Thursday, February 09, 2006

Psychological egoism and what we want

Psychological egoism is the view that all individuals in fact do what they believe is in their own self-interest. This is *not* synonymous with the claim that all individuals in fact do what they want. ‘Want’ is not ‘self-interest’ by definition, contrary to what one of my furry-faced colleagues thinks. For it to be the case that these two concepts are essentially related the following bi-conditional would have to be true: if you want X, then X is in your own self-interest and if X is in your own self-interest, then you want X. While it is arguable that the second half of the bi-conditional is true, the first half of the bi-conditional is not true. I only need one example to show this: I want to smoke a cigarette right now. Smoking is not in my own self-interest, but I want it nevertheless.

Perhaps my furry-faced-friend does not have psychological egoism in mind, but a popular theory developed in the literature on moral psychology and moral motivation. One view suggests that in order to move someone all the way to action a *desire* must be present in the explanation of the individual’s behavior. This is not the thesis of psychological egoism and even the defender of this view must explain why some desires are different than others as in weakness of the will (she might, for example, appeal to higher-order desires).

Now of course ‘wants’, ‘desires’, ‘self-interest’, etc. are all terms of art and can be filled out in various ways. The key is to avoid rendering one’s own thesis trivially true. If you think ‘self-interest’ just means doing what you want, then you need to rephrase psychological egoism to say something like all individuals in fact do what they believe is in their own best-interest. In other words, if psychological egoism is just the view that individuals in fact do what they want, then you are not telling me anything substantive. For example, a prominent psychological egoist like Hobbes will say that an individual *in so far as she is rational* will want to get out of the state of nature.

Finally, it may be the case that psychological egoism is often in danger of collapsing into a trivially true thesis, but this is something the defender of the view is going to want to avoid, not embrace contra Mr. Furry Face himself.


  1. You seem to be making the assumption that "self-interest" entails "self-preservation." I do not see why this should be the case. I see no reason why I shouldn't believe that smoking is in my self-interest if I want to smoke and doing so will not negatively affect my chances of having other desires fulfilled (particularly desires I hold to me more important than the desire to smoke).

  2. Faraci,
    I am not taking a stance on how we should define self-interest. Moreover, it is not necessarily an implication of my example that self-preservation is the relevant factor. Smoking may not be in my own self-interest because it will destroy my gums that will result in painful visits to the dentist. Pain may be the relevant feature of self-interest. I leave that to the psychological egoists to decide and argue for. My point is rather that we shouldn’t trivialize the thesis. From what you said, I think you agree.

    Notice that by making a distinction between “important” desires and mere desires you are building substance into the notion of self-interest. According to the view you suggested in your comment, acting on behalf of a desire is in one’s own self-interest if ”doing so will not negatively affect my chances of having other desires fulfilled (particularly desires I hold to [b]e more important than the desire to smoke).” For example, if I smoke too long, that might play a role in whether my desire to live a long life is realized. Thus, what you have said is not that whatever you want is in your own self-interest. Rather, you are now arguing that a certain desire/want is in your own self-interest as long as it does not affect my chances of having other important desires fulfilled. Now that you have a non-trivial rendering of psychological egoism you need to give me some reasons to believe that that is in fact what is going on when a mother runs into a burning building to save her child, for example.

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  4. First, to remove any confusion, I am not saying that there is any sense in which one desire is more "important" than another objectively. It may simply be that I have certain things I desire more than others. If I want to smoke but I *really* don't want to go to the dentist for surgery on my gums, then I may say that it is in my self-interest not to smoke.

    I don't see how this affects my arguments concerning psychological egoism. If the mother's desire to have her child live is stronger than her desire to avoid the dangers of a burning building, then she will enter that building to save the child. We can then make one of (at least) two claims about the action: either the relevant set of desires stemmed from interest in the child or from self-interest. Psychological egoism would maintain that it must stem from self-interest, that the mother's desires come, perhaps, from the fact that she would prefer death over living with the knowledge that her child was dead and that she could have saved it. You might maintain that, in fact, the mother did not have herself in mind at all (even subconsciously) and thus was subserving her own interests to the child's in some pure way. It *seems* to me that this second is a psychological impossibility, but this is an empirical question about psychology and it seems pointless to argue it further. Then again, if you're one of those people that believes that "all we have are intuitions" is a reason to use them rather than acknowledge the futility of most philosophical thought, then I guess you can stick me in the egoist camp.

  5. You’re still missing my point. It has nothing to do with intuitions either, so I’m not sure what you meant by your last comment.

    I’ll give it one more go: we (by ‘we’ I mean philosophers interested in engaging in substantive debates that can be rationally evaluated) are not interested in entertaining psychological egoism if the only way to vindicate or refute the view is via a psychological device (mechanism???) that detects whether the mother had her *self* rather than her *child* in mind when she ran into the burning building. Even if such a device could be created what would it tell us? Of course propositional attitudes such as ‘I desire that X’ are indexical, i.e., they point back to the subject. However, we don’t want self-interest to be defined in virtue of its location—that it comes from inside me. Again, it is true in virtue of our language that every desire as it appears in the statement of a propositional attitude is self-referring, but it simply is not the case that *every* desire I have is in my interest in any interesting non-trivial sense.

