Rachels, Ch 5: Ethical Egoism (and Psychological Egoism)


1.       Difference between egoism and altruism

          a.       Looking out for oneself (one’s own interests) and looking out for others (interests)

2.       Definition of Ethical Egoism (=EE): Each person ought to pursue his or her self-interest exclusively

          a.       A moral theory about how people ought to act

3.       Definition of Psychological Egoism (=PE): People are incapable of being unselfish because they are so constituted to always look out only for their own self-interest

          a.       A theory of human nature; what people are like; how they do act

4.       Definition of Psychological Altruism

          a.       People are capable of looking out for the interests of others for their sake

5.       Definition of Ethical Altruism

          a.       People sometimes ought to pursue the interests of others for their own sake


6.       PE claims psychological altruism is impossible

          a.       People can’t care for others for their own sake

          b.       People can act to benefit the interests of others but only when there is something in it for themselves; that they will get something out of it for themselves is the sole reason they benefit others

          c.       In the end, people care nothing for others; they care only about themselves

7.       According to PE, people are never even partially motivated to help others for their own sake

          a.       Weaker position than PE (and one incompatible with it): self-benefit must always be part of motivation, but altruism can also be part too


8.       Why PE Matters

          a.       Psychology and morality are related

          b.       At the very least, moral theories must be psychologically realistic

          c.       Ought implies can (if it is true and makes sense to say one ought to do X, then it must also be true that one can do X; for if one can’t do X, then there would be no reason to assert that one should do X)

          d.       Morality typically claims one should be altruistic: act to look out for the interests of others for their own sake.

                    i.        But if PE is true, we can’t act this way and it is pointless to insist that we do

                    ii.       So it is important for typical accounts of morality to prove PE is false

          e.       Capitalism vs Socialism: Further, what the best economic structure of society might be depends on the debate over psychological egoism Capitalism (private ownership and control of productive property, free market and little government involvement) seems to assume people are self-interested whereas Socialism (public ownership and control in the means of production) seems to assume people can act altruistically for the good of the public.


9.       One altruistic act would undermine PE

10.     One obvious way to object to PE is to find counterexamples: examples of altruistic acts

          a.       Given the universality of its claims, all we need is one example of an altruistic act to prove PE is false

          b.       And there are many:

                    i.        Raoul Wallenberg

                    ii.        People diving into the cold icy waters of the Potomac River to save victims of an airplane crash: Roger Olian

          c.       Jumping on to subway tracks as train approaches to save a person who fell down: Wesley Autrey


11.     PE’s Strategy of Reinterpreting Motives

          a.       Allegedly altruistic acts are really done out of self-interest

                    i.        Go to heaven

                    ii.       Get recognition

                    iii.      To feel good

                    iv.      To avoid feeling bad

          b.       This strategy can apply to any act

          c.       Does not prove PE is true, only that it might still be true, despite the alleged counterexamples



12.     One: Because people always do what they most want to do (act on their strongest desire), it follows that they always act selfishly

13.     Rachels two arguments in response:

          a.       People can act from duty against their wants

                    i.        People don’t always do what they most want as they can act from duty as well as desire (wants)

                    ii.       People don’t always voluntarily do what they most want to do; they have a sense of obligation and can act on it instead

                    iii.      E.g., You really don’t want to visit your (cranky) sick relative in the hospital, but you do it because you think you should

                    iv.      Is moral motivation a type of desire too? A type of want?

          b.       Wanting to help others is not selfish

                    i.        Even if people always do what they most want to do, wanting to help others is unselfish, not selfish; the argument has a mistaken view of selfishness

                    ii.       E.g., Giving money to famine relief because you want to is being unselfish not selfish; it is not selfish to want to help starving people; wanting to help others is just what unselfishness amounts to

                    iii.      Unselfish: wanting to help others

                    iv.      Selfish: wanting only to help yourself

                    v.       Acting on desire need not be self-interested, depends on what the object of desire is


14.     Two: Abe argument for PE; we always do what makes us feel good

          a.       When we help others we get a good feeling from doing so (or avoid a bad one) and that’s why we do it, solely for the good feeling and that is selfish since we care only about benefitting ourselves

