Egoism is generally the view that human wants are in some way relevant to what humans do. Not long ago, ethical egoism was defended as a scientifically consistent moral position that cohered with the reality of psychological egoism in humans. Because of the similarity and compatibility between these two views, they are often confused and used interchangeably. There is a danger in this mistake, and it is important to recognize the distinction between these positions so that the line between what humans do and what they ought to do is maintained. While descriptions of human motivational states are relevant to ethical theorizing, it is problematic to shift from the descriptive to the normative without argument, and muddling the distinction between these positions leads to greater susceptibility to this type of error.
First, we need to clarify the difference between these positions. Psychological egoism is a descriptive view about what human motivation is like. It states that humans act to fulfill their wants and desires. If Johnny eats a greasy fast-food meal, a ready explanation for this event is that he had a desire to do so, and acted to fulfill that desire. This position is neutral with regard to whether Johnny’s actions are right, it simply seeks to explain why a person would be motivated to act in a particular way by connecting actions to wants and desires.
Ethical egoism is a normative position stating that humans ought to seek the fulfillment of their wants and desires. If Johnny wants to tell a lie in order to benefit in some way, ethical egoism states that this is the right thing for Johnny to do. The obvious criticism here is that many human wants are not morally desirable courses of action, but the ethical egoist will respond that if everyone followed ethical egoism, mutual self-interest creates a counter-balance against excessive wrongdoing. Further, if psychological egoism is true, ethical egoism makes a lot of sense.
If psychological egoism is an accurate depiction of human behavior, the attraction of ethical egoism is obvious. It is an ethical theory that is consistent with the human motivational structure, and with modern sciences. It requires no heroic ethical restraint on our part, only a staunch commitment to seeking our own ends. It is a viewpoint that even the most self-interested person can get behind, and if psychological egoism is true, alternative moral viewpoints seem dangerously misguided.
Despite this apparent compatibility, we should be cautious in moving from psychological egoism to ethical egoism. First, it is not clear that psychological egoism actually is true, and many philanthropic and other-directed behaviors seem to require radical reinterpretation in order to cohere with this explanatory model. Further, even if psychological egoism were true, it’s not clear why what is the case has any bearing on what we ought to do. The fact that I am motivated to act in my own self-interest does not entail that I ought to do so. Perhaps this is simply an explanation of why it is hard to be ethical sometimes, rather than an endorsement of ethical egoism. At a minimum, the shift from the descriptive to the normative requires justification, and simply pointing out what is the case is not sufficient argumentation.
The distinction between ethical and psychological egoism leads to an important realization about ethics. Doing the right thing is hard, and there are aspects of our own nature that lead us to sometimes struggle with doing what is right. However, it is a mistake to respond to this challenge by rejecting the task of ethical conduct altogether, and that is essentially what ethical egoism endorses. Being ethical means being able to set self-interest aside and think of others as legitimate moral agents with the same standing as your own. Regardless of what human psychology might be, that is no excuse for ignoring the moral considerability of others.
About the Author
Eli Weber is a PhD student at Bowling Green State University, working primarily in ethics and philosophy of the emotions. He holds Master's degrees in philosophy from Bowling Green and Colorado State University. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife Laura, his son Brandon, and two cats.