My aim in what follows is to provide and criticise a consistent account of Stirnerian egoism. Despite the many obscurities and complexities surrounding Stirner's conception of self-interested action, a detailed examination of The Ego and Its Own does, I believe, offer us an interpretation that remains true to the overall aims of the book. My main concern throughout will be to focus on the interpretation of Stirner as a psychological egoist. I believe that the textual evidence in favour of viewing Stirner's brand of egoism in these terms is overwhelming. The result of this exegesis is at the same time a reply to David Leopold's claim that, in The Ego and Its Own, the evidence for Stirner's commitment to this version of egoism is scarce and unconvincing. If my understanding of Stirner's book is correct, his advocacy of psychological egoism is an unwelcome consequence for the Stirnerian viewpoint, given the weaknesses of psychological egoism as a theory of human motivation. It is also damaging for Stirner's conception of selfhood.


Some commentators on Max Stirner have wanted to label him as a psychological egoist.1 After all, his advocacy of autonomy and self-assertion would appear to gain powerful support from a theory which tells us that human beings do, as a matter of fact, pursue only their own self-interest. When practical reason then asks what one ought to do, the answer is clear – if one accepts that ‘ought’ implies ‘can’. Human nature being what it is, one cannot do anything other than pursue one's self-interest. Altruism is not available as an alternative. According to the theory then, the individual's concern for her own well-being is the only motivational source available, so one ought to act in such a manner as to ensure that one's interests are in fact satisfied. (Indeed, one has to add some such description of the way the agent should act, otherwise there is no point at all in retaining the notion of ‘ought’ in the account. The agent conceived as psychological egoist has no room for motivational manoeuvre unless we introduce the idea that she can mistakenly believe that a particular course of action will satisfy her desires or ensure maximal satisfaction.)

However, it might be thought that Stirner is faced with an immediate contradiction here. If the only avenue open to individuals – in the realm of practical reason, that is – is to satisfy their own interests, then why the need to write The Ego and Its Own? According to Stirner, the pursuit of self-interest is supposed to liberate the ego, the latter having been enslaved by absolutes, by ‘fixed ideas’ such as the state, religion and morality? This would seem to indicate that self-interest is not being pursued by everyone i.e. a denial of psychological egoism. The apparent contradiction is resolved, I shall argue, precisely because Stirner advocates psychological egoism. To show this, we need to turn to The Ego and Its Own.

Let us look at some of the textual evidence for Stirner's acceptance of the psychological egoist's view of human nature. In the second chapter of the first part of The Ego and Its Own Stirner introduces us to the notion of involuntary egoism. This concept is supposed to make a distinction between the agent who willingly embraces an egoistic lifestyle and does not regard herself as subject to any practical principles i.e. the proper egoist, and one who apparently does not want to satisfy only her own interest:

Sacred things exist only for the egoist who does not acknowledge himself, the involuntary egoist [unfreiwilligen Egoisten], for him who is always looking after his own and yet does not count himself as the highest being, who serves only himself and at the same time always thinks he is serving a higher being …2

The involuntary egoist tries to avoid acting in such way as to satisfy her own desires and interests. This she hopes to achieve by serving a higher, sacred cause. But her reason for doing this is that she will be praised for her unselfish actions. The egoist here ‘abases himself only for the sake of ‘ “being exalted” ’.3 So the motive for adherence to absolute principles is an egoistic one:

… however much he shakes and disciplines himself, in the end he does all for his own sake, and the disreputable egoism will not come off him. On this account I call him the involuntary egoist.4

My view is that these passages should be taken as confirming Stirner's belief in psychological egoism. Stirner views human life in terms of a struggle between the urge to assert oneself and the demands of absolutes e.g. moral principles. But what appears to be at first a contradiction for a psychological egoist turns out to be a description of two different versions of the same type of egoism. It is not as if some individuals act in accord with principles advocating self-sacrifice while others reject this in favour of the exclusive pursuit of their own interests. Both categories of individual are in fact motivated by considerations of self-interest but those who follow an absolute are restricting the range of interests that are to count as grounds for action:

Even religion, therefore, is founded on our egoism and – exploits it; calculated for our desires, it stifles many others for the sake of one. This then gives the phenomenon of cheated egoism, where I satisfy, not myself, but one of my desires, such as the impulse toward blessedness. 5

But if this is Stirner's conception of egoism, then of course one begins to suspect that he wants to employ the relevant concepts (self-interest, self-sacrifice, etc.) in such a way that all action will by definition refer to the satisfaction of the agent's own desires or interests. For example, according to the psychological egoist, the person who appears to behave altruistically (she helps others satisfy their needs) as a consequence of say, her religious beliefs, is in fact acting egoistically because she wants to be saved or she enjoys being praised by others. If one were to go on to supply other examples of non-egoistic behaviour where it becomes increasingly unclear how the interest of the agent is satisfied e.g. someone who dies for a non-religious cause, and the psychological egoist continues to assert that self-interest is nevertheless the source of motivation, then one is entitled to ask what is meant here by the concept of self-interested action.


