Psychological egoism: Vested Interests

Topics: EthicsVirtue

Psychological egoism claims that human nature is such that we cannot help but pursue our self-interest, we are biologically and psychologically disposed to behave in this way. It is a fact that we automatically act to promote our own interest and we cannot do otherwise. This theory highlights a strength of egoism as a whole, and it also explains ethical motivation. I act morally because it benefits me, and furthers my own life. It places human actions firmly and consistently within the natural world: like all plants and creatures, we seek or own good.

This is a convincing answer to the question – ‘why be moral? ‘, and this theory also agreements with the statement expressed in the question. Psychological egoism claims that even if something is morally right, we have no motive to perform it unless it benefits us and furthers our own life. However, it could be argued that being moral simply requires us to conform with moral rules or be a ‘virtuous character’ – and there is nothing to specifically say that following moral rules or being virtuous will not be of benefit for us.

An example could be used is the moral rule that it is wrong for us to steal – a psychological egoist may claim that it is in our best interest to steal as it enables us to have anything whenever we want, but then it could be said that it is in our interest not to steal (therefore conforming with moral rules) so we do not go to prison if we are caught.

Get quality help now
Dr. Karlyna PhD

Proficient in: Ethics

4.7 (235)

“ Amazing writer! I am really satisfied with her work. An excellent price as well. ”

+84 relevant experts are online
Hire writer

As an illustration in relation to being virtuous, imagine a soldier on the front line who gives his life in order to save others – although this would be seen by the majority of people as a good or ‘virtuous’ action, it does not help him to be happy or flourish.

In order for psychological egoism to maintain its theory regarding an incident like the soldier, the situation and circumstances would have to be stretched so far as to say in the spur of the moment, the soldier was in fact not thinking about the welfare of others, but instead something along the lines of ‘if I give my life, then I might be in the newspaper tomorrow’ – this is undeniably absurd, why would the soldier even consider what the newspapers might say about him if he would be dead anyway?

This is where virtue ethics comes into play, however opponents of virtue ethics may argue that the soldier could have already flourished or reached ‘eudaimonia’ (a theory made famous by Aristotle, which I will mention later) when he made the decision, although this may also be countered by saying that there is no way of knowing when you have become ‘virtuous’, and that all of your choices are moral.

On the other hand, it could be said that virtue ethics provides a better and more ‘true-to-life’ way of looking at the situation of the soldier giving his life for others, and virtue ethics as opposed to egoism disagrees with the statement that is put forward in the question, and famous philosophers like Plato and Aristotle believe that something being morally right does give us motive to perform it. They believe this because virtue ethics claims that our main aim in life is to be truly happy, but we will only be able to do this if we are completely balanced.

Our true happiness comes with the conviction that by being moral we will achieve a flouring and fulfilling life, as well as the knowledge that we are contributing to a flourishing community. They believe we are happier around positive and supportive people but an egoist would not be able to do this. For Aristotle, there is an aim (or telos in Greek) for everything that we do. Like by me writing this essay, my telos is that you will gain a clear understanding of whether something being moral gives you a motive to perform it.

According to Aristotle, we have two types of aims: superior aims and subordinate aims. An illustration that could be used is that attending my lessons at college (which is my subordinate aim) will get me good A-level results and those results will help me to get into the university of my choice which will help me to be happy, and for Aristotle everyone’s final, superior aim is happiness. However the word we should use for happiness in Aristotle’s theory is eudaimonia, which could be described as ‘living well’ or ‘flourishing’, not just for yourself but for society.

He also believed in moral virtues such as courage, temperance, ambition, truthfulness and modesty. He believed that for all of these virtues, that if you had too much or too little of them then you had a problem. For example, having too much courage could be linked back to the soldier situation from earlier on – although it could be said the soldier had too much courage anyway to join the army, he also had too much courage (therefore being rash) in the situation and did not think before he decided to give his life for others and did not think about what impact it may have on himself or e. . his family. Aristotle uses the term ‘The Golden Mean’ to suggest the idea we should follow some kind of middle way between too much and too little of the virtues.

Aristotle also believes in intellectual virtues, which are: technical skill, scientific knowledge, practical wisdom (how we actually do things), intelligence and wisdom (which is like the ‘finished’ intellectual virtue where great experience combines with understanding). What he is saying is, if we try to practise the moral virtues and we learn the intellectual virtues, we will become virtuous (good) people who make the right decisions for ourselves and the community that we live in, and we will achieve eudaimonia for ourselves and others in our community, which is why virtue ethics may give a better explanation as to why the soldier may give his life for others, he may truly believe he has become virtuous although again, it could be argued there is no way of truly knowing when you have reached eudaimonia, there is nothing such as a criteria to determine whether you have reached it or not, which is a critique of virtue ethics.

Virtue ethics states that we should act morally to balance out or ‘harmonize’ our inner self, however if you don’t have the correct ‘balance of character’ (such as honesty), aren’t you just doing things to benefit yourself regardless of any possible benefit to your ‘balance’? It could be argued that nothing within virtue ethics can be truly altruistic – although it is said being altruistic helps you to balance, surely balancing yourself is benefiting yourself as well? Egoism provides a better theory as to explaining why we are motivated to do things. Although virtue ethics provides a better explanation as to why the soldier may give up his life for others, it seems more plausible that we do things to benefit ourselves as opposed to others in most other situations.

It cannot be denied that at that specific moment, the soldier was put in to a position where he could not think properly about the situation and the implications it may have – although technically he could have been being ‘virtuous’ or ‘altruistic’, in another way you could say he was not being altruistic at all as his family and friends back home would be affected negatively by the decision he made.

It appears that a large majority of people would not act morally just because it is the right thing to do, when put in the situation that the soldier was put in it is most likely that a majority of people who still had something to live for (e. g. family, wealth etc. ) would allow somebody else to give up their life rather than them giving up theirs. As stated earlier, egoism provides a better theory as to explaining why we are motivated to do things) – it is human nature that we will do things to benefit ourselves and allow ourselves to carry on living.

Cite this page

Psychological egoism: Vested Interests. (2017, Sep 07). Retrieved from

Let’s chat?  We're online 24/7