By Dhara Kuciel

Author, Ayn Rand

The factors that determine human motivation are complex and unable to be reduced to a single and universal explanation. Psychological egoism, which says that humans are unconsciously motivated by self-interest, and ethical egoism, which suggests that humans ought to act out of self-interest, may initially seem intuitive. There is no doubt that humans do, at times, act selfishly. However, self-interest cannot be the sole rationale for defining human behaviour. Ultimately, these theories fail to offer a comprehensive explanation of the complexities inherent to human motive, thus, psychological and ethical egoism should not be a reference point for defining morality. This essay aims to illustrate the logical inconsistencies of both psychological and ethical egoism as theoretical frameworks for morality.

            Psychological egoism asserts that individuals are always subconsciously motivated by self-interest, an intrinsic component within the human psyche and one that is indivisible from the self. Ayn Rand’s article, “In Defence of Ethical Egoism,” maintains that because self-interest is so central to human nature, the only moral obligation individuals have is to themselves; any further obligation would be akin to a bird intentionally breaking its wings (Rand 534). Rand asserts that within a morality that encourages sacrifice, the first value sacrificed is, in fact, morality. When selflessness becomes the standard, man is both a victim who is exploited for the benefit of the less fortunate, and simultaneously, a parasite that feeds off the labour of others (538).

However, acting solely out of self-interest as egoism dictates, would be counterintuitive to a psychologically healthy person. Such a person is distinguished by a positive sense of self, the capacity to form genuine connections with others, and additional social abilities that align with the norms of human psychology while a true egoist must be prepared to exploit others when it is advantageous for them, provided the risk of such action is lower than the reward. How, then, can an egoist sustain any type of relationship with another? Friendships are largely characterized by trust, a bond formed through reciprocal vulnerability and the assurance that our friends have no intention to harm us. A genuine friend, neighbour, or partner is not inclined to intentionally cause harm or exploit anyone with whom they have a relationship (Laurence 74). An egoist, on the other hand, must be prepared to exploit others, including friends, when advantageous for them, which would contradict the very definition of a genuine friend. An egoist cannot maintain their ethical disposition and hold authentic relationships with others simultaneously.

For those who believe that human consciousness is limited to an individual’s internal dialogue may doubt our ability to empathize or even to have genuine relationships altogether since this inner voice often excludes the thoughts and feelings of others. The objector may claim that our limited sentience is further evidence of our predisposition to self-interest. If we are unable to comprehend the experience and emotions of others, are authentic relationships even possible? Perhaps what we perceive as genuine relationships are simply a means of acquiring validation, obtaining social status, or fulfilment of some other form of self-interest, these relationships are ultimately superficial and only serve us if our self-interest is met. Perhaps it may even be in the egoist’s self-interest to occasionally act for the benefit of others to facilitate their own long-term goals, and thus, the egoist is able to maintain friendships while being an egoist.

Arguably, a relationship in which one party is partaking for the sole reason of some long-term net benefit is not a genuine relationship, but rather, a premeditated transaction; however, instances of altruistic acts provide a strong counterargument to the notion that all human relationships are disingenuous. Situations whereby a soldier jumps on a grenade to save his comrades, a revolutionary dies to keep the secrets of their cause, or simply, parenting a child demonstrates the antithesis of self-interest. Surely, if relationships with others are merely an act to facilitate our own needs, altruistic acts would not exist. A puzzle arises: how can acts that present a clear contradiction to self-interest be reconciled with the concept of psychological egoism?

One may contend that even acts of altruism are fundamentally motivated by self-interest. Perhaps the soldier could not live with the guilt of the death of his comrades, maybe the revolutionary believes in a religion that demands self-sacrifice and aims to reserve a place in heaven, or perhaps the parent’s underlying motive for having children in hopes of saving their relationship. The objector’s argument contends that any individual who performs an act of their own volition must gain some sort of benefit from performing that activity, therefore, individuals are always unconsciously motivated by self-interest. The objector assumes, without any empirical evidence, that the entirety of human motive, even the motive for acts that appear selfless, are ultimately for one’s benefit, but one would need to prove this assumption to validate the claim of egoism. However, this assumption cannot be validated empirically, (if egoism is correct, our true motives are unconscious, and therefore, unknown to us) how would the egoist verify this assumption? Without any support for the central claim, psychological egoism begs the question as the premises assume the truth of the conclusion without any justification for this assumption. To further illustrate, the objector’s argument is as follows:

P1: Individuals always and unconsciously act in their self-interest.

