Humans Are Not Always Selfish
Classic Philosophical Questions Part 4 - Ethics
James Rachels, from "Egoism and Moral Skepticism"
Kem Stone - 19 September 2007
What I consider to be the strong arguments in favour of psychological egoism are presented here by James
Rachels, who forcefully refutes the position, as well as that of ethical egoism. He gives both of these positions fair
treatment, but is very effective in showing their weaknesses. Although I did not accept psychological egoism
before, after reading this article I am even more firmly convinced that it is an invalid thesis.
Rachels defines psychological egoism as the view that “all men are selfish in everything that they do, that is, that
the only motive from which anyone ever acts is self-interest” and ethical egoism is the opinion that “regardless of
how men do in fact behave, they have no obligation to do anything except what is in their own interests” (158). In
dealing first with psychological egoism, Rachels presents the common-sense view that people behave unselfishly
all the time, and offers the hypothetical example of a man named Smith who gives up a trip to the country to stay
behind and help a friend with his studies. Such an act would certainly seem unselfish, but there are two arguments
that the psychological egoist may put forward to argue that this is not the case.
The first argument is that in describing a man’s action as unselfish, we are over-looking that fact that this action is
done voluntarily, and that “the agent is merely doing what he most wants to do. If Smith stays behind to help his
friend, that only shows that he wanted to help his friend more than he wanted to go to the country” (159).
Rachels asserts that this argument is so bad that it barely deserves to be taken seriously, as it assumes that people
only do things that they want to do. But there are at least two classes of actions that serve as counter-examples to
this idea. First, there are some things we do not want to do, but that we do anyway as means to a higher end.
The examples he offers are going to the dentist to stop a toothache or going to work in order to be paid. I think
an even better example would be exercise—I do not want to exercise for its own sake, but I do it in order to
remain healthy. The second class of actions which we do without wanting to are those actions which we feel
under obligation to do, such as fulfilling a promise.
The decision made by Smith in the example clearly falls under the second category: he does not stay behind
because he wants to, but because he feels an obligation to help his friend. “If Smith wants to do something that
will help his friend, even when it means forgoing his own enjoyments, that is precisely what makes him unselfish.
What else could unselfishness be, if not wanting to help others?...It is the object of a want that determines whether
it is selfish or not” (160). This is the key point—it may be that all of my voluntary actions are done because I
want to do them, but if what I want is something beneficial to another and detrimental to my own happiness, it
would be absurd to call such an action selfish.
The second argument Rachels presents is the one that I see as the strongest. “Since so-called unselfish actions
always produce a sense of self-satisfaction in the agent, and since that sense of satisfaction is a pleasant state of
consciousness, it follows that the point of the action is really to achieve a pleasant state of consciousness, rather
than to bring about any good for others” (160). I believe this argument holds force because I do often perform
unselfish actions simply to feel good about myself, or at least to avoid guilt. When I give a vagrant some change, I
merely do so to avoid the feeling of guilt I invariably feel if I ignore him and keep walking. However, as Rachels
points out, “Why should we think that merely because someone derives satisfaction from helping others this makes
him selfish? Isn’t the unselfish man precisely the one who does derive satisfaction from helping others, while the
selfish man does not?” (160). If I were a selfish man, I would not even experience guilt for not giving change to
The main point is that this “pleasant state of consciousness” we derive from helping others is not the end we seek
but merely an indirect effect of behaving altruistically. In most cases (though there are certainly exceptions) we do
not resolve to feel good about ourselves and then seek out a way to help others so that we might achieve a sense
of self-satisfaction, but we help others for the sake of helping others and feel good about ourselves after the fact.
We only derive satisfaction from something if it is something we desire. We may desire to be a better chess
player, and we will therefore derive satisfaction from practicing. But we will derive no satisfaction from practicing
chess if we do not first have the desire to improve our skills at the game. In the same manner, we will derive no
satisfaction from behaving altruistically if we do not have the desire to help others in the first place.
These being the two most forceful arguments in favour of psychological egoism, and both being hopelessly flawed,
Rachels finds it worth considering why some intelligent people have accepted it as a true view. He believes that it
may be out of the desire for theoretical simplicity. “In thinking about human conduct, it would be nice if there
were some simple formula that would unite the diverse phenomena of human behaviour under a single explanatory
principle…and since it is obvious that self-regard is an overwhelmingly important factor in motivation, it is only
natural to wonder whether all motivation might be explained in these terms” (161).
