You may have heard it argued that there is no such thing as a selfless good deed. This statement has served as the focal point of numerous books, lectures, and yes, even a Friends Episode (The One Where Phoebe Hates PBS) (I know…I draw from Friends a lot…I digress.) However, there are two main schools of thought on the issue; psychological egoism and ethical egoism.

Psychological egoism proposes that the individual does not choose to be self-interested. Psychological egoists claim that the human is inherently self-interested, and therefore cannot help being as such.

Ethical egoism on the other hand, does not deny that the individual is self-interested, but rather, states that the individual chooses to be as such. Any action, even if seemingly altruistic can be traced to self-interested intentions.

Typically, when presented with the basic description of each position, many find themselves quickly aligning with one side or the other. We identify easily with the notion of self-interest.  In every creature, there is an instinct of and for survival. Therefore the notion of being self-interested is biological. If one doesn’t look out for their own interest, who will? If one wishes to survive, he/she must seek to benefit self, even at the risk of hurting others. Thomas Hobbes even stated that “we would be fools if we didn’t look after ourselves.” Many may also conjure up parallels with social Darwinism and the survival of the fittest.

The ethical egoist may commit a seemingly altruistic act as well, however, the action is ultimately self-interested, in lines with the notion of “what goes around comes around.”

There are several major problems with the theory of psychological egoism. The first is that falsification is not possible. Psychological egoism always looks for selfish motivations and refuses to recognize any other kind. The nature of the theory cannot allow for any other motives. A good theory must allow for the possibility of counter-examples.  The second problem is it does not take motivation into account. Doing something to benefit oneself is not always selfish. It must be taken into account, what it is that the person seeks to gain, rather than just the notion of seeking to gain. Changing language from unselfish to less selfish is incorrect. Lastly, if notions such as true love, and genuine friendship exist, psychological egoism cannot hold true.

Ethical egoism has problems as well. Ethical egoism seems to be self-contradictory. There cannot be a moral theory that says that one’s duty should be something that conflicts with someone else’s duty, so ethical egoism is therefore inconsistent. Few ethical egoists find the above refute of their theory convincing. Ethical egoists don’t agree that we can’t have a moral theory which gives the green light to different concepts of duty. Altruism is inconsistent with egoism.

So where do you fall? Is altruism impossible? Are we hard-wired for self-seeking behavior, even at the expense/inability to perform acts not in our best interest? Do we choose to commit selfish acts or do they run rampant through our brains without any control? Can we live in a world where selfless good deeds are a fairy tale? Do we want to? Perhaps if that is in our best interest….