David Bruce (born 1954): Three Kinds of Philosophical Arguing to Use Against Psychological Egoism


We can criticize psychological egoism on three grounds, each of which illustrates a form of philosophical argumentation.

  1. Reductio ad Absurdam

Reductio ad absurdam is Latin for “reduction to absurdity.” It is a method that the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates (the teacher of Plato) invented to disprove a proposition. Basically, the method works likes this. First you start with an assumption. Then through a series of logical steps you show that the assumption leads to a contradiction. If an assumption logically leads to a contradiction, we know that the assumption must be incorrect and therefore we are justified in rejecting it.

In Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, we can see Socrates in action using reductio ad absurdam to show that Euthyphro, a reciter of poetry, has incorrect opinions. Socrates asks Euthyphro for a definition of piety, and after some wrangling, succeeds in getting this definition out of him: What is pious is pleasing to the gods, and what is impious is unpleasing to the gods. (For this example, one must remember that the ancient Greeks believed in many gods, unlike the Jews and Christians.)

Socrates then shows that this assumption logically leads to a contradiction by showing that what pleases some gods will not please other gods. For example, if you remember your Homer (you have read the Iliad and the Odyssey, haven’t you?), you know that the Trojan War was fought between two groups of people: the Greeks and the Trojans. Some of the gods favored the Greeks, while others favored the Trojans. (Aphrodite, goddess of love, favored the Trojans, while Athena, goddess of wisdom, favored the Greeks.) Thus, a battle that the Trojans won would please Aphrodite but not Athena.

As you can see, Euthyphro’s definition (his assumption) leads to a contradiction (all contradictions are absurd): the same action (the battle) is — at the same time — both pious (because pleasing to Aphrodite) and impious (because unpleasing to Athena). One fact of logic and of mathematics that cannot be disputed is that something cannot be what it is and, at the same time, not what it is. It is impossible for a triangle to be both a triangle and a square at the same time. It is impossible for a positive integer to be both a positive integer and a negative integer at the same time.

We can use reductio ad absurdam against Thomas Hobbes’ belief in psychological egoism. According to Hobbes, everyone always acts selfishly with no exceptions. If you were to try to point out an example of benevolence in action, such as Mother Teresa tending the poor and ill in Calcutta, Hobbes would state that Mother Teresa is acting selfishly because she is doing what she wants to do — showing off how kind-hearted she is by taking care of the poor and ill (and, Hobbes might add, preparing a mansion for herself in heaven). Hobbes would say that Mother Teresa is really deriving personal satisfaction by using her power on behalf of the poor and ill.

In other words, Hobbes seems to be saying that demonstrating benevolence is really a delight in the use of power. For example, let’s say that your best friend is getting married to a man whose wealthy parents shower gifts on them. Hobbes would say that that the man’s parents are delighting in the use of their power — they are showing off by saying, “Look how rich we are! We can afford to give a house to this young couple!”

But isn’t it odd to say that benevolence is really just a delight in the use of power? Because isn’t that what cruelty is? A boy pulling the wings off a butterfly is certainly delighting in his power over the helpless butterfly. Some feminists say that rape is not a crime of sex, but instead is a crime of power in which a man delights in overpowering a woman and forcing her to do things she would not otherwise do with him.

This is an argument we can use based on Hobbes’ assumption:

P1: Benevolence equals delight in the use of power.

P2: Cruelty equals delight in the use of power.

C: Therefore, benevolence equals cruelty.

But this conclusion is absurd because benevolence and cruelty are opposites. It is a contradiction to say that benevolence and cruelty are the same thing. If you behave cruelly toward a man, you are certainly not behaving benevolently toward him. If a man cruelly rapes a woman, he is certainly not behaving benevolently toward her.

Hobbes’ theory of psychologically egoism logically leads to a contradiction, and therefore we can reject Hobbes’ theory.