P2: Seemingly altruistic acts are nevertheless motivated by an individual’s self-interest.

Therefore: All human action is motivated by self-interest without exception.

Premise one has already supposed the conclusion is true without effectively demonstrating or supporting the argument. 

The lack of authentic relationships produces a problem for self-conception. As Thomas Laurence identifies in his article, “Ethical Egoism and Psychological Dispositions,” no individual may foster a positive sense of character in a social vacuum since “our conception of ourselves is fundamentally influenced by the conception which others have of us as indicated by their attitudes and actions towards us” (Laurence 74). An individual with no relation to others and therefore, no account of self, could not possibly have a healthy psyche. Moreover, humans are social creatures and thus have needs that require socialization. We could not possibly meet those needs if all our unconscious motives lay in self-interest. The theory of psychological egoism is thus contradicted by our fundamental need for socialization.

            Let us examine ethical egoism, which prescribes that individuals ought to act in their self-interest. It should be noted that ethical egoism allows for the possibility of engaging in behaviours that are socially acceptable such as honestly, helping others, and otherwise positively contributing to society; however, such behaviours are only permissible under ethical egoism if they serve the individual in some way. Rand’s argument for ethical egoism is a metaphysical one; she believes the only objective truth is the dichotomy of “existence or non-existence”. Under this doctrine, self-preservation and fecundity, are the ultimate goals of all living organisms (Rand 533). Altruism, which champions selflessness, is regarded by Rand to devalue the intrinsic nature of an individual’s life, thereby detracting the individual from their pursuit of happiness, consequently limiting their existence. According to Rand, “a morality that dares to tell you to find happiness in the renunciation of your happiness—to value the failure of your happiness is an insolent negation of morality” (535). Under the egoist framework, it is only through egoism that individuals may be genuinely free, otherwise they are bound by societal constructs that demand sacrifice. However, Rand’s account of selflessness is not a fair depiction as it implies that one must completely forego their self-interest when engaging in acts of altruism. It is possible for one to be benevolent without the complete sacrifice of self as exemplified through small acts of kindness, such as holding the door open for someone which poses little imposition at all. While Rand presents an interesting theory, it ultimately fails to portray an accurate representation of selfless acts.

At first glance, both psychological and ethical egoism can seem compelling. Humans can be selfish and oftentimes act in their self-interest at the expense of others to the extent that it may seem that humans are disposed to act this way. Nevertheless, these observations fall flat when egoism is further examined because the frequency with which individuals act out of self-interest is insufficient evidence to conclude that humans are disposed to act this way unconsciously. Psychological egoism is inconsistent with fundamental principles of psychology, such as the human need for socialization and the need to foster a positive sense of self. Additionally, egoism relies on the unproven assumption that individuals are subconsciously motivated by self-interest – without validity, this claim is inconclusive. Furthermore, the Randian framework of ethical egoism does not effectively address the problem of validity since she presents a skewed depiction of alternatives to ethical egoism which ultimately lead to an insufficient argument. Individuals’ actions cannot be reduced to a blanket motive of self-interest without logical inconsistencies, therefore, humans are not unconsciously motivated by self-interest.                 

            Works Cited

Medlin, Brian. “Ultimate principles and ethical egoism.” Australasian Journal of Philosophy, vol. 35, no 2, pp. 111-118, tandfonline,

Rand, Ayn. “In Defense of Ethical Egoism.” The Moral Life. An Introductory Reader in Ethics and Literature (4th ed.) edited by Louis Pojman and Lewis Vaughn, Oxford University Press, 2011 pp. 531-541.

Laurence, Thomas. “Ethical Egoism and Psychological Dispositions.” American Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 17, no. 1, 1980, pp. 73–78. JSTOR,