“Psychological egoism” is the name given to a theory widely held by ordinary men, and at one time almost universally accepted by political economists, philosophers and psychologists, according to which all human actions when properly understood can be seen to be motivated by selfish desires. More precisely, psychological egoism is the doctrine that the only thing anyone is capable of desiring or pursuing ultimately (as an end in itself) is his own self-interest. No psychological egoist denies that men sometimes do desire things other than their own welfare — the happiness of other people, for example; but all psychological egoists insist that men are capable of desiring the happiness of others only when they take it to be a means to their own happiness. In short, purely altruistic and benevolent actions and desires do not exist; but people sometimes appear to be acting unselfishly and disinterestedly when they take the interests of others to be means to the promotion of their own self-interest.
–Joel Feinberg, “Reason and Responsibility”, 1958
I’m going to go out on a limb, so to speak, with today’s blog post.
The above quote is from the introductory philosophy textbook I used in college. The author of this piece goes on to list several arguments for and against the principle of psychological egoism (which is closely associated with Ayn Rand’s ethical doctrine), without ever declaring which side of the argument he falls on. But he also never describes what I consider to be the most powerful argument against the doctrine of psychological egoism (and of Ayn Rand’s doctrine of rational self-interest). which is that it fails to take into account the fluid, indeterminate nature of self.
So I’m going to lay out this argument here today. I hardly consider myself a groundbreaking philosophical genius — I try to rely on the work of other philosophers as much as possible — but I don’t know of any other thinker who has come up with precisely the idea I’m going to present right now, so I’ll have to take all the credit (and the criticism) myself. The argument that follows is entirely my own formulation, and I’ll even admit that I think it’s an important point. Here goes:
Imagine you are a parent taking your child to a doctor to get a flu shot. While you’re there, you plan to get a flu shot yourself. Now, we all know a flu shot is not very painful, just a quick prick. Still, some people dread getting a shot, or feel queasy at the idea of their skin being punctured. You, as the parent in this example, may feel slightly anxious about your shot, and you probably feel anxious about your child’s shot too.
According to our conventional wisdom, your experience of getting a shot and your experience of watching your child get a shot are two completely different things. One is a private, primary experience of direct sensation, while the other is a vicarious, secondary experience of observation.
The doctrine of psychological egoism and the Ayn Rand principle of rational self-interest depend on the fact that these two experiences are entirely different things. A person who follows these ways of thinking will admit that you feel pain when watching your child get a shot, but will insist that experience is wholly unlike the direct experience of getting a shot yourself. The self, according to these Randians, is an infinitely thick, impenetrable barrier. Everything in the world is either internal or external to you.
This is the weak spot for the doctrine of psychological egoism or Randian rational self-interest, because this model of human existence doesn’t hold true. It depends, for one thing, on an equation of our conscious self with our physical body. But don’t we actually observe the physical sensation of a shot in the arm in a way comparable to the way we observe the visual sensation of a child getting a shot in the arm? In one case, we observe through the sense of touch, in the other through the sense of sight. The two experiences are different, but they exist along the same spectrum.
“But it’s my own arm!” someone may object. Yes, but my arm is not myself. When Rene Descartes stripped our natural sense of self to its most elemental form in his Meditations on First Philosophy, he found the cogito ergo sum, or I think, therefore I am. But the cogito ergo sum does not have arms or legs.
I propose that your experience of getting a shot in the arm and your experience of watching your child get a shot in the arm are more similar than they are different, and that no valid ethical philosophy or psychology can be built upon the difference. Rather than considering the first a case of direct experience and the second a case of indirect experience, I submit that they are both cases of direct experience. When you see a person you care about in pain, there is no intermediate step during which your brain parses the observation of external pain into a transmittal of internal pain. Rather, your sense of self simply extends beyond the reach of your physical body.
I said at the beginning of the article that this formulation is my original work, that I’ve never heard another philosopher or psychologist present precisely this point of view. This makes me worry that I may be off my rocker, because it’s hard to believe that I’ve come up with a brilliant new thought that nobody before me has come up with … until I think about the fact that, outside of conventional psychology and philosophy, we actually say and think things like this all of the time.
When two people are in love, they tell each other “I care about you.” I care about you. This could be understood as an expression of selfish caring — you have a big effect on me — but I think it’s something else. It’s an expression of mutual vulnerability, of two people becoming open to each other. We are becoming one.
John Lennon once sang: I am he and you are he as you are me and we are all together.
In the Buddhist religion, there is talk of the Anatta, or No-self. This is often misunderstood by those who see Buddhist philosophy as nihilistic, obsessed with nothingness. In fact there is nothing remotely nihilistic about the Buddhist religion (or any other religion that preaches unity and community, like Judaism, Christianity or Islam). The idea of no-self is an idea of all-self. It’s not an expression of nihilism but rather of empathy.
Empathy … well, that’s a big word. It means “to feel together”. It’s the word, I think, that Ayn-Randian positivists or psychological egoists will never be able to deal with, except to try to explain it away. I think we all have always known that our selves are larger than our individual bodies. Any parent who sits in a doctor’s office with a child knows the feeling. We just struggle for the words with which to express this knowledge, and this feeling.