    I’m curious: do you think the view you are touting is what prominent psychological egoists like Hobbes actually held? Or, do you think instead that your view is what psychological egoists should hold?

    If you are saying yes to either I have given reasons for thinking you are wrong on both counts. First, Hobbes did not hold your view. Second, the psychological egoist does not want to hold a view that is trivially true, so she should not accept your definition.

    One last thing: I sense that you are worried about committing yourself to an objective notion of self-interest if you do not say that it is what the individual desires—full stop. However, Hobbes has a subjectivist-friendly version of psychological egoism and he is not committed to your view, so why the worry?

  6. First, let me say that I'm thrilled that we're all subjectivists here.

    I may not be able to clear up the debate too much, but perhaps I'll say something that sparks the imagination of someone else.

    We should agree that we have desires, and that most (perhaps all) cases of action are caused by my desiring something. It seems relevant to distinguish between times when I am the object of my desire, and when something else is the object. Most moral and psychological theories will hold there to be a difference (paraphrasing now from the stanford encyclopedia article on egoism) between a soldier who throws himself on a grenade to save his friend, and a soldier who does the same thing for the reputation it will get him. Even if you have a theory that says the actions are morally equivilent, it's bizarre to think that they're psychologically the same.

    It is trivially true, as Nicole has been saying, that since we desire things, having those desires fulfilled is good in some way. Psychological egoism, I think, typically holds that all desires are self-directed not in the tautological sense (it is me that is doing the desiring, after all), but in the sense that the real motive is self-directed. The rest of us non-egoists typically hold that many desires are other-directed. Nicole has been making this point. Though I am doing the desiring (and hence in a trivial way I getting what I desire is good), I am desiring something not for my own benefit, but for the benefit of someone else.

    I'm not sure we need to get into the discussion of primary and secondary desires. This is totally consistent with the thought that I may have short term desire X, and desire Y not to desire X, and long-term desire Z that conflicts with desire X. I hold the view (probably a minority opinion) that one's well-being is determined by my prudent desires (those that I decide are best after some deliberation of X,Y, and Z). This seems like what Dave is sympathizing with, but I do not think it is egoism. It is just a theory of well-being, it's not the thesis that all of my desires will be directed towards my own well-being. I could deliberately decide to follow the desire that makes me worse off, as in the case of the soldier throwing himself on the grenade, or the mother running into the burning house to save her baby.

    I found the linked article helpful in thinking about this. It's short for one of these stanford entries so I'd recommend it to others.

  7. As usual Arthur, your clarity may save the day. Looking back, I realize that the formulation of my position has been entirely incorrect. Whether this is because I was unclear when I explained my position or am being misrepresented I am unsure, but either way it is the case. It was said that my version of psychological egoism is "that all individuals do what they want." While I believe this to be true, psychological egoism clearly, as Arthur indicates, includes the further assertion that all desires are self-directed. My position is (and has been) that to act in one's self-interest is to act on one's desires (or those desires one deems to be most "important") precisely because all desires are self-directed. Thus, if we agree with the theory of action that says that all actions come from desires, then we would believe that psychological egoism is true. It seems clear to me (as I was trying to indicate in an earlier comment) that the question of whether or not all desires are, in fact, self-directed, is an empirical one and thus if we are going to take a stance on psychological egoism at this point, it will necessarily stem from our intuitions.

  8. Thanks for the encyclopedia reference Arthur.

    Let’s see if I can be clearer! The following claim from Faraci’s comment is false:

    “Thus, if we agree with the theory of action that says that all actions come from desires, then we would believe that psychological egoism is true”.

    This is not the conclusion to draw from what I said, or what Arthur said (and he can correct me if I’m wrong), or what the Stanford entry says (again correct me if I’m wrong).

    The theory of action that says all actions come from desires is neutral on the issue of whether these desires are self-regarding or other-regarding. It may say that they are self-regarding in a trivial sense, but as the Stanford entry points out: “This would not content defenders of psychological egoism” (Shaver).

  9. Nicole,
    Just in case we're going to bother paying attention to what people actually say, the quoted passage in full was:

    "[P]sychological egoism clearly, as Arthur indicates, includes the further assertion that all desires are self-directed. My position is (and has been) that to act in one's self-interest is to act on one's desires (or those desires one deems to be most "important") precisely because all desires are self-directed. Thus, if we agree with the theory of action that says that all actions come from desires, then we would believe that psychological egoism is true."

    To respond to this as you did is simply to acknowledge that unless you believe that all desires are self-regarding, then the desire-based theory of action we have been discussing does not ALONE support psychological egoism. I'm fairly certain that I made it clear in the previous comment that this is not a point of contention.

  10. I'm pretty sure psychological egoism is not trivially true. But it's also not all that interesting either.

    Most of this discussion has confused psychological egoism and egoism about what one ought to do (practical ought). Nicole was dead on to note that psychological egoism shouldn't be confused with reason internalism, but that's because the latter is interesting and the former not so much. Interesting in the sense that psychological egoism bears little if at all on our reasons for action. Psychological egoism is an explanation for action, but not the sort we appeal to when we justify our actions.

  11. I am a culinary student. this was fascinating to read. i was looking up a term "psychological wants" and i found this. COOL!

  12. psychological egoism is present....