that altruistic motives exert no influence on our behavior at all. The former is compatible with our self-interested motives always being in fact stronger than our altruistic ones, but the latter is harder to defend. Similarly, students sometimes overlook the possibility that both kinds of motives can influence behavior (I give to charity in order to benefit others and for the tax break I receive). So I think a lot of mileage can be gotten from compelling students prone to PE to consider what explains the alleged fact that we always act from self-interest.

    And of course there are counterexamples: I think situations
    like the one described in Rebecca Mead, "Check Please," New Yorker 3/21/05, are provocative.

  4. 'The Ninth Configuration' is an outstanding movie to use in such a class situation. I've had good results with it for several years now.

  5. I think the draw of psychological egoism is that it sounds tautological. If you define 'selfishness' in a way that makes it synonymous with 'self-interested' and then define 'self-interest' in terms of fulfilling your desires, it's not hard to see how someone might think everything we do is selfish. After all, we've got some desire to do anything we do, or we wouldn't do it. This involves a serious misuse of language to make it work, but that's how psychological egoists present the view, and it does work out to be nearly tautological once you define the terms that way and recognize that there's some desire we're fulfilling whenever we do something.

  6. Jeremy,

    You're totally right there -- if you conflate those two, then it's really a silly theory. Of course to _do_ something I have to desire to do it (or so intentional psychology seems to tell me).

    But I do try to make that clear to them. It could be that they don't get it, but let's just assume that they do. They think that there's a further claim in there that's true -- that we always act for _selfish_ reasons (where that's different than saying that I desire to do it). Some of them are very convinced of it, actually.


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