Phil 160
Psychological Egoism
By Joel Feinberg
Psychological Egoism
• Psychological Egoism is generally the theory
that all actions are essentially selfish actions.
• The upshot for the rest of morality is that any
moral theory that doesn’t, at base, appeal to
self-interest is ultimately unrealistic and
• Feinberg presents four arguments often
supplied in support of the theory of
psychological egoism:
• Every action of mine is my action, springing
from thoughts and motives that are mine, so
every action is at base, selfish.
• The only thing we ever act out of is pleasure,
once we get down to the most basic reasons
for action, so since we always act only for our
own pleasure, all of our actions are selfish
• We often deceive ourselves as to the real
motives for our actions, and we rationalize
them later. We may be deceiving ourselves
about even our most apparently selfless
actions, and they may be selfish after all.
• Moral education punishes people for good
behavior, and rewards them for good
behavior, so that means that everyone’s
actions are at heart actions to get rewards for
themselves or avoid punishments. That means
all actions are selfish
The non-empirical character of
Psychological Egoism
• Feinberg points out that PE is a theory that
comes from primarily armchair psychologists
or amateur philosophers, while the
professional or serious psychologists would
shy away from such sweeping generalizations,
and the philosophers would recognize logical
confusion in the arguments.
• He answer the arguments as follows:
• A logical mistake is made in the first argument.
Namely, nothing follows from a tautology.
• It is trivially true that “my actions are my
• It does not follow from this that my actions
are all of a particular kind, that is, selfish.
• Feinberg has multiple responses to this one:
1. Assuming that the purpose for all of our
actions is pleasure just because pleasure
usually accompanies the satisfaction of our
desires is like arguing that since steamships
burn coal every time they cross the Atlantic
that the purpose of their journey is to burn
2. The “Lincoln Story” indicates that we cannot
transform an apparently selfless act into a
selfish one by having the person feel pleasure
at being selfless. If they were really selfish,
they would have no cause to feel pleasure at
helping others.
3. benevolence/malevolence wouldn’t exist at
all if PE were true, and this is implausible. We
all occasionally sacrifice our own interests to
those of others, if only to be polite, in many
cases. We also often sacrifice our own
interests out of spite. This is malevolence.
Even villains aren’t entirely selfish.
• It may be true that we often or even always
deceive ourselves as to our true motives, but
this argument is entirely inconclusive. It is
equally possible that none of our actions are
selfish, even the ones that look most selfish.
• Just because we don’t know that something is
not the case is no reason to believe that it is
the case.
1. When we find people that really obey the law
and general moral principles to avoid
punishment, or only do the right thing for
some reward, we regard them as having
missed the point. This indicates that
argument d. isn’t very good.
2. The Paradox of Hedonism: If we really only do
things for the sake of pleasure or avoiding
pain, then a person like Jones (p.552) should
be intelligible to us. He isn’t. This indicates
that there are things we do for their own sake,
and also enjoy them as an added bonus. So
our motivation cannot be simply driven by
pleasure alone.