What our best interests are
Psychological egotism is a descriptive claim which says that we always act selfishly, no matter what our claimed or perceived motives are. In other words, there is no such thing as altruism because every seemingly altruistic act ends up being for our own benefit. When we help others, we are in essence making ourselves feel good and virtuous. The psychological egotism position thus discards the idea that one’s motives can be entirely selfless.
However, what psychological egotism lacks is the distinction between motives and consequences; and selfishness and self-interest. There is surely a difference between a man who jumps into the sea the minute he sees a drowning child and a man who first looks around to see if anybody is there to witness his heroism before jumping in to save the child. There must surely be a difference between a billionaire who donates a million to charity because of his desire to be recognised for his kindness, and a poor lady who donates almost all of her savings to help the victims in Japan because she truly cares. The degree of difference might be difficult to measure in absolute terms but it is nevertheless, there. It would be incorrect to place someone who gets rewarded as a consequence to her genuine motives on the same playing field as someone whose motive is solely to be rewarded. In other words, not every act which contributes to our self-interest is necessarily founded by selfish motives.
To say everyone acts in their actual or perceived self-interest is clearly faulty on empirical grounds as we can easily vest interest in people or things other than ourselves. Furthermore, our decision matrices do not always result in the maximization of our self-interest. If our actions require material sacrifices that outweigh the benefits of psychological rewards, resulting in a net loss, can we then still claim to have acted in our self-interest? Even though the two criteria cannot be compared directly, it is obvious that the payoff is not guaranteed to be greater than the input; in fact, the payoff is not guaranteed to be there at all.
Psychological egotism is only true if we adopt James Rachel’s Strategy of redefining motives. That is, if we redefine all motives as selfish – regardless of whether they are or are not. This unfalsifiable hypothesis, for which no counter-examples exist, is really nothing but an empty claim. If we are to adopt this position, then we are striving towards the unattractive moral theory of ethical egotism which serves minimal purpose and is counter-productive to society at large.
Image by El Bibliomata