Altruism and Psychological Egoism

Edited by Joshua May (University of Alabama, Birmingham, University of California at Santa Barbara)
About this topic
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 1949 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. Schlick, Altruism and Psychological Hedonism.F. Ablondi - 1996 - Indian Philosophical Quarterly 23 (3-4):417-428.
  2. Altruism is a Primary Impulse, Not a Discipline.George Ainslie & Nick Haslam - 2002 - Behavioral and Brain Sciences 25 (2):251-251.
    Intertemporal bargaining theory based on the hyperbolic discounting of expected rewards accounts for how choosing in categories increases self-control, without postulating, as Rachlin does, the additional rewardingness of patterns per se. However, altruism does not seem to be based on self-control, but on the primary rewardingness of vicarious experience. We describe a mechanism that integrates vicarious experience with other goods of limited availability.
  3. Behaviorism and Altruistic Acts.J. McKenzie Alexander - 2002 - Behavioral and Brain Sciences 25 (2):252-252.
    Rachlin's idea that altruism, like self-control, is a valuable, temporally extended pattern of behavior, suggests one way of addressing common problems in developing a rational choice explanation of individual altruistic behavior. However, the form of Rachlin's explicitly behaviorist account of altruistic acts suffers from two faults, one of which questions the feasibility of his particular behaviorist analysis.
  4. Moral Psychology: An Introduction.Mark Alfano - 2016 - 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 (...)
  5. Psychological Altruism Vs. Biological Altruism: Narrowing the Gap with the Baldwin Effect.Mahesh Ananth - 2005 - 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 (...)
  6. Toward a Theory of Solidarity.Christian Arnsperger & Yanis Varoufakis - 2003 - 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 (...)
  7. Altruism Versus Self-Interest: Sometimes a False Dichotomy.Neera Badhwar - 1993 - 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 (...)
  8. Counting Without Numbers: A Non‐Aggregative Account of the Puzzle of Altruism.Carla Bagnoli - 2013 - Journal of Social Philosophy 44 (2):124-126.
  9. Egoism.Kurt Baier - 1990 - In Peter Singer (ed.), A Companion to Ethics. Wiley-Blackwell.
  10. Autism, Empathizing-Systemizing (Es) Theory, and Pathological Altruism.Simon Baron-Cohen - 2011 - In Barbara Oakley, Ariel Knafo, Guruprasad Madhavan & David Sloan Wilson (eds.), Pathological Altruism. Oxford University Press. pp. 345.
  11. Altruism in Humans.C. Daniel Batson - 2011 - Oxford University Press.
    Altruism in Humans takes a hard-science look at the possibility that we humans have the capacity to care for others for their sakes rather than simply for our own. Based on an extensive series of theory-testing laboratory experiments conducted over the past 35 years, this book details a theory of altruistic motivation, offers a comprehensive summary of the research designed to test the empathy-altruism hypothesis, and considers the theoretical and practical implications of this conclusion. Authored by the world's preeminent scholar (...)
  12. Unto Others: A Service... And a Disservice.C. Daniel Batson - 2000 - Journal of Consciousness Studies 7 (1-2):207-210.
    Sober and Wilson (1998) render a valuable service by bringing together discussions of evolutionary altruism and psychological altruism. They do a disservice by interpreting the results of experiments designed to test for the existence of psychological altruism as less conclusive than the data warrant. Sober and Wilson claim that new egoistic explanations can account for the existing experimental evidence, but they only offer explanations that have already been ruled out. Insofar as I know, no plausible egoistic explanation currently exists for (...)
  13. Commentary Discussion of Sober and Wilson's' Unto Others'.C. Daniel Batson - 2000 - In Leonard Katz (ed.), Evolutionary Origins of Morality: Cross Disciplinary Perspectives. Imprint Academic. pp. 1--1.
  14. Experimental Tests for the Existence of Altruism.C. Daniel Batson - 1992 - PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association 1992:69 - 78.
