Hauptli’s Supplement on Feinberg’s “Psychological Egoism [1958][1]  

     Copyright 2013 Bruce W. Hauptli

Feinberg clarifies psychological egoism and maintains that there are several things wrong with this theory. 

A. The Theory:

75 Psychological egoism is the view that all human actions are motivated by selfish desires—individuals are viewed as motivated only by their selfish desires. 

-Psychological Egoism is a descriptive theory. 

76 Ethical egoism is a prescriptive theory that holds that “all people ought to pursue their own well-being.” 

B. Prima Facie Reasons In Support of the Theory:

There seem to be a four “arguments” which, on the face of it [prima facie], support psychological egoism:

(a) “Every action of mine is prompted by motives or desires or impulses which are my motives and not somebody else’s.” 

(b) When a person gets what s/he wants, s/he feels pleasure. 

(c) We often deceive ourselves about our selfish motives. 

76-77 (d) Moralists often appeal to pleasure and pain to instill morality (to educate). 

C. Critique of Psychological Egoism: Confusions in The Arguments For Psychological Egoism:

77 Feinberg begins by pointing out that empirical evidence is rarely mustered to support the psychological theory.  This, of course is perverse—a psychological theory stands or falls on the basis of the empirical evidence that is mustered for it! 

 Response to (a): The egoists’ first argument [about our only motives being our motives] is flawed: “from this simple tautology[2] [that all of my motives and desires are my motives and desires] nothing whatever concerning the nature of my motives or the objective of my desires can possibly follow.” 

-“It is not the genesis of an action or the origin of its motives which makes it a “selfish” one, but rather the “purpose” of the act or the objective of its motives; not where the motive comes from...but what it aims at determines whether or not it is selfish.” 

77-78 Response to (b): The second argument for psychological egoism [getting what one wants and receiving pleasure] is also flawed: from the fact that all our successful actions are accompanied by pleasure (for us), it does not follow that the objective of these acts is pleasure for oneself. 


-78 William James’ example of the sort of fallacy here: because an ocean liner constantly consumes coal on its trans-Atlantic passage, therefore the purpose of the voyage is to consume coal! 

-The story of Abraham Lincoln and the pigs:

--“The very fact that he did feel satisfaction as a result of helping the pigs presupposes that he had a preexisting desire for something other than his own happiness.  Then when that desire was satisfied, Lincoln of course derived pleasure.  The object of Lincoln’s desire was not pleasure; rather pleasure was the consequence of his preexisting desire for something else.” 

-79 Malice, revenge, and hatred (as well as “altruistic” acts) show what is wrong with the psychological egoists’ view: willingness to sacrifice one’s own happiness to bring about others’ unhappiness! 

 Response to (c): The third argument for the thesis [near total self-deception] is unlikely: while there is no logical flaw in the argument, it seems unlikely that this sort of sweeping generalization is correct. 

Response to (d): The fourth argument for psychological egoism [pleasure, pain, and moral education] leads to paradox: the way to get happiness is to forget about it and psychological egoists/hedonists can not recognize this. 

-79-80 Imagine the life of an individual (call her Jones) who adopts the psychological egoists’ life orientation.  A long citation here characterizes such a life: Jones’ “sole and overriding passion” is a consummate desire for Jones’ own happiness.  “It takes little imagination at this point to see that Jones’s one desire is bound to be frustrated”—to exclusively seek one’s happiness is to constantly miss it. 

-80 The psychological egoists’ theory undercuts moral education—“moral education is truly successful when it produces persons who are willing to do the right thing simply because it is right, and not because it is popular or safe.”  An emphasis upon punishment and reward alone actually undercuts rather than truly characterizes moral education. 

80-81 Feinberg also points out that psychological egoists confuse two senses of ‘pleasure’:

-81 Pleasure1pleasant sensation. 

--What does it mean to say people desire only their own pleasure1?  While people do desire their own pleasure1 sometimes, this sort of behavior is actually rare (the eating and drinking habits of “gourmets” for example—eating and drinking only to savor the tastes and textures). 