  1. Counterexamples

Counterexamples are also used in philosophy. If someone states a theory you disagree with, you may choose to argue against it by using a counterexample. For example, let’s say that an acquaintance is a racist who says, “All blacks are lazy.” (The acquaintance would probably use a word different from “black,” but we’ll let that pass.) To argue against the acquaintance, you could offer a counterexample. A counterexample is something that the theory is supposed to be able to explain, but cannot. In this case, the counterexample would be a black person who is not lazy. You might say, “But what about Joe and Carla Smith, who live next door. They’re African-Americans, and they’re not lazy.” The theory under discussion purports to describe accurately every black person, but you have offered as counterexamples two black people who are different from the theory’s description. (This is a good reason not to have segregation; if you know some black people, you will soon realize that not all black people are lazy. The same thing applies to whites.)

We can also use the strategy of counterexamples to argue against Hobbes. Hobbes says that every act is selfish, so if we can find just one act that is not selfish, we have refuted his theory.

This may be harder than it looks in the case of psychological egoism. After all, I would be tempted to use Mother Teresa as a counterexample here; in my opinion, she is not a selfish person. But as we saw above, Hobbes will simply say that she is delighting in the use of her power by showing off how kind-hearted she is. (“Look at how kind-hearted I am! I’m going to be a saint someday!”) Hobbes will say that everyone, including Mother Teresa, is selfish.

So let’s take a slightly different tack here. We know that Hobbes equates benevolence with “delight in the use of one’s power,” so let’s find a counterexample in which someone is benevolent yet is not exercising power. Third-party benevolence will give us our counterexample.

Let’s suppose that you don’t have much money, so you can’t afford to give many presents. But your friends next door do have money and they give their children very nice and very many presents indeed. If you feel happy for the children because they have nice presents and compliment them on their presents, you are acting benevolently (“benevolence” means “good-wishing”) toward them, yet you are not delighting in the use of your power (because you don’t have the money — and thus you don’t have the power — that would allow you to give them these nice presents). Thus your act is not selfish, according to Hobbes’ theory.

Hobbes’ theory cannot explain your counterexample, and so we have one more reason to reject Hobbes’ theory.

  1. Rejection on Pragmatic Grounds

Finally, there is the philosophical strategy of arguing on pragmatic grounds. One way to choose between theories when there is no other way to choose between them is on the basis of their consequences. If a theory leads to bad consequences if adopted, and if we have no compelling reason to adopt that theory over its rival, we are justified in adopting the other theory. (Of course, if the evidence is in favor of the theory with bad consequences, we must adopt that theory.)

We can ask what would happen if there were no such thing as ethics — if we were not able to distinguish between right and wrong, or if we were not free to choose to do good and to avoid doing evil. The consequences would likely be quite bad. For one thing, what would happen to our courts of law if there were no such thing as ethics? We punish people because they deserve to be punished. People who believe in ethics believe that a robber had the choice to work at a legitimate job or to work as a robber, the person chose to rob people, he was caught, and he deserves to be punished. But suppose there was no such thing as freedom (this is the theory of determinism). Would we be justified in punishing this person? (The way our law courts work now, if someone does not have the freedom to control his actions — say because of insanity — that person will be found innocent by reason of insanity.)

What would happen if we adopted the theory of psychological egoism? One result is that might would make right. If psychological egoism is the correct theory, how could we ever judge which acts are right when people conflict over them? According to Hobbes, seeking to satisfy your desires is right, but he doesn’t tell us what to do when people’s desires conflict.

Let’s say that one group wants to build a dam because it will create jobs and electricity; another group is against building the dam because it will harm the environment. Both groups are seeking to satisfy their desires, and according to Hobbes, if you desire something, it is good. Since both groups have desires, both groups are justified in trying to satisfy them. The two groups will just have to fight it out to find out whose desires get satisfied. The group with the most power will get its desires satisfied: might makes right, if psychological egoism is correct.

On the other hand, if good and bad, right and wrong, are objective, we could examine each group’s arguments and discover which group is right; we could discover whether it’s better to have the electrical power that can be generated by the dam, or the environmental beauty that can be preserved by not building the dam.

Because psychological egoism, if widely believed, will have bad consequences, we have yet another reason to reject psychological egoism.


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