At first glance, the two philosophies of utilitarianism and psychological egoism appear to be quite similar. To the casual observer, both philosophies seem to say that people do good deeds to benefit themselves. Psychological egoism propounds that humans are always motivated by self interest, and utilitarianism, as explained by John Stuart Mill in his essay by that name, states that the more happiness an action promotes the more morally right it is. On closer inspection, though, are these two philosophies really so similar?
Mill believes that the greatest intrinsic motivator for people’s actions is their desire for happiness. This principle of pleasure, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, states that what is good brings about pleasure and what is bad brings about pain. He argues that this principle of pleasure, based upon morally good things bringing about pleasure, then allows people to rationally prefer the best course of action to any other course. After all, he states that the best good and the one that brings about the greatest happiness for an individual is the action that contributes to the greatest happiness for the most people. Mill then concludes that this principle of happiness, or pleasure, is the rational end that orders all of our other preferences because it is human nature desire and strive for pleasure.
The thesis of psychological egoism, though, claims that people only do good deeds for selfish reasons. It claims that even seeming acts of altruism are motivated by self-interest: the desire for respect, status, or even remuneration in the afterlife. This basic tenant of psychological egoism reasons that people might not even fully realize that they have selfish motives – they might think they are acting unselfishly – but their instinct leads them to act selfishly.
The ideology of psychological egoism does not allow for the fact that people often receive pleasure from performing altruistic deeds. It has no explanation for people doing something to contribute to the greater happiness of other people. While Utilitarianism as described by John Stuart Mill states that people do things to promote their own or other people’s happiness, psychological egoism does not hold that pleasure or pain have to be motivators. After all, then, these two ideologies show themselves to be different upon closer inspection.
Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1879. Print