    A program of research is described that was designed to provide experimental evidence for or against the existence of human altruism. The research tested the empathy-altruism hypothesis-which claims that empathic feelings for a person in need evoke altruistic motivation to relieve that need-against egoistic alternatives. Over 25 experiments have been conducted. With remarkable consistency, results of these experiments conform to the predictions of the empathy-altruism hypothesis. There seems no plausible egoistic explanation for these results. It is tentatively concluded that the (...)
  15. The Altruism Question: Toward a Social-Psychological Answer.C. Daniel Batson - 1991 - Lawerence Erlbaum.
    Are our efforts to help others ever driven solely by altruistic motivation, or is our ultimate goal always some form of self- benefit (egoistic motivation)? This volume reports the development of an empirically-testable theory of altruistic motivation and a series of experiments designed to test that theory. It sets the issue of egoism versus altruism in its larger historical and philosophical context, and brings diverse experiments into a single, integrated argument. Readers will find that this book provides a solid base (...)
  16. Evidence for Altruism: Toward a Pluralism of Prosocial Motives.C. Daniel Batson & Laura L. Shaw - 1991 - Psychological Inquiry 2 (2):107-122.
    Psychologists have long assumed that the motivation for all intentional action, including all action intended to benefit others, is egoistic. People benefit others because, ultimately, to do so benefits themselves. The empathy-altruism hypothesis challenges this assumption. It claims that empathic emotion evokes truly altruistic motivation, motivation with an ultimate goal ofbenefiting not the self but the person for whom empathy is felt. Logical and psychological distinctions between egoism and altruism are reviewed, providing a conceptualframeworkfor empirical tests for the existence of (...)
  17. Altruism and the Experimental Data on Helping Behavior.Stephanie Beardman - 2012 - 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 (...)
  18. A Defense of Psychological Egoism.Scott Berman - 2003 - 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 (...)
  19. Where Does Altruism Come From?Jonathan Birch - unknown
    Can altruism be reconciled with evolutionary theory? Philosopher of biology, Jonathan Birch, discusses “Hamilton’s Rule”.
  20. Ruling Passions.Simon Blackburn - 1998 - Oxford University Press.
    Simon Blackburn puts forward a compelling original philosophy of human motivation and morality. Why do we behave as we do? Can we improve? Is our ethics at war with our passions, or is it an upshot of those passions? Blackburn seeks the answers to such questions in an exploration of the nature of moral emotions and the structures of human motivation. His theory is naturalistic: it integrates our understanding of ethics with the rest of our understanding of the world we (...)
  21. Pathological Altruism.Katrina Bramstedt - 2012 - 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.
  22. Rationality, Egoism, and Morality.Richard Brandt - 1972 - Journal of Philosophy 69 (20):681.
  23. Pleasure in the Motivational System: Towards an Empirically Responsible Theory of Value.David Brax - 2008 - 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 (...)
  24. The Altruism Puzzle: The Obligation to Sacrifice One's Life.Harry Brighouse - 2013 - Journal of Social Philosophy 44 (2):115-117.
  25. Handout #8: Normative Authority and Metaphysical Egoism.David O. Brink - unknown
    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 (...)
  26. Self-Love and Altruism.David O. Brink - 1997 - 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 (...)
  27. Egoism as a Theory of Human Motives.C. D. Broad - 1949 - 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.
  28. Psychological Egoism Revisited.Norman J. Brown - 1979 - 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 (...)
  29. Psychological Egoism Revisited: Norman J. Brown.Norman J. Brown - 1979 - 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 (...)
  30. Evolution, Altruism and "Internal Reward" Explanations.John S. Brunero - 2002 - 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 (...)
  31. Egoism and Morality.J. A. Brunton - 1956 - Philosophical Quarterly 6 (25):289-303.
  32. Russell Hardin, One for All: The Logic of Group Conflict, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1995, Pp. 288.Vittorio Bufacchi - 1998 - Utilitas 10 (2):252-.
  33. Castaneda on Psychological Egoism.Clark Butler - unknown
    Commentary on paper by Hector Castaneda.
