Psychological egoism is the view that humans are always motivated by self-interest, even in what seem to be acts of altruism. It claims that, when people choose to help others, they do so ultimately because of the personal benefits that they themselves expect to obtain, directly or indirectly, from doing so. It is a non-normative view, since it only makes claims about how things are, not how they ought to be. It is, however, related to several other normative forms of egoism, such as ethical egoism and rational egoism.
A specific form of psychological egoism is psychological hedonism, the view that the ultimate motive for all voluntary human action is the desire to experience pleasure or to avoid pain. Many discussions of psychological egoism focus on this variety, but the two are not the same: one can hold that all actions are ultimately motivated by considerations of self-interest without thinking that all agents conceive of their self-interest in terms of feelings of pleasure and pain.
Psychological egoism is controversial. Proponents argue that it is true either because reflection upon human psychology reveals as much or that it is empirically supported.
Critics argue that it is false either because it as an over-simplified interpretation of behaviour or that there exists empirical evidence of altruistic behaviour. Recently, some have argued that evolutionary theory provides evidence against it.
Critics have also stated that proponents of psychological egoism often confuse the satisfaction of their own desires with the satisfaction of their own self-regarding desires. Even though it is true that every human being seeks his own satisfaction, this sometimes may only be achieved via the well-being of his neighbor. An example of this situation could be phoning for an ambulance when a car accident has happened. In this case, the well-being of the caller depends on the well-being of the victim. Explanations of such events are not, however, entirely inconsistent with psychological egoism. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, himself a psychological egoist, explained, in the §133 of his The Dawn, that in such cases compassionate impulses arise out of the projection of our identity unto the object of our feeling. He gives some hypothetical examples as illustrations to his thesis: that of a person, feeling horrified after witnessing a personal feud, coughing blood, or that of the impulse felt to save a person who drowns in the water. In such cases, according to Nietzsche, there comes into play unconscious fears regarding our own safety. The suffering of another person is felt as a threat to our own happiness and sense of safety, because it reveals our own vulnerability to misfortunes, and thus, by relieving it, one could also ameliorate those personal sentiments.
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