Psychological Egoism1 is a theory about the nature of human motives. The thesis is that humans are ultimately motivated by self-interest. For the proponents, even acts of altruism, deep down, have selfish motives. For example, say Pam saves somebody from a burning building2. While Pam did risk her life to save someone, adherent of the former would argue ulterior motives, perhaps unaware ones, on her part. Possible explanations include the good feeling of being a hero or even social reprimand for not saving the individual.
Its prevalence in our cultural psyche cannot be understated. On the one hand, deontological ethics has become the norm in the moral sphere. However, the tiny leeway in the former is dominated by psychological egoism. It is justifiable to act in self-interest, taken as the moral ought of human nature, as long as the dominant deontological rules are followed.
Here I make an argument against psychological egoism. We don’t want our self-interests, the expected outcomes to be met. We seek failure, perhaps subconsciously, as that prospective failure contains a key essence of what it means to be human.
1. Descriptive vs Normative
The central egoist claim is descriptive – it explains how things are rather than how they ought to be. However, a normative claim can be developed from this descriptive one with little changes. Ethical egoism 3 and Rational Egoism4 constitute such normative theories.
The argument, to be made, relies on noticing that the sole self-interest of an agent as motive is incoherent – to its own desires. Therefore, the normative argument would fall apart by its own premises.
2. Maximization of Egoism
Imagine the perfect egoist state, the agent has maximized their egoist prowess, one where everything goes as planned – aligned with their self-interest. Note that for this scenario, other conscious agents are persuaded by the egoist, in some form or the other, for their motives to work out. To quote from Stefan Boros’ book, Love, politics, social norms and sex5
We all wish for better social skills. Even those with very good social skills wouldn’t mind even more charisma, even more persuasion power, even more social awareness, and so on. But how do unlimited social skills look like?
Imagine your social skills become so good that you can charm or persuade anyone into doing anything you want. You become so good at applied psychology that you even have the superpower-like ability to control the tone of the people’s voices and their exact choice of words and speed of talking. You can make anyone, with enough effort, do anything to anyone else.
In this hypothetical reality, once you become so powerful, how much of the other is “human” anymore? If any one person can be controlled into doing anything, regardless of initial resistance, can we call them ‘human’ anymore? This is how a robot behaves, be it programmed by classical programming or by artificial intelligence. You will soon realize how extremely lonely you are. Each person is a puppet of your decisions, and is thus controlled by you, it is as if no other person would exist, since you would only interact with yourself. To be unlimitedly persuasive is like playing a game of chess with yourself: you make both moves.
Thus, the desire for social interaction is the secret desire for failure. The analogy with the chess game is so good because it is also an example: we play two-player games usually when there is at least a small chance for failure, either with other real-life people (in person or over the internet) or with bots. This is the masochistic nature of humans: we do not want it to get easy.Chapter XIII: ANXIETY, SHYNESS AND WHAT MAKES US HUMAN. In Love, politics, social norms and sex
The former scenario, executed in its ideal form, leads to an almost solipsistic world. It’s clear that we, humans, do not want this. Man is a social animal, or at least significantly desires the connection with other independent humans. The masked desire inside this desire – a desire of rejection.
Thus, I reside my argument. An egoist contradicts themselves by the exclusive fixation on maximizing self-interest. Implicit in our desires lies a perverted element of masochism. We seek failure, we seek rejection. Perhaps that possibility of prospective failure may just be what keeps us going.
- Psychological Egoism. Internet encyclopedia of philosophy. (n.d.). Retrieved April 7, 2023, from https://iep.utm.edu/psychological-egoism/
- Example taken from IEP
- Shaver, R. (2023, January 9). Ethical Egoism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved April 7, 2023, from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/egoism/#EthiEgoi
- Shaver, R. (2023, January 9). Rational Egoism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved April 7, 2023, from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/egoism/#RatiEgoi
- Also check out the blog. Lastrevio. (2023, March 27). Love, the desire to be desired and the master-slave dialectic. Love, the desire to be desired and the Master-Slave dialectic. Retrieved April 7, 2023, from https://lastreviotheory.blogspot.com/2023/03/love-desire-to-be-desired-and-master.html