Ethics: Psychological Egoism and Ethical Egoism - Essay Example

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Moral theories, ethics, values and psychological definitions appear to be so interwoven as to make it difficult to unravel where one begins and another ends. This essay will examine the definitions of both moral theories, their differences, fallacies, and motivation. …
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Ethics: Psychological Egoism and Ethical Egoism
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Ethics: Psychological Egoism and Ethical Egoism Moral theories, ethics, values and psychological definitions appear to be so interwoven as to make it difficult to unravel where one begins and another ends. This essay will examine the definitions of both moral theories, their differences, fallacies, and motivation. The differences between selfishness and self- interest will be discussed, and an opinion offered as to whether either can be accepted as belonging to any ethical philosophy.
Ethical Egoism: This might be described as a doctrine in which each person ‘should’ look after their own self-interests, as that is the most valuable thing for them. It is described as follows by Moseley (2006): “The individual aims at her own greatest good” and “it is always moral to promote one’s own good, and it is never moral not to promote it.” The ‘should’ makes it a prescriptive doctrine; in its strong version, the theory holds that pursuing self-interest is the same as being moral and that a person should let nothing stop him form reaching his long term goals - every action should lead to this. This idea is supported in Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, where she considers altruism (the opposite of egoism) to be immoral. She says in the Introduction to her book ‘The Virtue of Selfishness’ (Rand, 1964, 7)
“The attack on “selfishness” is an attack on man’s self-esteem; to surrender
one is to surrender the other.”
The weaker version admits that not everybody does this, as self-interested actions can help others. In fact, Hobbes, in ‘Leviathan’ (1651) states in his Introduction that, despite having self-serving desires due to our mechanical nature, “the wealth, and riches of all the particular members are the strengths;…” This suggests that values are around wealth and attaining our own ends, but Hobbes sees the man with these as contributing to the good of the whole society. The fact that ethical egoists obey laws, and carry out duties is not especially selfish, this too shows up as the weaker version.
Psychological Egoism: This is called an empirical theory because it derives from observation of human nature and does not say how people should act, only that they do so from a basis of selfishness, driven by the desire to gratify their pleasure and self-interest. No matter what a person does, the theory contends that it will always be from self-interest, and any act can be interpreted this way. The fallacy lies in the many ‘disconfirming’ instances that refute the idea (Philosophy, Lander, n.d.). A few examples include the fact that people do help others, follow faiths and conscience, do dangerous things, none of which are in their own selfish interests. Further evidence of the fallacy can be found in research that identified that even young children have moral motivation to care about others and to know right from wrong. It is instinctive, nor learned, though example and environment help. In ‘The Handbook of Positive Psychology’, Michael Schulman’s (2002) chapter entitled ‘How We Become Moral’ highlights the fallacy further when he states that:
“moral motives are as primary, powerful and emotionally intense as our aggressive and acquisitive ones, that concern for others emerges spontaneously in very young children.” (Schulman, 2002, 500)
Differences: Unraveling the differences is a matter of understanding that ethical egoism is about ‘should’, while psychological egoism is about ‘is’, this is just how people are. Nothing a psychological egoist does can be accepted as other than from a selfish desire to satisfy their own needs, whereas the ethical egoist may act in many ways which help others, even while focusing on their own welfare as the ultimate goal. This is the main difference; the pursuit of that goal does not make them selfish, as they do benefit others while looking out for number one. Psychological egoists, on the other hand, will pursue desires not always in their best interests, such as drinking or eating too much, driven by the need for immediate gratification, seeing no long term negatives or goods they might achieve, an nobody else matters.
Contrasts in Motivation: The doctrine of psychological egoism is nonmoral, based on the belief that the motive that drives us is the pursuit of our own welfare, to the exclusion of anyone else’s. It is just how we are, totally self concerned. Freud (1923) described the ego as “the conscious rationalizing section of the mind.”, so every act can be reasoned out has behavior to serve the self. On the other hand, ethical egoists believe that the moral value lies in looking out for yourself, and when motivated this way, every action, even helping others, takes you further along the road to achieving your own best interests. The contrast would seem to lie in the total selfishness of psychological egoism as opposed to the serving of other’s welfare while centering on one’s own. This seems mutually advantageous and better for society.
It is doubtful whether either theory can be held as a true ethical philosophy. If the definition of selfishness is applied, meaning that we always abandon consideration for others in favor of our own pleasures, motivated by our needs only, then evidence of fallacy has shown this to be untrue. Self-interest describes a person who is absorbed in what he perceives to be what serves his interests best. If this is applied to ethical egoism, then there is evidence to overturn this too, it would need to be a universal concept to have the strength to stand as a moral theory, and it is not. The evidence of altruistic instincts and a morality of concern for others is more universal and stronger than either of these two theories. It is more likely that we all possess elements of self-interest and self-preservation, but are inherently disposed to help and get along with others in society. After all, it is in our best interests to do so.
Reference List
Concise Oxford Dictionary (1979) 6th Edition. (p. 1031) Editor, Sykes, J. B. Oxford:
Oxford University Press
Freud, S. (1923) The Ego and the Id. Cited in Philip’s World Atlas and Encyclopedia
(1999). London: Philip’s
Hobbes, T. (1651) Leviathan, Introduction. Renascence Editions ebook Retrieved
February 2, 2007 from
Moseley, A/ (2006) Egoism. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved
February 1, 1007 from
Psychological Egoism (n.d.). Retrieved February 1, 2007 from
Rand, A. (1964) The Virtue of Selfishness. (p. 7) New York: Signet, 1970
Schulman, M. (2002) How We Become Moral. Chapter 36. Eds. Snyder, C. &
Lopez, S. The Handbook of Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford Press Read More
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