V. Egoism.


We have next to consider an objection to the view that objective rightness consists in probably having the best consequences on the whole. The objection I mean is that of egoism: that a man’s first duty is to himself, and that to secure his own good is more imperative than to secure other people’s. Extensions of this view are, that a man should prefer the interest of his family to that of strangers, of his countrymen to that of foreigners, or of his friends to that of his enemies. All these views have in common the belief that, quite apart from practicability, the ends which one man ought to pursue are different from those which another man ought to pursue. (§ 31 ¶ 1)

Egoism has several different meanings. It may mean that every man is psychologically bound to pursue his own good exclusively; it may mean that every man will achieve the best result on the whole by pursuing his own good; it may mean that his own good is the only thing a man ought to think good; and it may mean, lastly, that there is no such thing as the general good at all, but only individual goods, and that each man is only concerned with what is good for himself. These meanings all presuppose that we know what is meant by my good; but this is not an easy conception to define clearly. I shall therefore begin by considering what it is capable of meaning. (§ 31 ¶ 2)


My good is a phrase capable of many different meanings. It may mean any good that I desire, whether this has any further special relation to me or not. Or, again, it may mean my pleasure, or any state of mind in me which is good. Or it may include honour and respect from others, or anything which is a good and has some relation to me in virtue of which it can be considered mine. The two meanings with which we shall be concerned are: (1) any good I desire, (2) any good having to me some relation other than that I desire it, which it does not have to others, of the kind which makes it mine, as my pleasure, my reputation, my learning, my virtue, etc. (§ 32 ¶ 1)

The theory that every man is psychologically bound to pursue his own good exclusively is, I think, inconsistent with known facts of human nature, unless my good is taken in the sense of something which I desire, and even then I do not necessarily pursue what I desire most strongly. The important point is, that what I desire has not necessarily any such other relation to me as would make it any good in the second of the above senses. This is the point which must now occupy us. (§ 32 ¶ 2)

If my good means a good which is mine in some other sense than that I desire it, then I think it can be shown that my good is by no means the only object of my actions. There is a common confusion in people's thoughts on this subject, namely the following: If I desire anything, its attainment will give me more or less pleasure, and its non-attainment will givem e more or less pain. Hence it is inferred that I desire it on account of the pleasure it would give me, and not on its own account. But this is to put the cart before the horse. The pleasure we get from things usually depends upon our having had a desire which they satisfy; the pleasures of eating and drinking, for example, depend upon hunger and thirst. Or take, again, the pleasure people get from the victory of their own party in a contest. Other people would derive just the same pleasure from the victory of the opposite party; in each case the pleasure depends for its existence on the desire, and would not exist if the desire had not existed. Thus we cannot say that people only desire pleasure. They desire all kinds of things, and pleasures come from desiresmuch oftener than desires from imagined pleasures. Thus the mere fact that a man will derive some pleasure from achieving his object is no reason for saying that his desire is self-centred. (§ 32 ¶ 3)


Such arguments are necessary for the refutation of those who hold it to be obvious a priori that every man must always pursue his own good exclusively. But, as is often the case with refutations of a priori theories, there is an air of logic-chopping about a discussion as to whether desire or the pleasure expected from its satisfaction ought to have priority. Let us leave these questions, and consider whether, as a matter of fact, people’s actions can be explained on the egoistic hypothesis. The most obvious instances to the contrary are, of course, cases of self-sacrifice—of men to their country, for example, or of parents to children. But these instances are so obvious that the egoistic theory is ready with an answer. It will maintain that, in such cases, the people who make the sacrifice would not be happy if they did not make it, that they desire the applause of men or of their own consciences, that they find in the moment of sacrifice an exaltation which realizes their highest self, etc., etc., etc. Let us examine these arguments. It is said that the people in question would not be happy if they did not make the sacrifice. This is often false in fact, but we may let that pass. Why would they not be happy? Either because others would think less well of them, or because they themselves would feel pangs of conscience, or because they genuinely desired the object to be attained by their sacrifice and could not be happy without it. In the last case they have admittedly a desire not centred in self; the supposed effect upon their happiness is due to the desire, and would not otherwise exist, so that the effect upon happiness cannot be brought into account for the desire. But if people may have desires for things that lie outside their ego, then such desires, like others, may determine action, and it is possible to pursue an object which is not my good in any sense except that I desire and pursue it. Thus, in all cases of self-sacrifice, those who hold the egoistic theory will have to maintain that the outside end secured by the self-sacrifice is not desired. When a soldier sacrifices his life he does not desire the victory of his country, and so on. This is already sufficiently preposterous, and sufficiently contrary to plain fact. But it is not enough. Assuming that this is the case, let us suppose that self-sacrifice is dictated, not by desire for any outside end, but by fear of the disapproval of others. If this were so there would be no self-sacrifice if no-one would know of its non-performance. A man who saw another drowning would not try to save him if he was sure that no one would see him not jumping into the water. This also is plainly contrary to fact. It may be said that the desire for approval, as well as the fear of disapproval, ought to be taken into account; and a man can always make sure of approval by judicious boasting. But men have made sacrifices universally disapproved, for example, in maintaining unpopular opinions; and very many have made sacrifices of which an essential part was that they should not be mentioned. Hence the defender of psychological egoism is driven back on the approval of conscience as the motive to an act of self-sacrifice. But it is really impossible to believe that all who deny themselves are so destitute of rational foresight as this theory implies. The pangs of conscience are to most people a very endurable pain, and practice in wrong-doing rapidly diminishes them. And if the act of self-denial involves the loss of life, the rapture of self-approbation, which the virtuous man is supposed to be seeking, must in any case be very brief. I conclude that the psychology of egoism is only produced by the exigencies of a wrong theory, and is not in accordance with the facts of observable human nature. (§ 33 ¶ 1)

