The Fundamentals of Ethics
• Uses Plato’s example of Gyges to illustrate that we don’t actually satisfy our every want
and only seek out our own best interests in the real world—no one is all powerful
• We do best for ourselves by sometimes helping others—we do one thing: make ourselves
as well-off as possible
o This is view of psychological egoism, tells us that there is only one thing that
motivates human beings: self-interest. If this is true, then altruism—the direct
desire to benefit others for their own sake without any ulterior motive—does not
• UsesArmy sergeants (McGinnis) to explain this—McGinnis dove on top of a grenade to
save his friends. The grenade killed him instantly
o Psychological egoism says that none of these people are heroes—their claim is
that actions (such as these) are never done from altruistic motives.Altruism is not
even capable in psychological egoism.
o This is a psychological, not ethical, view to describe the facts and limits of human
motivation rather than prescribe the standards that we ought to live up to.
o Revealing deep truth—it is all for personal gain
• We can’t refute egoism by pointing to examples of people accepting extreme pain since
it’s often done for a bigger gain
• Egoism’s claim:
o All human actions are aimed at avoiding some personal loss or gaining some
personal benefit (or both), either in the short run or in the long term (or both).
However, many actions don’t achieve these aims—i.e. avoiding personal
loss or gaining personal benefit
Sneezing or snoring are not done from self-interest: egoists can handle this
—in order to refute psychological egoism, you must provide examples in
which a person intends to do something, even though she wasn’t trying to
Implications of EgoismArgument
1. If psychological egoism is true, then we can’t be altruistic
2. If we can’t be altruistic, then it can’t be our duty to be altruistic
3. Therefore, if psychological egoism is true, then it can’t be our duty to be altruistic
4. Psychological egoism is true
5. Therefore, it can’t be our duty to be altruistic
• If premise 4 is true, then we have no duty to be compassionate, considerate, kind, or
generous. The resulting morality would be largely unrecognizable.
Three central arguments that seek to establish the truth of psychological egoism:
• (1) TheArgument from Our Strongest Desires
Begins by claiming that every action you perform is based on your strongest desire.
But if you’re strongest desires are what is moving you, then you are pursuing self- interest. So, whenever you act, you are pursuing self-interest. That is just what the
psychological egoist claims:
1. Whenever you do something, you are motivated by your strongest desire.
2. Whenever you are motivated by your strongest desire, you are pursuing your
3. Therefore, whenever you do something, you are pursuing your self-interest
• Strictly conscientious action is more difficult for the egoist to handle—such
action occurs when you do what you think is required of you, even in the face
of great temptation
o Which means egoists are wrong in that our deepest desire is not always to
benefit ourselves but to do our duty, even when it comes at a personal
• Say premise 1 is true, so we always do what we most want to do. But that
doesn’t yet show that our strongest desires are always for personal gain.
• Premise 2 states that our strongest desires are always for personal gain—