SECTION TWO. PSYCHOLOGICAL AND ETHICAL EGOISM.
Well, we made short work of relativism, but there is another form of the “for me” which will come back to annoy us. The “for me” returns as psychological and ethical egoism. The former is a descriptive theory of human motivation; all persons are motivated solely out of self-interest. Each one of us is motivated to do that which is best for him/herself. The latter is a prescriptive theory of moral obligation; all persons ought to be motivated out of self-interest. Each person ought to do that action which is best for him/herself. Let’s take a look at the two to see the differences and how they relate to one another.
1. Psychological egoism; each person is motivated always out of self-interest. According to a psychological egoist, there is but one baseline motive behind all human actions. That motive is self-interest. No matter what the action is or what the expressed motive is said to be, the action is has at its root personal self-interest.
Now, such a claim may sound far-fetched to us, but the psychological egoist asks us to think it over. Look around and examine the actions people do. Their actions may appear altruistic (to be in the interests of others at the person’s expense), but that is not so. No one does an action which is not believed to be in his/her best interest. Underlying every person's actions is the answer to the question, "What's in it for me?" That is to say, it's the response to the "for me" that motivates all actions.
The dog-eat-dog world of capitalism is a ready example. The underlying motive of capitalism is to be “the biggest with the mostest,” and that means, to do so, the capitalist must put other persons out of business or take them over. There is no other motive in the world of business, save self-interest which borders on survival in our contemporary world.
2. Psychological egoism goes a bit to far in its claim that self-interest is the only motive behind human actions. There is no question that people are motivated out of self-interest. There is no question that such a motive is a dominant one in contemporary society. But, it is a mistake to say that it is the only motive. How so?
Two interrelated answers can be given. The first is that there are too many obvious counter-examples to the claim. It is hard to say that a soldier who dives on a grenade to save his companions is motivated out of self-interest. Mother Theresa is a clear example of a person who has devoted her life to the benefit of others. The list could go on, but one clear example is all that is needed to invalidate the claim. And, I’ll leave it to you to think of all the actions which you have done and examine their motives. My suspicion is that you can recall an incident where you did an action that clearly benefited someone else, but you did not benefit --in fact, your self-interest may have taken a hit, so to speak, from your doing the action. If you can recall the action to have an unselfish motive, then the counter-example is clear in your mind.
Of course, the psychological egoist has a reply. What he says is slick. There are many levels of motives. At bottom is the motive of self-interest. But, actions which have altruistic (concerns for others at one’s own expense) motives are self-interest motives in disguise, sometimes so disguised that the person him/herself does not even realize it. Consider the soldier who dives on a grenade to save his buddies. He wouldn’t have done so, says the psychological egoist, unless he wanted to. He acted out of a motive of self-interest to satisfy some personal need or want. Perhaps, it was as simple as wanting to be remembered as a hero. Given that the action satisfied his want, it follows that he did the action he wanted to do --the action was one of self-interest. Likewise with Mother Theresa; she did because her life satisfied some great need in herself to help others. She would not have helped others without having the need satisfied. Thus, everyone is motivated out of self-interest in the end, though the “headline” motive may look entirely altruistic.
This is a classic example of what psychologists call “reframing.” Reframing is where you take something of a particular character and then “reframe” it to have another character. For example, suppose I say something really insulting to you, something to the effect that “Your thought processes leave much to be desired.” You come back mad and ask me to explain my arrogance. I say, “Oh, that’s just a way of my encouraging you to do better work. It’s not a derogatory remark at all. It was meant to encourage you to think more philosophically.” My response may sound good to you, but the crux of the matter is that I have reframed my statement to relieve the effect it may have on you and thus me. In reality, I meant to and did call you an ignoramus. By reframing, I take the heat off me while still leaving the effect of the statement in place, though ambiguously.
What’s wrong with the psychological egoist’s reframing technique. Well, in a nutshell, it does too much. Suppose that you saw me giving a lecture on psychological egoism. During the lecture, I made same scribbling on the blackboard. After class, you asked me about the scribbles on the board, noting that they didn’t seem to have anything to do with the lecture. “On the contrary,” I reply, “the marks make a visual notation in your mind to remember the point being made.” You think that sounds good. As we are walking through campus, you notice that I skip over some of the cracks in the sidewalk. You ask why I am doing that. I reply that, “I am still lecturing on psychological egoism; the moves are to bring our discussion back to the topic.” You think, “Hmmm.” Later at lunch, I have a large mouthful of meatloaf and am gulping water to get the stuff down. You ask if I am OK and I reply, “Certainly, I am merely doing more lecturing on psychological egoism..” Now you are confused. You say, “Does everything you do have to do with lecturing on psychological egoism?” I reply, “No, everything I do is lecturing on psychological egoism. Some things may not appear to be lecturing, but they really are. I’m sorry that you cannot see the relationships.”
What should you think? Answer. That what I am saying is a lot of bull. If everything is a lecture on psychological egoism, then what else is there? What happens to simply eating or walking? The gist of the matter, then, is that if the psychologist wants to reframe all motives into one of self-interest, then he falls into the same trap. It would be similar to saying that “All roses are red,” and that “The yellow rose that you see is really red, but you simply cannot see the true color.” Bull.
So much for psychological egoism. Caution here. Even though psychological egoism looks to be false, that doesn’t mean that most motives persons have aren’t those of self-interest. Moreover, even if psychological egoism is false, ethical egoism --that we ought to be motivated out of self-interest-- could be true.
Ethical egoism looks to be a form of utilitarianism, so I’ll hold off on an explanation until we cover the fundamentals of that theory.
Take me to the Next Part
Take me to the Table of Contents