Philosophical egoism: Its nature and limitations

Economics and Philosophy 26 (2):217-240 (2010)
Egoism and altruism are unequal contenders in the explanation of human behaviour. While egoism tends to be viewed as natural and unproblematic, altruism has always been treated with suspicion, and it has often been argued that apparent cases of altruistic behaviour might really just be some special form of egoism. The reason for this is that egoism fits into our usual theoretical views of human behaviour in a way that altruism does not. This is true on the biological level, where an evolutionary account seems to favour egoism, as well as on the psychological level, where an account of self-interested motivation is deeply rooted in folk psychology and in the economic model of human behaviour. While altruism has started to receive increasing support in both biological and psychological debates over the last decades, this paper focuses on yet another level, where egoism is still widely taken for granted. Philosophical egoism (Martin Hollis’ term) is the view that, on the ultimate level of intentional explanation, all action is motivated by one of the agent's desires. This view is supported by the standard notion that for a complex of behaviour to be an action, there has to be a way to account for that behaviour in terms of the agent's own pro-attitudes. Psychological altruists, it is claimed, are philosophical egoists in that they are motivated by desires that have the other's benefit rather than the agent's own for its ultimate object (other-directed desires). This paper casts doubt on this thesis, arguing that empathetic agents act on other people's pro-attitudes in very much the same way as agents usually act on their own, and that while other-directed desires do play an important role in many cases of psychologically altruistic action, they are not necessary in explanations of some of the most basic and most pervasive types of human altruistic behaviour. The paper concludes with the claim that philosophical egoism is really a cultural value rather than a conceptual feature of action
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DOI 10.1017/S0266267110000209
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