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Psychological Egoism By Joel Feinberg

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1 Psychological Egoism By Joel Feinberg
Phil 160 Psychological Egoism By Joel Feinberg

2 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 doomed. Feinberg presents four arguments often supplied in support of the theory of psychological egoism:

3 a. Every action of mine is my action, springing from thoughts and motives that are mine, so every action is at base, selfish.

4 b. 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

5 c. 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.

6 d. 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

7 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:

8 a. A logical mistake is made in the first argument. Namely, nothing follows from a tautology. It is trivially true that “my actions are my actions” It does not follow from this that my actions are all of a particular kind, that is, selfish.

9 b. 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 coal.

10 b. 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.

11 b. 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.

12 c. 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.

13 d. 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.

14 d. 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.

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