Psychological Egoism: Selfishly Improving the World Around You

in #philosophy2 years ago

One of my favorite YouTube channels is called Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell. I'm currently in beautiful Puerto Rico, but resting to recover from laryngitis (yeah, my voice is completely gone). I noticed this on YouTube and absolutely loved it!

Egoistic Altruism
A Selfish Argument for Making the World a Better Place

The current summary of my perspective on life is to help create the world we all want to live in. I recognize how my desire to help others is a version of rational, long-term self-interest because it creates a world that gives me joy, love, pleasure, fulfillment, purpose, and more for myself, my spouse, my offspring, and the people I love (which includes more and more people as my circle of empathy expands). It wasn't until this video that I realized a version of this perspective has a name:

Psychological Egoism

As the Kurzgesagt video states, "There is a genuine, selfish argument for making the world a better place." We're living in a positive sum world and the rules of scarcity which dominated war and conquest for so long no longer make sense.

I think STEEM (along with Steemit/Busy/DTube/DLive/Utopian/etc) is an amazing example of the future where we all individually benefit by working to benefit others. This is what a positive sum world is all about. The more value we add to the STEEM blockchain and curate great content from others, the more our personal STEEM holdings go up in value. I almost never self-vote now, as an example, because I personally benefit so much more by voting for others. Those votes create relationships, build my reputation, demonstrate influence, and (I believe) will eventually increase the value of the whole blockchain as worthwhile content and authors are rewarded for their efforts.

I hope you watch the video and maybe even spend a few minutes reading the wikipedia page on Psychological Egoism. I'll quote some of the main points below to give you a better idea of what this is all about:

Psychological egoism is the view that humans are always motivated by self-interest, even in what seem to be acts of altruism. It claims that, when people choose to help others, they do so ultimately because of the personal benefits that they themselves expect to obtain, directly or indirectly, from doing so.

I know many hold tight to the word altruism, but for me, what the word represents seems more like a dillusion. If the neural network of our brain fires in just the right way to cause external action it's because our brain agreed that was the best thing to do given the inputs at that time. It's what "we" wanted.

Humanity performs altruistic, honorable, and virtuous acts not for the sake of another or because of a moral code but rather to increase the well being of the self.

This makes sense to me. Even someone who might be considered the most altruistic person is acting in such a way to align with what they themselves want to see in the world (otherwise, they would act differently).

Connected to this idea is how humans are primarily motivated by pain and pleasure. I think that also makes sense and many different motivational speakers have gathered rather large followings describing it.

To put it another way:

The psychological egoist asserts humans act altruistically for selfish reasons even when cost of the altruistic action is far outweighed by the reward of acting selfishly because altruism is performed to fulfill the desire of a person to act altruistically.

The main criticism of this view is that it is circular in that we desire satisfaction of our desires for satisfaction.

In a way, it reveals how "we" may be deterministic machines and the self-referencing, circular problem we find here is just a matter of the code trying to understand itself. Many solve this problem by injecting an outside observer or first mover or "god" which handles this concern by divinely implanting purpose and meaning into us. I no longer follow that storyline, but I see why it's comfortable. Maybe Bicameralism further explains how we got the consciousness we understand today and how a divided brain gave us the "gods" who spoke to us directly up until around 3,000 years ago.

I'm fascinated by this stuff because I think so many people haven't done the hard work of figuring out where morality comes from. They try to do "good" and avoid "bad," but get frustrated when their actions cause unintended consequences and seem to make the world a worse place than before. Many government laws which are nothing more than threats of violent force are an example of this phenomenon. If we instead know exactly why something is good and why we, as self-interested actors, would want to do the right thing to help others, then we can be more honest with ourselves and those in our community. This lowers cognitive dissonance and helps everyone more accurately evaluate true motives.

That's a beautiful thing.

What do you think about Psychological Egoism and Altruism?

Luke Stokes is a father, husband, programmer, STEEM witness, and voluntaryist who wants to help create a world we all want to live in. Visit

I'm a Witness! Please vote for @lukestokes.mhth


Interesting idea! I'll have to use that phrase now. One thing I would like to add is that I think there is a deeper level to motivation besides pleasure and pain. I refer to them as "joy" and "misery" pleasure and pain are short term while joy and misery are long term. I think the wisest people are the ones who try to focus more on obtaining joy and avoiding misery as opposed to avoiding pain and pursuing pleasure.

