I refuse to use that word, but …

by John Quiggin on October 18, 2006

I’m using a blog to beg for help on a minor point.

The Wikipedia article on pscyhological egoism, which draws on the e Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, includes

Finally, psychological egoism has also been accused of using [[circular logic]]: “If a person willingly performs an act, that means he derives personal enjoyment from it; therefore, people only perform acts that give them personal enjoyment”. In particular, seemingly altruistic acts must be performed because people derive enjoyment from them, and are therefore, in reality, egoistic.. This statement is circular because its conclusion is identical to its hypothesis (it assumes that people only perform acts that give them personal enjoyment, and concludes that people only perform acts that give them personal enjoyment).

I’ve added the claim, based on memory that “This objection was made by William Hazlitt* in the 19th century, and has been restated many times since then”, but Google only produces reference to a previous occasion on which I made the same claim. Can anyone point to a good citation of Hazlitt on this, or to any other versions of this argument from the 19th and 20th centuries?

* Not Henry Hazlitt, a 20th century economist who endorses the circular argument described above.



Jackmormon 10.18.06 at 6:30 pm

You’d be looking for either “Self-Love and Benevolence” or its earlier, wierdest formulation “An Essay on the Principles of Human Action.” I don’t have a good quote for you because I’m too distracted, looking through the two pieces, by how he gets to the possibility of disinterested action by categorically denying the continuity of the self.


dejla 10.18.06 at 8:00 pm

Googling, I found these two items:


The first says that Joseph Butler has the classic refutation for this view. Quote:

“The decisive arguments against this view (it’s called psychological egoism) were developed by Joseph Butler and published over two and a half centuries ago (1726!). Since then, there’s been hardly a single philosopher or psychologist who was familiar with and understood the arguments who has adopted the view.”

That sounds to me like a good place to start looking.


dejla 10.18.06 at 8:02 pm

Ah. The second entry notes:

“Thomas Hobbes gives a version of psychological egoism in Leviathan; so does Thrasymachus, a character in Plato’s Republic (Plato has Socrates disagree with him). Both Hobbes and Thrasymachus think that psychological egoism is true: that humans are, at best, indifferent to everything except what directly benefits them. Thus, we must re-think our views about what’s moral. Hobbes and Thrasymachus urge a “new” normative ethics, which states that it is morally right to pursue self-interest and wrong not to. This view is called ethical egoism.”


Tim 10.18.06 at 9:51 pm

FWIW, the wikipedia entry seems to be conflating psychological egoism with psychological hedonism, which would be a mistake, since saying that all actions are ultimately motivated by considerations of self-interest isn’t equivalent to saying that all actions are ultimately motivated by considerations of obtaining pleasure and avoiding pain.


tom hurka 10.18.06 at 11:20 pm

Yeah, Butler’s the main guy, or the source for all these arguments. But he doesn’t make a charge of circularity as such. He just says — correctly — that it doesn’t follow from the fact that the satisfaction of a desire always brings pleasure that the desire’s object is pleasure. The pleasure is just a side-effect of getting something else you want. Going further, he says you only get pleasure when a desire for something else is satisfied, e.g. a desire for food. That’s certainly often the case, but it’s going too far to say, as I believe Butler sometimes does, that it’s always the case. Sometimes your ultimate end is indeed your own pleasure. But sometimes and even often it’s not.


John Quiggin 10.19.06 at 12:14 am

My impression of Hobbes is that he supports a non-trivial version of psychological egoism, that is: people do what benefits them (in the ordinary sense of that term) and apparent exceptions are conscious impostures.

Another point that hasn’t been raised so far in this particular discussion (the point itself isn’t new) is that some people do good (as defined by their religion) in the hope of a reward in Heaven. This is consistent with psychological egoism. It was certainly widely believed in the 19th century (and maybe C20 also) that people would start behaving badly if they stopped believing in Heaven and Hell, so this is an implicit endorsement of non-circular psychological egoism.


la deutsche vita 10.19.06 at 2:56 am

“but Google only produces reference to a previous occasion on which I made the same claim”

That looks like a modern type of circular logic itself ;-)


Chris Bertram 10.19.06 at 3:59 am


You should take a look at Kavka, _Hobbesian Moral and Political Theory_ ch. 2 and at Sober and Wilson, _Unto Others_ part 2.

(Elliot Sober’s “Hedonism and Butler’s Stone”:http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0014-1704%28199210%29103%3A1%3C97%3AHABS%3E2.0.CO%3B2-M covers much of the ground from the book (jstor link).)

Feinberg’s “Psychological Egoism” (in his _Reason and Responsibility_ and a million other places, is the papers everyone uses when teaching this stuff).


Tom Hurka 10.19.06 at 8:57 am


But it’s also pointed out that if people do good only in order to get into Heaven then they don’t deserve to get into Heaven: that kind of egoistic motivation isn’t the kind that a Christian God rewards. For that you have to do good or your duty for its own sake.


