Egoism and Altruism

From Wikipedia:

Psychological egoism is the view that humans are always motivated by self-interest, even in what seem to be acts of altruism. It claims that, when people choose to help others, they do so ultimately because of the personal benefits that they themselves expect to obtain, directly or indirectly, from doing so. This is a descriptive rather than normative view, since it only makes claims about how things are, not how they ought to be. It is, however, related to several other normative forms of egoism, such as ethical egoism and rational egoism.

I addressed psychological egoism and altruism several years ago in “Redefining Altruism” and “Enough of Altruism.” In the extended version of the second post, I wrote:

There is no “egoism” or “altruism,” there’s simply behavior that reflects an individual’s values, and which seeks to serve those values….

What we call “altruism” and “egoism” are simply manifestations of an integrated, internal decision process that thinks not in terms of “altruism” or “egoism” but in terms of serving one’s values.

My purpose was to deny the existence of egoism and altruism as “forces” that exist independently of human thought. I was especially set on showing that the motivation for an act which is considered altruistic can only be understood in terms of its effect on the the actor. That is, the actor necessarily advances his own values, even if he seems to make a sacrifice of some kind.

I admit that my position can be taken as a defense of psychological egoism. So, although “psychological egoism” stands for a simplistic explanation of complex behavior, it’s a better explanation than altruism.

Here is Jason Brennan, writing at Bleeding Heart Libertarians:

Peter Singer made famous a thought experiment like this:

You are walking down the street when you see a small toddler drowning in a shallow pool. You can save the toddler easily, but only if you jump in right now. Doing so will destroy your hard-earned smart phone, costing you $500.

Most people judge that we must save the child here; it would be wrong not to do so.

Now, what does ethical egoism say about this case? …

Ethical egoism isn’t quite the same thing as psychological egoism. Returning to Wikipedia:

Ethical egoism is the normative ethical position that moral agents ought to do what is in their own [sic] self-interest. It differs from psychological egoism, which claims that people can only act in their self-interest.

Nevertheless, what follows from Brennan can be read as an attack on the idea of psychological egoism and a defense of the idea of altruism:

Many people … are deeply confused about what counts as egoistic action….

Consider the following argument: Saving the kid is egoistic, because I care about kids….  Therefore, if I voluntarily save the kid, I save him out of self-interest.


If I care about the drowning toddler and thus save him, I am acting to promote his welfare, not my own. It’s true that I am interested in his interests, or that his interests are an interest of mine, but that’s just a funky way of saying that I am altruistic. To be altruistic is to hold other people’s welfare as an end in itself….

If my sons died, I’d be sad. But the reason I feel joy when things go well for them and sad when things go badly is that I love them for their own sake–I view them as ends in themselves apart from my own welfare. Consider: Suppose my younger son is hurt. A genie appears and gives me two options. 1. He fixes my son’s injury. 2. He casts a spell instantly killing my son, erasing him from everyone’s memory, erasing all traces of him, and thus allowing us to go on as if he never existed at all. If I were just trying to avoid the bad feelings, I’d be indifferent between these two options. But I’m not–I’d pick option 1 over option 2, hands down. This means that I’m concerned not merely to avoid bad feelings, but to help for his sake. Again, it means I’m genuinely altruistic.

This reminds me of Rawls’s “veil of ignorance,” wherein the reader is invited to imagine an impossible counterfactual. In Brennan’s case, the impossible counterfactual is the non-existence of his son. The fact of his son’s existence colors Brennan’s evaluation of the the options posed by the genie. Brennan has feelings about his son, feelings that he (laudably) values over the alternative of having no such feelings.

What about Brennan’s assertion that he is genuinely altruistic because he doesn’t merely want to avoid bad feelings, but wants to help his son for his son’s sake. That’s called empathy. But empathy is egoistic. Even strong empathy — the ability to “feel” another person’s pain or anguish — is “felt” by the empathizer. It is the empathizer’s response to the other person’s pain or anguish.

Brennan inadvertently makes that point when he invokes sociopathy:

Sociopaths don’t care about other people for their own sake–they view them merely as instruments. Sociopaths don’t feel guilt for failing to help others.

The difference between a sociopath and a “normal” person is found in caring (feeling). But caring (feeling) is something that the I does — or fail to do, if the I is a sociopath. I = ego:

the “I” or self of any person; a thinking, feeling, and conscious being, able to distinguish itself from other selves.

I am not deprecating the kind of laudable act that is called altruistic. I am simply trying to point out what should be an obvious fact: Human beings necessarily act in their own interests, though their own interests often coincide  with the interests of others for emotional reasons (e.g., love, empathy), as well as practical ones (e.g., loss of income or status because of the death of a patron).

It should go without saying that the world would be a better place if it had fewer sociopaths in it. Voluntary, mutually beneficial relationships are more than merely transactional; they thrive on the mutual trust and respect that arise from social bonds, including the bonds of love and affection.

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Related posts:
Sophomoric Libertarianism
On Liberty
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
Tocqueville’s Prescience
Society and the State
Our Enemy, the State
The Golden Rule and the State
Government vs. Community
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
The Meaning of Liberty
Evolution and the Golden Rule
Empathy Is Overrated
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
Facets of Liberty
Why I Am Not an Extreme Libertarian
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
The Criminality and Psychopathy of Statism


  1. I agree. There are no “forces” that predetermine our moral choices. On the other hand, Samuel Johnson, who hated cant (hypocrisy) said: “We are all more or less governed by interest. But interest will not make us do everything.” Most of us have “mixed-motives.” Perhaps a very tiny handful of people we’d call saints are capable operating devoid of egotism. But as for most of humanity, if some people condemn others for these mixed motives or says we should be without self-interest, I would not trust them. Such “humility” is often the most egotistical of all.


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