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Psychological Egoism Vs. Ethical Egoism: Let's Analyze Both

Psychological Egoism Vs. Ethical Egoism
In layman's terms, egoism comes into play when the end justifies the means; because the word has a negative connotation by and large. Psychological egoism and ethical egoism are two doctrines that analyze and study the cause and driving force behind any action taken by man. Buzzle presents a comparison of these two philosophies with the help of examples.
Neha Gohad
Last Updated: Jun 3, 2018
Did You Know?
Ayn Rand was an advocate of ethical egoism. She developed the philosophical system of 'objectivism', which is based on individualism, propagated in her novels 'The Fountainhead' and 'Atlas Shrugged'.
"Why don't you tell me what you think of me?" asks Toohey, the altruist, to Roark, the individualist in Ayn Rand's 'The Fountainhead'. "But I don't think of you.", replies Roark. This conversation epitomizes Egoism. A much debated moral school of thought; which exalts selfishness.

The dictionary meaning of 'selfishness' is concerned primarily with one's own interests.Egoism is closely related to individualism. On the whole, it is the opposite of altruism. "No man should live for the sake of others" is the gist of Egoism. Austrian-British philosopher Karl Popper formulated the notion of 'Psychological Egoism'. Aristotle is the earliest known proponent of 'Ethical Egoism'. To compare psychological egoism vs. ethical egoism, let us take a closer look at each philosophy in detail.
Psychological Egoism
According to psychological egoism, selfishness is the motive behind every act of humans. It is a descriptive claim, i.e., it states the motive for the act and not the cause for the motive. Even altruistic acts like helping a person in distress are argued to be driven by personal gains; like the 'helper's high', i.e., a feel-good satisfaction the act gives, or it helps improve the reputation of the benefactor. An 'egotist' is a person who only cares about his or her own gain, and already has an exaggerated self-image. Though controversial, critics and proponents of this philosophy have been arguing about it for long. Given below are a few examples that further illustrate the concept.
  • A psychological egoist would argue that a soldier sacrifices his life for the sake of his country; only in order to avoid the guilt he would have, if he did not.
  • A particular form of psychological egoism is 'psychological hedonism', which projects that all voluntary human actions are motivated by a desire to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Sigmund Freud's 'pleasure principle' is largely based on this theory. The phrase 'let them eat cake' can be termed as psychological hedonism.
  • Every act of altruism is rejected as having a selfish motive behind it, in psychological egoism.
Ethical Egoism
According to Ethical Egoism, every act ought to be in man's own self-interest. It is a normative claim, meaning it states the cause behind the action. It rejects altruism. An example given in Ayn Rand's 'The Virtue of Selfishness' explains this better. An industrialist who produces a fortune is not the same as a robber who robs a bank. Though the motive behind both acts is self-interest, the difference in both cases is what they chose to value. An 'egoist' practices ethical egoism. He works at becoming a better person by investing efforts in himself. To further understand this concept, here are a few examples.
  • An ethical egoist would hold it morally right if you helped in renovating a local sports stadium than donate for a flood relief fund elsewhere.
  • A private railroad making profit and running more successfully than a nationalized railroad in the benefit of the state, is an instance of ethical egoism.
  • An ethical egoist would choose what he wants as a career, rather than what his parents or society wants. For instance, choosing art over the more 'sophisticated' profession of architecture.
  • The theory of psychological egoism is non-falsifiable. The benefactor's own self interest is the only answer to every question asked.
  • Psychological egoists say that we often deceive ourselves about our selfish motives. This argument seems to be based on mistaken reductionism.
  • Ethical egoism is prone to self-contradiction. For example, helping people only when there is a possibility of reciprocation is not truly in our own self-interest; as the egoist might not find help later when in need.
Thus, psychological egoism can be termed as a partial truth, as purely altruistic acts do exist according to philosophers. Ethical egoism, over all, states that self-actualization is the ultimate goal of every human act, through the pursuit of self-interest.