Psychological Egoism-Rachels

Rachels’ “Egoism and Moral Skepticism” provides us with strong arguments in favor of psychological and ethical egoism, which he effectively refutes by highlighting their weaknesses. Before reading, I was naïve and therefore indifferent to these concepts of egoism; however, I now agree that psychological egoism is an invalid thesis.

Rachels defines psychological egoism as “the view that all men are selfish in everything that they do, that is, that the only motive from which anyone ever acts is self-interest” (Rachels). Contrary to ethical egoism, psychological egoism describes how we act but does not tell us how we ought to act. (Garrett)

He presents several arguments throughout the work in order to show why this idea is unjust. I believe his strongest claim is that  “Since so-called unselfish actions always produce a sense of self-satisfaction in the agent, and since that sense of satisfaction is a pleasant state of consciousness, it follows that the point of the action is really to achieve a pleasant state of consciousness, rather than to bring about any good for others” (Rachels). For instance, I, like many others, often behave unselfishly for mere self-satisfaction and the avoidance of guilt. When I pass a homeless person on the streets, I give some loose change and then feel good about myself instead of feeling guilty for ignoring the beggar and continuing to walk.

The problem with this situation, Rachels points out, is that it sounds as if I am described as an unselfish person since I find pleasure from helping others. The selfish person would not have been concerned for the homeless person in the first place. “Why should we think that merely because someone derives satisfaction from helping others this makes him selfish? Isn’t the unselfish man precisely the one who does derive satisfaction from helping others, while the selfish man does not?” (Rachels). Bishop Joseph Butler answered this question in his Sermon XI:

That all particular appetites and passions are towards external things themselves, distinct from the pleasure arising from them, is manifested from hence; that there could not be this pleasure, were it not for that prior suitableness between the object and the passion: there could be no enjoyment or delight from one thing more than another, from eating food more than from swallowing a stone, if there were not an affection or appetite to one thing more than another (Bishop).

In simpler terms, people do not decide they need to feel good and therefore find a way to help others in order to achieve that feeling of self-satisfaction. On the contrary, people help others for the sake of helping others and find the sense of satisfaction after the fact, according to Butler. Wanting to help others is unselfish, and therefore, the psychological egoist argument has a mistaken view of selfishness.

In closing, I stand by Rachels’ opposition to psychological egoism as it is entirely unjust. The theory contains numerous flaws and confounding statements including the failure to distinguish between self-interest and selfishness, as well as between self-interest and pleasure.

Works Cited

Bishop, Lloyd. In defense of altruism: inadequacies of Ayn Rand’s ethics and psychological egoism. New Orleans, LA: University Press of the South, 2000. Print.

Garrett, Aaron. “Joseph Butler’s Moral Philosophy.” Stanford University. Stanford University, 17 Oct. 2012. Web. 14 Sept. 2014. <>.

Rachels, James. “Egoism and Moral Skepticism.” The University of Morality (1971): 233-239. Blackboard. Web. 14 Sept. 2014.

Rand, Ayn. “A Defense of Ethical Egoism.” 79-85. Blackboard. Web. 14 Sept. 2014.

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