Egoism at its root relates to self-interest. It is the idea that a person’s goal in one life should be to promote the individual. There are two different heads to this beast, both of which have some very good points, but fail to complete what a moral code should be comprised of. The first, ethical egoism, describes what humans should do, e.g. anything in their individual self-interests. The second, psychological egoism, describes what humans will do. It is important to make a distinction between the two. Ethical egoism says humans should act in a way that promotes the individual, be it holding money instead of giving to charity or not helping an old lady across the street. Psychological egoism, however, says what humans will do, almost as if it was wired into our brains, a kind of subliminal message telling us to watch out for ourselves. Though quite different, both of these theories are flawed.
Ethical egoism, as mentioned before, is the idea that a person should work at his or her self-interests above all else. Opponents of egoism would say that there are a few things wrong with that. First of all, ethical egoism is not equipped to handle conflicts of interest. Say, for instance that Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck are running for president. In the case of ethical egoism, it would be in Mickey’s best interest to murder Donald. However, it would be in Donald’s best interest not to be murdered. So, in order for Mickey to achieve his self interests, he would have to take away Donald’s self interests. However, if both Mickey and Donald are ethical egoists, neither of them cares about the other’s interests. So stopping Donald from not getting murdered does not affect Mickey, he’s going to kill Donald anyway. Another argument opponents to ethical egoism have is that ethical egoism is arbitrary because it automatically picks the individual to be more important than everything else. Opponents would ask what it is that makes the individual so special, what is different about that person that makes them better than everyone else. Once again, I see no problem here. The reason the individual is so important is because it is the same individual who is making the decision on who is important. Ethical egoism is also supported by the idea that in trying to help people, we don’t know others’ needs as well as our own, and therefore might ruin the job. Therefore, we should only look out for ourselves.
Human beings are not in touch with anyone’s needs as much as they are their own. Psychological egoism has some different flaws though. Psychological egoism is the idea that humans will do what ever is in their best interests, that it is hardwired into their brains to do so. In this theory, the fact that it’s a built in function means there is no true altruism. It means that everything a person does can somehow be traced back to some self-interest being fulfilled. There are two maxims for psychological egoism; we always do what we most want to do, and we do what makes us feel good. The argument that we do what we most want to do can be seen as flawed. It is supposedly obvious that we don’t always do what we most want. Rarely can someone be found who truly wants to mow the lawn, or help a neighbor move. However, I believe that self-interested motives can be deduced from such actions. A person who mows the lawn does it for two reasons; if the lawn is mowed at a later time, it will be much harder work. Also, if a person’s lawn is not mown, it is hard to have pride in how the lawn looks. Another point against psychological egoism says that the idea that we do what makes us feel good is flawed as well. People do stuff that’s detrimental to their health constantly. Take smoking for example. Smoking causes numerous forms of cancer, heart disease, tooth and gum decay and multiple lung diseases. However people still like to do it because it makes them feel good. However, in the short-term, smoking provides a way to calm the nerves, something familiar to fall back on in hard times, or just a way to take a break from something. Psychological egoism may seem to have many faults, but is in fact just a basic way to describe the inner workings of the mind of the human being.
Before an acceptable alternative can be offered, a certain point must be clarified. While accepting that psychological egoism is true, we must look at how we prioritize our actions. First of all, while doing a certain action does not necessarily mean that it was what we really wanted to do. For example, getting a job does not necessarily mean we actually want a job; it is a waste of time and energy. However the benefits of a job, including camaraderie, feelings of contributing to society, and, as always, monetary compensation, often outweigh the disadvantages. I believe that the desires a human being feels are not only hardwired into our brains, but cascaded or indexed to the effect of certain desires being ranked before others. In other words, certain desires must be satisfied before others. Now, everyone has basic needs: food, water, shelter and sex. However, once those are met, what determines the importance of the rest of the desires people have? Take, for example, a person who looks to be altruistic in that they do many charitable things, including donation of their own money, time and energy. An opponent to psychological egoism would say that being charitable is what he or she really wanted to do, and by doing that, this person was looking out for the interests of others before his or her own desires. However, a person who does charitable acts truly does have their own interests in mind. By being charitable, this person is bolstering their self esteem, and showing to the world what a great person they are. A contraposition would be that, yes, those desires are met, but are a secondary facet of the good deed done, while charity was the real motivation for the job. This, though, is untrue. Charity would be the secondary aspect and the desires, having been met, are the primary motivation for the charitable acts. This is because our own desires are more intimate to us than those of others. Because of this, our needs will always come first. We may not be completely aware that our needs are the ones truly motivating us, but in reality, they are. We may even delude ourselves into believing that the secondary effects of the charitable actions were indeed the primary motivations. Also, true psychological egoism and even ethical egoism seem just too cold-hearted. People, though influenced primarily by their own motivations, also have feelings. Being compassionate to other human beings is important to not only the survival of our race, but to our own self-esteem. If a person has a chance to save a drowning child, but does nothing, that person is afflicted for quite some time, and may even feel responsible for the death of that child. However, an act to save that child, a seemingly selfless act, would prevent the bad feelings of a guilty conscience. So strong is the drive to reach certain desires that even that desire may be temporarily set aside. While egoism is about self interest, what of the event of love? This principle is so strong, so perfect that even one’s self interests may be put aside temporarily. By putting less meaningful interests aside, a person is not necessarily canceling his or her egoist views, but rather focusing on a single interest, the most important interest.
Placing certain desires in an order that makes one more important than others makes psychological egoism easier to accept. With that simple addition, psychological egoism seems to be a single explanation that describes the entire human condition. Placing an indexing system on self interests allows people to suspend other interests. This is exactly the problem that most opponents have to psychological egoism, the exact argument that supposedly disproves egoism and makes it apparently self-defeating.