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Summary Psychological egoism is the thesis that all of our (intentional) actions are ultimately motivated by what we take to be in our own self-interest. This is distinct from ethical egoism, which makes a similar claim that is normative rather than merely descriptive. Many treat altruism as a motivational state that is ultimately other-regarding. (This is importantly different from more technical uses of the term, such as the merely behavioral sense often used in evolutionary theory.) Psychological altruism is the main opposing view, stating that some of our actions are ultimately motivated by genuine altruism (ultimately other-regarding motivations). Importantly, the motivations here must be ultimate or intrinsic. Psychological egoists admit that we can desire to help another, but they will maintain that this is merely instrumental to an ultimate desire that is self-interested. Such a theory is important to ethics in part because it can potentially lead to challenging morality: If altruism is psychologically impossible, then it can't be our duty to be altruistic.
Key works Egoism was a dominant topic among the British Moralists. The selections from Hobbes, Shaftesbury, Mandeville, Hutcheson, Butler, Hume, Smith, and Bentham in Raphael 1991 are key. However, Butler 1726 (esp. Sermon XI) is one of the most important. Broad 1950 provides a more recent starting point, reflecting the popular view that Butler thoroughly "killed" egoism. In fact, most philosophers seem to think the theory has been long dead. Yet Sober & Wilson 1998 (esp. Ch. 9) argue that this is too fast, although evolutionary theory can better resolve the debate (Ch. 10). 
Introductions Feinberg 1978 provides a classic, but increasingly dated, summary. More recent overviews are in May 2011 and Shaver 2008, which include discussion of empirical work on egoism. For a more detailed review of the empirical literature, see Stich et al 2010.
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  1. F. Ablondi (1996). Schlick, Altruism and Psychological Hedonism. Indian Philosophical Quarterly 23 (3-4):417-428.
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  2. Mark Alfano (forthcoming). Moral Psychology: An Introduction. Polity.
    This book provides a rich, systematic, and accessible introduction to moral psychology, aimed at undergraduate philosophy and psychology majors. There are eight chapters, in addition to a short introduction, prospective conclusion, and extensive bibliography. The recipe for each chapter will be: a) to introduce a philosophical topic (e.g., altruism, virtue, preferences, rules) and some prominent positions on it, without assuming prior acquaintance on the part of the reader b) to canvass and explain the relevance of a particular domain of empirical (...)
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  3. Mahesh Ananth (2005). Psychological Altruism Vs. Biological Altruism: Narrowing the Gap with the Baldwin Effect. Acta Biotheoretica 53 (3):217-239.
    This paper defends the position that the supposed gap between biological altruism and psychological altruism is not nearly as wide as some scholars (e.g., Elliott Sober) insist. Crucial to this defense is the use of James Mark Baldwin's concepts of “organic selection”and “social heredity” to assist in revealing that the gap between biological and psychological altruism is more of a small lacuna. Specifically, this paper argues that ontogenetic behavioral adjustments, which are crucial to individual survival and reproduction, are also crucial (...)
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  4. Christian Arnsperger & Yanis Varoufakis (2003). Toward a Theory of Solidarity. Erkenntnis 59 (2):157 - 188.
    Many types of 'other-regarding' acts and beliefs cannot be accounted for satisfactorily as instances of sophisticated selfishness, altruism, team-reasoning, Kantian duty, kin selection etc. This paper argues in favour of re-inventing the notion of solidarity as an analytical category capable of shedding important new light on hitherto under-explained aspects of human motivation. Unlike altruism and natural sympathy (which turn the interests of specific others into one's own), or team-reasoning (which applies exclusively to members of some team), or Kantian duty (which (...)
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  5. Robert Audi (1974). Thomas Nagel, "The Possibility of Altruism". [REVIEW] Metaphilosophy 5:242.
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  6. Neera Badhwar (1993). Altruism Versus Self-Interest: Sometimes a False Dichotomy. Social Philosophy and Policy 10 (1):90-117.
