Generally, every society has certain actions that are agreed upon as either being selfish or selfless. Psychological egoists try to raise questions about whether selflessness is even a possibility. James Rachel on the other hand tries to refute their argument. He believes that psychological egoism is the viewpoint that everything you do is selfish, because the motive behind any action is your own self-interest. (Sumner, pg. 75) James Rachel mentions two arguments made by a psychological egoist. The first argument is that every time you do something it’s selfish because you’re doing what you most want to do.
For instance, you are being selfish when you stay back and help a friend study instead of going on a trip. Even though helping your friend study isn’t as appealing as your trip, you’re doing it because in the end you would rather help a friend then be on a trip. In a psychological egoists viewpoint you are only doing what you most want to do therefore this action is selfish. The second argument argues that every “unselfish” action a man commits gives him a sense of self satisfaction, and because this satisfaction is pleasant the purpose of his every action is to gain this “pleasant state of consciousness” (Sumner, pg. 6). For example, if Tom were to help an old lady carry groceries up the stairs, from an egoist’s viewpoint this would be considered a selfish act. Due to the reason that by helping the old lady he gained a level of pleasurable consciousness; in their eyes his real motive wasn’t to help the old lady but to achieve a pleasant self-satisfaction. (Sumner, pg. 75-76) James Rachel made numerous objections to these arguments laid out by the egoists. I believe his best objection is the one he made to the egoists second argument.
He refutes this argument by stating that we don’t desire self- satisfaction and then go about trying to achieve it. Rather, it is quite the opposite. We first desire things and then only after achieving the object of our desire do we gain satisfaction. It is precisely this order that makes the act truly unselfish. He points out that a selfish person wouldn’t get personal satisfaction from helping someone in need so “Isn’t the unselfish man precisely the one who does derive satisfaction from helping others…? ”(Sumner, pg. 7) One only gains satisfaction from gaining something that one desires. For example if Anna desires to be better at playing the piano she will gain satisfaction when she achieves this goal. She wouldn’t have gained this satisfaction if she didn’t want to be better at playing the piano. Likewise, one will only gain satisfaction from helping others if one desires to help others in the first place! James Rachel furthers his objection by arguing that if we we’re to ask Bob for instance, why he derives satisfaction from helping his friend, his answer would be because he cares for him.
If this man didn’t care about his friend he wouldn’t receive satisfaction from helping him. This concern for his friend is a mark of unselfishness, because a selfish man wouldn’t feel concern towards another. The central point of this objection is that the pleasant state of consciousness is not what one aims for when helping others. Rather, it is an indirect result of being unselfish. I find Rachel to be very persuasive in this argument. This is the reason why I believe this is his best objection. (Sumner, Pg. 7) The psychological egoists make a good case for their viewpoint. I personally do help others sometimes just in order to avoid feeling guilty. But, like James Rachel points out I would not even experience the guilt if I was selfish. The fact that I do feel guilty about not helping others makes me unselfish. The scenarios laid out by the psychological egoist are all examples where claiming that individual to be selfish doesn’t make logical sense. In all those scenarios the person helps either in order to avoid guilt or out of concern.
No matter which reason both are feelings only an unselfish man could experience. I completely agree with the aforementioned objection Rachel made against the egoists argument. If all you initially desire to do is help someone, then in no way can you be called selfish. Like Rachel mentioned you don’t actively think about desiring satisfaction and go about achieving it. You achieve what you desire and then you get satisfaction. The initial reason behind the deed isn’t selfish at all. (Sumner, pg. 75-77)