Comparing Psychological & Ethical Egoism

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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
Christopher Muscato

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

Expert Contributor
Jennifer Levitas

Jennifer has a Ph.D. in Psychology. She's taught multiple college-level psychology courses and been published in several academic journals.

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.


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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Additional Activities

Psychological and Ethical Egoism

Activity 1:

In the lesson that you just read, psychological egoism is the belief that human actions are a result of one's self-interest. Think of an example from your life when an action you took appeared from the outside as completely prosocial or altruistic. For example, have you given money to a homeless person, helped a disabled person cross a street safely, or donated clothes to a charity? Next, think of how your action could possibly have been in your self-interest. For example, could your apparently altruistic actions have been due to the fact that you want to think of yourself as a generous or helpful person? Write a reflective journal entry of two to three paragraphs examining an action in which you engaged and your possibly self-interested motivations.

Activity 2:

Ethical egoism is the idea that a moral action is one based on self-interest. In other words, people ought to act in their own self-interest because it is the moral thing to do. Think of a book or movie you like and know well. Next, think of an action that a character in the book or movie takes. Evaluate whether the action is in the character's self-interest, and if so, whether it is the most moral action.

For example, in the book The Dressmaker's Gift by Anne Flosnik, Fiona Valpy, and Justine Eyre a character named Vivienne is in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany and is ordered to sew yellow triangles on the clothing of Jewish prisoners, but hides the yellow triangles and sews something else on the clothing instead. One may opine that this was not in her own self-interest (and indeed she got caught and severely punished for it) but may also believe that following orders would not have been more ethical, even though it would have been in her best interest. Write two to three paragraphs with reflections such as these about a character from a book or movie.

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