    In the moral philosophy of the last two centuries, altruism of one kind or another has typically been regarded as identical with moral concern. When self-regarding duties have been recognized, motivation by duty has been sharply distinguished from motivation by self-interest. I think this view is wrong: self-interest can be the motive of a moral act. My chief concern is to argue that self-interested action -- i.e., action motivated by rational self-interest -- can be moral, but the data I use (...)
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  7. Carla Bagnoli (2013). Counting Without Numbers: A Non‐Aggregative Account of the Puzzle of Altruism. Journal of Social Philosophy 44 (2):124-126.
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  8. Kurt Baier (1990). Egoism. In Peter Singer (ed.), A Companion to Ethics. Wiley-Blackwell.
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  9. C. Daniel Batson (2000). Commentary Discussion of Sober and Wilson's' Unto Others'. In Leonard Katz (ed.), Evolutionary Origins of Morality: Cross Disciplinary Perspectives. Imprint Academic. 1--1.
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  10. Stephanie Beardman (2012). Altruism and the Experimental Data on Helping Behavior. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 15 (4):547 - 561.
    Philosophical accounts of altruism that purport to explain helping behavior are vulnerable to empirical falsification. John Campbell argues that the Good Samaritan study adds to a growing body of evidence that helping behavior is not best explained by appeal to altruism, thus jeopardizing those accounts. I propose that philosophical accounts of altruism can be empirically challenged only if it is shown that altruistic motivations are undermined by normative conflict in the agent, and that the relevant studies do not provide this (...)
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  11. Scott Berman (2003). A Defense of Psychological Egoism. In Naomi Reshotko (ed.), Desire, Identity and Existence. Academic Printing and Publishing.
    The purpose of this paper is to argue for psychological egoism, i.e., the view that the ultimate motivation for all human action is the agent’s self-interest. Two principal opponents to psychological egoism are considered. These two views are shown to make human action inexplicable. Since the reason for putting forward these views is to explain human action, these views fail. If psychological egoism is the best explanation of human action, then humans will not differ as regards their motivations for their (...)
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  12. Simon Blackburn (1998/2000). Ruling Passions. Oxford University Press.
  13. Katrina Bramstedt (2012). Pathological Altruism. Journal of Bioethical Inquiry 9 (2):211-212.
    In my work as a transplant ethicist I have always been interested in the topic of altruism. Thus, when a book appeared with the title, Pathological Altruism, I was very intrigued to read it. An exceedingly heavy book, however, arrived in my mailbox, and I admit I was taken aback. But upon reading Pathological Altruism, edited by Barbara Oakley, Ariel Knafo, Guruprasad Madhavan, and David Sloan Wilson, I was not disappointed.
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  14. Richard Brandt (1972). Rationality, Egoism, and Morality. Journal of Philosophy 64 (20):681-697.
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  15. David Brax (2008). Pleasure in the Motivational System: Towards an Empirically Responsible Theory of Value. In Martin Jönsson (ed.), Proceedings of the Lund-Rutgers Conference. Lund University.
    Theories about value struggles with the problem how toaccount for the motivational force inherent to value judgments. Whereasthe exact role of motivation in evaluation is the subject of somecontroversy, it’s arguably a truism that value has something to do withmotivation. In this paper, I suggest that given that the role of motivationin ethical theory is left quite unspecific by the “truisms” or “platitudes”governing evaluative concepts, a scientific understanding of motivationcan provide a rich source of clues for how we might go (...)
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  16. Harry Brighouse (2013). The Altruism Puzzle: The Obligation to Sacrifice One's Life. Journal of Social Philosophy 44 (2):115-117.
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  17. David O. Brink, Handout #8: Normative Authority and Metaphysical Egoism.
    Doubts about the adequacy of appeals to impartial practical reason give those with rationalist sympathies reason to explore the metaphysical, and not merely strategic, reconciliation of prudence and altruism contained in metaphysical egoism. Even if we recognize impartial practical reason, the supremacy of moral demands may depend upon the plausibility of metaphysical egoism. For as long as we recognize the demands of prudence, the conflict between altruism and prudence will threaten altruism's supremacy. We might consider one version of metaphysical egoism (...)