15.     Problems with this argument:

          a.       That a person has a self-interested motive (to feel good), doesn’t mean he/she does not also have an altruistic one

          b.       Why does the person get satisfaction from helping others? Because she has a non-egoistic concern about them

                    i.        She cares about what happens to others and that shows she’s not egoistic

          c.       Confuses goal (object of desire) with results (good feelings) we get from achieving it

                    i.        That we get good feelings when we achieve our goal (helping others) doesn’t show that the good feelings were the goal

                    ii.       Falsely treats pleasure we get from achieving a goal as the goal itself

                    iii.      Desire---->object or goal---->resulting satisfaction



          a.       Self-interest

          b.       Selfishness

          c.       Pursuit of Pleasure

          d.       a, not b: Brush teeth and going to the dentist

                    i.        This shows that not all acts are selfish

          e.       c, not a: Smoking

                    i.        This by itself shows that not all acts are based on self-interest

          f.       These examples refute PE even without examples of altruistic acts



17.    Definition of Ethical Egoism: Each person ought to pursue his or her self-interest exclusively

18.    Aspects of ethical egoism:

         a.      Ethical egoism rejects ordinary assumption that other people’s interests count for their own sake.

         b.      We have no moral duty except to do what is best for ourselves

         c.      One might be obligated to help others, but only as a means to our long term self interest

         d.      Helping others is right only if (and only when and because) it is to our own advantage

19.    Ethical egoism is not:

         a.      One should always do what one wants to do

                   i.       E.g., one may want a cigarette, but it is not in one’s self-interest to smoke

         b.      One should always do what gives one the most pleasure

                   i.       Pleasure and self-interest are not the same

                   ii.      (Ethical hedonism would be the view that one should always pursue one’s own pleasure exclusively)

         c.      Ethical egoism says we should do what is really best for ourselves in the long run


20.    Difference between Ethical Egoism (EE) and Psychological Egoism (PE)

         a.      PE: A descriptive theory of human nature about how humans in fact do (must) behave (always exclusively in own interest)

         b.      EE: A normative theory about how people ought to behave (they should act in their own interest exclusively)

21.    Possible relationships between EE and PE

         a.      Does PE imply EE? No: Is does not imply ought (naturalistic fallacy)

         b.      If PE true, then pointless to advocate any moral theory, including EE

                   i.       If PE is true, then any altruistic moral theory asks us to do the impossible

                   ii.      If PE is true, then EE is pointless (because we are already automatically acting correctly (i.e., as EE tells us we should act)

         c.      If both PE and EE are true, then we are always acting correctly (all our acts are right; we never do anything wrong)

         d.      Question: What moral theory should (would) an ethical egoist advocate publically ? Would it be ethical egoism?


22.    Altruism is self-defeating; People better off if we look out for ourselves

         a.      If everyone looked out for themselves, society will be better off; so we should care only for ourselves

         b.      Everyone will be best served if we each act in our own self interest instead of acting to benefit others

23.    Rationales

         a.      One: Since we are more familiar with out own needs (than are other people)

         b.      Two: We are better able to satisfy them (than are other people)

         c.      Three: And so if we mind our own business

         d.      Four: Instead of trying to help others (which is degrading to them and makes them dependent on us)

         e.      Five: We will all be better off (than if we all tried to take care of each other’s needs)

24.    Problem with this argument for EE: It appeals to altruistic moral theory (utilitarianism)

         a.      This argument is that the welfare of society overall will be better served if each looks out solely for her own self-interest

         b.      But the welfare of society is not something an ethical egoist should be concerned with (for EE claims one should only be concerned with oneself)


25.    Ann Rand’s argument for EE:

         a.      Ethics of pure altruism is life denying; requires one to sacrifice one’s life for others; thus only EE is compatible with the value of individual life

         b.      Problem: Attacking a straw man (person); Pure altruism (one’s own interests count for nothing and others interests count for everything) is a crazy theory. But the alternative to that need not be EE; a middle position is possible and more plausible (than either pure altruism or EE): it says both one’s own interests and the interests of others count morally


26.    Common sense morality argument for EE: EE implies the rules of common sense morality

         a.      It is to our own advantage to follow the rules of common sense morality (not harming others, being truthful, keeping our promises) and this is why we should follow them

                   i.       For if we harm others, or lie to them, or break our promises, they will treat us badly

                   ii.      We are better off if we obey these rules, because that is the way we can insure others treat us well

                   iii.     So we should follow these rules because it is in our self-interest to do so

         b.      Problems

                   i.       Self-interest and morality (ordinary rules of morality) don’t always coincide

