Smith discusses various objections to the claim that all actions are necessarily self‐​interested.

George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith’s fourth and most recent book, The System of Liberty, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.

Given Nathaniel Branden’s recent death (Dec. 3), it is fitting to begin this discussion of psychological egoism—or the selfish system, as it was called in earlier centuries—by referring to an article on this topic that Branden wrote for The Objectivist Newsletter (Sept. 1962). In “Isn’t Everyone Selfish?” Branden stated the basic thesis of psychological egoism as follows: “Since every purposeful action is motivated by some value or goal that the actor desires, one always acts selfishly, whether one knows it or not.”

Branden had a remarkable ability to analyze philosophical and psychological issues in clear and concise terms, as we see in his treatment of psychological egoism. Near the end of his article, Branden hit the nail on the head.

The basic fallacy in the “everyone is selfish” argument consists of an extraordinarily crude equivocation. It is a psychological truism—a tautology—that all purposeful behavior is motivated. But to equate “motivated behavior” with “selfish behavior” is to blank out the distinction between an elementary fact of human psychology and the phenomenon of ethical choice. It is to evade the central problem of ethics, namely: By what is man to be motivated?

This type of criticism was by no means original with Branden; on the contrary, similar criticisms go back at least to the early eighteenth century, as I pointed out in a previous essay on Shaftesbury. And as I explained in my last essay, classical liberals were especially concerned to rebut psychological egoism, because they associated it with the political teachings of Thomas Hobbes, who used it to buttress his case for absolute sovereignty. If we are necessarily motivated by self‐​interest, if we lack any natural sympathy for others and will observe the rules of justice only so long as those rules serve our own subjective interests, then we need a strong government to instill fear in citizens—a fear that will override our other self‐​interested concerns—if we are to attain even a minimal degree of social order. According to Hobbes, without the fear instilled by an absolute sovereign, we will lapse into the horrific state of nature, a condition of perpetual war of every man against every man where life is “nasty, brutish, and short.”

Eighteenth‐​century British philosophers—or the “British Moralists,” as they came to be known—criticized psychological egoism for more than political reasons. A substantial portion of their writings was concerned as much with what we now call psychology as with philosophy per se, as we now understand that term. They subsumed all investigations of human action, both prescriptive and descriptive, under the label “moral philosophy” or “moral science”—where “moral” pertained to three fundamental features of human nature: reason, volition, and purposeful behavior. These characteristics, they believed, distinguish human beings from other animals, so it is crucial to understand these features and their interrelationships if we are to understand “the springs of human action” (to use a phrase from David Hume). This type of investigation, they further believed, is indispensable if we are to understand the foundation and conditions of social order. Although the British Moralists disagreed among themselves on some issues, they unanimously rejected the Hobbesian argument that fear, and fear alone, can motivate people to interact peacefully. If a government restricts its coercive activities to enforcing the equal rights and freedoms of its citizens, then within that framework people will be motivated not only by self‐​interest but also by benevolence, justice, and other non‐​selfish factors—and this mix of motives will generate a desirable social order.

Now let’s return to the particulars of psychological egoism. According to Branden, this doctrine conflates motivated actions with self‐​interested actions. To put this another way: It is obvious that we must be interested in x before we will act to achieve x; otherwise, we would lack any motive to pursue x. But to say that we must be interested in x, in some sense, before we will pursue x does not tell us why we are interested in x. We may be interested in x because we believe it will further our own interests, or we may be interested in x because we believe it will promote the welfare of another person, or (as we shall see in the arguments of Bishop Butler, which I shall discuss in the next essay) we may be interested in x without either of these objectives in view.

Some early critics of psychological egoism claimed that it ultimately rests on a linguistic confusion that conflates “interested” with “self‐​interested.” For example, the Scottish philosopher and sociologist Adam Ferguson (An Essay on the History of Civil Society, 1767) wrote that “this supposed selfish philosophy,” while masquerading as a significant insight into human nature, is actually nothing more than an “obtrusion of a mere innovation in language.” Ordinary people use conventional language to distinguish between different types of motives: “Of this kind are the terms benevolence and selfishness, by which they express their desire of the welfare of others, or the care of their own.” But then along comes the “speculative” philosopher who reshuffles the meanings of ordinary words and proudly announces his discovery that all human actions, including those that appear self‐​sacrificial, are ultimately selfish. In fact, however, that philosopher has merely “given us the appearance of something new, without any prospect of real advantage.”