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  18. David O. Brink (1997). Self-Love and Altruism. Social Philosophy and Policy 14 (1):122-157.
    Whether morality has rational authority is an open question insofar as we can seriously entertain conceptions of morality and practical reason according to which it need not be contrary to reason to fail to conform to moral requirements. Doubts about the authority of morality are especially likely to arise for those who hold a broadly prudential view of rationality. It is common to think of morality as including various other-regarding duties of cooperation, forbearance, and aid. Most of us also regard (...)
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  19. C. D. Broad (1950). Egoism as a Theory of Human Motives. Hibbert Journal 48:105-114.
    Now it is plain that such consequences as these conflict sharply with common-sense notions of morality. If we had been obliged to accept Psychological Egoism, in any of its narrower forms, on its merits, we should have had to say: 'So much the worse for the common-sense notions of morality!' But, if I am right, the morality of common sense, with all its difficulties and incoherences, is immune at least to attacks from the basis of Psychological Egoism.
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  20. Norman J. Brown (1979). Psychological Egoism Revisited. Philosophy 54 (209):293 - 309.
    Psychological egoism is, I suppose, regarded by most philosophers as one of the more simple-minded fallacies in the history of philosophy, and dangerous and seductive too, contriving as it does to combine cynicism about human ideals and a vague sense of scientific method, both of which make the ordinary reader feel sophisticated, with conceptual confusion, which he cannot resist. For all of these reasons it springs eternal, in one form or another, in the breasts of first-year students, and offers excellent (...)
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  21. Norman J. Brown (1979). Psychological Egoism Revisited: Norman J. Brown. Philosophy 54 (209):293-309.
    Psychological egoism is, I suppose, regarded by most philosophers as one of the more simple-minded fallacies in the history of philosophy, and dangerous and seductive too, contriving as it does to combine cynicism about human ideals and a vague sense of scientific method, both of which make the ordinary reader feel sophisticated, with conceptual confusion, which he cannot resist. For all of these reasons it springs eternal, in one form or another, in the breasts of first-year students, and offers excellent (...)
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  22. John S. Brunero (2002). Evolution, Altruism and "Internal Reward" Explanations. Philosophical Forum 33 (4):413–424.
    Internal rewards are the psychological benefits one receives by performing certain other-regarding actions. Internal rewards include such benefits as the avoidance of guilt, the avoidance of painful memories, and the attainment of warm, fuzzy feelings. Despite the limitations of social psychology, Sober and Wilson believe that evolutionary theory can show that it is more likely for benevolent other-regarding motivational mechanisms to have evolved, thereby supporting the altruist’s claim. Here, I will argue for two related theses. First, if internal reward explanations (...)
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  23. J. A. Brunton (1956). Egoism and Morality. Philosophical Quarterly 6 (25):289-303.
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  24. Clark Butler, Castaneda on Psychological Egoism.
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  25. Steven M. Cahn (2013). The Altruism Puzzle. Journal of Social Philosophy 44 (2):107-107.
    Suppose I uncover a plot to set off a bomb that would destroy a city. Only I am in position to foil the scheme. Doing so, however, would cost me my life. I may choose, of course, to sacrifice myself and thereby save thousands of others. But am I morally obligated to do so?
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  26. John Campbell (1999). Can Philosophical Accounts of Altruism Accommodate Experimental Data on Helping Behaviour? Australasian Journal of Philosophy 77 (1):26 – 45.
    Philosophers often discuss altruism, how it is to be understood, explained, justified, evaluated, etc. Few refer to any experimental data on helping behaviour. I will argue that some of these data seem at least initially to present a challenge to various philosophical accounts of altruism. Put very broadly, when one looks at various philosophical accounts of altruism in light of various data on helping behaviour, one might wonder whether many philosophical accounts fall prey to the 'fundamental attribution error', overestimating people's (...)
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  27. Michael Cholbi (2011). The Moral Conversion of Rational Egoists. Social Theory and Practice 37 (4):533-556.
