Post #015: The devil we know

Glasgow, January 31, 2018

Egoism is an ethical theory that treats self-interest as the foundation of morality, and can be categorized as “ethical” [1], “psychological” [2] and “rational” [3]. Of these three views on egoism, “psychological egoism” is definitely the most interesting, as it claims that even in what seem to be acts of altruism, we are self-motivated by what we perceive as self-interest: obtaining a direct or indirect benefit, in the sort- or in the long-term. If this view is true, than our morality is wired to be self-interest-driven, and our behaviour is defined by the way we perceive, foresee, plot and communicate our self-interest.

The next step would be, of course, to challenge this view and ask ourselves if it can truly be applied to the way we embrace solidarity, collegiality, mentorship or love: can we identify our self-interest as our motivation behind these acts? The answer is “yes”. A sincere introspection would reveal that egoism is the nucleus of our behaviour: it defines our thoughts and our actions in ways and frequency that – in most cases – exceed our capacity of perceiving them. It is the devil we know: our commitment to causes we treasure as desirable for ourselves, and our desire to satisfy them through both reason and instinct.

But if egoism lies at the heart of our motivation, than how can our choices “be more representative of ourselves than our motives” [4]? The answer is not straightforward. Egoism is subjectively appreciated and, as such, cannot be subject to an objective assessment. On the other hand, our choices can be subject to an objective assessment, and they are the ink of our life’s trace. They might be the outcome of our self-interest-driven motivation, but motivation is not the sole determinant of our choices: our reason, our impulse and our emotions play an important part in shaping our choices, and can sometimes defy our psychological egoism. This fact, of course, does not make our motivation less important for our choices, and although mastering our choices can be a highly-desirable virtue, mastering our ego can be a source of wisdom.


Notes: [1]: ethical egoism is a doctrine introduced by Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900; British utilitarian philosopher and economist) that suggests that individuals ought to do what is in their self-interest; [2]: psychological egoism that is a descriptive doctrine that dates back to the teachings of Epicurus (Επίκουρος; 341-270 BC; Greek philosopher) and that was further developed by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832; British philosopher, jurist and social reformer), claims that individuals are always motivated by self-interest; [3]: rational egoism is the normative belief (also discussed by Henry Sidgwick) that an action is rational if and only if it maximizes one’s self-interest; [4]: Zarros A. Post #012: Motivation. 2017; 31-Oct.

Citation: Zarros A. Post #015: The devil we know. 2018; 31-Jan.