M Cholbi 10.19.06 at 10:07 am

James Rachels makes a similar sort of criticism of psychological egoism in an article entitled (I think) “Egoism and moral scepticism” and in his book The Elements of Moral Philosophy


prh 10.19.06 at 2:49 pm

You might want to check C.D. Broad, “Egoism as a Theory of Human Motives,” in Ethics and the History of Philosophy 218 (1952), along with W.D. Glasgow, “Broad on Psychological Egoism,” 88 Ethics 361 (1978).


Rhadamanthus 10.19.06 at 4:41 pm

I’m not sure Henry Hazlitt is a psychological egoist. Here are some passages from his _Foundations of Morality_:

“All our desires may be generalized as desires to substitute a more satisfactory state of affairs for a less satisfactory state. It is true that an individual, under the immediate influence of impulse or passion … may make himself less happy rather than more happy. But this less satisfactory state was not his real conscious intention …. Every man, in his cool and rational moments, seeks his own long-run happiness.”
(pp. 12-13)

“I shall argue … in defense of at least one form of the doctrine of “psychological eudaemonism.” Superficially similar doctrines, under the name “psychological hedonism” or “psychological egoism,” are actively opposed by many modern moral philosophers. * At any moment we do not the thing that gives us most “pleasure” (using the word in its usual connotation) but the thing that gives us most satisfaction …. To say that I seek the satisfaction of my desires is another way of saying that I desire “happiness,” for my happiness consists in the satisfaction of my desires.”
(pp. 21-32)

“I enter into an economic or business relation with you, for the exchange of goods and services for money, primarily to further *my* purposes, not yours, and you enter into it, on your side, primarily to further *your* purposes, not mine. But this does not mean that either of our purposes is necessarily selfish or self-centered.”
(p. 41)

A Professor friend writes: “It looks to me as though Hazlitt is trying to defend a purely formal (and so defanged) conception of psychological egoism, but it also looks to me as though he’s not quite managing to avoid sliding back into a more substantive version.”


calmo 10.20.06 at 1:29 am

Could be only in philosphy is the wikipedia not a particularly helpful resource, as the entries there are meant to engage and provoke the various factions.
But John, why do you need Hazlitt to endorse your view that psychological egoism is a circular argument? In what way does this enhance your point of view that it is circular? Would it be slightly less valid had it not had this illustrious history?
About this terrible crime, the purported circularity ~the thing deduced is already contained in the premise, would we prefer it to be elsewhere and possibly (the infamous philosophical worry) not even deducible from the premise? [You see how philosophy goes…]
The problem with the entry in wikipedia is that if the argument/position for psych egoism is faulty/weak it is because it is unfalsifiable –not particularly (particularly altruism is ruled out) because it is circular. Do the recreational (my favorites) philosophers back up for altruism or make allowances for exceptions? They are not reknown for their exception handling.


pdf23ds 10.20.06 at 9:39 am

I’ve moved away from the position, but ever since I was a child I’d held to a crude version of psychological egoism. So I have to defend it a little–it’s not that the position itself is circular (as the original quote, out of context, might indicate, and especially the quote in comment 2), but that one argument for it is circular. The position itself surely has stronger arguments in its favor.


rb 10.20.06 at 4:25 pm

The Butler argument is great stuff. I believe his main target is Bernard Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees, but I can’t vouch for there being a crisp unambiguous statement of the fallacy there (there’s a lot of fascinating non-crisp stuff). And IIRC there was a long mostly French tradition behind Mandeville – check out the folks in Schneewind’s Moral Philosophy from Montaigne to Kant. In fairness, as #14 noted, Butler’s refutation is of an argument for egoism, to the effect that our desires or passions are necessarily selfish in structure, and it may not suffice to rule out the position itself. Moreover, the people he’s attacking also have another line to press, viz that empirically, selfish motivations turn out to be awfully widespread and to underlie what look like unselfish ones, so much so that it may turn out, by induction, that they’re the only ones we need attribute to anybody ever. (E.g., take pity: the fact that we are more likely to give to the beggar in front of us rather than a remote one shows that we’re really acting to relieve our own pain at having to view his unpleasant sores.) There was a project in the air of reducing the passions to variants of self-love, and not all the arguments for it were of the formal and question-begging kind (or at least not so obviously). It also depended on a lot of very interesting philosophical/psychological analysis of the particular passions and virtues.


Timothy 10.21.06 at 10:47 pm

Almost without exception the philosophy pages are catastrophe on wikipedia.


engels 10.22.06 at 2:04 pm

What Timothy said.


John Quiggin 10.22.06 at 5:49 pm

The philosophy pages could certainly do with improvement. I drifted into this one from “Rational egoism” which overlaps with economics.

“Moreover, the people he’s attacking also have another line to press, viz that empirically, selfish motivations turn out to be awfully widespread and to underlie what look like unselfish ones, so much so that it may turn out, by induction, that they’re the only ones we need attribute to anybody ever. ”

I’ve imputed this view to Hobbes, but I’m not sure if this is quite accurate, or whether someone else hasn’t put it more clearly.

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