    One principal challenge to the rationalist thesis that the demands of morality are requirements of rationality has been that posed by the "rational egoist." In attempting to answer's the egoist's challenge, some rationalists have supposed that an adequate reply must take the form of a deductive argument that "converts" the egoist by showing that her position is contradictory, arbitrary, or violates some precept that defines practical rationality as such. Here I argue (a) that such rationalist replies will fail to persuade (...)
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  28. Kim-Chong Chong (1989). Altruism and the Avoidance of Solipsism. Philosophical Inquiry 11 (3-4):18-26.
  29. Christine Clavien & Michel Chapuisat (2013). Altruism Across Disciplines: One Word, Multiple Meanings. Biology and Philosophy 28 (1):125-140.
    Altruism is a deep and complex phenomenon that is analysed by scholars of various disciplines, including psychology, philosophy, biology, evolutionary anthropology and experimental economics. Much confusion arises in current literature because the term altruism covers variable concepts and processes across disciplines. Here we investigate the sense given to altruism when used in different fields and argumentative contexts. We argue that four distinct but related concepts need to be distinguished: (a) psychological altruism , the genuine motivation to improve others’ interests and (...)
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  30. Christine Clavien & Michel Chapuisat (2012). Altruism - a Philosophical Analysis. eLS.
    Altruism is a malleable notion that is understood differently in various disciplines. The common denominator of most definitions of altruism is the idea of unidirectional helping behaviour. However, a closer examination reveals that the term altruism sometimes refers to the outcomes of a helping behaviour for the agent and its neighbours – i.e. reproductive altruism – and sometimes to what motivates the agent to help others – i.e. psychological altruism. Since these perspectives on altruism are crucially different, it is important (...)
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  31. Christine Clavien & Rebekka A. Klein (2010). Eager for Fairness or for Revenge? Psychological Altruism in Economics. Economics and Philosophy 26 (03):267-290.
    To understand the human capacity for psychological altruism, one requires a proper understanding of how people actually think and feel. This paper addresses the possible relevance of recent findings in experimental economics and neuroeconomics to the philosophical controversy over altruism and egoism. After briefly sketching and contextualizing the controversy, we survey and discuss the results of various studies on behaviourally altruistic helping and punishing behaviour, which provide stimulating clues for the debate over psychological altruism. On closer analysis, these studies prove (...)
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  32. Christine Clavien, Colby Tanner, Fabrice Clément & Michel Chapuisat (2012). Choosy Moral Punishers. PLoS ONE.
    The punishment of social misconduct is a powerful mechanism for stabilizing high levels of cooperation among unrelated individuals. It is regularly assumed that humans have a universal disposition to punish social norm violators, which is sometimes labelled “universal structure of human morality” or “pure aversion to social betrayal”. Here we present evidence that, contrary to this hypothesis, the propensity to punish a moral norm violator varies among participants with different career trajectories. In anonymous real-life conditions, future teachers punished a talented (...)
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  33. David Copp (forthcoming). The Ring of Gyges: On the Unity of Practical Reason. Social Philosophy and Policy.
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  34. Stephen Darwall (2011). Egoism and Morality. In Desmond M. Clarke & Catherine Wilson (eds.), Journal of Philosophy. Oup Oxford. 542-550.
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  35. Daniel C. Dennett (2002). Commentary on Sober and Wilson, Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 65 (3):692–696.
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  36. Alec Dickson (1979). Altruism and Action. Journal of Moral Education 8 (3):147-155.
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  37. Brendan Dill & Stephen Darwall (2014). Moral Psychology as Accountability. In Justin D'Arms Daniel Jacobson (ed.), Moral Psychology and Human Agency: Philosophical Essays on the Science of Ethics. Oxford University Press. 40-83.
    Recent work in moral philosophy has emphasized the foundational role played by interpersonal accountability in the analysis of moral concepts such as moral right and wrong, moral obligation and duty, blameworthiness, and moral responsibility (Darwall 2006; 2013a; 2013b). Extending this framework to the field of moral psychology, we hypothesize that our moral attitudes, emotions, and motives are also best understood as based in accountability. Drawing on a large body of empirical evidence, we argue that the implicit aim of the central (...)