Suppose we present Stirner with the following case. I choose to die rather than divulge, in exchange for my freedom, the whereabouts of person X who would then be killed by my captors. Suppose further that I am an atheist, X is not an acquaintance, friend or relative (although I know quite a lot about X) and it is certain that the reason why I died or was set free will never be known by anyone other than those who had captured me. Can Stirner, – as psychological egoist – still maintain that, in this scenario, I prefer death because I believe it to be in my own interest? This time, the case is constructed in such a way as to eliminate the prospect of a heavenly reward, the motivation of friendship or the thought that I will be praised/blamed by those who come to know of my choice. But Stirner might in reply quote the following passage from The Ego and Its Own where he describes the proper egoist's relations with other agents:

I love men too, not merely individuals, but every one. But I love them with the consciousness of egoism; I love them because love makes me happy, I love because loving is natural to me, because it pleases me. I know no ‘commandment of love’. I have a fellow-feeling with every feeling being, and their torment torments, their refreshment refreshes me too …6

In addition, one should note that Stirner even allows for cases where I am, as a proper egoist, prepared to risk death for someone else:

… I can with joy sacrifice to him numberless enjoyments … deny myself numberless things for the enhancement of his pleasure … risk for him what without him was the dearest to me, my life, my welfare, my freedom. Why, it constitutes my pleasure and my happiness to refresh myself with his happiness and his pleasure.7

But as far as my example is concerned, surely it would be better – as a proper egoist – to choose freedom? Given that all my actions are motivated by considerations of self-interest, it is hard to see how I would benefit more if, motivated by ‘fellow-feeling’, I chose death in order to save the life of an almost total stranger. Indeed, my willingness to die for someone I do not know is surely indicative of what Stirner calls possessedness – where the agent is controlled by a passion or principle to such an extent that she no longer freely decides for herself what is the best course of action to take. Egoism proper is supposed to liberate us from this sort of tyranny. For instance, in Stirner's discussion of Socrates' trial and death, he criticizes Socrates for not despising the Athenians and escaping. Instead ‘he subordinated himself and recognized in the people his judge; he seemed little to himself before the majesty of the people’.8 Is the agent not doing the same in my example? After all, she is prepared to die for X, so some principle other than that of self-interest has motivational efficacy in this case.

There appears to be a major problem lurking here for Stirner, if he wishes to remain consistent. He seems to accept some instances of self-sacrifice, where the agent is motivated (but not possessed) by the belief that this is in her own interest. On the other hand the Stirnerian view of practical reasoning would appear to leave no room for actions that stem solely from commitment to a universal principle. Indeed, I have argued elsewhere that this is the essence of his radical departure from Hegelianism.9 Now although it seems perfectly plausible that an egoist might be prepared to die for a friend and give as grounds the belief that her life would not be worth living without this friendship, this is different from the case we are considering. If we accept psychological egoism, the self-sacrifice in that situation results in saving the life of someone with whom the agent has no relationship of motivational significance. Dying for my friend need not – and probably does not in most cases – have anything to do with my commitment to the cause of friendship in general. But in my example, if psychological egoism is true, what could possibly be the agent's self-interested reason for choosing death?

Stirner might attempt to defend his position by treating my example as one where an involuntary egoist believes (mistakenly) that it is in her interest to save a fellow human being, even if this means her own death. Stirner reminds us that, for the proper egoist, love is there to serve the ego. Individuals do not exist to serve the cause of love:

If I sacrifice to him everything that but for my love to him I should keep … if to one passion I sacrifice others, I do not on that account go so far as to sacrifice myself, nor sacrifice anything of that whereby I truly am myself; I do not sacrifice my peculiar value, my owness. Where this bad case occurs, love cuts no better figure than any other passion that I obey blindly.10

Later, he adds that, as well as loving people, the proper egoist also wants to ‘utilize’ them. Further, and most importantly, no-one is under any obligation to anyone else:

I do not limit myself to one feeling for men, but give free play to all that I am capable of … Yes, I utilize the world and men! With this I can keep myself open to every impression without being torn away from myself by one of them … How indifferent would he be to me without this – my love! I feed only my love with him, I utilize him for this only: I enjoy him … We owe each other nothing, for what I seem to owe you I owe at most to myself. If I show you a cheerful air in order to cheer you likewise, then your cheerfulness is of consequence to me, and my air serves my wish; to a thousand others, whom I do not aim to cheer, I do not show it.11

Stirnerian egoism makes a distinction between what the self-interested agent does for a friend or loved one and what she might be prepared to do for a person like X. In the case of friendships, I do not sacrifice myself, rather I feed my own feelings. The loved one for Stirner is an individual with whom I identify. Without her, life would perhaps not be worth living. But if I die for X, I make the mistake of subordinating myself to a passion or moral principle, believing it to be in my interest to do so, and am therefore an involuntary egoist. Stirner would argue that this must be the case in my example. Otherwise one would be conceding that some proper egoists are prepared to die because they cannot bear the alternative i.e. the murder of a fellow human being with whom they have no relationship. If Stirner's proper egoist is not obligated to show X ‘a cheerful air’ then surely she must be possessed if she wants to die for X.

But even if we grant Stirner these qualifications, there remains the problem of how he can explain, in terms of self-interest, the agent's willingness to die for the stranger. If Stirner were to justify choosing death on the grounds that the agent would be tormented by the realisation that her decision had caused X's death, the opponent of psychological egoism would probably ask why an agent should have such a miserable post-decision existence unless she believed she had acted wrongly? Why should I experience guilt or some similar feeling if I rule out reference to a reward in the afterlife, considerations of friendship and public knowledge of my actions?

Kantians would argue that I can have a reason to save someone's life that is independent of any benefits I might or will obtain from this. Feelings of guilt would then simply reflect the fact that one has failed to act in the way reason dictates. We must not forget that the claim under attack here is one that allows of no exceptions. Psychological egoism is supposed to be a testable hypothesis. One always pursues one's self-interest. The problem with this position is that it would in any case be impossible to prove, as we can never rule out the alternative explanations that can be given which refer exclusively to the satisfaction of the needs or interests of someone else. In addition, it would appear from the examples given above and the replies of Stirner's psychological egoist, that she is not going to allow anything to count against this theory. But if that is so, how can her claims continue to be regarded as an empirical hypothesis? Whenever her opponent presents a revised case for consideration, the psychological egoist insists that this can be explained in terms of the agent's pursuit of her own self-interest. What is happening here is that the notion of self-interest is being transformed into another concept which covers all possible cases that the opponent can construct but is one that we no longer recognise as referring to egoistic or self-interested actions. Thus, in the case of the person who chooses death instead of endless anguish, the psychological egoist concentrates on the way in which that agent views the results of the action or decision. I know I have saved X and I am glad that I have decided in her favour. It pleases me to know that she will continue to live. But surely I am pleased because I have done what I believe I have reason to do. It is not that I act rationally because it pleases me. This knowledge and the associated mental or emotional states may be present when I make my decision. However, in the case we have considered at length, it would seem to be placing unbearable strain on these concepts if we want them to do the work that psychological egoism demands. Of course I will know of the consequences of my action and I may also be glad or happy about my decision. Nevertheless, this is no indication that it was consideration of my self-interest that motivated me to act. It is also very important to bear in mind at this point other cases of altruism where there is no risk undertaken on the part of the agent. I simply help someone (a stranger) in need. Stirner would either label these as cases of involuntary egoism – I believe, falsely, that there is something in it for me when I forfeit the satisfaction of one interest for another – or as a proper egoist assert that the stranger's pain moves me because in some sense I thereby alleviate my own suffering. However, although certain mental states and attitudes might be elements that necessarily accompany my action, that is no argument for the claim that they provide an exhaustive account of the purpose or reason behind it. This ignores the possibility that I am acting because I now believe I have a motivating reason to act that is efficacious whether or not the outcome is actually in my interest. The accompanying pleasant states are not what motivate me. They are simply the reflection of this knowledge or belief concerning what I have reason to do. Even to call them pleasant or beneficial is too strong – they might simply be the awareness that one is doing (has done) the right thing. This last remark is important because, in the absence of a pleasant or beneficial result, the psychological egoist might insist again on the need to introduce desire into any motivational account – when I decide to X, I must in some sense want to X. But there is clearly no need to concede the further claim that this desire must be what motivates the agent. Again, ‘I want to X’ may simply mean ‘I have a reason to X’.