“The term benevolent,” Ferguson continued, “is not employed to characterise persons who have no desires of their own, but persons whose own desires prompt them to procure the welfare of others.” True, my desire to help others is my desire, and any attempt to satisfy that desire is an attempt to satisfy my desire—all this is quite tautological—but to say that I desire x does not tell us the object, or goal, of my desire, which may be to help others.

If we accept the reasoning of psychological egoism and equate my desires per se with self‐​interested desires and thereby reduce all motives to self‐​interested motives, then, as Ferguson pointed out, we will need “a fresh supply of language, instead of that which by this seeming discovery we should have lost, in order to make the reasonings of men proceed as they formerly did.” We simply could not communicate accurately with others unless we differentiated some kinds of motives from others; we need “different names to distinguish the humane from the cruel, and the benevolent from the selfish.” The supposed discovery of the psychological egoist, to the effect that all motives are ultimately selfish motives, amounts to nothing more than a linguistic coup.

David Hume, in “Of Self‐​Love” (Appendix II of An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals), identified two versions of “the selfish system.” The first and least interesting is a type of cynicism that views all humans as corrupt and deceitful to some degree or another. Thus when we appear or claim to be acting without a regard for our own interests, we are acting under “false pretenses.” If we donate liberally to charitable causes, this is not because we really care about anyone other than ourselves. Rather, we are attempting to make ourselves look good in the eyes of others, perhaps to win their praise and esteem.

The second version of “the selfish system of morals” is more complex philosophically. Hume described this theory as follows:

There is another principle, somewhat resembling the former; which has been much insisted on by philosophers, and has been the foundation of many a system; that, whatever affection one may feel, or imagine he feels for others, no passion is, or can be disinterested; that the most generous friendship, however sincere, is a modification of self‐​love; and that, even unknown to ourselves, we seek only our own gratification, while we appear the most deeply engaged in schemes for the liberty and happiness of mankind. By a turn of imagination, by a refinement of reflection, by an enthusiasm of passion, we seem to take part in the interests of others, and imagine ourselves divested of all selfish considerations: but, at bottom, the most generous patriot and most niggardly miser, the bravest hero and most abject coward, have, in every action, an equal regard to their own happiness and welfare.

This version of psychological egoism does not deny that people sincerely believe that they are acting benevolently, without regard for their own interests. It does not dismiss all such claims as deceitful, self‐​serving pretense. Rather, it resorts to “a philosophical chemistry” that, by analyzing other‐​regarding motives into their true elements, teaches us that every action can be reduced to self‐​interest. A concern for oneself is the ubiquitous motive that has been “twisted and moulded, by a particular turn of imagination, into a variety of appearances.”

This is the type of psychological egoism that was commonly attributed to Hobbes, as when he defined “pity” as “fear for oneself at the sight of another’s distress.” No matter how disinterested or other‐​regarding our passions may seem to be, the philosophical chemist, through a rigorous analysis of our passions and motives, is able to uncover their true foundation in self‐​interest.

Hume gave several interesting objections to this kind of analysis. Our distinctions between other‐​regarding dispositions, such as benevolence and generosity, and our selfish passions are based on “common language and observation,” so they have a strong presumption in their favor. This presumption can be defeated only if some hypothesis is presented which, “by penetrating deeper into human nature,” is able to prove how our other‐​regarding passions are nothing but modifications of our selfish passions. But all such demonstrations “have hitherto proved fruitless,” having been refuted many times by earlier philosophers. (Although Hume did not mention Hobbes in this context, it was commonly—and correctly—said that Hobbes achieved his resolution of all motives into self‐​interested motives through arbitrary definitions.)

Given the repeated failures of the philosophical chemistry discussed by Hume, why did this enterprise prove so attractive to philosophers? Hume suggested that “love of simplicity” was largely to blame. Here Hume was thinking of the Newtonian system (or the Galilean system, in Hobbes’s case), which had been able to explain diverse natural phenomena in terms of a few basic principles. But, according to Hume, this method of simplification, though indispensable in physics, should not be applied uncritically to human action. When exploring human passions, our personal experiences of those passions are likely to yield the most reliable results; and any attempt to “reduce all the various emotions to a perfect simplicity” is bound to lead us astray. When a philosopher attempts to explain emotions by referring to “some very intricate and refined” theory we have good reason “to be extremely on our guard against so fallacious an hypothesis.”

After these preliminary methodological remarks, Hume proceeded to consider the possibility that humans can act from “a disinterested benevolence.” His points are essentially a summary of the ideas of Bishop Butler (1692–1752), a philosopher and theologian who Hume admired and whose highly influential treatment of psychological egoism (and human motives generally) was the gold standard for the British Moralists. We shall explore the psychological theories of that remarkable philosopher in my next essay.