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  38. T. Clark Durant & Michael Weintraub (2011). Altruism, Righteousness, and Myopia. Critical Review 23 (3):257-302.
    ABSTRACT Twenty years ago Leif Lewin made the case that altruistic motives are more common than selfish motives among voters, politicians, and bureaucrats. We propose that motives and beliefs emerge as reactions to immediate feedback from technical-causal, material-economic, and moral-social aspects of the political task environment. In the absence of certain kinds of technical-causal and material-economic feedback, moral-social feedback leads individuals to the altruism Lewin documents, but also to righteousness (moralized regard for the in-group and disregard for the out-group) and (...)
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  39. William Dwyer (1975). Criticisms of Egoism. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 56 (2):214.
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  40. E. Keri Evans (1897). The Idealist Treatment of Egoism and Altruism. International Journal of Ethics 7 (4):486-492.
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  41. Joel Feinberg (1978). Psychological Egoism. In Russ Shafer-Landau & Joel Feinberg (eds.), Reason and Responsibility. Wadsworth. 183.
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  42. Harry Frankfurt (2001). The Dear Self. Philosophers' Imprint 1 (1):1-14.
    Frankfurt argues that self-love is the purest and -- paradoxically, perhaps -- most disinterested form of love.
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  43. Bernard Gert (1967). Hobbes and Psychological Egoism. Journal of the History of Ideas 28 (4):503-520.
    Hobbes has served for both philosophers and political scientists as the paradigm case of someone who held an egoistic view of human nature. In this article I shall attempt to show that the almost unanimous view that Hobbes held psychological egoism is mistaken, and further that Hobbes's political theory does not demand an egoistic psychology, but on the contrary is incompatible with psychological egoism. I do not maintain that Hobbes was completely consistent; in fact, I shall show that there was (...)
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  44. Bernard Gert (1965). Hobbes, Mechanism, and Egoism. Philosophical Quarterly 15 (61):341-349.
  45. W. D. Glasgow (1978). Broad on Psychological Egoism. Ethics 88 (4):361-368.
    In what follows, I shall first outline Broad's description of, and attitude to, psychological egoism. Then, I shall examine briefly the form which a defense against his criticisms might take. This raises the query whether such a defense is consistent with the doctrine's empirical character. It is suggested that the egoist could evade this difficulty by questioning an assumption which Broad (and others) make about psychological egoism. By abandoning this assumption, we can state the doctrine in a more adequate form-a (...)
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  46. W. D. Glasgow (1976). Psychological Egoism. American Philosophical Quarterly 13 (1):75 - 79.
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  47. Keith Graham (2004). Altruism, Self-Interest, and the Indistinctness of Persons. In Jonathan Seglow (ed.), Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy. F. Cass Publishers. 49-67.
    The problem of altruism is to determine intellectually compelling grounds for allowing others' interests and desires to weigh with us as well as our own. Two considerations impact on that problem. One concerns the clustering of particular interests and desires. The doctrine of the distinctness of persons gives prime importance to their origin in a particular individual. But clustering across individuals, rather than within individuals, may be more reasonable in the light of meta-attitudes towards our interests and desires and the (...)
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  48. A. Phillips Griffiths (1991). Kant's Psychological Hedonism. Philosophy 66 (256):207 - 216.
    As far as consideration of man as phenomenon, as appearance, as an empirical self, is concerned, Kant appears to be a thoroughgoing psychological hedonist.
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  49. P. E. Griffiths (2002). Review of Sober and Wilson 1998. [REVIEW] Mind 111:178-182.
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  50. Jean Hampton (1993). Selflessness and the Loss of Self. Social Philosophy and Policy 10 (1):135-16.
    Sacrificing one's own interests in order to serve another is, in general, supposed to be a good thing, an example of altruism, the hallmark of morality, and something we should commend to (but not always require of) the entirely-too-selfish human beings of our society. But let me recount a story that I hope will persuade the reader to start questioning this conventional philosophical wisdom. Last year, a friend of mine was talking with me about a mutual acquaintance whose two sons (...)
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