The History About The Psychological Egoism Philosophy Essay

Modified: 1st Jan 2015
Wordcount: 1411 words

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Psychological egoism, once widely accepted by political economists, philosophers, and psychologists, is a controversial notion. Many agree and disagree with this perspective and the explanations for what motivates humans. Proponents erroneously argue that people are always motivated by their perceived self-interest, including altruistic acts. Through altruistic behaviors, malevolence, self-deception, and theoretical problems, this theory can be disproven.

Psychological egoism states that all human actions are motivated by selfish desire. Proponents of this doctrine believe that altruism exists, but only because the consequence of such of act leads to an increase in personal happiness. Therefore, purely altruistic and benevolent acts do not exist; people seem to act in these ways, but their motives are for advancement of self-interest. These psychological egoists consider their theory to be law – self-interest is an unavoidable psychological law. An alternate form of psychological egoism, psychological hedonism, relates to Jerry Bentham’s ideals, “the only kind of desire is the desire to get or to prolong pleasant experiences, and to avoid or cut short unpleasant experiences for oneself” (Feinberg 167).

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According to Joel Feinberg there are some points that have made psychological egoism plausible to many people. A staple of this theory is that every action of someone is promoted by his motives which serve to improve his self-interest. This staple is applicable to all actions of humans; therefore, all actions are selfish (Feinberg 167). Proponents also agree that people feel pleasure when they do something they want. Hence, we always strive to experience pleasure and pursue other things only because of the pleasurable consequences it will yield. Self-deception is a fundamental cog in the system of psychological egoism. People often trick themselves into performing a “noble” act rather than acting in their self-interest. Even a simple smile conceals a motive for personal pleasure – a ploy to earn a positive reaction from another human.

The tale of Abraham Lincoln and the sow shows fallacy in the psychological egoism statement, “… what we really want in every case is our own pleasure, and that we pursue other things only as a means” (Feinberg 170). Psychological egoists claim that Lincoln acted on the sow purely for the selfish pleasure. However, that statement is wrong; pleasure, the by-product of the altruistic act, does not have to indicate that Lincoln acted in self-interest. In reality, pleasure can be used to argue that the act was not in self-interest. In situations in which people gain pleasure from a certain act there must have been a desire for something else. Lincoln’s desire for the pigs, when fulfilled, understandably provided pleasure. The purpose of Lincoln’s desire was not pleasure, but instead pleasure was the consequence of Lincoln completing his desired act. This example of Lincoln and the sow shows that, though pleasure resulted from an altruistic act, pleasure is a consequence of desire for something else.

Similar to the disinterested benevolence of Lincoln, disinterested malevolence is unexplainable by psychological egoism. Often those who commit malevolent deeds are acting in opposition of their self-interest in order to do harm to others (Feinberg 170.) A selfish person is concerned with his own self-interests. There have been incidents in which malevolent people injure themselves in order to cause harm to others; this fact is something that psychological egoists struggle to hold in their case.

There are no logical mistakes made by a psychological egoist concerning self-deception but it lacks empirically. A soldier who throws himself onto a grenade to save others is self-deceived; he believes he has some duty or virtue to save others. Psychological egoists wrongly generalize self-deception because of its predicted frequency (Feinberg 170). It is impossible to exactly know someone’s conscious motives to carry out an action. It is even possible for the person himself to be unaware of his motives for an action. However, it is always possible for a psychological egoist to predict that someone is acting in their own self-interest. They are able to do so because it is impossible to exactly know someone’s motive for something. Although they can make this claim, they cannot support it with empirical data. They lack a serious conclusion to their predictions of self-interest. They are correct in saying someone may be acting in self-interest, but that cannot be empirically supported.

Another problem with this theory is its issue with correlative terms. Naturally the complete understanding of a word comes with the comprehension of the correlate. Examples include good-bad, tall-short, and large-small. Common terms in psychological egoism are selfish-unselfish and self-interest-altruism. However there is a flaw with correlative terms in this theory; psychological egoists believe that altruistic behaviors are actually acts of self-interest. This statement is imprecise because it is impossible for a correlate to mean the same as the original term. Big cannot mean small and therefore stating that altruism is the correlate of self-interest is invalid.

It is widely accepted that a theory which cannot be proven falsifiable is not credible. Psychological egoism states that all people act in self-interest. This statement keeps people from questioning which actions are in self-interest. If all actions are selfish then selfish actions and actions are synonymous. Because this theory claims to be universal and unfalsifiable it is meaningless.

This theory attempts to redefine terms such as altruism and selfishness. These new definitions conflict with our ordinary understandings of the terms. We know altruism to be acts that contribute to welfare of others. We also know selfish acts to be those that focus on the self rather than opposites. Based on these two definitions it seems that the two are antonyms. Conversely, psychological egoists regard these two as near synonyms. Altruistic acts are selfish according to these egoists. How can altruistic acts, which are inherently beneficial to the welfare of others, be acts that have underlying motives for self-interest? That is a question that is difficult for psychological egoists to answer.

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I believe that because this argument is unfalsifiable, it is irrelevant. A psychological egoist may tell me that my acts can be boiled down to simple motives for self-interest. The most basic principle of this theory is that all human actions, altruistic or not, can be simplified into an act of self-interest. This statement of psychological egoism dooms it; there can be no empirical definition of the theory. Someone’s motives exist in their mind whether they know it or not, according to this theory. If I attempt to tell them I act for others and not for my self-interest they will tell me that I deceive myself into thinking my acts are noble or virtuous in order to satisfy my needs. If I attempt to tell them I act for others not for my self-interest they will tell me that I deceive myself into thinking my acts are noble or virtuous in order to satisfy my needs. It can never be measured and the self-deception facet of this theory attempts to compensate for the lack of empirical information. Because people’s motives exist in their minds, self-deception accounts for why we do not know we act selfishly. They will explain that what I pursue is pleasure even though I tell myself otherwise. Hence, we can never know when we act selfishly because our motives are naturally hidden. This lack of empirical data is skeptical and not sufficient enough to explain why people act in their own self-interest.

It is impossible to make such a bold prediction as psychological egoism does; this theory labels altruistic acts selfish, lacks explanation for malevolent acts, lacks empirical data, defies correlate terms, is unfalsifiable, and invents new definitions for ordinary words. The biggest flaw of psychological determinism is its inability to be proven falsifiable. This theory is not empirically definable. It is a closed argument because every action on earth can be broken down into an act in self-interest and therefore is irrelevant.

 

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