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Joel Feinberg Presents 4 Prima Facie Reasons in Support of Psychological Egoism (Feinberg, 498). Summarize and Critically Evaluate Feinberg’s Claims That Argument Is Flawed and Its Flaws Point to a Strong Argument in Favor of Psychological Altruism

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Feinberg clarifies psychological egoism and maintains that there are several things wrong with this theory. The Theory: Psychological egoism is the view that all human actions are motivated by selfish desires—individuals are viewed as motivated only by their selfish desires. Psychological Egoism is a descriptive theory. Ethical egoism is a prescriptive theory that holds that “all people ought to pursue their own well-being.”

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Psychological egoism is the thesis that we are always deep down motivated by what we perceive to be in our own self-interest. Psychological altruism, on the other hand, is the view that sometimes we can have ultimately altruistic motives. Suppose, for example, that Pam saves Jim from a burning office building. What ultimately motivated her to do this? It would be odd to suggest that it’s ultimately her own benefit that Pam is seeking. After all, she’s risking her own life in the process. But the psychological egoist holds that Pam’s apparently altruistic act is ultimately motivated by the goal to benefit herself, whether she is aware of this or not. Pam might have wanted to gain a good feeling from being a hero, or to avoid social reprimand that would follow had she not helped Jim, or something along these lines. Several other egoistic views are related to, but distinct from psychological egoism. Unlike ethical egoism, psychological egoism is merely an empirical claim about what kinds of motives we have, not what they ought to be. So, while the ethical egoist claims that being self-interested in this way is moral, the psychological egoist merely holds that this is how we are. Similarly, psychological egoism is not identical to what is often called “psychological hedonism.” Psychological hedonism restricts the range of self-interested motivations to only pleasure and the avoidance of pain

Thus, it is a specific version of psychological egoism. The story of psychological egoism is rather peculiar.

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The teacher could conceivably free-ride on the tougher marking of the rest of the department or university and not worry about the negative consequences of a diminished reputation to either. However, impartiality considerations demand an alternative course—it is not right to change grades to make life easier. Here self-interest conflicts with reason. Nonetheless, a Randian would reject the teacher’s free-riding being rational: since the teacher is employed to mark objectively and impartially in the first place, to do otherwise is to commit a fraud both against the employing institution and the student. (This is indeed an analogous situation explored in Rand’s The Fountainhead, in which the hero architect regrets having propped up a friend’s inabilities). A simpler scenario may also be considered. Suppose that two men seek the hand of one woman, and they deduce that they should fight for her love. A critic may reason that the two men rationally claim that if one of them were vanquished, the other may enjoy the beloved. However, the solution ignores the woman’s right to choose between her suitors. The descriptive egoist’s theory is called “psychological egoism.” Psychological egoism describes human nature as being wholly self-centered and self-motivated. Examples of this explanation of human nature predate the formation of the theory, and, are found in writings such as that of British Victorian historian, Macaulay, and, in that of British Reformation political philosopher, Thomas Hobbes. To the question, “What proposition is there respecting human nature which is absolutely and universally true?”, Macaulay, replies, “We know of only one . . . that men always act from self-interest.” (Quoted in Garvin.) In Leviathan, Hobbes maintains that, “No man giveth but with intention of good to himself; because gift is voluntary; and of all voluntary acts the object to every man is his own pleasure.” In its strong form, psychological egoism asserts that people always act in their own interests, and, cannot but act in their own interests, even though they may disguise their motivation with references to helping others or doing their duty.

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Usually, rational egoism faces objections from arbitrariness, Nagel, Parfit, and evolutionary debunking. These worries are not decisive. Given this, and given the historical popularity of rational egoism, one might conclude that it must be taken seriously. But there is at least reason to doubt the historical record. Some philosophers stressed the connection beween moral action and self-interest because they were concerned with motivation

It does not follow that self-interest is for them a normative standard. And many philosophers may have espoused rational egoism while thinking that God ensured that acting morally maximized one’s self-interest.

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Feinberg, Joel. “Psychological Egoism” in Ethics: History, Theory, and Contemporary Issues. Oxford University Press: Oxford. 1998.

Garvin, Lucius. A Modern Introduction to Ethics. Houghton Mifflin: Cambrirdge, MA, 1953.

Hargreaves-Heap, Shaun P. and Yanis Varoufakis. Game Theory: A Critical Introduction. Routledge: London, 1995.

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