In order to avoid the difficulties stemming from the possibility of non-egoistic motivation, Stirner's psychological egoist must claim that ‘self-interest’ simply refers to the fact that when I act I must be satisfying one of my desires or I am trying to achieve some purpose of mine, irrespective of the motives in terms of which the desires and purposes are to be understood. But as Joel Feinberg has pointed out, this would then mean that the egoist is relying on the uninformative tautology ‘all motivated actions are motivated’.12 This then leaves unanswered the question whether all our actions are motivated by considerations of self-interest, which is precisely what psychological egoism set out to show in the first place.

I have devoted a considerable amount of space to an analysis and criticism of psychological egoism. My purpose in so doing is to show that, if Stirner's version of egoism is to be understood in terms of this empirical hypothesis, then it will have to overcome the objections I have given above. I now want to return to an examination of the text of The Ego and Its Own to see whether we are indeed committed to an interpretation of Stirnerian egoism which grounds its claims on facts about the nature of human agency.


The above presentation of Stirnerian egoism seems to imply that there are only two types of agents in the world. Firstly, there is the involuntary egoist who devotes and subordinates himself to the satisfaction of one of his desires e.g. the religious man who is motivated by the promise of eternal life and secondly, the proper egoist who does not allow himself to be enslaved by any one desire or interest. However, David Leopold has claimed that there is not enough evidence in Stirner's work to justify an interpretation in favour of psychological egoism. He defends this interpretation in two influential introductions to Stirnerian thought that he has written since 1995.13 They are, on the whole, extremely instructive but contrary to Leopold I think one must understand Stirner's egoism as primarily a statement about human nature and central to the main contentions of The Ego and Its Own. Thus I want to argue that psychological egoism has to be part of Stirner's basic standpoint and included in any summary of his main ideas. Nevertheless, my argument against Leopold will include the claim that there are more than two versions of egoism to be found in The Ego and Its Own. However, this does not support Leopold's interpretation.

While Leopold accepts as possible textual evidence for Stirner's pyschological egoism the passage where Stirner makes a distinction between involuntary egoism and egoism proper, he also draws our attention to the struggle between egoism and what he calls ‘other modes of experience’ which plays a central role in Stirner's book:

… it is not clear that the contrast between proper and involuntary egoism is exhaustive – that is, includes all actions across all times – which is what psychological egoism requires. The ‘involuntary egoist’ is rather portrayed as the contemporary product of an age which hangs uncomfortably between ‘two domains’, where individuals are unable to defend morality vigorously, and yet are not reckless enough to live egoistically either. The First Part of the book might confirm this reading since it is structured around the opposition between egoistic and other modes of experience, indeed it suggests that non-egoistic action is historically predominant.14

I agree with Leopold to some extent here. Firstly, when he talks about the portrayal of the involuntary egoist, he has in mind passages in The Ego and Its Own that describe the way in which a person grapples with the decision whether to serve morality/religion or to live egoistically i.e. to live as a proper egoist. The actual indecision is an intermittent feature of human agency which partly characterises involuntary egoism. An agent's inability to make the final break with religion and morality continually comes to the surface because of involuntary egoism's struggle with proper egoism. Secondly, when Stirner refers to ‘two domains’ in the second chapter of the first part of his book, one thing he is indeed at pains to show there is how, during the quest for self-determination, a stage is reached where the individual wavers between the unconditional demands of moral or religious principles and the tempting voice of proper egoism:

The web of hypocrisy today hangs on the frontiers of two domains, between which our time swings back and forth, attaching its fine threads of deception and self-deception. No longer vigorous enough to serve morality without doubt or weakening, not yet reckless enough to live wholly to egoism, it trembles now toward the one and now toward the other in the spider-web of hypocrisy, and, crippled by the curse of halfness, catches only miserable, stupid flies.15

But in ‘A Human Life’ i.e. the short first chapter of the first part of The Ego and Its Own, the Stirnerian dialectic asserts that there is a conflict between the self and the outside world/other people from the very beginning of an individual's life. The conflict is inevitable, being generated by the fact that each person wants to identify and assert herself. Interpersonal relationships and the individual's dealings with the rest of the external world will continue to display this friction until people come to recognise and accept proper egoism. Furthermore, I believe a close reading of the whole of the first part of The Ego and Its Own shows it to be an account of the various forms and stages of a conflict that takes place at both a personal and historical level and is not limited to any one phase of a person's development or to any one historical period. This is a feature of the Stirnerian perspective that Leopold fails to take on board in his analysis. The struggle, which involves all of humanity, is generated by the practice of various ‘inferior’ forms of egoism, which include the involuntary type, and the pursuit of proper egoism.

