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Comparing Psychological & Ethical Egoism Video

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  • 0:01 Ego
  • 0:39 Psychological Egoism
  • 2:36 Ethical Egoism
  • 4:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore two ways of explaining the motivations for your actions. Discover what they have in common and how they are different, and test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Ego

My, what an ego you've got. No, don't worry, that's not an insult. I don't mean you're prideful or arrogant; I just mean that you're very self-interested. No, still not an insult. You see, many psychologists believe that self-interest is the basis for all human interactions. And many philosophers believe that even if self-interest isn't necessarily the basis for every action, well, then it should be.

But there's a big difference between what is and what should be. Here, let's take a look at that ego. I promise it's not an insult.

Psychological Egoism

On one side of this is the simple belief about why we act the way we do. Psychological egoism states that human actions are based in self-interest. In this doctrine, we are making a factual claim about human behavior, with absolutely no moral judgments attached. See, I told you not to worry - no one's judging you here.

Psychological egoism is a descriptive theory, meaning that it describes something based on observation and leaves it at that. Descriptive doctrines don't try and describe actions as moral or immoral, good or bad; they simply observe and describe those actions. That also means that we are basing this doctrine in empirical, observable science. Those who believe in psychological egoism do so because their scientific research about human behavior, attitudes, and motivations supports it. And, for it to be a scientific fact, it has to apply to every person, all the time. So, according to this theory, this is just the way things are. People are motivated by self-interest.

Now, one important clarification we should make is that self-interest and selfishness are very different things. Your actions can be purely motivated by doing what's best for you, but sometimes it's in your best interest not to be selfish. In fact, psychologists have observed that selfishness is very commonly not in your best interest. For example, it's selfish to want to take something from a store without paying. But that would be theft, and stealing is against your best interest because you would be arrested. Also, people would treat you differently for being a thief; you could lose your job, and you'll end up in a state prison with face tattoos and fermenting wine in a toilet. It's in your best interest to avoid that.

Ethical Egoism

All right, get the shrinks out of here. We're done talking about scientific facts; it's time to talk some philosophy. Philosophers don't necessarily believe that all human actions are motivated by self-interest, but many believe that they ought to be. Ethical egoism is the theory that a moral action is one that is based in self-interest. According to this doctrine, at the end of the day, the only real value to a person is their own welfare, so acting in your own best interest is always a moral choice.

See the difference between ethical and psychological egoism? While the psychologists state as a fact with no moral judgment that self-interest is the basis of all action, ethicists state that an action should be morally judged for being self-interested.

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