What are psychological egoism and ethical egoism?

Psychological egoism is a descriptive philosophical theory that says all human action is motivated by self-interest. Ethical egoism is a complementary normative theory that says all human action should be motivated by self-interest. The former puts forth self-interest as a motivation for human behavior; the latter prescribes self-interest as an ideal basis for human behavior. Psychological egoism presents as fact that humans are motivated by self-interest, and ethical egoism presents that motivation as appropriate.

There are two pertinent questions here: first, is psychological egoism giving us a correct description of humanity? In other words, is it true that people are basically acting from self-interest? Second, is ethical egoism giving us a correct ideal to follow?

We can answer both of these questions using Scripture. First, let’s answer the question presented to us by the theory of psychological egoism. Are people basically selfish? Do all our actions come from self-interest?

The short answer is yes, psychological egoism correctly identifies a basic human drive. But this conclusion is perhaps not as grim as it seems at first. It isn’t necessarily morally wrong or harmful to be motivated by self-interest. We must have some level of self-interest to survive physically and thrive emotionally. If a hiker is bitten by a rattlesnake, it’s in her self-interest to seek medical help—and that’s not wrong. The Bible acknowledges that it is natural for humans to nourish and care for our own bodies and uses this presupposition as an argument for how we should treat our spouses (Ephesians 5:29).

Furthermore, we can gather from the Bible that God does not want or expect us to harm or neglect ourselves—quite the opposite. Timothy was instructed to take care of his health (1 Timothy 5:23). Sinful behavior almost always amounts to some form of self-harm. Feelings of shame arise because of our inability to attain moral perfection, please God, help others, or follow God’s law. The law points out and emphasizes our sin, as Paul vividly describes in Romans 7. Why would God set it up this way? Because “the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:24, NASB).

When we insist on trying to justify ourselves by our own works, we indulge in self-punishment. Like Judas Iscariot, we’d rather kill ourselves than come to Christ and accept His free gift of grace. Also, the Bible is clear that those who reject Christ will face eternal punishment. But death and self-harm is not what God wants for His creatures. “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but so that the world might be saved through Him” (John 3:17, NASB). Jesus said, “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28). Therefore, to accept the gospel, to accept Christ’s atoning sacrifice, necessitates healthy self-interest.

There is also a biblical basis for pursuing goodness, not to justify ourselves, but out of self-interest. In other words, be good so you’ll be happy. First Peter 3:11, quoting from Psalm 34, says,

“Whoever desires to love life
and see good days,
let him keep his tongue from evil
and his lips from speaking deceit;
let him turn away from evil and do good;
let him seek peace and pursue it.”

There is common misconception that we must sacrifice happiness to have holiness. But as we see in the above passage, things like honesty and seeking peace will lead to good days and a life we can love. Holiness and happiness coexist. Again, self-interest comes into play.

This brings us to the question presented by the theory of ethical egoism. Is this inherent selfishness an ideal we should pursue? How does the reality of human self-interest work alongside the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 22:39, ESV)?

Throughout time, communities have functioned well as a result of mutually beneficial self-interest. I need milk for my children, but I don’t have a cow. But I do have some chickens. My neighbor has a cow, but no chickens. He needs eggs. So, we help each other and trade for what we both want. In this basic way, “loving your neighbor” might look like trading eggs for milk.

But is the ideal we should pursue something higher than mutual benefit? What is the difference between helping out of self-interest and helping out of love? The Bible gives a good example of the difference between self-interest and love for one’s fellow man. When Jesus gave the command to “love your neighbor as yourself,” someone listening asked Him, “Who is my neighbor?” and He told the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29–37).

The story is about a man who was traveling a dangerous road and was attacked by robbers who beat him and left him for dead. Two religious men (a Levite and a priest) passed the man by without helping him. Finally, a Samaritan (a man from a neighboring people-group that was seen as unclean by the Jews) stopped to help the afflicted man, and then went out of his way to ensure his safety—putting the man on his own donkey, taking him to an inn, and paying for his stay and his medical bills.

There is speculation as to why the two religious men had no compassion on the beaten man. It could be they were in a hurry to get where they were going. Maybe they were afraid he was dead already and didn’t want to become “unclean” by touching a dead body.

In a speech entitled “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., presents a third explanation:

“I’m going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It’s possible that those men were afraid. You see, the Jericho Road is a dangerous road. I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road I said to my wife, ‘I can see why Jesus used this as the setting for his parable.’ It’s a winding, meandering road. It’s really conducive for ambushing. You start out in Jerusalem, which is about twelve hundred miles, or rather, twelve hundred feet above sea level. And by the time you get down to Jericho fifteen or twenty minutes later, you’re about twenty-two feet below sea level. That’s a dangerous road. In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the ‘Bloody Pass.’ And you know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking, and he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’

“But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’”

The Good Samaritan was more others-centered than self-centered. The Good Samaritan had nothing to gain by helping the injured man on the road—in fact, he had much to lose. He went against ethical egoism, and Jesus holds him up as an example for us to follow.

Philippians 2:3–4 speaks to both psychological egoism and ethical egoism: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” Based on this passage, we can distinguish between self-ambition and selfish ambition. And better than looking to our own interests is looking to the interests of others. This takes humility and valuing others and having the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:5).

Psychological egoism is a descriptive fact. People do act in their own self-interest. This can be good or bad. But, as Jesus’ parable makes clear, ethical egoism presents a limited ideal. True goodness is to love our neighbor, from the heart, sacrificially, even when it is not in our own best interest to do so.

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