Can a person be Psychological Egoist and Ethical Egoist at the same time? Or those terms are not mutually exclusive and one can be both?

  • 4
    Can you unpack your question? Citations and links would be fantastic. Jun 8, 2011 at 4:46

1 Answer 1


The two forms of egoism are actually closely related to one another.

Psychological egoism is essentially the observation that humans are characteristically motivated by their own self-interest. When they choose to take an action, it is ultimately going to be one that provides them some personal benefit (directly or indirectly), regardless of how altruistic it may appear to observers.

Ethical egoism is an ethical position claiming that the morally right actions for an agent are exactly those that maximize the agent's self-interest. The only moral guideline for an action is whether it increases our own happiness. This taken to its logical conclusion implies that all moral agents ought to do that which is in their own self-interest. Of course, it does not require the infliction of any harm or pain upon others, but at the same time, it explicitly disavows the existence of an overarching moral obligation to help or serve others, arguing that an individual moral agent ought not treat one's self ("the subject") any differently than she treats others, and that the interests and desires of others ought not be placed above those of the same.

As I see it, the only significant area of conflict between the two forms is that psychological egoism is explicitly non-normative, whereas ethical egoism is a normative philosophy. Normativity is a winding and fairly convoluted concept, but the important component here is with regards to the differing types of statements that are made by each philosophical viewpoint.

A normative view tends to be one that is prescriptivist; that is, it speaks about what one ought  to do. Normative theories attempt to prescribe behavior and enumerate principles that advise what one should  do in a particular situation. By contrast, a non-normative view is one that makes claims only about how things are, rather than how they ought to be. Fundamentally, the difference is one of is  vs. ought  statements.

And thus, one could argue that she is a psychological egoist purely because she believes that the position is fundamentally consistent with human nature, not because she thinks that actions which benefit only the self are either necessary or sufficient to achieve morality. In layman's terms, I could agree that such is how the world is, but not like it or endorse it. That would make me a psychological egoist, but not an ethical egoist.

But on the other hand, it would be relatively more difficult for an ethical egoist to distance herself from psychological egoism entirely. In fact, one of the justifications for ethical egoism might be its consistency with human nature, that moral agents are fundamentally given to look after their own welfare first before attempting to secure the welfare of others—an argument from the psychological egoist school of thought. Of course, there are plenty of other possible justifications, but the point remains that an ethical egoist is likely to also accept psychological egoism, whereas it would be theoretically possible for a psychological egoist to reject the prescriptive tenets of ethical egoism.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .