I refuse to use that word, but …

I’m using my 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?

22 thoughts on “I refuse to use that word, but …

  1. PrQ,
    A quick look at scholar.google.com produces several references to Hazlitt “circular logic” – all of which are to pay only journals. Some of the JSTOR articls may help. As an academic you may already have access to it – I do not.

  2. This quote from http://www.quebecoislibre.org/030719-12.htm (not a quote from Hazlitt) implies that The Foundations of Morality is the place to look.

    16. Egoism, self-care, is not opposite to altruism, care for others. Indeed, care for others can mean nothing but support for these other people’s own self-care; altruism thus verily presupposes, respects and supports egoism in other people. Moreover, the foundational basis for altruist behavior can be but the egoist self-satisfaction derived from cooperating with others. Some forms of cooperation may appear as “self-less” to external observers who neglect to take psychology into account; but to a consistent utilitarian, even the most “self-less” attitudes are really egoistic once non-material gratifications are taken into account (and ultimately, all gratifications are psychological, not material).
    Thus, this fallacy is based on a deep misunderstanding of utilitarianism. This misunderstanding tries to separate the altruism in people from their “self-interest,” and pretends that only government can take advantage of this altruism and limit the “evilness” of self-interest. But in a proper utilitarian setting (as opposed to the caricatures of it used by statist economists and philosophers), “self-interest” will already account for the interactions with other people. For a given personal “utility,” one doesn’t want either other people’s utility or disutility in addition to it; possible love and hate are already included in personal utility functions; utility already includes the physical and psychological benefits from cooperation with others and other “altruist” behavior. The correct utilitarian stance is one of mutualism, where people can, will, actually did, do, and will continue to adopt rules of cooperative conducts out of their own self-interest. Such fallacies and their debunking have all been well treated by Henry Hazlitt in his book: The Foundations of Morality, that extracts the quintessence of the achievements of classical anglo-saxon moralists, and corrects their mistakes.

  3. Tom, that’s Henry Hazlitt, the 20th century libertarian, repeating the fallacies already exploded by William Hazlitt the 19th century essayist. One of the factors that makes Google difficult in this case.

  4. William Hazlitt had his own libertarian tendencies:
    “The love of liberty is the love of others; the love of power is the love of ourselves.”

  5. What proposition is there respecting human nature
    which is absolutely and universally true ? We know of
    only one : and that is not only true, but identical ; that
    men always act from self-interest. This truism the Utilitarians
    proclaim with as much pride as if it were new, and
    as much zeal as if it were important. But in fact, when
    explained, it means only that men, if they can, will do as
    they choose.

    Thomas Macaulay, Review of James Mill’s Essays on Government (1823), p.317.

  6. I can’t help you find the Hazlitt source, but I would like to read the paper you’re writing about it…

  7. If it is identically true that men always act from self-interest, then is it not also identically true that any actor always acts from self-interest?

    Do individual ants act from self-interest?

  8. Proust,

    In his book “The Selfish Gene”, Richard Dawkins compiles significant evidence to support the view that the genes of ants are self interested and that the communalism of ants arises from this self interest. Its a great book.


  9. But is the argument as presented circular? I’m not sure.

    Also the argument seems to be about psychological hedonism, rather than the broader pyschological egoism.

    As written in Wikipedia it seems to be intended an example of modus ponens, with the antecedent of the conditional premise as a suppressed premise. As such the conclusion, “Q”, that we only act for personal enjoyment is not assumed.

    But I’m not sure either that the argument as presented there is valid. For from “if P then Q”, “P” one can validly conclude “Q” but also “only Q”?

    Psychological egoism as a theory of motivation is really attempting to reduce altruistic behaviour to self-interested behaviour. As such it doesn’t seem to be an empty claim, but one open to empirical refutation.

    One can always construct a valid argument for a particular conclusion. A circular one is an example. But it’s in the truth of its premises that the big debates ensue. And it’s against the facts that the empirical claim of psychological egoism has been found wanting.

  10. proust,
    The question is whether there is such a thing as an individual ant. As they are genetically identical, there is a strong argument that the “individual” in the ant world is the nest, not the ant. In this way an ant can be understood more as a cell than an individual.

  11. “Psychological egoism as a theory of motivation is really attempting to reduce altruistic behaviour to self-interested behaviour. As such it doesn’t seem to be an empty claim, but one open to empirical refutation.”

    What kind of behavior, or even personal account of behavior, do you see as empirically refuting this version of psychological egoism, Gaby?

    John H, my paper was a review of Hirshleifer’s Economics of the Dark Side.

  12. As long as the proponent of psycholgical egoism is able to describe a case that would falsify his theory — e.g.

    an atheist, with probable decades to live, directs nine tenths of his income to charity and keeps this a secret from the whole world

    — then the theory is not empty. Researchers can get on with locating that inscrutible philanthropic atheist, and until they do, the theory retains respectibility.

    But if the theorist can’t identify any such feasible hypothetical case, then it’s hollow metaphysics.

  13. “What kind of behavior, or even personal account of behavior, do you see as empirically refuting this version of psychological egoism, Gaby?”

    I think James has given one. Basically any act of selflessness, altruism or self-sacrifice potentially provides a possible counter-example. I suppose one arm of the strategy is to reject the proposed reduction to self-interest.