-81-82 Pleasure2satisfaction (here the existence of pleasure presupposes the prior existence of desire.  

--82 What does it mean to say that people desire only their own pleasure2?  

--To say people desire their pleasure2 is to say something vacuous:

“All men desire only satisfaction. 

“Satisfaction of what?” 

“Satisfaction of their desires.” 

“Their desires for what?” 

“Their desires for satisfaction.” 

“Satisfaction of what?” 

“Their desires.” 

“For what?” 

“For satisfaction.”—etc., ad infinitum. 

D. Critique of Psychological Egoism: Unclear Logical Status of the Theory:

Egoists might allow that pleasure (or happiness) [for oneself] may well not be the only motivating factors.  Nonetheless, they might contend that our other ultimate motives (self-fulfillment, power, etc.) are also self-regarding (and, thus, that we are selfish)!  How would the truth of such a contention be established? 

Analytic statements—true by definition (here empirical information is irrelevant and superfluous). 

-83 Their denials are contradictions. 

Synthetic statements—their truth or falsity is derived not from meaning but, rather, from facts. 

83-84 Empirical Hypotheses must be falsifiable!  “A person can be said to understand an empirical hypothesis only if he knows how to recognize evidence against it.  If a person asserts or believes a general statement in such a way that he cannot conceive of any possible experience which he would count as evidence against it, then he cannot be said to be asserting or believing an empirical hypothesis.” 

84-85 The Fallacy of the Suppressed Correlative:

“Good-bad”, “large-small”, “mental-physical”, and “selfish-unselfish.”  “To know the meaning of one term in the pair, we must know the meaning of the correlative term with which it is contrasted.” 

85 Since the ordinary definition of ‘selfish’ allows for unselfish acts, it appears that the psychological egoist is redefining ‘selfish’.  The redefinition seems to leave ‘selfish’ meaning simply “motivated” and then the claim that all our acts are selfish reduces to the tautology that “all motivated acts are motivated”). 

As a linguistic proposal about the use of ‘selfish’, there might be some utility in so using the word, but we would then need to distinguish two sorts of selfish acts [(a) those motivated by a regard for the interests of others and (b) those motivated by a regard for the interests of ourselves]. 

-Critical consideration: this “suppressed correlative” argument may not be as strong as it first appears.  Consider the following point by J.L. Mackie (from his “Evil and Omnipotence“ where he discusses “the problem of evil” and the question of whether or not the existence of good requires the existence of evil.  Here he is considering an argument which claims that everything can not be good, because then ‘good’ would be, in effect, a suppressed correlative.  He notes that this argument needs to make goodness and evil into metaphysical opposites like redness and nonredness.  But, he says, “...I suggest that it is not really impossible that everything should be, say, red, that the truth is merely that if everything were red we should not notice redness, and so we should have no word “red”; and we observe and give names to qualities only if they have real opposites.”[3] 


Notes: (click on note number to return to text for the note)

[1] The notes are to a reprint of Feinberg's “Psychological Egoism,” in Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings (sixth edition) (Belmont: Wadsworth, 1995), pp. 75-86, eds. Louis Pojman and James Fieser.  The essay was originally composed by Professor Feinberg for his students in 1958, and appeared regularly in his Reason and Responsibility of which there were many editions published by Wadsworth. 

[2] A tautology is a statement that is logically true—for example: “All dogs are dogs.”  Such statements are true no matter what the empirical world is like, and they do not give any new information.  They are to be contrasted with contingent statements (statements which may be either true or false given the empirical facts—for example, “Fido is a dog”), and contradictory statements (statements which are logically false, and, thus, false no matter what the world is like—for example “No dog is a dog”).  Feinberg contends that the logical statements can never entail contingent ones (though he may unhelpfully mix up distinctions of logic and of meaning here). 

[3] J.L. Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” Mind v. 64 (1955), emphasis added.  Cited here form reprint in Reason and Responsibility (seventh edition), ed. Joel Feinberg (Belmont: Wadsworth, 1989), pp. 70-71. 

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File revised on: 09/04/2013