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Psychological Egoism

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Psychological egoism is the theory that voluntary actions are always motivated by a reward to oneself, whether directly or indirectly. Some people immediately object to the theory because there are plenty of cases where people help others when there seems to be no reward. A proponent of psychological egoism would stress that there seems to be no reward, and that the person is in fact benefiting in some way. In many cases, the proponent of psychological egoism would offer that the "good feeling" a person gets after helping someone is the reward they were seeking, and thus the reason they helped the other person. Another possibility is that a person will help someone else because he or she sees some future benefit for helping, such as future protection. Ultimately, psychological egoism sees any kind of voluntary action as selfish in nature.

Hobbes believed that men with complete freedom, in the absence of government or a police force, are in the "State of Nature." The state of nature is an amoral state in which there is no just and unjust because there is nothing to hold men to such standards. It is a state of complete chaos in a world of moderate scarcity. Because there are no rules for morality, the drive for self-preservation reigns supreme in our actions. Thus, if two men independently discover a food source sufficient for one, they will inevitably fight over the food. In the absence of a moral code, it is likely that one man will kill the other to ensure his own life and meal. Not only does he get the food, but the other competitor is no longer able to challenge him in the future and the victor has secured his self-preservation for the time being. Hobbes argues that in the state of nature, men seek power in order to acquire and protect objects of their desires and ensure security from others. The easiest method of obtaining power in the state of nature is violence, because, according to Hobbes, men are roughly equal in strength and intelligence in the sense that the weakest is strong enough to kill the strongest under the right conditions. If you think someone is going to kill you or take what you have, you will attack preemptively to protect your desire for self-preservation. Killing the would-be attacker is a voluntary action motivated by self-interest and Hobbes argues that in the "voluntary acts of every man, the object is some good to himself."

In the state of nature, every man has a right to everything as long as he is able to protect it. If everyone is also acting in self-interest, conflicts will inevitably arise when multiple people desire the same object, be it power, food, mate, etc. Without an outside power to prove and punish wrongdoings, people will likely choose violence to attain or protect desires.

The state of nature is a state of war of all against all, regardless of the validity of psychological egoism. Without a power capable of creating laws and enforcing "just" punishment, people who desire some object in another's possession will seek to "kill, subdue, supplant, or repel" the person. Other people will not be able to secure their livelihood or possessions unless they "kill, subdue, supplant, or repel" the people who want what they have. The reason the state of nature leads to such war is not psychological egoism but the absence of laws and protection. Even if psychological egoism is false, enough individuals will still act in self-interest and, in the absence of a moral code, will engage in behavior detrimental to others and ultimately lead to conflict and war. Psychological egoism intensifies the state of war of all against all but is not necessary.

A common criticism of the theory of psychological egoism is the presence of seemingly altruistic acts, that is, people acting in a manner that does not appear to benefit them. A common example is the soldier that jumps onto a grenade to save the lives of his comrades. Does it really benefit the soldier to sacrifice his life for his comrades? Surely sacrificing himself does not help the soldier in terms of self-preservation. This is when a proponent of psychological egoism would argue that even though the soldier's action seems altruistic in nature, the act is still ultimately motivated by self-interest, and that the soldier sacrificed himself because it gave him some sort of good feeling. It is impossible to prove, though, that the soldier does in fact get a good feeling from sacrificing himself because there is no way to measure such a feeling.

Some people feel the soldier example or any other act of altruism provides a counterexample to psychological egoism, and since it is a theory on human nature, even one counterexample disproves the theory. I can see how, at first glance, the example of the soldier seems to disprove psychological egoism. The soldier does not receive any kind of permanent reward nor does he protect his desire for self-preservation. And even though you cannot measure feelings, does the soldier not have them? When I think of "some good to himself," I cannot help but wonder what is meant by some good. Does the reward for an action need to be something tangible?



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