There are three commonplace confusions that Rachels believes would lead a person to accept this view. The first
is that selfishness is often confused with self-interest. We can act in our own interest without being selfish, as we
do when we work hard or brush our teeth. Conversely, selfish behaviour is that which ignores the interests of
others when they ought not be ignored—to eat a meal is in one’s self-interest, but to hoard food for oneself while
others are starving is selfish. The second misconception that leads to psychological egoism is to believe that all
actions are either selfish or altruistic, which is clearly a false dichotomy. Smoking cigarettes, for instance, is
certainly not in one’s self interest, but nor is it altruistic in any manner. Finally, there is the false assumption that a
concern for oneself is incompatible with a concern for others. Clearly, “there is no inconsistency in desiring that
everyone, including oneself and others, be well-off and happy” (162). Once these confusions are cleared up, it is
demonstrated quite conclusively that psychological egoism is false.
Ethical egoism, on the other hand, is a different matter. We would like to refute it as a false or flawed doctrine,
but this can not be done quite as easily as in the case of psychological egoism. Most would find the doctrine that
we always ought to act in our own self-interest as distasteful, as there is nothing in this moral theory to condemn
my setting fire to a building just to watch it burn, even though some people might be burned to death. These
people are no concern of mine, so I have done nothing wrong in burning down the building unless I am caught and
punished for it.
The ethical egoist may argue that “even if I could avoid being caught it is still to my advantage to respect the rights
and interests of others, for it is to my advantage to live in a society in which people’s rights and interests are
respected” (163). But if we understand ethical egoism properly, it is clear that one need not behave benevolently,
but merely encourage others to do so. This has led many to try to refute the position on the grounds that it leads
to a contradiction. To say that an action is right is to say that it is right for anyone in the same circumstances. But
the ethical egoist cannot advocate that egoism be universally adopted, “For he wants a world in which his own
interests are maximized; and if other people adopted the egoistic policy of pursuing their own interests to the
exclusion of his interests, as he pursues his interests to the exclusion of theirs, then such a world would be
impossible” (163). Therefore, it seems that there is no way to maintain the doctrine of ethical egoism as a
normative doctrine for how we ought to act.
Rachels does not believe this is sufficient to defeat the position. The object of the ethical egoist is to bring about a
world in which his own interests are maximized. In order to do this, he would have to be deceitful, and advocate
that others behave altruistically while he behaves selfishly. It might seem that because he advocates one thing and
does another that his position is inconsistent, but it is not, “for what he advocates and what he does are both
calculated as means to an end (the same end, we might note); and as such, he is doing what is rationally required
in each case” (164). Therefore, the ethical egoist cannot be refuted on the grounds that he contradicts himself.
What ethical egoism essentially does is challenge us to explain why we ought to place importance on the good of
others. But most of us do not require such an explanation, as we see the welfare of human beings as an intrinsic
good. We perform an action that benefits others simply for the fact that it will benefit others. The egoist simply
does not accept the welfare of others as a sufficient reason to do anything, and once this is established it is clear
that the argument can be taken no farther. “The existence of reasons for an action always depends on the prior
existence of certain attitudes in the agent. For example, the fact that a certain course of action would make the
agent a lot of money is a reason for doing it only if the agent wants to make money; the fact that practicing at
chess makes one a better chess player is a reason for practicing only if one wants to be a better player; and so
on” (165). Therefore, the welfare of others is only a reason to behave altruistically if one values the welfare of
others. The ethical egoist is precisely the person who does not believe the welfare of others has any value, and
there is no way to convince him otherwise.
I believe it is completely appropriate that ethical egoism can not be conclusively refuted as psychological egoism
can, as this fits with my own belief that there is no solid basis for any normative claims. The best we can do is
attempt to find common ground and prescribe one action over another if we share the same primary value. Just as
I can not claim that “you ought to believe in evolution” if you value your faith more than the rational justifiability of
your beliefs, I can not claim that “you ought to donate money to charity” if you value your own personal wealth
above the welfare of the less fortunate. There are no absolutes that we can appeal to in making or refuting any
ethical claim, and therefore we must accept that some people will have a different moral view than us, even if we
find that view repugnant. Even this assertion is subject to its own criterion, and need not be accepted if one does
not share the opinion that people ought to be free to believe what they choose to believe.