                            (1)    Sometimes it is to our advantage to break moral rules and treat others badly

                   ii.      Even if they did self-interest and morality did always concied--even if, e.g., giving to famine relief was to our own advantage--that would not show that this is the reason to give to famine relief

                            (1)    That EE implies that we should follow moral rules, doesn’t show that it is the best or only reason for following them (as it assumes)


27.    EE endorses Wickedness

         a.      It can be in one’s self-interest to do terribly evil things (p. 75)

28.    EE is self-contradictory because it gives inconsistent advice (slightly different version than one given in text...)

         a.      When two people’s interests conflict, EE tells A to win out over B and B to win out over A and these are not compatible recommendations

         b.      Problem: The advice is consistent to each, but not overall consistent and the EE can claim this is not a problem

29.    EE is unacceptably arbitrary (it is like racism and sexism in being a form of unjustified discrimination)

                   i.       This is the criticism that Rachels accepts (and developed)

         b.      Principle of Equal Treatment: We should treat people the same way unless there is a relevant difference between them

         c.      Difference in treatment (i.e., “discrimination”) is justifiable only if there is some relevant factual difference between individuals that is relevant to and justifies treating the individuals differently

         d.      Thus racism is arbitrary because there are no morally relevant differences between the races that justifies the differences in treatment the racist advocates

         e.      EE is a similar type of arbitrary discrimination

         f.       EE divides the world into two groups (me and everyone else) and says the interest of one group (me) counts for more than the interests of the other group (everyone else)

         g.      But what justifies this difference in treatment?

                   i.       Is the individual more intelligent than others? Enjoy her life more than others? Have needs and abilities that others don’t have?

                   ii.      What makes the individual so special?

         h.      Given there is no answer, EE is an arbitrary doctrine in the same way that racism or sexism are arbitrary doctrines


30.    Why care about others?

         a.      We should care about the interests of others for the very same reason we care about our own interests

                   i.       Because their needs and desires are comparable to our own

         b.      Why care about starving people?

                   i.       We care about ourselves; if we were starving we would go to almost nay lengths to get food

                   ii.      But there is no relevant difference between us and them

                   iii.     So if our needs should be met, so should theirs

Ch 5: Psychological and Ethical Egoism

1.         What is egoism? What is altruism? What is hedonism? How is it different than egoism?

2.         What is psychological egoism? What is ethical egoism? How are they different? Is either (or both) a theory about the nature of morality (i.e., a moral theory)? Explain.

3.         Does it make sense to believe both theories at once? Does one theory provide evidence or support for the other? (If psychological egoism is true does it follow that ethical egoism is also true? How about the other way around?) If both psychological and ethical egoism are true, what follows about the rightness or wrongness of our actions?

4.         Does it matter whether or not psychological egoism is true? What implications does this have for morality (for example, consider utilitarian moral theory) and for the design of social institutions (consider the socialism versus capitalism debate)?

5.         Present the two arguments considered in the text for psychological egoism. Does Rachels think these are sound arguments? Do you think they are?

6.         Do you think psychological egoism is true? Why or why not? Explain what Rachels thinks about psychological egoism.

7.         What is the "strategy of reinterpreting motives?" Why does Rachels think this can't prove the truth of the version of egoism it is used to support?

8.         What is the difference between acting out of self-interest and acting selfishly? What is the difference between acting out of self-interest and acting to achieve pleasure? Give examples of acts which are one but not the other.

9.         Evaluate the following argument for ethical egoism: "Since we each know what is in our own interests better than others do, and since we each are generally better able to provide for our own well-being than we are for the well-being of others, society as a whole would be better off if each person acted in her own self-interest." What does Rachels think about this argument?

10.       Is the following a good argument for ethical egoism? What does Rachels think about this argument? "Since it is in a person's own self-interest to obey the rules of morality (e.g., not to lie, steal, cheat, or murder), ethical egoism justifies our ordinary moral rules and thus provides a solid foundation for morality."

11.       Explain in detail Rachels own argument against ethical egoism. (This is the last one he considers in the chapter comparing egoism to racism/sexism.) Evaluate this argument from your own perspective.

12.       Define discrimination. Is discrimination always wrong? Give an example where it is clearly not wrong. Define unjust discrimination. Define racism. Explain why racism is unjust discrimination. Why might someone think egoism is unjust discrimination? In your own assessment, is it? (Some of this question requires creative thinking on your own.)

13.       If one believed ethical egoism was true, which moral theory ought one to advocate publicly? Ethical egoism? Ethical altruism? Explain.