Humans Are Always Selfish
Classic Philosophical Questions Part 4 - Ethics
Plato, from the Republic
Kem Stone - 17 September 2007
I am somewhat bothered by the choice made by the editors to use Glaucon’s challenge to Socrates from the
beginning of the Republic to represent psychological egoism. Though this is perhaps one of the most frequently-
referenced examples of this position, it is a weak and out-dated argument, and I do not think it does the argument
for psychological egoism (a position I nevertheless disagree with) much justice. I will briefly examine the argument
and explain why I do not believe it holds much force.
In an attempt to prove to Socrates that humans always act out of self interest and only behave unselfishly because
they are compelled to do so by law and custom, Glaucon offers what he believes is the origin of the notion of
justice. He asserts that to do wrong is in itself a desirable thing, yet to suffer wrong is undesirable.
“Consequently, when men have had a taste of both, those who have not the power to seize the advantage and
escape the harm decide that they would be better off if they made a compact neither to do wrong nor to suffer
it…justice is accepted as a compromise and valued, not as good in itself, but for lack of power to do wrong”
(154). For Glaucon, justice is not an intrinsic good—the only intrinsic good is a man’s happiness, which Glaucon
believes is the primary motivation behind all of man’s actions.
To illustrate that men only practice justice against their natural inclinations, Glaucon asks Socrates to imagine two
men, one just, the other unjust, given full license to do as they please. The just man, Glaucon says, will pursue his
own self-interest the same as the unjust man “until forcibly turned aside by law and custom to respect the principle
of equality” (154). Next, Glaucon asks Socrates to imagine that they possess a magic ring such as that found in
the myth of Gyges, who discovered a ring which allowed him to become invisible at will. If both men were given
this ring, Glaucon asserts that neither would have any concern for justice, as neither would have any fear of
repercussions for their actions, and the just man would behave exactly as the unjust. “No one, it is commonly
believed, would have such iron strength of mind as to stand fast in doing right or keep his hands off other men’s
goods, when he could go to the market-place and fearlessly help himself to anything he wanted, enter houses and
sleep with any woman he chose, set prisoners free and kill men at his pleasure, and in a word go about among
men with the powers of a god” (155). Any man who possessed such powers and did not use them for his
personal gain at others’ expense, Glaucon contends, would be thought a fool. Therefore, men do right only
because they are compelled to do so by outside forces, and will behave selfishly whenever they have the power.
The only real strength of this argument is that it forces us to consider the matter personally: would we behave as
fiendishly as Glaucon contends we would if we possessed a ring of invisibility? The vast majority of people, when
completely honest with themselves, would, I believe, consent to the notion that they would behave selfishly at the
expense of others if they did not have to fear reprisal. I will admit that although I do not believe I would go so far
as to commit rape or murder if I had this power, I would probably do a great deal of thieving and perhaps exact
retribution against those who have wronged me. Yet the argument fails if we can find but one example of a man
or woman who would not use this power even if he or she could.
I do not believe the Dalai Lama would use the ring if it was given to him. I am sure there are many who believe
with conviction that Jesus Christ would not use the ring, and though I am a bit more sceptical about the historical
Jesus than many, I would lean towards that opinion as well. But I do not think only the most holy of religious
figures can be expected to refrain from selfish behaviour without compulsion—there are thousands, perhaps
millions of people in this world with strong moral convictions against selfishness who I am sure would also be able
to resist the power of the ring. These people may believe in karma, or judgment in an after-life, or they may
simply have too much pride to lower themselves to base behaviour, but they all have reasons for behaving
unselfishly other than the fear of capture and punishment. Of course, it could be argued that all of the reasons I
have just mentioned are also aspects of self-interest (e.g. it is selfish to behave unselfishly in this life in order to be
rewarded in the next life) but such considerations fall outside the scope of this argument, which is why I believe it
to be an unfair representation of psychological egoism.
The major flaw of this argument is that it no longer holds the force it had in the days of pagan Greece. The entire
moral framework of the Athenians was vastly different than it is in our society—in Plato’s time most people really
did see justice as a compromise rather than an intrinsic good-in-itself. The gods behaved selfishly, so why should
a man behave otherwise? There was no doctrine of “love thy enemy” and extreme self-sacrifice was not seen as
virtuous but foolish. For anyone whose ethics are grounded in ideas of a social contract or reverence for powerful
gods capable of harming them, it is natural to accept the notion that people always act in their own self-interest.
But today our ideas of ethics are on an arguably “higher” level, with the ideals of justice and self-sacrifice prized as
goods to be desired for their own sake. Those who are truly devoted to these ideals, I believe, will not behave
selfishly simply because they can get away with it.