Psychological Egoism and Self-Interest Essay

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Psychological egoism is an argument about the nature of human beings; more specifically, it is a philosophical position which holds that each person, all of the time, chooses and acts so as to promote their own interests—or what they believe to be their own interests. If choosing and acting egoistically is a fundamental feature of human nature, then genuinely altruistic acts are psychologically impossible and models of moral and ethical behavior that prescribe “selfless” decision making are misguided and ultimately futile. Importantly, psychological egoism does not suggest that one knowingly or intentionally acts in self-interested ways. Self-interest is not selfishness. Instead, its proponents argue that, because it is impossible not to decide/act with regard for the self, the influence of self-interest is merely disguised within seemingly selfless acts. Even when one is not consciously concerned with—or even aware of—one’s own interests, their interests inevitably and necessarily factor into their decisions and actions.

A lingering debate within moral philosophical circles concerns the role of self-interest in human behavior. To what extent does and should self-interest factor into the decisions people make and the actions in which they engage? For some, genuinely moral behavior is that which is absent self-interest; in other words, morality involves making choices without allowing those choices to be influenced (at least, primarily) by people’s own wants, needs, desires, biases, prejudices, and the like. If morality amounts to performing relevant duties in a given situation, individuals perform those duties or honor those obligations even if doing so brings harm or inconvenience to oneself. If morality involves rational contemplation of the best interests of the greatest number of people, then such deliberations are to be processed such that the interests of oneself or one’s group are weighted no more heavily than those of any other person or group. Setting aside the desirability of egoism or self-interest, an interesting psychological question is whether it is reasonable to believe that one can decide and act solely (or even primarily) out of concern for the welfare and interests of others. Is altruism possible?

The moral and political philosopher Thomas Hobbes utilized a strategy commonly referred to as the “reinterpretation of motives” to explain how what seem to be selfless acts are in fact self-interested. In one of his more famous examples, Hobbes suggested that acts of charity are only superficially inspired by concern for others but are actually rewarding to the charitable or bring benefit in one or more ways to the person performing them. People may convince themselves that they are acting out of kindness (another feature of human psychology being the tendency to interpret behavior in the most flattering ways), but in fact are experiencing some delight in demonstrating personal good fortune, success, status, or position of power over those being aided.

The counterargument is that to experience satisfaction or pleasure in doing something, a person must first value that which he or she is doing. If people genuinely want others to be well, then they will experience satisfaction when aiding or assisting others in ways that promote their well-being. Perhaps charitable contributions are motivated primarily by a regard for the welfare of others, with the accompanying satisfaction stemming from having done or achieved something to which value or importance is attached. Justice and equality, for instance, are moral values to which people might assign meaning and worth. When individuals act so as to promote or protect justice or equality, they could be expected to derive a certain amount of pleasure or satisfaction from having done so. The fact that some people experience satisfaction in such cases does not necessarily mean that those acts were motivated primarily by the desire for that satisfaction (i.e. by self-interest). Satisfaction might be better understood as something like a by-product of moral behavior rather than a primary motivation for that behavior. Unfortunately, although psychological egoism presents a factual claim about human motivation, a distinction such as this cannot be easily investigated empirically.

A second example in support of psychological egoism, also by way of Hobbes, is that of sympathy (or pity) for those experiencing misfortune. Like charitable acts, the experience of sympathy is arguably not guided by a deep regard for the wellbeing of others; instead, it is motivated—however unconsciously—by a regard for the self. By this logic, sympathy follows from a realization that the same (or similar) misfortune could befall the self. When people witness or learn of another’s unfortunate fate (e.g., a traffic accident, death of a loved one, criminal victimization), they are reminded that they too are vulnerable. As such, sympathy is perhaps ultimately an expression of concern for the possibility of personal suffering and therefore an egoistic concern for the well-being of the self rather than a genuinely other-regarding concern.

Crucially, if this were true then the degree of empathy or sympathy could be expected to vary depending upon how much those who are experiencing misfortune are “like us” (demographically, socially, culturally, etc.)—a variance which has important implications in criminal justice contexts and elsewhere. If people cannot identify with or relate to those in positions of misfortune (e.g., prisoners, criminal defendants, civil plaintiffs/respondents, homeless persons), it becomes far less likely that society would be capable of empathically understanding their situation and rendering decisions or engaging in actions that may be demanded by morality, law, and justice. A similar psychological dynamic seems to exist when an individual can rationalize or blame others for his or her own misfortune. In both kinds of scenarios, empathic understanding is diminished by an inability to identify with others and/or a belief that personal misfortunes of a similar nature are unlikely.

Whether human beings are compelled to decide and act primarily out of concern for the self (i.e., whether psychological egoism is true), self-interest and the interests of others are not mutually exclusive. In most instances they are compatible. In other words, it is not necessarily the case that morality cannot involve self-interest. If people understand self-interest as that which is good for the self, then self-interest is in fact promoted through empathic understanding and decisions made and actions performed out of concern for the needs, interests, or welfare of others. By virtue of being members of groups, organizations, communities, societies, etc., individual interests are best promoted when acting cooperatively and in consideration of the welfare of others who are also members of those larger social bodies. Human beings are necessarily social beings, and because of the interrelationships and interdependencies that define social existence, the interests of self and other cannot so easily be separated.


  1. Batson, Daniel. Altruism in Humans. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  2. Heil, John. Rationality, Morality, and Self-Interest. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1993. Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. New York: Touchstone Books, 1997.
  3. Rogers, Kelly. Self-Interest: An Anthology of Philosophical Perspectives From Antiquity to Present. New York: Routledge, 1997.
  4. Shaver, Robert. “Egoism.” In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta, ed. (Winter 2010). (Accessed May 2013).

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