In ethics egoism entails that the individual self is either the motivating moral
force and is, or should, be the end of moral action. Egoism divides into both a
positive and normative ethic. The positive ethic views egoism as a factual
description of human affairs, that is people are motivated by their own
interests and desires. The normative ethic is that they should be so motivated.


Positivist egoism: Psychological Egoism The positivist egoist, whose theory is
called psychological egoism, offers an explanation of human affairs, in effect a
description of human nature, which he or she believes to be wholly self-centred
and self-motivated. In its strong form the theory asserts that people always act
in their own interests, even though they may disguise their motivation with
references to helping others or doing their duty. Opponents exploit
counter-factual evidence to criticize the theory-surely, they claim, there is a
host of evidence supporting altruistic or duty-bound actions that cannot be said
to engage the self-interest of the agent? Psychological egoists may then attempt
to question the ultimate motive of acting benevolently towards others; they may
retort that seemingly altruistic behavior necessarily has a self-interested
component, that if the individual were not to offer aid to a stranger, he or she
may feel guilty or may look bad in front of a peer group. At this point
psychological egoism’s validity turns on the question of moral motivation. But
since motivation is inherently private (an agent could be lying to him or
herself or to others about the original motive), the theory shifts from a
theoretical description of human nature, one that can be put to observational
testing, to an assumption about human nature. It moves beyond the possibility of
empirical verification and the possibility of empirical negation (since motives
are private), and therefore it becomes a closed theory. A closed theory is a
theory that rejects competing theories on its own terms and is non-verifiable
and non-falsifiable. If psychological egoism is reduced to an assumption
concerning human nature, then it follows that it is just as valid to hold a
competing theory of human motivation, psychological altruism for example.

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Psychological altruism holds that all human action is necessarily other centred
and other motivated. A parallel analysis of psychological altruism results in
opposing conclusions to psychological egoism, and again arguably the theory is
just as closed as psychological egoism. If both theories can be validly
maintained, it follows that the soundness of either or both must be questioned.


A weak version of psychological egoism accepts the possibility of altruistic or
benevolent behavior, but maintains that whenever a choice is made it is by
definition the action that the agent wants to do at that point. A wants to help
the poor, therefore A is acting egoistically; if A ran into a burning building
to save a kitten, it must be the case that A wanted to save the kitten. Defining
all motivations as what the agent wants to do remains problematic: logically the
theory becomes tautologous and therefore empty of providing a useful,
descriptive meaning of motivation. It says that we are motivated to do what we
are motivated to do. Besides which, if helping others is what A wants to do,
then to what extent can A be continued to be called an egoist? David Hume in his
Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (Appendix II-Of Self Love) offers
six rebuttals of psychological egoism (the ‘selfish hypothesis’). Firstly, it
opposes such obvious moral sentiments that engage in a concern and motivation
for others such as love, friendship, compassion, and gratitude. Secondly,
psychological egoism attempts to reduce human motivation to a single cause,
which is a ‘fruitless’ task-the “love of simplicity…has been the source
of much false reasoning in philosophy.” Thirdly, it is evident that animals
act benevolently towards one another, and if it is admitted that animals can act
altruistically then how can it be denied in humans? Fourthly, the concepts we
use to describe benevolent behavior cannot be meaningless; sometimes the agent
obviously does not have a personal interest in the fortune of another, yet will
wish him well. Any attempt to create an imaginary interest, as the psychological
egoist attempts, will prove futile. Fifthly, Hume asserts that we have prior
motivations to self-interest; we may have, for example, a predisposition towards
vanity, fame, or vengeance that transcends any benefit to the agent. Finally,
even if psychological egoism were true, there are a sufficient number of
dispositions to generate a wide possibility of moral actions, allowing one
person to be called vicious and another humane, and the latter is to be
preferred over the former. Normative Egoism: Ethical Egoism Ethical egoism is
the theory that the promotion of one’s own good is in accordance with morality.


In the strong version it is held that it is always moral to promote one’s own
good and it is never moral not to promote it. In the weak version, it claims
that whilst it is always moral to promote one’s good, it is not necessarily
never moral not to do so-that is, there may be conditions in which the avoidance
of personal interest may be a moral action. In the imaginary construction of a
world inhabited by a single being, it is possible that the pursuit of morality
is the same as the pursuit of self-interest. What is good for the agent is the
same as what is in the agent’s interests. Arguably, there could never arise an
occasion when the agent ought not to pursue self-interest in favor of another
morality. Whilst it is possible for the creature to lament previous choices as
not conducive to self-interest (enjoying the pleasures of swimming all day and
not spending necessary time producing food), the mistake is not a moral mistake
but a mistake of identifying self-interest. Presumably this lonely creature will
begin to comprehend the distinctions between short and long run interests.