It could almost be categorized as common sense:) I'm all for it on that level.
But, and it's a fairly big butt: this model is thoroughly embedded within what's called the myth of progress; it also implies that there is no core metaphysical/spiritual pathology on this planet and that everything is hunky dory in a random chance materialist kind of way; ​rose-colored skeptics like Shermer would love this model!

I'm all for being open to some transcendent reality we haven't yet classically discovered and understood. That said, I'm still going to look for the evidence so as not to pretend to know things I don't know. Just read a summary of the book by that name, and I agree an ever-expanding economy is a silly dream, but I also think those who underestimated possibility such as Thomas Malthus fill our history as well.

Here are a few critiques of the presentation.
-it wrongly concludes,IMO, that hundreds and thousands of years of hunter-gatherer and agrarian societies were nothing much more than endless brutality. It omits the intelligence of the steady-state economics within these 'models'.
-it omits the brutality of the transition from premodernism to modernism as if all those exploited to death by the billionaire and monied classes since the industrial revolution were of no concern or significance.
-it omits the fact that the past 100 years have turned the earth into an economic casino with sociopaths in full control of economics and politics and that the only way to win is to break the only spiritual rule that matters: The Golden Rule which if understood correctly wouldn't allow for unnecessary coercion and exploitation of other humans and life forms (or resources).
-there are no criteria in this presentation which could magically transform the present system into a voluntary one where no one is unnecessarily coerced or exploited to do anything they didn't want to do. To me, it begs the question of why we should believe utopian promises about this present system changing for the better when most of those in power and position today are doing the exact opposite things which need to be done to bring about a better future.
The New Social Credit mark of the beast app in China is but one example of thousands I could give.
That they've ripped the moniker from mid-century western Canadian Christians who had the right idea but failed in implementation is appalling. So are the number of Asians​ in Vancouver wearing filter masks in public. Let me assure you the air was really​ good in '79 here for a city so this is nothing but factual de-evolution​, IMO. Regardless of the denial by the evil that runs this town.
Rant over:D

  • Steven Pinker's work The Better Angels of Our Nature makes a very strong argument that things are better (infant mortality rate, life expectancy, propserity, etc) now then they ever have been. That said, there are definitely concerns with a broken economic model that has to continually expand in order to function.

  • I'm not sure it omits it, it just follows the larger story of how much things have improved. See posts like this for details.

  • I strongly dissagree that's the "only way to win." I live my life as a counter example to that. I do agree the earth is being destroyed and that is a problem we all should focus on as we live more sustainably.

  • The video wasn't about voluntaryism. It was stating facts. Things, for most every human on the planet, have gotten much better.

  • I used to believe in the religious dogma and mark of the beast stuff. I no longer pretend to know things I don't know. That said, the level of survillance and control the Chinese government has over its people with examples like that app is certainly sobering.

  • I'm not familiar with polution levels you're describing, but I know we have made improvements in a number of areas. People aren't freaking out about acid rain any more because we made changes. We're also no longer using lead gasoline, so that was a huge improvement also. Things are improving.

No worries about ranting. I like them when they are thought provoking.

Wow... I didn't realize there was actually a "word" for something I have only tried to conceptualize in my mind. I never got beyond "selfish selflessness."

In the theory that lives inside my head (uber-simplified) if I help people around me be prosperous, happy and healthy... the result is that I don't have to deal with struggling, unhappy and suffering people. Which is a benefit to ME. In its most crudely stated way, if I help others be happy, I don't have to deal with living in a whiny unhappy world. If I take the time to be nice to my neighbor or the community, my "reward" might be an apple pie, rather than a brick through the window.

For me, the beauty of Steemit and affiliates is that it's a training ground in positive pay-it-forward vibes. Except, it's more effective, in the sense that nobody has to reach into their pocket to "give it forward." And yes, I totally believe we can rewire our neural nets (whole different long story there involving some neuroscientists I am friendly with) towards a more giving orientation.

Now, let's extend this out a little further... in a sense our upvotes are a bit like a type of UBI where we (the community)— rather than a "government" or "centralized authority"— are the ones who hand out income to UBI "recipients."

