Difference between Psychological Egoism and Ethical Egoism

Published on December 2, 2016

The internet is teeming with feel-good videos of people going out of their way to help random strangers. There are those who say it is human nature to be motivated by self-interest. They would say that people help others in hope that someone would return the favor, or that they would receive recognition or praise. Then others believe the intrinsic “goodness” of an action is based on whether or not that action benefits the doer. They believe that it is important to look out only for number one. These are examples of psychological and ethical egoism. While both concepts talk about the importance of fulfilling self-interests, they have fundamental differences.

Definitions

Psychological Egoism vs Ethical Egoism
Both psychological and ethical egoism are about acting on self-interest

Psychological Egoism is the belief that people always act to satisfy self-interest, even if the action appears to be selfless. It states people would voluntarily help others with the expectation of ultimately receiving a benefit from the act, whether directly or indirectly.

Psychological egoism is based on observations and nothing more. It does not state that acting out of self-interest is moral or otherwise. It is merely a descriptive theory. This way, psychological egoists hold that what they know about human behavior is all based on observable and empirical facts.

It has to be made clear that self-interest and selfishness are not the same. While this theory states that people are motivated to do things because it is what they believe is best for them (self-interest), this often is different from selfishness. Let’s take stealing as an example. It is selfish to steal something, and normally, it is not within anyone’s best interest to get arrested for theft, or to live with the long-term effects of going to jail. Thus it is most likely not in someone’s self-interest to steal, but it is most likely selfish. Psychological egoism says that people act out of self-interest, not selfishness.

Ethical egoism is a philosophical theory that states that any consequence brought on by an action that benefits the doer is ethical. This means the only thing that matters morally is an individual’s own welfare. In other words, everything a man does should serve his best interests.

Note that ethical egoism does not include harming the interests and endangering the well-being of others. Therefore, it does not necessarily mean that an individual can do whatever is needed to satisfy their self-interest, since fulfilling short-term desires may not be beneficial in the long-term.

Psychological Egoism vs Ethical Egoism

So what’s the difference between psychological egoism and ethical egoism? Psychological egoism states that people engage in behaviors to satisfy their self-interest. This is a descriptive view of what motivates an individual to act. On the other hand, ethical egoism is more of a philosophical view that says any consequence of an action that benefits the doer is a morally right act. This clearly means the only thing that matters to a person is their well-being. 

Psychological egoism is a descriptive theory based on actual observations. It does not offer suggestions, nor would it judge an act as immoral or otherwise. Ethical egoism is a normative view; thus it states what should be done.

Comparison Chart

Psychological Egoism Ethical Egoism
States that people always act out of self-interest Any action is moral if it benefits the doer in the end
A descriptive view based of observable facts and offers no explanations or suggestions A normative view that dictates the morality of an action

Video

Check out this YouTube video for more about psychological and ethical egoism.