Psychological Egoism

Some time ago, a debate raged across Catallarchy and Crooked Timber about whether psychological egoism was true. A standard objection to the doctrine is that there is no conceivable action which couldn't be ultimatle selfish, thus it is simply a tautology, akin to "a triangle is a 3 sided figure." I think this objection fails because there is an action which is inconsistent with psychological egoism.

Imagine a man who is on the verge of suicide. He literally has a cocked and loaded gun in his mouth with his finger on the trigger. As he begins to squeeze the trigger, he realizes that he has no life insurance policy, has racked up $20,000 in debt, and would leave the entire mess to his wife if he killed himself. Out of concern for his wife, he takes the gun out of his mouth and decides to continue living.

The psychological egoist has a major problem with this thought experiment because it doesn't seem as if the man could possibly be acting out of his own self interest. His wife's predicament should play no role in his decision if he is an egoist. Even if he would feel guilty for hurting his wife or acting immorally, he can't feel these feelings if he is dead. If death is better than living before the realization, then death must be better after the realization.

One could object that he is worried about his potential afterlife. Realizing that hurting his wife could land him in hell, the man might be avoiding the lesser of two evils. This objection fails, however, because suicide could land him in hell. If the man was worried about going to hell, he wouldn't have tried to commit suicide in the first place.

The interesting thing about this thought experiment is that it isn't so much a thought experiment as history. The man is still alive and a friend of my adviser, who told me the story earlier today (minor details have been changed), which means that psychological egoism must be false. Or not, any objections? Comments?

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Agree but disagree - egoism wrong, but argument can be answered

I don't subscribe to psychological egoism and certainly not to psychological hedonism. However, your particular argument is undermined by the idea of a commitment strategy. Or, at least, if psychological egoism as it stands does not resist your argument, a more sophisticated version of egoism resists your argument.

Stipulate that love is a commitment that once entered into is fully binding (psychologically impossible to break). In particular, to love someone is to behave with pure altruism towards that person.

If we analyze this situation you've described as the man loving his wife, then we may say, "he is not doing this for himself but for his wife". However, let us step back and ask ourselves, how did it come about that this man came to love his wife and to behave with pure altruism towards her? It may be that he came to love her in order to win her hand in marriage. It is not unreasonable to suppose that it is possible for a woman to tell whether a man loves her. Thus, in order to win her hand, a man must come to love her. He must fully bind himself to her welfare, to putting her welfare above his own.

It may be, then, that he came to love her for his own selfish reasons. Maybe he wanted her to be his wife, and he was willing to bind himself to altruism in order to get her. So now he loves her and he puts her welfare above his own, but he made the choice to enter into this altruistic state of mind while he was still acting in his own self-interest, and he chose it for his own selfish reasons. So his altruistic state is the consequence of a self-interested choice that he made.

Everything that he now does while in this altruistic state is in a sense, then, done in exchange for having won her hand. It is done ultimately for himself. I am not saying that he is currently making selfish choices, but that his current altruistic actions are the result of his having, in the past, selfishly fallen in love with her in order to win her hand. They are part of the payment that he effectively made back in the past when he, for his own selfish reasons, came to love her.

A subject sure beats the first few lines of the post

@Constant: Your commitment strategy story seems implausible because the man's love for his wife should prevent him from committing suicide in the first place. The wife would probably feel extreme psychological distress, and a husband committed to loving his wife would avoid that possibility. You could argue that in this particular case the husband realized the material troubles his suicide would cause his wife before the psychological troubles. I don't know whether this is the case in the story I related, but at least it allows psychological egoism to be falsifiable (in principle).

That being said, there may be another commitment strategy which can explain the action in terms of egoism. Any ideas?

@Steve: It is important to remember that the 'selfish' in 'selfish gene' is simply an evolutionary metaphor. A gene can't actually be selfish because it can't have motivations. Thus a biologically 'selfish' act can at the same time be motivated by a sense of duty or altruism.


Minor tweaking - left as an exercise

I think I addressed the main point. Tweaking my hypothetical creature's mentality to exactly match the detailed behavior of your friend seems best left as an exercise for the reader. :-)

The Selfish Gene, not the Selfish Individual

If you look at things from the perspective of the man's genes, not killing himself may be selfish in that killing himself may hurt the survival chances of the other copies of those genes in his children. And if he has no children, then it certainly in their interest to keep him alive.

Given number of genes in any individual and the amount of genetic similarity between all humans (and all life on earth), altruism can always be viewed as the selfish activity of some set of genes. There is practically no non-selfish actions, only actions that selfishly favor different sets of genes.

One can very well desire

One can very well desire thing for his own pleasure even though they may only happen in the future. For example, asking that a huge statute be raised in one's honor after one's death is certainly a selfish act. This is no different, the husbands takes immediate comfort in knowing that his wife's future will be safe and he does not want to sacrifice that current comfort for the pleasure of ending other discomforts.

When you talk about

When you talk about psychological egoism you have to define the terms of self interest.
Now as to your hypothetical there are number of possible ways around it -

a) psychologically as we can't envisage death we always project ourself forward to the moment of consequence. So a dying man who puts a bomb in the locker of his enemy derives pleasure out of it, even though he knows he will die before it comes to fruition.

b) The man perhaps fancies himself as a sly provider - and knows that in this instance he shall surely live up to his reputation. he derives immediate pleasure from that even though again - the act has yet to be fully realized.

The act the pleasure the drive and the consequent are all separate things here - to what extent they inform each other, is the interesting part of the question - and one that your example doesn't seem to shed any light on.

Also in your example it seems that the man has relatively little to lose - a medium amount to gain.
He will lose perhaps a few days of agony if he commits suicide, but he will gain a sense of pleasure knowing that he has provided for his wife, or that people shall think of him as a crafty bastard.
So it seems to break down into largely academic discussion as to how you can draw the line.

Quick note - if someone wishes to be known as an academic - it seems in their own self interest to study and write - even if this doesn't immediately bring them pleasure (though you'd think it would).
The question is not pleasure and pain - it's harmonizing ideal ego with action - to live and be the person you would like to be. This is rational, and this is all the weaker forms of psychological egoism suggest.

You're situation doesn't even touch this as the projected ego is not immediate - it is a larger construction informed by yourself and your social context.

Are egoists supposed to be infallible... weighing their own interests?

I don't see any philosophical problem here if they are not.

Let's say an egoist wants to invest his savings as profitably can between two investment options. To imagine he cannot err seems silly.