The challenge, mind you, is the opposing force which might be something we could call "the human greed gene." I put that in quotes because it's not a real thing; nonetheless it manifests in the behavior of a large number of people, ranging from the "people behaving badly" to snap up new toys at Wal-Mart on Black Friday to the entrepreneur with $20M in the bank who nonetheless labors endlessly to make even more money for a bigger mansion while their workers struggle on minimum wage.

Still, something to think about here.

I’m glad you saw this one as I figured you’d enjoy it also based on our many philosophical exchanges. Pretty cool stuff, huh? I agree about the potential for Steemit to power a UBI as well. I wrote about that in one of my earliest posts.

Ah yes, that's a good post, too.

In reading it — and the comments — I came back to the same place of "what next" I typically end up at: A lot of people simply "don't care" and are not idealistically inclined. Which leads me to consider that perhaps the single most important thing we can do is teach compassion and empathy.

I believe this type of world change becomes more feasible/likely if more people are able to step outside their "hard" selfishness and realize that their actions often DO have an impact on those around them. What we are talking about here is more a "soft" selfishness, for lack of a better term.

It's a challenge to be sure, but I really do enjoy exploring the ways we might get there.

perhaps the single most important thing we can do is teach compassion and empathy.


That's why I love NVC and the NAP so much. I feel they both help move this along.

“...then we can be more honest with ourselves and those in our community. This lowers cognitive dissonance and helps everyone more accurately evaluate true motives.

That's a beautiful thing.”


High five indeed. :)

Great video and the points they make are right on target. Yes, we are all better off in a positive sum society. Thank you for sharing this, @lukestokes. Hope your voice gets better. I look forward to hearing what you thought of PR.

Thanks Terry. It's been a great trip so far, and I got to meet a lot of really interesting people. It was a bit discouraging to lose my voice during the event though. Can't really network if you can't speak and there were so many more amazing people I wanted to connect with. Oh well. There will be many other times, I'm sure. I've been taking it easy today and hope to be feeling much better by tomorrow.

When you get your voice back, let's talk. I'd love to find out from you what you thought about the event and how it went for you.

I might be in spiritual territory when I say this, but I believe that most beings in the universe start evolving from a total egoistic self centralization, arrive at psychological egoism when they see their ways would destroy ANY world they live in, and much much later, they go towards selflesness. No proofs here, just a thought and a feeling...

That makes a lot of sense to me as well. I've heard that as people transcend their own ego, they feel fully connected to all of life and no longer see themselves as separate from others. I haven't reached that level myself and sometimes I wonder if it's just a mindset, and possibly not a natural one, which doesn't fully represent physical reality where we are, in fact, separate entities (though very connected).

I´ll get WAY out there into spiritual territory to answer you. I believe in reincarnation because I´ve had some experiences that confirmed to me that it exists, so I believe that it´s not only the human species that physically evolves in its DNA, but also the souls that get to inhabit the new bodies. You can´t force a more evolved mindset artificially because it would be like a child pretending to be an adult. It would feel totally unnatural and even make you miserable. Right now, at this stage of my life I´m at Psychological Egoism as well, so that´s what I embrace. (Btw, I already tried to be totally selfless but it made me miserable, it´s not who I am yet, so I´m speaking with personal experience on that).

Hello @lukestokes
For the most part of human behaviour, people usually are self-centered and selfish. But we can’t simply claim that altruism is an act of selfeshness as selfeshness implies not caring about the wel-being of others in request of personal benefits. While altruism is caring for others for personal moral benefit as this post claims. This claim might emphasize on selfshness, or we might say that there is benign selfeshness and malignant selfeshness.

If every human act is eventually leaeds to one’s own well being, why are there empathetic individuals who suffer the feelings of others?

Selfishness is different than self-interested. One specifically excludes caring about others while the other recognizes we can only help others after we help ourselves and when we help others we also help ourselves.

As to your question, I think that's based on how different people have different mirror neuron function. Those empathetic people will act on behalf of others even more than most to spare themselves negative feelings (at least, that's how the theory goes).

