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% (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?