Philosophy – Psychological Egoism

As human beings it is in our nature to be driven by self-interest. This is where the view of psychological egoism derives from. Even though it may seem like we are taking part in an unselfish act, in different ways it can also be considered selfish. It is because of this view that morality is needed in society in order for us to live in harmony with one another. In this essay I will discuss how it is possible to reconcile egoism with morality and why we should be moral due to our psychological egoism. These discussion points include; the social contract, importance of morals not governed and the prisoner’s dilemma theory.

Throughout my argument I will refer to Thomas Hobbes’ idea of social contract theory explained in depth in James Rachels’ book The Elements of Moral Philosophy as it is an important concept in understanding the view of psychological egoism. Additionally, I will also discuss Peter Singer’s view point on acting morally from his book Practical Ethics. Having morals in society is very important to our well-being and harmony due to our psychological egoism. In order to understand this fully we need to consider how our society would be like without morals.

Without having a government enforcing rules and laws on us we would all live freely and selfishly to please ourselves and not think about others. Thomas Hobbes called this the state of nature. (Rachels, 1999: 144). If we think about how society would function under these circumstances it wouldn’t be a very nice place to live in. This is mainly due to everybody striving to have the same needs – needs which cannot be sort out equally to one another. This is where our society begins to get very tricky. We all need food, clothes and shelter – however, there is no unlimited supply of these things for us.

This is where it is in our nature to act in our own self-interest. There begins to be a competition for these needs and very rarely can we depend on others to help us out if we are in need. Therefore, the only way we as a society can function rationally and normally is by firstly agreeing to get a long and not to harm one another. Hobbes called this the social contract (Rachels, 1999: 146) and Rachels went on to say “It is obvious, for example, that we could not live together very well if we did not accept rules prohibiting murder, assault, theft, lying, breaking promises, and the like” (Rachels,1999: 146).

However, in order for this to be enforced we need a Government protecting us with laws for those who do not cooperate. This then allows us to distribute ourselves to acquire different jobs and roles in society – e. g. builders, doctors, politicians etc. By doing so, we all create a society in which we all interconnect and rely upon each other in different situations and thus the goods that we all strive for increase and are distributed more evenly throughout society. This proves we can reconcile egoism with morals.

This is because we are agreeing to work with each other and to take into consideration other people’s needs instead of worrying about our own self-interests only. Rachels mentions this also saying “We agree to follow the moral rules because it is to our own advantage to live in a society which the rules are accepted” (Rachels, 1999: 152) . This is one reason why I agree and believe we should be moral – because if we all thought about ourselves we would have a very unjust and unequal society. If there are no laws in society guarding our self-interest and helping us co-operate our society would very much become a farce.

Therefore if we all follow the rules we will all benefit from living in a just society where we all gain our needs in a much more pleasant manner, whilst still getting along with one another. Next, I will discuss the importance of morals not governed by rules or laws. Now that I have set out how society would be like without laws or rules and why we need to have them in place due to our psychological egoism it is easier to comprehend other ideas. I mentioned above that without morals we would only think of ourselves. This is true, but even with morals, we still act in ways to please ourselves.

An interesting example would be giving money to charity. To many people this would very much seem like an innocent and unselfish act. But if you think about why you are giving money to charity our psychological egoism begins to unravel. We begin to forget the reason for giving money to charity and only think about how we will look to others and making ourselves feel better about ourselves. Peter Singer believes this also when he says “People might give money to famine relief because their friends will think better of them, or they might give the same amount because they think it is their duty. ” (Singer, 1979: 323).

In saying that, those who are in need are still benefiting, even though we are acting in our own self-interests we are still giving up something (money) which is something we all desire. What makes this example even more intriguing is it is not something which is governed by laws – we don’t have to give money to charity. Therefore we are reconciling our psychological egoism with our own morals. These types of morals, according to Rachels “have only a doubtful claim on us” (Rachels, 1999: 152) meaning these types of morals are much harder to follow because there are no rewards or consequences to them.

One might question why be moral if you don’t need to be? Well in this circumstance if you help others out, if you were in the same situation you would like to know that somebody is going to act in the moral way as well and help you out. I agree with this because I would like to think that in society if you do one good deed it will eventually get back to you. That’s why it’s nice to be able to do good gestures to people even though you may not benefit from it entirely. In my final point I will discuss the Prisoner’s Dilemma example made by Hobbes in understanding how it affects our psychological egoism and how it can be reconciled with morals.

Thomas Hobbes gives us another example as to how it can be to our benefit to not act selfish in his Prisoner’s Dilemma argument. To sum up this argument – it is about how two men have been arrested and are being questioned for the same crime that they supposedly did together – but neither of them had done anything. They both have two options each – if you confess and the other person doesn’t confess you will be set free and the other person will receive 10 years. If you both confess you receive five years each. If the other person confesses and you do not you receive 10 years while the other none.

If both of you do not confess you will both receive one year. The problem is they cannot communicate with each other, so the other person will not know what the other is going to do. Naturally, in this situation both would want to confess in hope the other person won’t – because that would give them the best possible outcome. However, if both of them confess they are both going to get five years – which isn’t the best outcome. In this situation the best option is to not confess – even though it may not seem like the best option to take for our own interest.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a great example to represent how we can reconcile our egoism with morality. It shows how it is in our nature not to take into consideration other people’s interests even though in some cases, especially in the Prisoner’s Dilemma’s case it can be of benefit to us. This is backed up with Rachels stating “You will both be better off if you simultaneously do what is not in your own individual self-interests” (Rachels, 1999: 149). We seem to think that because something is benefitting somebody else it is not going to be any help or interest to ourselves, which is not true.

It is because of this reason that Hobbes is trying to get across to us that we should be moral. If we try to stop being so self-interested, it not only allows for us to live in a much nicer world, but it allows us to appreciate the people around us. This is why I agree with this point of being moral. Even though we want to be able to only please ourselves, it can sometimes be to our detriment. Constantly thinking about yourself can get very lonely and thus respecting others can allow us to feel much more satisfied with our lives knowing that we are appreciated by other people as well.

In conclusion our psychological egoism is something which we cannot control entirely. We need rules and laws to help us not to always act selfish; however we cannot always rely on them. We must take our own initiative and act in good faith sometimes even though we are not forced to by laws. Taking this initiative will eventually help us when we are in moral dilemmas.

BIBLIOGRAPHY 1. Rachels, James (1999), ‘The Idea of a Social Contract’, The Elements of Moral Philosophy. 3rd Edition. ed. (Boston: McGraw Hill). 2. Singer, Peter (1979), ‘Why Act Morally? ’, Practical Ethics. 1st. ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).