Psychological egoism (hereby abbreviated “psychego”) is the view that all human action is done in the agent’s self-interest, that is to say, that a cost-benefit analysis will reveal that all actions were done in the agent’s perceived benefit.
There is absolutely no theoretical argument supporting this view. Psychego proponents demonstrate the truth of their position by using “just so” stories, similar to those used by Creationists to explain away various features of natural organisms (and they, in return, claim that the evolutionary paths proposed by scientists are “just so” stories as well). The method they used to make up these “just so” stories is simple: first, they think of any justification whatsoever that a person might have to commit the action, and then, without ever quantifying that justification, they apply it to the problem and declare the case closed.
Here is a simple example of this method, as applied to the case of a soldier who jumped on a grenade to save his comrades:
The benefits that he reaped was knowing that his friends would survive, and that he would die for his country. That’s what made him happy. He did it because the success of something else made him happy. Unselfish. Yet still, ultimately but indirectly, self-interest.
This is perhaps an extreme example of the nonsense generated by the ideology of psychego. Indeed the soldier may very well have been “happy” and “knowing that his friends would survive”- for a few milliseconds before he died. For the psychego standpoint to be valid, we have to accept that the loss of his life was entirely counterbalanced by a few milliseconds of happiness. Of course this is absolute nonsense (aside from the fact that soldiers deserve to die).
In general, the way psychego proponents have of rationalizing altruism is through some psychological benefit. Their belief that there is some psychological benefit that outweighs the loss is absolute; if the person reports no such benefits, then they must be “subconscious” or “instinctual,” which is where evolutionary psychology comes into play and piles up its own “just so” stories on top of the ones already existing.
If we adopt this method, then nothing can disprove psychego. Some justification can always be made up to justify any action, as long as it doesn’t have to be quantified. Therefore, like all positions which cannot be falsified, it is essentially meaningless.
Here is a counter-example from Matt Simpson at The Distributed Republic:
Imagine a man who is on the verge of suicide. He literally has a cocked and loaded gun in his mouth with his finger on the trigger. As he begins to squeeze the trigger, he realizes that he has no life insurance policy, has racked up $20,000 in debt, and would leave the entire mess to his wife if he killed himself. Out of concern for his wife, he takes the gun out of his mouth and decides to continue living.
The psychological egoist has a major problem with this thought experiment because it doesn’t seem as if the man could possibly be acting out of his own self interest. His wife’s predicament should play no role in his decision if he is an egoist. Even if he would feel guilty for hurting his wife or acting immorally, he can’t feel these feelings if he is dead. If death is better than living before the realization, then death must be better after the realization.
The man is still alive and a friend of my adviser, who told me the story earlier today (minor details have been changed), which means that psychological egoism must be false.
This didn’t stop commentators (who claim not to be psychego proponents) from constructing a concept of commitment that may, if you squint hard enough, justify the subject’s action, without even considering if the subject held to such a concept or trying to quantify it. There is no way any cost-benefit analysis along those lines can counterbalance suicide.
I want to make clear that I do not condone the method of cost-benefit analysis to evaluate moral or ethical issues. I am talking about the method in order to demonstrate that psychego is self-contradictory, not in order to validate the method. In real life, bean-counting in this fashion is extremely unwieldy and ultimately impossible (since it requires us to know everything there is to know about the outcome of the action). More generally, the problem is that psychego tries to reduce the wild variety of human action to one narrow concept. This is delusional at best, and can only lead to cutting off a gigantic portion of human experience in the name of fitting it within that narrow concept.
Why is psychego proposed as a serious theory? This may be puzzling until you realize the implications of psychego for human behaviour and society in general. If we accept the premise that man really has no choice but to act selfishly, then we can easily buy into the premise that there can be no real cooperation between free people, that we must be controlled in order to ensure the survival of social and global objectives. This leads us directly into the category of belief I label “man is innately evil.” It should come as no surprise that Thomas Hobbes, the most famous proponent of the view that man is innately evil, is also one of the most well-known proponents of psychological egoism.
We must reject the simplistic notion that man is always “selfish” or “altruistic.” These terms are narrow and ultimately useless. Rather, we must start by looking at the multiplicity of ethical beliefs and behaviour by looking at the wide range of social forms and social conditioning that create the individual’s incentives and beliefs.