In The Elements of Moral Philosophy, James and Stuart Rachels gives the following definitions:

Ethical Egoism claims that each person ought to pursue his or her own self-interest exclusively. Psychological Egoism, by contrast, asserts that each person does in fact pursue his or her own self-interest exclusively.

The only difference in the statement is Ethical Egoism uses "ought to" while Psychological Egoism uses "does".

I do not get the difference quite well can someone please explain the further the presented definition and the significance of using such distinct words.

  • Can we say that ought refers to tendency of doing something rather than actually doing it? Like we tend to go with our self-interest but not necessarily ? Like referring to probability of event – Hasan Hammoud Jun 6 '18 at 20:53
  • The difference is not specific to this example, and Wikipedia discusses it at length as the Is–Ought Problem. Ethical Egoist says:"I am going to help you, but I really shouldn't", psychological egoist says:"I should help you, but I won't". – Conifold Jun 6 '18 at 21:41
  • I should help you but I won't referring to the fact that not helping the other out is the self interest? – Hasan Hammoud Jun 6 '18 at 21:42
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    Ethical egoism is prescriptive, psychological egoism is descriptive. According to second point of view even altruist is egoist because altruist helps others since [s]he gets satisfaction from it, or there are other feelings and emotions, but they still are his/her own feelings and emotions, not others'. So, it is done in order to experience/escape them. – rus9384 Jun 6 '18 at 22:51
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    @Conifold, I don't see the linkage between given question and the Is-Ought problem. – rus9384 Jun 6 '18 at 22:54

Ethical egoism is a position in ethics which believes pursuing self-interest is moral.

Psychological egoism is a position about people's empirical behavior (regardless of their ethics) that people do in fact pursue self-interest.

Maybe to draw an analogy, "physical gravity" could be the view that objects do pull themselves towards other objects in accordance with their masses and the inverse distance squared.

In contrast "ethical gravity" could be the (preposterous? imagined?) view that objects should pull towards each.

An ethical claim is (in general) a claim about how things ought to be; a descriptive claim is a claim about how things just are.

So psychological egoism believes that's just how people do behave. Ethical egoism says that's how people ought to behave. This can give us a two x two:

            |      EE  is true                       |     EE is false
PE is true  |   people are automatically moral       |  necessarily immoral
PE is false |   people need to learn to act selfishly|  [null]

by null I mean, that if both claims are false, then we can pretty much ignore egoism for understanding behavior and ethics.

conversely, if both are true, people always act morally automatically because "moral" = EE and actions are based on PE. If PE is true but EE is false, then people always act immorally because morality comes from something else but people's actions come from egoism.

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To get a conceptual point out of the way first. The Rachels' statement is ambiguous :

For its requirement of "exclusive" pursuit of self-interest is ambiguous. It may mean either (a) that the egoist ought to do those actions of which he is the sole beneficiary (thus he will be justified in taking those actions which will result in a benefit to himself alone), or (b) that he ought to do only those actions for which his motive is promotion of his interest (thus he is justified in doing actions which will benefit himself along with others, but his reason for acting must be to benefit himself). (Edward Regis, Jr, 'What is Ethical Egoism?', Ethics, Vol. 91, No. 1 (Oct., 1980), pp. 50-62 : 52.

Regis is not commenting on the Rachels' formulation of ethical egoism but on one precisely similar.

There is no need to tie ethical egoism to self-interest - an exclusive tie to interest, a person's interests, is sufficient.


But for the sake of argument, if we keep to 'self-interest', ethical egoism prescribes what one ought to do, what one should do, from a moral point of view.

'Psychological egoism' has nothing directly to do with ethics. It is a claim within psychology - rather old psychology - that people not only do pursue solely self-interest but that they cannot but pursue solely self-interest. Said another way (adapted from W.D. Glasgow : 75), it is a doctrine of motivation to the effect that human beings are so constituted that each seeks, and can only seek, self-interest .

Whereas ethical egoism prescribes, psychological egoism only describes deterministically.

Psychological egoism - indirect ethical implications

If 'ought implies can' then there is no point in holding that people ought to act any other way than solely from self-interest. The 19th-century utilitarians such as Jeremy Bentham and J.S, Mill had a way round this problem, however. Utilitarianism measures the moral value of actions purely by their consequences, not their intentions. If, then, you apply sanctions against morally undesirable behaviour, and the penalty imposed by the sanctions makes it in an agent's self-interest to desist from morally undesirable behaviour (judged by consequences) and it encourages morally desirable behaviour (again judged by consequences).

The truth is that the idea of a penal sanction, which is the essence of law, enters not only into the conception of injustice, but into that of any kind of wrong. We do not call anything wrong, unless we mean to imply that a person ought to be punished in some way or other for doing it; if not by law, by the opinion of his fellow- creatures; if not by opinion, by the reproaches of his own con- science. This seems the real turning point between morality and simple expediency. It is a part of the notion of Duty, in every one of its forms, that a person may rightfully be compelled to fulfill it. ( J. S. Mill, Utilitarianism, chap. 5.) in Utilitarianism, On Liberty, Essay on Bentham, ed. M. Warnock (London: Fontana, 1962), pp. 303-4.

Note that connecting sanctions with self-interest in this way will not produce morality on a Kantian approach, where intention is central and consequences are not so.


Edward Regis, Jr, 'What is Ethical Egoism?', Ethics, Vol. 91, No. 1 (Oct., 1980), pp. 50-62.

W. D. Glasgow, 'Psychological Egoism', American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Jan., 1976), pp. 75-79.

J.S. Mill, Utilitarianism in Utilitarianism, On Liberty, Essay on Bentham, ed. M. Warnock (London: Fontana, 1962) or see : https://www.utilitarianism.com/mill1.htm.

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The only difference in the statement is Ethical Egoism uses "ought to" while Psychological Egoism uses "does".

Well then, it looks like you have found the difference. Ethical egoism is a normative position (telling you what you ought to do) whereas psychological egoism is a descriptive position (purporting to describe how people actually behave).

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