Modern Ethical Theories Psychological Egoism vs. Ethical Egoism When we discuss modern ethics there are two theories that emerge above all others and although both are supported they are often controversial in nature. Ethical Egoism states that we should put ourselves and our interests before those of others leading to the conclusion that if we do things that are only in our own self interest then we have achieved morality. Psychological Egoism presumes that we always put ourselves and our interests before others and that every act is motivated only by our own self interest.
Even when an act appears on the surface to be totally unselfish it is in all reality a selfish act. Simply feeling good about doing an “unselfish act” makes it selfish. Ethical and Psychological Egoism may seem similar at first glance but they are actually quite different. We will discuss these two theories and their differences, compare the doctrines of motivation for both and discuss selfishness and self interest. Let’s first take a look at the fallacy of Psychological Egoism.
The fallacy of Psychological Egoism is the belief that people are only motivated by self interest but as we all know there are many things that can motivate people to do things. Take for instance the seven deadly sins; sloth, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed, and pride. Any one of these can be a motivating factor. So it is easy to see that the fallacy of Psychological Egoism is the erroneous belief that the only motivating factor is self interest. Furthermore you can never know without doubt that you are acting in your definitive self interest because your actions could have undesired results in the future.
Psychological Egoism fails without the ‘method of reinterpreting motives’ (Rachels, 1995). Now that we know the shortcomings of Psychological Egoism let’s discuss the versions of Ethical Egoism. Ethical Egoism has a strong version and a weak version. Simply put the strong version states that it is always moral to act in your own self interest. The weak version states that while it is always moral to act in your own self interest it is not necessarily immoral if you do not act in your own self interest. Basically there are times where it is more important to disregard your own self interest and in doing so you are making the moral decision.
So what exactly is the difference between Ethical and Psychological Egoism? Psychological Egoism is a descriptive view about human motivation and says we must be selfish and act in our own self interest. It is the extreme viewpoint that all our acts are selfish and that no matter how altruistic and act may appear it is not really altruistic at all. It maintains that all our actions are selfish and that given a choice we will always disregard others and do what is best for ourselves. An example of this theory would be as follows: If I found something of value that was lost and I keep it for myself I do so out of self interest.
However if I returned the valuable item to its owner this action is also out of self interest because I might value the recognition of being an honest person more so then the valuable item. So no matter what act I choose, I choose it out of self interest. Under psychological egoism, this seemingly selfless act is turned into a selfish act. Ethical egoism is a normative position which in contrast to Psychological Egoism says all our actions should be in our own self interest, it does not take such an extremist view in regards to the way we act.
In Ethical Egoism one can do something simply because he believes that it is the right thing to do. “If the egoist genuinely believes that doing harm to others is fine, then there is no way to convince him otherwise because that is his fundamental attitude toward life. ” (Philosophy 102: Introduction to Philosophical Inquiry). Both theories also differ in their doctrines of motivation. Ethical Egoism looks at things the way they should be and is motivated by the belief that self interest and morality are one in the same thereby in the quest for one you obtain both.
Psychological Egoism is motivated by selfishness and seeks only to explain why something was done and does not take into account whether it is right or wrong. We have been dealing with Psychological Egoism and Ethical Egoism, selfishness and self interest. Let’s quickly discuss the difference between the latter. There is a simple clear difference between selfishness and self interest. Self Interest is performing an act that is in your best interest but you may not be the only one that benefits from your actions.
For example the act of going to work is in your best interest because you make money and can in turn buy things you want or need, but your employer also benefits because you are performing the work they need done. So going to work is not a selfish act. Selfishness is doing something solely for yourself with total disregard for others and the only one who benefits from this action is you. Using our workplace example let’s say you go to the supply closet and take all the supplies back to your office so you can have them all and no one lse will be able to use them. That is a selfish act. In conclusion we find that although these two theories may seem similar at first glance they are actually quite different. One takes a non-normative view focusing only on how things are and the other a normative view on how things should be. Reference: Rachels, J. (2003). The elements of moral philosophy (4th ed. , pp. 72-78). New York: McGraw-Hill. Philosophy 102: introduction to philosophical inquiry. (n. d. ). Retrieved May 13, 2009, from http://philosophy. lander. edu/intro/rachels. html.