  34. Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel.Joseph Butler - 1726 - Hilliard & Brown.
  35. The Altruism Puzzle.Steven M. Cahn - 2013 - 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?
  36. Can Philosophical Accounts of Altruism Accommodate Experimental Data on Helping Behaviour?John Campbell - 1999 - 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 (...)
  37. The Elusive Altruist: The Psychological Study of the Altruistic Personality.Gustavo Carlo, Lisa M. PytlikZillig, Scott C. Roesch & Richard A. Dienstbier - 2009 - In Darcia Narvaez & Daniel Lapsley (eds.), Personality, Identity, and Character. Cambridge University Press.
  38. The Moral Conversion of Rational Egoists.Michael Cholbi - 2011 - 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 (...)
  39. Altruism and the Avoidance of Solipsism.Kim-Chong Chong - 1989 - Philosophical Inquiry 11 (3-4):18-26.
  40. Is There a Paradox of Altruism?Robert Paul Churchill & Erin Street - 2004 - In Jonathan Seglow (ed.), Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy. F. Cass Publishers. pp. 87-105.
    Behavioural scientists show altruism to exist as a distinctive personality. Yet when subjected to philosophical scrutiny, and altruistic personality is prima facie paradoxical. To motivate herself to help others, the altruist needs ?extensivity?, the capacity to compassionately identify with others. To aid others effectively, however, the altruist must have individuation, the possession of highly developed autonomy and self-efficacy. We assert that a better understanding of the relationship between concern for others and concern for self reveals the paradox to be merely (...)
  41. Reinterpreting the Empathy-Altruism Relationship: When One Into One Equals Oneness.Robert B. Cialdini, Stephanie L. Brown, Brian P. Lewis, Carol Luce & Steven L. Neuberg - 1997 - Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 73 (3):481-494.
    Important features of the self-concept can be located outside of the individual and inside close or related others. The authors use this insight to reinterpret data previously said to support the empathy-altruism model of helping, which asserts that empathic concern for another results in selflessness and true altruism. That is, they argue that the conditions that lead to empathic concern also lead to a greater sense of self-other overlap, raising the possibility that helping under these conditions is not selfless but (...)
  42. Altruism Across Disciplines: One Word, Multiple Meanings.Christine Clavien & Michel Chapuisat - 2013 - 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 (...)
  43. Altruism - a Philosophical Analysis.Christine Clavien & Michel Chapuisat - 2012 - 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 (...)
  44. Eager for Fairness or for Revenge? Psychological Altruism in Economics.Christine Clavien & Rebekka A. Klein - 2010 - Economics and Philosophy 26 (3):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 (...)
  45. Choosy Moral Punishers.Christine Clavien, Colby Tanner, Fabrice Clément & Michel Chapuisat - 2012 - 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 (...)
  46. The Ring of Gyges: On the Unity of Practical Reason.David Copp - forthcoming - Social Philosophy and Policy.
  47. Egoistic Hedonism.Lawrence Crocker - 1976 - Analysis 36 (4):168 - 176.
  48. Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson: Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior. [REVIEW]Austin Dacey - 2001 - Journal of Value Inquiry 35 (2):279-283.
  49. Which Games Should Constrained Maximizers Play?Peter Danielson - 2001 - In Christopher W. Morris & Arthur Ripstein (eds.), Practical Rationality and Preference: Essays for David Gauthier. Cambridge University Press. pp. 173.
  50. Egoism and Morality.Stephen Darwall - 2011 - In Desmond M. Clarke & Catherine Wilson (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy in Early Modern Europe. Oxford University Press.
    This article examines changes in the conception of morality and egoism in early modern Europe. It explains that the postulate that human beings were fractious, covetous, and endowed with a strong drive towards self-aggrandizement was associated with Thomas Hobbes, and his writings produced a strong counterflow in the form of assertions and demonstrations of altruism and benevolence as natural endowments of human beings. It suggests that the modern ethical thought has defined itself by its concern with a specific ethical conception (...)
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