Thus when we consider human actions and desires apart from preconceived theories, it is obvious that most of them are objective and have no direct reference to self. If my good means an object belonging to me in the sense of being a state of my mind, or a whole of which a state of my mind is a part, or what others think about me, then it is false that I can only desire or pursue my own good. The only sense in which it is true is when my good is taken to mean what I desire; but what I desire need not have any other connection with myself, except that I desire it. Thus there is no truth in the doctrine that all men do, as a matter of fact, only desire or pursue objects specially related to themselves in any way except as objects desired or pursued. (§ 33 ¶ 2)


The next form of egoism to be considered is the doctrine that every man will best serve the general good by pursuing his own. There is a comfortable eighteenth-century flavour about this doctrine--it suggests a good income, a good digestion, and an enviable limitation of sympathy. We may admit at once that in a well-ordered world it would be true, and even that, as society becomes better organized, it becomes progressively truer, since rewards will more and more be attached to useful actions. And in so far as a man's own good is more in his control than other people's, his actions will rightly concern themselves more with it than with other people's. For the same reason he will be more concerned with the good of his family than with that of people with whom he has less to do, and more with the good of his own country than with that of foreign countries. But the scope of such considerations is strictly limited, and everyone can easily find in his own experience cases where the general good has been served by what at any rate appears to be a self-sacrifice. If such cases are to be explained away, it is necessary to alter the conception of my own good in a way which destroys the significance of the doctrine we are considering. It may be said, for example, that the greatest of goods is a virtuous life. It will then follow that whoever lives a virtuous life secures for himself the greatest of goods. But if the doctrine means to assert, as it usually does, that self-centred desires, if they are prudent and enlightened, will suffice to produce the most useful conduct, then a refutation may be obtained either from common experience or from any shining example of public merit. The reformer is almost always a man who has strong desires for objects quite unconnected with himself; and indeed this is a characteristic of all who are not petty-minded. I think the doctrine depends for its plausibility, like psychological egoism, upon regarding every object which I desire as my good, and supposing that it must be mine in some other sense than that I desire it. (§ 34 ¶ 1)


The doctrine that my good is the only thing that I ought to think good can only be logically maintained by those who hold that I ought to believe what is false. For if I am right in thinking that my good is the only good, then everyone else is mistaken unless he admits that my good, not his, is the only good. But this is an admission which I can scarcely hope that others will be willing to make. (§ 35 ¶ 1)

But what is really intended is, as a rule, to deny that there is any such thing as the general good at all. This doctrine cannot be logically refuted, unless by discovering in those who maintain it some opinion which implies the opposite. If a man were to maintain that there were no such thing as colour, for example, we should be unable to disprove his position, provided he was careful to think out its implications. As a matter of fact, however, everybody does hold opinions which imply a general good. Everybody judges that some sorts of communities are better than others; and most people who affirm that when they say a thing is good they mean merely that they desire it, would admit that it is better two people's desires should be satisfied than only one person's. In some such way people fail to carry out the doctrine that there is no such concept as good; and if there is such a concept, then what is good is not good for me or for you, but is simply good. The denial that there is such a thing as good in an impersonal sense is only possible, therefore, to those who are content to have no ethics at all. (§ 35 ¶ 2)


It is possible to hold that, although there is such a thing as the general good, and although this is not always best served by pursuing my own good, yet it is always right to pursue my own good exclusively. This doctrine is not now often held as regards individuals; but in international politics it is commonly held as regards nations. Many Englishmen and many Germans would admit that it is right for an English statesman to pursue exlusively the good of England, and a German the good of Germany, even if that good is to be attained by greater injury to the other. It is difficult to see what grounds there can be for such a view. If good is to be pursued at all, it can hardly be relevant who is going to enjoy the good. It would be as reasonable for a man on Sundays to think only of his welfare on future Sundays, and on Mondays to think only of Mondays. The doctrine, in fact, seems to have no merit except that it justifies acts otherwise unjustifiable. It is, indeed, so evident that it is better to secure a greater good for A than a lesser good for B, that it is hard to find any still more evident principle by which to prove this. And if A happens to be someone else, and B to be myself, that cannot affect the question,since it is irrelevant to the general maxim who A and B may be. (§ 36 ¶ 1)

If no form of egoism is valid, it follows that an act which ought to be performed may involve a self-sacrifice not compensated by any personal good acquired by means of such an act. So unwilling, however, are people to admit self-sacrifice as an ultimate duty that they will often defend theological dogmas on the ground that such dogmas reconcile self-interest with duty. Such reconciliations, it should be observed, are in any case merely external; they do not show that duty means the pursuit of one's own interest, but only that the acts which it dictates are those that further one's own interest. Thus when it is pretended that there are logical grounds making such reconciliations imperative, we must reply that the logical purpose aimed at could only be secured by showing that duty means the same as self-interest. It is sometimes said that the two maxims, You ought to aim at producing the greatest possible good and You ought to pursue your own interest, are equally evident; and each is supposed to be true in all possible circumstances and in all possible worlds. But if that were the case, a world where self-interest and the general good might conflict ought not only to be non-existent, but inconceivable; yet so far is it from being inconceivable, that many people conceive it to be exemplified in the actual world. Hence the view that honesty is the best policy may be a comfort to the reluctant saint, but cannot be a solution to the perplexed logician. The notion, therefore, that a good God or a future life can be logically inferred to remove the apparent conflict of self-interest and the general good is quite unwarrantable. If there were a logical puzzle, it could only be removed by showing that self-interest and the general good mean the same thing, not by showing that they coincide in fact. But if the above discussion has been sound, there is no logical puzzle: we ought to pursue the general good, and when this conflicts with self-interest, self-interest ought to give way. (§ 36 ¶ 2)