Friday, April 20, 2012

Psychological Egoism is True and it Matters

If you're truly selfish, you will never act selflessly - it will only be a pretense. If you're truly selfless, then selfishly accruing resources will actually help other people, as you're likely to use them on your not-self.

(This is an expanded version of something Jehu helped me find the words for.)

I take as proven that in any conflict, the less selfish should win, as it causes less collateral damage. If satisfying values is good for one person, then it must be better for more people. Only, the truly selfish will never bow to this principle - by definition, they do not care about anything I might care to use in my argument. Ergo, if in trying to be selfless you let someone else go first, most likely you just harmed more people than you helped.

This can all be derived from psychological egoism, though I do admit the use of 'selfish' in this context can be misleading.

Psychological egoism is true simply because actions follow from goals. You can try to act according to Chappell's definition of selflessness, but that means setting the goal of contradicting your own goals. If you succeed, all it means is that you valued the selflessness goal over other more 'selfish' goals, which means you're still maximizing your own selfish values. (And if you fail it means you succeeded at your other goals.)

What does this imply? This implies that there are those selfless in Chappell's definition. They're the ones that value the values of others as well as their own purely personal values.

When such a person acts selfishly, maximizing e.g. their own warm fuzzies, they help others.

Which in turn means selfishness, in its true philosophical definition, is nothing to be ashamed of. And, as I hope I've shown, anyone who is truly selfish in Chappell's narrow sense will never admit it, as long as selfishness is considered bad.

It is not only pointless to consider selfishness bad, but counter-productive. It it simply a barrier to combating narrow selfishness.

This is not a coincidence. If you were narrowly selfish and wanted to get your natural opponents out of the way, is this not exactly how you'd try to twist them into knots? Certainly, if I ever decide to embrace solipsism, it is exactly what I'm going to do.

Now I'm going to do the same thing from the dark angle.

Assume it is good to be selfish. This proves it isn't good to be selfish - it's a wrong question, not even wrong situation.

If it is good for my opponent to be selfish, it must be good for me to be selfish, by symmetry. It is selfishness that is good, not the particular person being selfish. And I happen to think it would be better if I won. Therefore, their belief in selfishness means that my beliefs imply I should win.

Verification: what if it isn't selfishness per se that's good, but the person? Then I've again proven that selflessness is better. If one person is good, then I just find two people that add up to being more good.

No matter what argument you start with, it proves that every individual should fight unreservedly for the selfish values. If there were an argument that was only an impediment to the narrowly selfish, I would advocate that. But, as above, there cannot be.


Aretae said...


I think you just outlined "public choice for individuals". Well done. I worry that you use psychological egoism badly here (psychological egoism is the theory that everyone DOES act entirely in their own self-interest, regardless what it looks like -- ethical egoism is the theory that everyone SHOULD act entirely in their own self interest). I am personally an ethical egoist, and oppose psychological egoism by opposing linguistic torture.

I think David Schmidtz outlines the argument somewhat more carefully, but you're definitely in the right place here.

Alrenous said...

I guess I'm trying to prove that psychological egoism implies ethical egoism.

The problem with selfishness is that there's no definition that doesn't generalize to cover instances of valuing the values of others, except the definition explicitly excluding that case.

Alrenous said...

P.S. This David Schmidtz?

spandrell said...

You're asking the wrong question.
Selfishness, by your definition, is a necessary and self-evident characteristic of any life form.

But that's not what selfishness means in real life. It's not about the warm fuzzies. It's about putting your own material interests before others, and not relenting on doing harm to others to achieve your own material interests.

Nobody will hate you for getting psychological kicks out of doing charity for lepers. They will hate you for selling them out to the mafia for money.

Calling both things by the same name is sophistry.

Alrenous said...

Excellent example for all definitions of selfishness including valuing other's values.

'Putting your own material interests.' Am I mistaken, is it not in my material interest to avoid being hated, and therefore to avoid the mafia?

If the only reason to be not narrowly unselfish is to avoid being hated, why wouldn't I just avoid being hated directly, regardless of selfishness?

spandrell said...

Well nobody likes to be hated but some people don't really care. Or they care more about their material interests. Say, Wall Street.

Most people do tone down on the selfishness, whether to avoid hate, or out of a rationalized emotional mechanism that makes them need wide approval. Or the odd fellow who gets kicks out of curing lepers.

Alrenous said...

I agree that using 'selfish' in the philosophical way constitutes sophistry among layhumans.

However, good philosophy must force map to match territory, so that reasoning about the map in fact corresponds to territory. There's no map of the region layhumans call 'selfishness' that won't also include regions of selflessness, except the map that explicitly excludes them as a special exception. Such special exceptions are of no use to good philosophy.

My rule, outside this blog, is to always keep in mind what the audience will hear, not what the word 'should' or even usually means.

spandrell said...

Yeah I understand that point.

But if selfishness is just a characteristic of all life forms, saying that we are selfish is not saying more than saying we are all carbon based.

But anyway, even playing with definitions, I don't agree that selfishness is good, even in psychological terms. Some people must be prevented from achieving their goals. It's the goals which are subject to moral judgement.

Aretae said...


Yes, that David Schmidtz. This book.

Alrenous said...

If psychological egoism didn't imply ethical egoism, I would agree that it would mean that the word 'selfish' is secretly meaningless.