However, it can be countered that in this world duties still apply; (Kantian)
duties are those actions reason dictates ought to be pursued regardless of any
gain or loss to the self or others. The deontologist asserts another moral
sphere, namely impartial duties, which ought to be pursued. The problem with
complicating the creature’s world with duties, is defining an impartial task in
a purely subjective world. Impartiality, it can be retorted, can only exist
where there are competing selves, otherwise the attempt to be impartial in
judging one’s actions is a redundant exercise. If we move away from the
imaginary construct of a single being’s world, ethical egoism comes under fire
from more pertinent arguments. In complying with ethical egoism, the individual
aims at his or her own greatest good. Ignoring a definition of the good for the
present, it may justly be argued that pursuing one’s own greatest good can
conflict with another’s pursuit, thus creating a situation of conflict. In a
typical example, a young person may see his greatest good in murdering his rich
uncle to inherit his millions. It is the rich uncle’s greatest good to continue
enjoying his money, as he sees fit. Accordingly conflict is an inherent problem
of ethical egoism, and the model seemingly does not possess a conflict
resolution system. With the additional premise of living in society, ethical
egoism has much to respond to. Obviously there are situations when two people’s
greatest goods, their own self-interests, will conflict, and a solution to such
dilemmas is a necessary element of any theory attempting to provide an ethical
system. The first resolution proceeds from a state of nature examination. If, in
the wilderness, two people simultaneously come across the only source of
drinkable water a dilemma arises if both make a claim to it. With no recourse to
arbitration they must either accept an equal share of the water, which would
comply with rational egoism (i.e., it is in the interests of both to share, for
both may enjoy the water and each other’s company, and if the water is
inexhaustible, neither can gain from monopolising the source), but a critic can
maintain that it is not necessarily in compliance with ethical egoism. Arguably,
the critic continues, the two have no possible resolution and must therefore
fight for the water. This is often the line taken against egoism, that it
results in insoluble conflict that implies or necessitates a resort to force.


The proffered resolution is therefore an acceptance of the might is right
principle, that the stronger will take possession and thereby gains proprietary
rights. But ethical egoism does not have to logically result in a Darwinian
struggle between the strong and the weak; the two could co-operate (as rational
egoism would require) and thereby both could mutually benefit. Against the
critic’s pessimism, the ethical egoist can retort that each can recognize that
their greatest interests are served more through co-operation than conflict. A
second resolution to seemingly intractably moral dilemmas concerns the fears of
critics that ethical egoists could logically pursue their interests at the cost
of others. This however is a misreading of ethical egoism and an attempt to
re-insert the might is right premise and thereby chastise the theory on the
basis of a straw-man argument. In the case of the rich uncle and the greedy
nephew, it is not the case that the nephew would act ethically by killing his
uncle. The confusion results from conflating ethics with personal gain and
criticising personal gain from another ethical standpoint that condemns murder.


A counter-argument is that personal gain logically cannot be in one’s best
interests if it entails doing harm to another: doing harm to another is to
accept the principle of doing harm to others as being ethical (i.e., equating to
one’s own best interests), whereas reflection on the principle shows it to be
illogical on universalist criteria. If the nephew were to attempt to do harm to
further his interests, he would find that his uncle, or others, would do harm in
return, and the argument returns to the conclusion of the first resolution:
either accept the principle of might is right (which in most cases would be
evidentially contrary to one’s best interests) or accept that co-operation with
others is a more successful approach to improving one’s interests. A third
resolution entails the insertion of another standard-rights. This incorporates
the conclusions of the first two resolutions by stating that there is an ethical
framework that can logically be extrapolated from ethical egoism. Rights
incorporate boundaries to behavior that reason or experience has shown to be
contrary to the pursuit of self-interest. However, the logical extrapolation is
the difficult bit. Whilst it is facile to argue that the greedy nephew does not
have a right to claim his uncle’s money, because it is not his but his uncle’s,
and that it is wrong to aggress against the person of another because that
person has a legitimate right to live in peace (thus providing the substance of
conflict-resolution for ethical egoism), the problem lies in the intellectual
arguments required to substantiate the claims for the existence of rights and
that they are somehow intricately connected to the pursuit of individual’s
greatest good.