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Introduction to Ethics Lecture 9 Psychological Egoism

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1 Introduction to Ethics Lecture 9 Psychological Egoism
By David Kelsey

2 What is Psychological Egoism?
All human actions are motivated by selfish desires. The only thing anyone is capable of desiring as an end in itself is his own self interest. “…men are capable of desiring the happiness of others only when they take it to be a means to their own happiness.” (section 1)

3 Psychological Egoism: description not prescription
Psychological Egoism is a description of human psychology: It isn’t a theory about what ought to be the case but a theory about what, as a matter of fact, is the case. (Section 2) It is a theory of psychological facts, not a prescription of ethical ideals. So psychological egoism tells us that we just do pursue our own self interest because this is how human psychological motivation works. “…all men do as a contingent matter of fact ‘put their own interests first,’” and “they are capable of nothing else, human nature being what it is.” (2)

4 Ethical Egoism & Psychological Egoistic Hedonism
Says all men ought to pursue their own well being. (Section 3) This is a prescription... Psychological Egoistic Hedonism: First developed by Jeremy Bentham Says all persons have only one ultimate motive in all their voluntary behavior: “…the desire to get or to prolong pleasant experiences, and to avoid or to cut short unpleasant experiences for oneself.”(3)

5 Support for Psychological Egoism
According to Feinberg, there are 4 reasons to believe Psychological Egoism is true: Whenever I act I always pursue my own ends or try to satisfy my own desires. (Section 4) In other words, Every action of mine is prompted by motives that are mine. We can then generalize: All men in all their actions are selfish, I.e. pursue their own ends or the satisfaction of their own desires. When one gets what she wants she feels pleasure. (4) Whenever one acts, she does so to pursue her own pleasure.

6 Psychological Egoism & self deception
The truth of Psychological Egoism is revealed by self deception (4): It appears that we often will deceive ourselves into thinking that our motives for action aren’t selfish when in fact they are. “…people tend to conceal their true motives from themselves by camouflaging them with words like ‘virtue,’ ‘duty,’ etc.” (4) Thus, might it not be the case that whenever we think our motives for action aren’t selfish ones that we have just deceived ourselves. “…we might always be deceived when we think motives disinterested and altruistic…” (4).

7 Psychological Egoism & Moral Education
Moral education presupposes Psychological Egoism: Moral education utilizes what Bentham calls the “sanctions of pleasure and pain”. (4) “People in general have been inclined to behave well only when it is made plain to them that there is ‘something in it for them’”. (4)

8 Objections to Psychological Hedonism
The first two motivations for Psychological Egoism are both non sequiturs: 1. The inference from the fact that whenever I act I am prompted by my own motives, to the claim that whenever any man acts he does so for selfish motives is a non sequitur. (section 6) Question: what is a non sequitur? We know that: every voluntary action is prompted by the agent’s own motives. We are mistakenly inferring that: every voluntary action is promoted by motives of a particular kind, I.e. selfish ones.

9 A second non-sequitur 2. It is also a non-sequitur to think that because I feel pleasure when I get what I want, it must be the case that whenever I act I do so for the sake of pleasure. (7) We know that: pleasure is the usual accompaniment of actions We are mistakenly inferring that: when acting what the agent always and only wants is his own pleasure. “The immediate inference from even constant accompaniment to purpose (or motive) is always a non sequitur.” (7)

10 Disinterested Benevolence
Disinterested Benevolence must be possible: The benevolent man does get pleasure from his benevolence, but in most cases this is only because he has a previous desire to help someone or some thing. So in some cases the fact that we get pleasure from a particular action presupposes that we desired something else as an end in itself. Pleasure is then a consequence of the satisfaction of our desire. The Lincoln example: (Section 8) Lincoln hears a pig squealing because her baby pigs had got into the slough and were in danger of drowning. Lincoln ran from his train to lift the pigs out of the mud and water and place them on the bank. Lincoln responds that his action is selfish because if he hadn’t helped the pigs he would have had no peace of mind all day. But if Lincoln hadn’t cared about the welfare of the pigs, then how would he have derived pleasure from helping them?

11 Disinterested Malevolence
Disinterested malevolence must be possible: “To the malevolent man, the injury of others is often an end in itself…” (Section 9) If the malevolent man gets pleasure in harming another person, this pleasure is merely a consequence of the satisfaction of his desire to harm. So the fact that he derives pleasure from harming another must mean that he has the harm as a motive.

12 The Paradox of Hedonism
If one were to only desire one’s own happiness, one would never achieve it. “…when persons deliberately and single-mindedly set off in pursuit of happiness, it vanishes utterly from sight and cannot be captured.” (Section 11) “…the single-minded pursuit of happiness is necessarily self defeating, for the way to get happiness is to forget it.” (11) You can’t just aim to get pleasure itself, for pleasure is only attainable as a result of satisfying a desire for something else. Instead, you must aim to get those things from which you will derive pleasure. Jones (11): Devoid of intellectual curiosity, no aesthetic desires, no desire for physical activity or sport, no interest in politics or helping others & he has no talents. But Jones does have an overwhelming desire for his own happiness. Question: How can Jones achieve happiness for he has no desire to pursue anything which will result in his happiness?

13 Egoistic desires & Morality
Maybe Psychological Hedonism won’t work after all. But can we salvage anything from Psychological Egoism, which will help us learn about morality? One thing we know is that we do have selfish desires: If it isn’t all of our actions that are motivated by self interest, it seems to be a lot of them that are. We do seem to want to maximize the satisfaction of our selfish desires, at least most of the time: 4a and 4b in Feinberg support this! (Section 4) The psychological facts & survival of the fittest...

14 Egoistic desires and avoiding blame
So human beings by nature aim for the actions that will maximize their self interest. But the maximization of self interest is restricted by the desire to avoid Blame for wrong action. There is a social pressure that comes with blame that is very strong. Break a promise or cheat... So we don’t want to break societies mores. Doing wrong and taking blame will further restrict one’s ability to maximize her self interest. Example: you get caught stealing money from your friend or cheating on your girlfriend… Of course, if one does the right thing he or she will receive praise for it. But the maximization of our self interest is restricted. And praise isn’t as motivating as Blame. Examples: you help a friend study versus cheating on an exam… Thus, humans are more interested in avoiding wrong action than pursuing right action.

15 Conclusions about morality
Our conclusion: humans are more interested in avoiding wrong action than pursuing right action. What can we learn from this? It is an interesting question to ask: how are we to decide when and how much to be moral? (from Wolf’s Moral Saints) Our first answer to this question: We may not be as interested in ‘good’ and ‘right’ as our moral theories take us to be. So why not develop theories about ‘evil’ and ‘wrong’ and ‘blame’. Why not build a moral theory that better molds to the psychological laws? One that allows for us to be the self interested agents that we are?

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