Psychological egoism is the belief that people are essentially selfish and tend to act in their own interest in all circumstances. The ultimate human goal is to achieve welfare, that is, a state where their desires can be fully satisfied. According to psychological egoism, even when people seem to help others and commit self-sacrifices, they still pursue their own interests and act to their own benefit, obtaining it indirectly. For example, if a person sacrifices himself to save another person, his actual motivation may be not to benefit the other, but to be lauded as a hero or to avoid social reproach. The view of psychological egoism is contrasted to psychological altruism, which states that, by their nature, people are able to act in the best interest of others, refusing from their own benefits. Psychological egoism is a highly controversial thesis: even though it is broadly supported with the psychoanalytical and behaviorist psychological theories, it is often viewed as over-simplistic and disruptive for the foundations of social cooperation. While accepting psychological egoism as absolute truth has some negative social implications, selfish behavior is more typical for humans than altruism.
The murder of Kitty Genovese in New York in 1964 created unprecedented resonance because 38 witnesses, “respectable, law-abiding citizens” (Gansberg, 1964) failed to call the police or help the victim in any other way. The witness who finally called the police did it after much hesitation because, in his own words, he did not want to get involved. There is a good chance that Catherine Genovese might have been saved if the witnesses had taken action earlier because the police arrived immediately. When they were asked about the cause of their unresponsiveness, some of the witnesses admitted that they were afraid, while others could not even explain their motivation clearly. An egoist might respond that the witnesses acted in a natural and reasonable manner because they feared the consequences of their involvement. They could see that the assailant was armed and aggressive, so they might have been hurt or killed if they had tried to help the victim directly. Therefore, they acted out of the instinct of self-preservation, which is imminent to humans. However, it cannot be claimed that people’s failure to call the police was essentially egoistic because it did not involve any danger to them. Thus, they did not pursue their personal interest when deciding not to involve. Their unresponsive behavior was primarily motivated not with their selfishness, but with the emotional confusion they experienced. The witnesses were so terrified to hear the cries of the victim and to see the violent attacks that they could not even think of the easiest way to respond to this situation, as they had never faced it before. Moreover, they did not feel all the responsibility that lay on them because they thought that other people might do something about it. Therefore, their behavior was not as much egoistic as immature and irresponsible.
The story of the shepherd Gyges is more representative of the intrinsic human egoism. According to the legend narrated by Plato in Republic, Gyges, who served to the ruler of Lydia, accidentally found a magical ring that made him invisible when being worn. Gyges used the ring to pursue his mean interests: with its help, he took the control of the realm after seducing the ruler’s wife and killing him. In the Plato’s dialogue, Glaucon tells this story to prove that justice and virtue are not imminent to humans: people can only act justly out of the fear of punishment, while they tend to perform immoral deeds when guaranteed impunity. An egoist would say that Gyges was absolutely right in his decision to use the ring to his advantage because this way he could achieve anything he wanted without any fear of being caught. Moreover, an egoist would probably agree with the observation of Glaucon that a person who would refuse from using the power of the ring would be regarded as a fool. The cruelty of Gyges’ actions, though, may be condemned because, with the ring in his possession, he could have attained his goals in other ways, without necessarily killing the ruler.
Unfortunately, the behavior demonstrated in the story of Kitty Genovese’s murder in the story of Gyges is typical for humans. While the unresponsiveness of the witnesses of the murder may not be egoistic in the proper sense of the word, it still shows the lack of consideration we have for the lives of others, preferring to stay in our comfort zone and think about our own interests. Perhaps, everyone has witnessed a situation when a person falls in a public place, showing signs of sickness and pain, but most of the people around pass her by, pretending to look in the opposite direction. The same reaction can be frequently observed when a beggar asks people for help, trying to prove that he needs the money for treatment. Similar to the witnesses of the Kitty Genovese’s murder, they just do not want to get involved into others’ lives. Very often people become callous and cynical with time, even if they were not so from the start, because they realize that it is impossible to help everyone, while the involvement with others’ lives implies too much emotional tension.
It is equally common for people to behave like Gyges, pursuing their own interests by any means when they know that they are safe from punishment. In general, most of the good human acts are motivated either with the fear of punishment or with the desire for reward. Even a zealous believer who sacrifices his life for the sake of others and thinks about helping the poor all the time cannot be regarded as an altruist because his ultimate goal is to achieve a reward in the afterlife. Viewed from this perspective, all the people are imminently egoistic and real altruism is only possible for spiritually advanced individuals who deny themselves completely. Ordinary people, though, indeed require strong social constraints (rewards and punishments) to act in the interest of others.
- Gansberg, M. (1964, Mar. 27). 38 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com
- Plato. The Republic. In Jowett, B. (1892), The Dialogues of Plato Translated into English. London: Oxford University Press.