Friday, May 8, 2020


Psychological egoism can be described, briefly, as the idea that people always act in what they perceive their own self-interest to be. It is, to be sure, the way I commonly understand the world to work. Interestingly enough, there appears to be a strain of psychological egoist thought that holds that all human actions fall into one, and only one, of two types: self-interested and altruistic. Philosopher James Rachels took exception to the validity of psychological egoism on that basis, as follows:

The man who continues to smoke cigarettes, even after learning about the connection between smoking and cancer, is surely not acting from self-interest, not even by his own standards—self-interest would dictate that he quit smoking at once—and he is not acting altruistically either. He is, no doubt, smoking for the pleasure of it, but all that this shows is that undisciplined pleasure-seeking and acting from self-interest are very different.
This is normally the point where I wisecrack that: "If doing something that brings good feeling now, but has the possibility for nasty consequences later is self-evidently bad, one wonders why anyone ever marries."

Misogamistic snark aside, this seems to raise something that can be considered a problem with both psychological egoism and Professor Rachels' outlook; the question of what determines self-interest. Professor Rachels' seems to be in the camp that the individual themselves may not be well-placed to understand what is best for them, when compared to some outside, objective, criterion. Since there is nothing that demands that this criterion define any (let alone a strict) dichotomy between self-interest vs. concern for others, one wonders how proponents of psychological egoism deal with it. Even the normative commitments of rational egoism that Professor Rachels appeals to above don't always resolve the problem.

On the other hand, how does Professor Rachels decide that he is aware of what a person's standards for acting from self-interest are? Consider: from the ages of 15 to 34, Assault (homicide) is the leading cause of death for Black males according to the CDC/NCHS (pp. 80-81) and "[t]he very high risks tend to be concentrated in medium to large cities and low income neighborhoods within those cities, especially for homicides committed by guns," according to this University of Pennsylvania Fact Check.

Given this, would Professor Rachels have argued that, knowing this, I, as a Black man who chose to live in Chicago from the ages of 22 to 27 to be closer to my job, was "surely not acting from self-interest, not even by [my] own standards" as self-interest would have dictated that I move someplace else, regardless of any other consequences or considerations? After all, it could be argued that being unemployed in, say, DeKalb was safer than living and working in Chicago.

Cigarette smoking is "low-hanging fruit" in these sorts of arguments, because there's already been a societal consensus that it's somewhere between moderately unwise and actively stupid (with "stupid" being as much, or more, a moral descriptor than an intellectual one). So it's easy to dismiss as not being worth any trade-off. This is where the understanding that smoking violates the rational egoist's normative commitment to their long-term well-being comes from. But risking violent death because that simply comes with the territory of being well-employed enough to support oneself using the skills one paid four years and tens of thousands of dollars for. Is that as easy a call to make? I'm sure that there are people who would tell me that rather than going to college and thus finding that the best job prospects were in cities, I should have sought out some relatively tolerant small town, taken up some low-to-medium skill job and hid out from the risks of urban life there, but in the end, who is empowered to make that call? Who is allowed to tell me that it was irrational of me to live in Chicago, and take advantage of the personal and professional opportunities it afforded, given the risks?

When the choices are not clear cut, is it still understood that a rational egoist's normative commitment to long-term best interest only allows for one correct answer? And if so, what factors are at work in it? This is why I find philosophy interesting, yet rarely useful; too many of the answers it's willing to stand behind are those that have been somehow predetermined to be correct.

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