Psychological Egoism and Altruism

A recent article on the pretentiously-titled blog Big Think was brought to my attention by someone who read one of my articles on altruism. Unlike many articles which take the existence of altruism for granted, this piece discusses whether or not altruism is even possible. I think reviewing this article is instructive because the author falls into many of the same pitfalls that I typically see in the discussion of this issue.

The first thing to note is that this article is not unique in its approach to the question of what altruism is, and whether altruism is good. To the lay thinker, altruism is roughly synonymous with the concept of “benevolence” or “goodwill,” and the author takes a similar point of view.

Unfortunately, this is not the proper referent for the term “altruism.” The term altruism was coined by the French philosopher Auguste Comte in the 19th century when he founded his philosophy of “positivism.” Comte famously believed that mankind required an ethical system filled with the same pomp and decorum as organized religion, but without the overt mysticism that plagued traditional religion. Man requires rituals and hierarchy to have meaning in his life, Comte said and believed that man requires something greater than himself to serve to be moral. Comte called this the “Religion of Humanity” and went so far as to emulate the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Here is an excerpt from the positivist creed (taken from the Wikipedia article on altruism):

“The social point of view cannot tolerate the notion of rights, for such notion rests on individualism. We are born under a load of obligations of every kind, to our predecessors, to our successors, to our contemporaries. After our birth these obligations increase or accumulate, for it is some time before we can return any service… This [“to live for others”], the definitive formula of human morality, gives a direct sanction exclusively to our instincts of benevolence, the common source of happiness and duty. [Man must serve] Humanity, whose we are entirely.”

The word “altruism” literally means “otherism,” the essence of which is to live for others, not merely to say hi every morning to people on your morning commute or to hold a door open for someone when their hands are full.

The article makes the mistake of equating altruism with benevolence right at the outset. “Given how we typically view altruistic people favorably,” the article says, “it is easy to understand why many ethical systems and religions would give altruism, the concern for the well-being of others, a place of honor.”

After it firmly cements this error in place, the article continues with a discussion of the doctrine of psychological egoism. Psychological egoism is the view that man is selfish by nature and that because people are ultimately motivated on some level to do everything that they do, everyone is selfish.

As stated in the article:

“Every philosophy 101 professor has heard the argument before:

  1. We act as we are motivated to by our desires.
  2. When we act on our desires, we are seeking the feeling of satisfaction that comes from fulfilling them.
  3. Since feeling satisfied benefits us, all actions have some level of self-interest to them.

If this argument is correct, then when I do something altruistic, saving a drowning child, for example, I am at least partially doing it because I need to fulfill my desire. Because of this, I cannot claim to have been entirely altruistic, if I can say I was altruistic at all!”

The article accurately summarizes the psychological egoist position that people act according to their whims and desires, and that ultimately all justifications for action are rationalizations. It then goes on to provide the typical “philosophy 101” counterarguments to psychological egoism.

The first problem with psychological egoism, according to the article, is that it is unfalsifiable. If you find an example of someone that you believe to be acting altruistically, the psychological egoist can always dredge up some hidden motivation that makes the action “selfish” despite all appearances to the contrary:

“If you say that a person helped a drowning pig out of real concern for the animal, the egoist could say they only did it to soothe their conscience. If you suggest Jonas Salk really did care about others when he refused to profit off the polio vaccine, the egoist can propose that he only wanted to look good. Since a person just trying to look good by taking a seemingly altruistic action wouldn’t admit it, it is impossible to disprove that they have this egotistical motivation…Such a view also doesn’t really tell us very much, if it just restates how everybody thinks already.”

This is correct, as far as it goes, but it does not get to the crux of the matter. The psychological egoist could retort that the argument is no less valid if one can apply it out of context and reach odd conclusions.

A second objection raised by the article tries to logically refute psychological egoism by pointing out that there are some actions which people do to obtain long-range goals that do not take into account the person’s current feelings.

The example that the article cites (taken from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) argues that a parent who makes concessions today to ensure their child’s future prosperity will not be around to experience the positive emotions associated with actually seeing their child prosper.

This type of objection, though, would not make a psychological egoist bat an eyelash. All they would need to say is that the vision of their child succeeding is providing them positive emotional benefits now, and so their original argument remains intact. As a counterexample to this point, consider a person that mails a check for all that they are worth to someone that they think needs it. They are not present to see the rapture on the recipient’s face when that person opens the envelope with the money in it, but the action is no less motivated by what the person thinks the recipient will look like when they get the gift.

Having delivered what he thinks is a devastating critique of the psychological egoist position (even though it isn’t), the author concludes his essay with the obligatory modern appeal to science as an authority on the matter:

“A study that used MRI machines to map the responses of brains to altruistic behavior found that several parts of our brain are involved in making altruistic decisions. Altruistic giving lights up the part of our brains associated with emotional processing, mentalizing and perspective taking, self/other discernment, and our reward centers…These findings suggest that our brains get some reward for altruistic behavior, even if the motivation was selfless.”

After a brief nod to “the selfish gene” and an appeal to some other authority on a study in empathy, the author concludes that the jury is out on whether or not altruism exists:

“While the question of if we can act out of pure altruistic concern for others remains unsettled, our admiration for those who seem to remains well established. It may be some time before we know for sure if anybody can truly be altruistic. In the meanwhile, it can’t hurt to presume it’s real.”

That last line suggests that though the author cannot tell us whether altruism is real, all he can say is that if it does exist it is a good thing.

Psychological egoism is false, but not for the reasons mentioned in this piece. The fatal mistake that the author makes is in failing to challenge a fundamental claim that the psychological egoist raises in his third premise, which is that “feeling satisfied benefits us.” The proper response to this is that emotions are not mechanisms for reaching ethical conclusions, because whether something is good for you is an objective question that requires the use of a reality-oriented scientific process and personal whims have nothing to do with it.

Consider a person who never calls out sick and prides themselves on being too tough to take any sick days. If one day that person coughs up blood and experiences fevered chills, it is objectively good for them to get it checked out by a doctor and take an appropriate antibiotic, even if they feel like a “wuss” for doing so.

Or consider most cases of drug abuse. An addict might think that snorting cocaine feels good in the moment, but it wrecks havoc on their health and often results in them wasting all of their money if they get addicted to it. Drug addiction is bad for you, objectively, and your feelings are wrong if they have a different assessment.

This observation cuts both ways since things that we experience as negative can be objectively good for us, too. Exercise is like this since it is often painful at the time it happens even though it strengthens your body over time. If you go to the dentist to get your teeth cleaned or a cavity filled, you are enduring short-term pain for a long-range benefit. Or just consider the last time you had a difficult talk with a therapist or significant other and got something weighty off your chest: it may have been hard, but the proper thing to do was to address it and not to let it fester in your subconscious.

The principle is clear: Just because something is painful, doesn’t mean it is objectively bad for you. To say that a person is selfish is to hold that they are the beneficiary of their action. As a prerequisite for this, the action in question must actually benefit you.

Psychological egoism is false, and altruism does exist because people act contrary to their self-interest whenever they sacrifice one of their values for lesser or non-values. As a code of ethics that has been practiced and endorsed for centuries by nearly every philosopher and theologian since Plato, altruism has encouraged people to act not for their own benefit but for the benefit of others. People try to follow it to varying degrees, but nobody can practice it consistently and live to tell the tale.