A Ku Indeed!

The Age of Psychological Egoism

Posted in Course Material, Values Analysis by Chris on September 11, 2007

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% (psychological egoism, by the way, is the theory that human beings are always motivated by some form of self-interest, even when it looks like they are doing something altruistic or other-regarding).

Psychological egoism is a very demanding theory, and is different from 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. 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.

That’s one possibility, though it’s a grim one that I’d hope isn’t the real reason. Anyone have any other suggestions?


4 Responses

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  1. purple said, on September 11, 2007 at 7:15 pm

    hmmm….well since i’m not one of the one’s who believes psy.egoism i’ll tell you what my thoughts are on why the class is acting this way.
    Even if we haven’t grown up in the ghetto, we’ve seen a lot of death, destruction, corruption, and apathy. In my life time, there’s never been a president and congress that wasn’t corrupt in one way or another (although I think Clinton’s personal life was no one’s business). In middle school, I had to learn what a terrorist was and how it felt to have my own country and innocent civilians attacked and murdered. I’ve had to watch a president spend trillions of dollars on ‘the war on terror’ (a worthy fight) and then end up without catching the one we were after (bin laden) and randomly switching the war to focus on Iraq (wtf…like we could restore peace in a country by making war…maybe we’ll get a few more gallons of oil though). My point is…we’ve seen a lot of crappy things. We haven’t seen anyone actually doing anything about the AIDS epidemic or the Darfur crisis…i’d much rather see trillions going to that than to blowing up cities. No wonder celebrities are more popular than congressmen…they raise money for good causes.

    Since we have grown up seeing this, maybe a lot of people are getting their over-pessimistic attitude confused with belief in psy.egoism. Even if we don’t see altruism everyday doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I don’t think people are really grasping what an extreme statement psy.egoism makes. Maybe in class you should remind them again that just one act of true altruism would completely disprove the theory and remind them of the not-so-fine line between extreme-pessimism in human action and psy.egoism.

    hope i helped.

  2. Chris said, on September 11, 2007 at 7:29 pm


    Great comment — thanks for taking the time to express it. Of course, you’re right. You don’t need to live in ghetto conditions to see pretty lousy stuff in life, and you’ve done a great job explaining how a person of your age might see a fairly hopeless world out there. I think my thought, though, was rather that even if all those things are right, surely if you aren’t living in total hopeless living conditions (like a ghetto) you’ve seen _some_ kind of evidence for altruism! That’s why I’m so surprised by the reactions of many in the class. Life’s not _that_ bad, is it? 🙂

    By the way, “jaded” isn’t meant in an judgmental way at all. I just mean that people seem cynical in this particular class. And heck, I’m a New Yorker. I’m born and raised in the land of cynicism, so I’m more than comfortable with it!

    I’ll keep reminding people of what you said, though!

  3. Claire said, on September 12, 2007 at 2:40 am

    Perhaps the psy. egoism stems from the American notion of freedom as we discussed after Modern class? In America, we live in a culture that bases its notion of freedom on “I can do whatever I want, whenever I want!” Between the ages of 18 and 22, most of us aren’t particularly well traveled within the US, and if we have been abroad it was probably under controlled circumstances (eg a school trip or family vacation) that limited our contact with other definitions of freedom. In my experience, Americans also tend to be more arrogant than others. Combining the previous definition of freedom with a streak of arrogance seems to lead the way to psy. egoism. A privileged background makes no difference. Bill Gates may have moved his money into charity, but it’s more common to hear about celebrities or CEOs getting away with or slapped on the wrist for their crimes. We live in a capitalist society that really does put every person for his/herself. One hears more about increasing profit margins than supplying decent healthcare and a living wage to all workers. Purple also makes a valid point with 9-11 and the Wars. Your students (myself included) are coming of age in a society that is at war. What we see and hear about the war, and what we remember about 9-11, are enough to jade anyone. I don’t remember the last time I heard about something altruistic coming out of the Middle East. We’re simply killing each other over there.
    To bring this back to a point, it seems that we aren’t as exposed to altruism, are arrogant, jaded, consider freedom to be doing what we want when we want, and have found that given the resources, we can get away with anything. Given this context, psy. egoism is perfectly acceptable. Psy. egoism ends up being a product of the culture/situation more than it is a free pass.
    PS- When you mentioned that 50% of your class was into psy. egoism, I couldn’t help but think of a Values class filled with Eric Cartmans. I wouldn’t wish that upon anyone, but the image amused me.

  4. bradleysims said, on October 18, 2009 at 7:00 am

    How did I get here?
    My blog suggested this page to check up in response to my piece ‘everyone is not just in it for themselves’, I am not one of your students. I am also a teacher by the way, in Australia.

    However, I agree with Claire, the individualism inherent in the rhetoric of freedom encourages selfishness – it’s hard to believe that ‘freedom, equality and brotherhood’ was the catch cry at the birth of modern democracy. Interestingly. equality is always stressed by communists and freedom by capitalists – we’re bringing freedom to Iraq (and we won’t be re-establishing Iraq’s free health care, education, etc, after we’ve smashed the place to bits).

    My addition though, is that psychological egoism has become more prevalent since education has ceased discussing philosophy / religion. At least religious education stressed the value of morality, in a secular society I would have rather seen specific religions phased out and general philosophy phased in. My point is that people are no longer trained to think about morality in any specific educational context, morality is just an add on (“now assess the moral decisions of Othello students”). As Socrates reminds us, it takes effort to have well thought through opinions, that effort is missing in overtly capitalist societies where possessions = happiness is the commercial mantra, and in education. No wonder people are taking the lazy option.

    My final point, making moral decisions takes the greatest amount of effort, its much harder to be moral than selfish – you actually have to think and feel at the same time! Psychological egoism is the result of an absence of moral training (this is dangerous), a stress upon freedom rather than equality in modern commercialised democracies, a general laziness of thought and lack of genuine moral intelligence, and – worse of all – a justification for selfish and immoral behaviour.

    Kind regards,
    Brad Sims

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