It has been my experience that when my attitude towards others is to treat them with consideration, love, respect and forgiveness; consideration, love, respect and forgiveness are more often given in return. I don't believe there will ever be a consensus among humans that definitively defines good and bad, resulting in a world we all want to live in, as it is at that moment. I do believe continuing to strive for that is a worthwhile venture, regardless of underlying motivations.

Yes, the law of reciprocity is important. To me, the NAP (Non-Aggression Principle) is one of the closest things we have yet where everyone could agree. That, I think, is a good starting point to teach our kids.

Thank you for the link. I had been meaning to look up non-aggression principle, I didn't know the definition, but I do live by the the best of my ability. Hope your laryngitis heals quickly.

Hey Luke

Yep, news to me too this and so I'm really glad you shared. Love the way they have produced this video in a straightforward manner.

I've been called selfish in the past, now I can hold my head up high and say 'yes, yes I am'!

...The more value we add to the STEEM blockchain and curate great content from others, the more our personal STEEM holdings go up in value. I almost never self-vote now, as an example, because I personally benefit so much more by voting for others.

Absolutely. I've been on at this for a few months now, as well as paying for SP to delegate on for free to encourage others. I run an 'engagement league' and the most promising folks get $ and free delegation, and I'm also offering out 'data' gifts and as much encouragement as I can muster.

And now, I can back it up with my selfish argument of Psychological Egoism :)


EDIT: Reading @teamsteem's latest post and listening to Dan Larimers video (on the 2 year old post linked in the recent @teamsteem post), I feel the @dan was on the case with this years ago with regards to his views on crypto and blockchain. Very cool!

When we talk about this stuff (or Objectivism, for example), I think it's important to recognize that selfishness is still a very real thing. Those who look out for themselves at the expense of others or the community really are selfish in a way that (IMO) doesn't factor in long-term, rational self-interest. I think they could have done even more for themselves if they were less selfish, if that makes sense.

Good luck with the engagement league. Sounds interesting.

And yes, Dan has been ahead of the curve for a lot of things such as UBI.

I think what perhaps makes your response a bit "muddy" is that regardless of the motivation, selfish is always meaning acting in self-interest. There is the type of selfish action that, as you mentioned, is done with the acknowledgement that it is not in our best interest to harm or alienate others, and there are actions that fail to regard the actor as one of those people that is being hurt when it is an immoral act.

Thanks for the material, I am still fairly green in formally discussing philosophy and hadn't come across psychological egoism, looking forward to learning more about the topic and seeing the impact of this community on society!

I see selfish as:

(of a person, action, or motive) lacking consideration for others; concerned chiefly with one's own personal profit or pleasure.

It specifically lacks the consideration for others. That's where the line is drawn between self-interest and selfishness. I wouldn't consider a beneficial form of self-interest as "selfish" based on the meaning of the word.

Yes I agree there, and honestly it's not that hard to see who's being selfish for greater good, or not, here on the Steem Blockchain.

The league is a top 10 post each week according to arcanges data and I think we have a great thing going on there, thank you :)

The link in your reply took me down a few paths today and I ended up at a great piece by @krnel on UBI.

There really are some excellent blogs 'hidden' away, thanks for joining some dots for me.

I think I read that one. I also wrote a post about UBI and how it could powered by STEEM.

Yes you did, you are the top comment on the post.

What if we could all live at the top of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Now that is a goal worth striving for - I believe it's possible, although I suspect not in my lifetime.

Again, there is so much good content down in the depths, it has me thinking of the best way to serve it up as so much of it is still, and perhaps even more relevant as we move forward.

Great article, yes agree 100%. Im new to steem and one of the main reasons i wanted to get away from youtube facebook etc is that we need to control our own futures instead of some faceless corporation leading us to god knows what ends. I think it was Socrates who said the only thing i know is that i know nothing, this is the first thought that popped into my head reading your article, specifically about morality. On a side note Block chain tech is the future and eventually it will become the norm and the mainstream. PR is beautiful and hope u are enjoy yourself.

Thanks for chiming in. :)

When it comes to morality, I think we do have to risk taking a stand somewhere to say, "Hey, I think I know this. What do you all think?" To me, the NAP is a great base point. If we claim to know nothing, then morality itself can't exist because every action will be completely subjective, regardless of how harmful it is.

