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Psychological Egoism

Psychological egoism is a theory about human intentions and motives. According to the theory of psychological egoism all behaviors are motivated by personal interest. In other words, it says that behind every action, behavior or decision of an individual is his self interest. It also suggests that self interest motivates all human actions.  It is a universal truth that all actions are, ultimately, selfish. This theory claims that all acts of altruism are done because it benefits the person directly or indirectly. Human beings appear to be altruistic or selfless but in their minds, they have a selfish motive hidden.

Since psychological egoism states that all motivations are, selfish, it reduces the multiplicity of motives to a single kind. It reduces ambiguity of motives and intentions making it crystal clear. This theory states that there no such thing as selflessness, it is actually selfishness. Psychological egoism is somewhat related to psychological hedonism. This theory is of the view that the ultimate aim of all human action is the need to experience pleasure. The theory also claims that altruistic actions are also done to avoid pain. All good work is done to get rid of some guilt feeling. An individual does acts of goodness to avoid the mental agony which he goes through because of his past wrong actions.

Every time we do something good for another person, it is not because we are interested in the welfare of that person. The reason behind it is that we get satisfaction out of it. The good act done by us is to satisfy our personal ego. Every action is always motivated by our own personal-interest –this is the theory of psychological egoism.

Objections to psychological egoism

Psychology is considered to be a science. All scientists are of the view that if a theory is scientific, it needs to be falsified like other scientific theories. It should be proved with the help of an experiment and there should be some kind of evidence that could count against it. If a certain theory cannot be refuted, scientists do not like to entertain such a concept.

Although, the psychological egoist interprets all actions as motivated by self-interest, there are some feelings and emotions that are opposed to their interpretation. When someone does something for you unexpectedly, you feel grateful to that person. Suppose a person goes out of his/her way to help you or do something good for you. Naturally, you feel thankful or grateful. But, if you find later on that he/she got something out of it — if you come to know that he/she served his/her own interest by doing you this “favor”, then you would  you re-consider  your feeling of gratefulness? You may feel less grateful, and a bit more skeptical of the motives. If everyone in this world always does good work out of personal-interest, where is the place for altruistic actions.

You may be thankful because something good has been done to you, it has in some way improved your condition. But then you may not express gratitude for the same. You may think it is sheer coincidence that you have the same interest as the other person .In other words we can say that altruism is nothing but a good act done for self-interest.

James Rachels suggest that if one believes that people are genuinely benevolent and altruistic, then there is no fear from egoism. Rachels says that it is unselfishness not egoism that we take pleasure out of our good actions. The fact that you get pleasure and satisfaction from helping others does not make you selfish.

Once Lincoln rescued some piglets stuck in a pool of mud. He was on his way to some important business but moved by the condition of piglets, he decided to help them. This action of Lincoln cannot be called selfish, on the contrary, it showed how compassionate and good-hearted he was. Had he been selfish, he would have left the piglets in that condition. He would not have wasted time to save them. Moreover, he did not get anything out of it but peace of mind. Another example of selfless service is of Mother Teresa’s. She devoted her life to the service of humanity. Her good work did not give her material benefits. It gave her only happiness, satisfaction and peace of mind. We cannot say that all her actions were motivated by self interest. Mother Teresa had no selfish motive in mind, it was only selfless service to ameliorate the condition of the suffering people.

To further understand the theory of psychological egoism, let us compare two actions which were done with different motives in mind. On Thanksgiving Day in Chicago, there were two kitchens which were serving food to the homeless. In one kitchen, there was a politician giving food to the poor but there were also cameras from the local television stations for coverage of this act of altruism. In the second kitchen, the food was being distributed by a Sister of Mercy who did this action out of love. The Sister of Mercy did not have any selfish intention. She did not care for recognition like the politician. She only wanted to feed God’s hungry children. We might say that the Sister acted out of altruistic motives but the politician had selfish motives. He wanted to project himself as altruistic before the people of his constituency so that they may re-elect him.

A psychological egoist would argue that there is no difference between the actions and motives of these two individuals: both acted out of selfish motives. The politician wanted to show that he was compassionate as it was beneficial for his political career. The Sister did this work because she derived pleasure from it. We might conclude that there is always hidden motivation behind any noble deed. It could be done to get something better in the next life or it could be done to attain salvation.  There is certainly some personal benefit behind every altruistic action.

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