    The other part is to give a better account of our motivationsand on what basis we act. For example, we act selflessly out of “symapathy” and per Hobbes and Hume such sympathies are “limited” to friends and family. J.L. Mackie used this notion as forming the basis of his “morality in the narrow sense” in his excellent “Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong”.

    This is only relevant if psychological egoism is a substantial empirical thesis and not a truism along the lines that any intentional act is by definition self-interested. The latter is a trivial and uninteresting form of egoism.

  14. james, I don’t see how your atheist would refute the theory. You’d have to know his/her motivation. Which you cannot.

  15. He may have a selfish motivation, Melanie. The point is that if the theorist won’t take anybody’s word for it that they are acting altruistically, he must go on their behaviour. Now, every conceivable behaviour could be ‘explained’ in terms of some egoistic urge. But, for his theory to be a meaningful scientific hypothesis, our theorist must be able to predict something with it – for example that my atheist will never be found. Otherwise the theory, by accounting for everything, accounts for nothing.

  16. James, I presume by a “meaningful scientific hypothesis” you are using “meaningful” in a broad colloquial sense as equivalent to “empirical” or even testable by observation. Otherwise it has shades of a verificationist criterion of meaning.

    And yes it has to be testable in principle. But I want to say that it is testable in practice. I think you are putting a very strict requirement on the evidence relevant to psycho egoism. Psycho egoism, as I understand it, is trying to be a theory of motivation. So why aren’t all of our introspective reasons, desires and objectives relevant evidence to its assessment?

    For instance, if one lends a friend $2,000 to help her buy a computer, rather than say using the money for a trip to the Maldives, and does so genuinely out of “sympathy” for a friend, then this introspective evidence of benevolence counts against psycho egoism.

    And it is for a defender of the latter to give a better account of one’s “real” motivation as being self-interested, rather than the common sense and ostensibly selfless motive, to defend psycho egoism.

  17. Also, as an example I believe you could substitute “avoid pain” for “enjoy” in the argument and its logic would be unaffected. Are the two concepts the same thing in essence, “enjoy” and “avoid pain”? – not if there’s anything of much interest in this pretty world!

  18. Gaby

    To adhere to a ‘verificationist criterion of meaning’ sounds thoroughly despicable, and I’m sure I’d be dead against it if I knew what it meant! No, as you inferred, I used meaningful in ‘broad colloquial sense as equivalent to “empiricalâ€? or even testable by observation’.

    Whether the introspective evidence is relevant depends on precisely what claim the theory is making. But whatever the claim is, the theorist advancing it has to specify how the world would be different if it wasn’t true. If the theory is that people only help others when they stand to gain some advantage, they should specify what advantages they mean – wealth, power, esteem, a place in heaven – and this will tell the sceptic what kinds of counterexamples he needs to search for if he is to falsify the theory.

    On the other hand, if the advantages include ‘obtaining satisfaction’, it’s hard to see how the theory could be falsified, so we are left with an empty and metaphysical proposition.

    Perhaps this clarifies my meaning for Melanie, too.

  19. James, thanks for your reply and apologies for my tardy one.

    “Verificationist” meaning ain’t so despicable, but arguably not a correct account of meaning. It was popularized by our old friends the logical positvists who basically maintained that a meaning of a proposition was determined either by the meaning of its words in the case of an analytic propositon or verifiable by evidence for a synthetic one. They used this to criticize metaphysics and to consign various philosophical problems to pseudoproblem status. But the meaning and truth of a proposition are two distinct issues best separated.

    I think you are right that egoism has different flavours. One must specify the particular good that an egoism states is being pursued. Hedonism is one such flavour: basically it says that we are all really more or less sybarites. But all egoisms share the view that we basically act in our interests in pursuit of whatever is the good or end of our actions, etc.

    I also want to go on to say that apparently altruistic behaviour is itself a problem for any flavour of psycho egoism because it involves action ostensbily motivated by an other regarding or selfless reason. So I’d see introspection as relevant given that psycho egoism is trying to tell us what truly motivates us. Which then opens up the task of formulating a better account of motivation.

    We agree that if you make psycho egoism a truism, then it is “empty”.

    I’d quibble, however, with your hendiadys of “empty and metaphysical” proposition. Not all metaphysical propositions are either meaningless or tautologous (“empty”?) or false.

  20. Andrew Reynolds Says:

    The question is whether there is such a thing as an individual ant. As they are genetically identical, there is a strong argument that the “individual� in the ant world is the nest, not the ant. In this way an ant can be understood more as a cell than an individual.

    That isn’t true:

    Evolution of ant colony behavior

    Some of the evolutionary processes that occur at the evolution of eusociality are similar to the processes that occur in the evolution of multicellularity. In the evolution of eusociality the main selective drives switched from functions that concern the behavior of single organisms, e.g. single wasps, to functions that concern the coordination of the whole colony. Similarly in the evolution of multicellularity selection switched from selection of functions that concern the single cells to functions that concern the functioning of a whole multicellular colony. There are some important differences, though. One is that in an ant colony the different ants are not genetically identical, whereas in an animal most of the cells contain the same genes. A second difference is that in eusocial colonies the units (i.e ants, wasps, etc) are free to move around. No long-term physical connections between the units exist. because of this, control of the behavior of the colony has to occur through different means.

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