True, i guess for me its always a question of whats moral to one may not be moral for another. We are all a product of the bias that we come from and carry that throughout our lives. But yes i agree that having an open discussion about this subject will bring people onto the same wavelength hopefully.

Egoism has been understood by those who had any common sense through the ages, from the various types of religions and cultures around the world.

It seems like such an obscure concept to me, but maybe that's because I grew up in the Christian religion which honors self-sacrifice and demonizes all forms of looking out for your self and building a moral framework out from there.

I'm guessing this comes from a Puritan background.

if we're going to be selfish anyways (which I think is a fairly consistent trait in humans), far better to be selfishly helpful to others than selfishly hurtful. Which i think of as (or hope for) the world moving from a competitive framework to a co-operative one.

I think the idea of self-interested over "selfish" which specifically excludes caring about others. Self-interested recognizes it's my responsibility to take care of me and no one else has that responsibility but me. Once I do that, I'm in a much better place to take care of others who for whatever reason are unable to take care of themselves.

I agree with this to an extent, but absolute self-sacrifice (putting your life in jeopardy to help someone else) runs contrary to one's own self-interest/self-satisfaction.

There are people who are willing to die in order to create a better world, knowing that they will gain nothing from their sacrifice. This kind of self-sacrifice is the highest virtue.

To quote Martin Luther King Jr: “If you haven’t found something worth dying for, you aren’t fit to be living.”

And Malcolm X: "If you're not willing to die for it, remove the word 'freedom' from your vocabulary".

This is exactly what I was thinking. Well put!

I love this article so much. Finally, I understand the term of psychological egoism. Thanks for sharing this precious knowledge.

I'm glad you enjoyed it. I hope it helps you continue your journey to become a better person. :)

Amen.That's very kind of you. I am so touched by your words.

What led you to PR? I've looked at relocating there along with Schiff and Maloney.

We're just staying for a couple weeks, but my friend @sean-king moved here recently and loves it. I'm certainly interested. It's a beautiful place.

It is! I'm very interested in the place. Gun rights are maintained, it is easy to get there and back (just a driver's license), the tax incentives are wonderful, and the climate is great too.

There's no such thing as true selflessness, which doesn't mean it's bad. Man's best motive is for self... and if we can help others while doing so then all the better.

I'd take it so far to say that when we help others, we help ourselves.

Great article mate ! together we are stronger.

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Pretty interesting thought there as this touches on the idea of whether man who in a lot of philosophy and psychological positions are pointed as inherently selfish and will always act in accordance with self preservation.

In modern context this has been counted as having the scarcity mindset of acquiring as much material wealth, influence and power.

We by nature like to hoard. Saving for that rainy day that we might need the supplies, a favor in return or money.

Even our technology is geared towards preservation and acquisition of more goods, power and influence.

Yet we have aberrant individuals who places other people first or use their resources to spread the wealth. In a way they are not merely paying it forward but rather accepting an abundance mindset instead of a scarcity one.

I started in Steemit with a scarcity mindset that everything was about me and that I needed all the upVotes.

A major change in who I am was brought about when I discovered the positive effects of Community building.

Together with the promo-mentors we are bridging that gap between the new people that join Steem and the veterans who knows how things are and how to help the newbies in terms of getting their posts visible to the community at large especially to the major curating guilds like curie and Ocd.

I have seen how people would devote time, effort to help other people. They are not doing it for influence or power or be grand in their eyes. They are doing it to make the platform and it's content better.

Just take Asher's league of excellence in engagement. You see people there competing to get a lot of upvotes and Comments spread out to the community. Sure it looks good to be at the top 20 engagers in the platform but are they out to brag about it. I don't think so.

They are doing it because they want the platform to succeed.

It's nice seeing people like you having this kind of mindset. That it's not all about the money. That together it is better for everyone to improve and share our blessings in this gifteconomy.

The nature of the self is very addictive?

Awesome stuff Luke, hope you're having a great time in PR sorry to hear about your laryngitis . -Zach

Thanks Zach. Other than that, it's been great. :)

Focus on commenting relevant contents and you will build up followers. If you are just posting self promotion on other people's posts it will backfire as people view that as spam and will be less likely to follow you and most likely flag you.