For Stirner, these inferior forms of egoism ultimately refer to the self-interested motivation underlying the individual's subscription to universal principles. As well as involuntary egoism, there is the ‘cheated’ egoism that was mentioned in section I above and a form of self-interested action that the individual is not conscious of:

Religion promises me the –‘supreme good’; to gain this I no longer regard any other of my desires, and do not slake them. – All your doings are unconfessed, secret, covert, and concealed egoism … that you are unwilling to confess to yourselves, that you keep secret from yourselves, hence not manifest and public egoism, consequently unconscious egoism …16

Stirner's opponent in The Ego and Its Own is clearly the universal principle, the absolute idea – anything that the individual accepts as providing her with a pre-established set of rules and values which dictate how she is to live. In the second chapter of the first part we see how these principles and ideas may change their forms (religion, humanity, rationality) throughout the history of the battle for self-determination but the overall character of the two opposing parties remains constant. The universal, the ‘highest being’, will either swallow up the particular self or the latter will resist and decide to go its own way, choosing or rejecting the universal imperatives as it pleases. Leopold wants to restrict involuntary egoism to a certain historical period. But one can reply on Stirner's behalf that, even if involuntary egoism is restricted to a particular point in the historical or personal dialectic of self-discovery, it is simply one of the inferior types of egoism that agents adopt and which accords with their relationship to authoritative systems of religion or morality, a mode of activity based on the agent's pursuit of what she believes to be in her own interest. In the case of involuntary egoism, the agent experiences acutely the pull in both directions, away from and towards the liberation afforded by proper egoism. But there are other sorts of inferior egoism. In the opening section of the second part of his book, Stirner once again reminds us that self-interest provides the motivation for religious belief. Here he uses the term ‘cheated’ egoism because it emphasises the fact that religion can stifle all our other wants and persuade us to pursue exclusively the desire for blessedness. And shortly before this, Stirner repeats his general claim about the origins of religion:

But now these people go on and ask: For whose sake do you care about God's and the other commandments? You surely do not suppose that this is done merely out of complaisance toward God? No, you are doing it –for your sake again – Here too, therefore, you are the main thing, and each must say to himself, I am everything to myself and I do everything on my account. If it ever became clear to you that God, the commandments and so on, only harm you, that they reduce and ruin you, to a certainty you would throw them from you just as the Christians once condemned Apollo or Minerva or heathen morality.17

He also reminds the reader that the Christians replaced these gods for the ‘sake of their souls' welfare’.18 These passages exemplify the form of dormant egoism that we mentioned earlier, where the agent is not particularly conscious of the discrepancies between her wants (as a proper egoist) and the demands of the religious/moral life.

In this section I have claimed that The Ego and Its Own provides ample evidence that Stirner believes that humans can only be motivated by considerations of self-interest. I shall say more about this in the following section. As well as proper egoism, Stirner recognises various types of inferior egoism, the involuntary form emerging when the agent becomes conscious of the inauthenticity of her claim that the demands of the religious or moral life articulate her own desires. Whether involuntary egoism makes an appearance at various points in history and in different phases of an individual's development is something that will be examined more closely in the next section.


Leopold might interpret the first quote from Stirner above (in section I) to mean that there are only two possible types of egoism and that subservience to the sacred and universal is what characterises the involuntary egoist. It tells us nothing, Leopold could then go on to argue, about whether there are other non-egoistic models of practical reason that are actually adopted by individuals. This would tie in with the attack on psychological egoism that we considered earlier. But my contention is that, for Stirner, there exist only agents who accept, for self-interested reasons, universal principles or a proper egoistic way of life. Although, for the reasons given in the previous section, there might be more than one variant of egoism preceding proper egoism, there are no non-egoistic forms of practical reasoning. This reliance on the theory of psychological egoism will be seen by many as a serious flaw in Stirner's argument. Thus, it is important for any critique of his position to see if we can consolidate the argument of section III and establish whether he is in fact to be interpreted in this way.

If we return to the beginning of his book, with its description of a human life, we can see Stirner's perspective quite clearly. From the moment of birth a man strives to ‘find out himself and ‘get hold of himself’’:19

But everything that comes in contact with the child defends itself in turn against his attacks, and asserts its own persistence.
Accordingly, because each thing cares for itself and at the same time comes into constant collision with other things, the combat of self-assertion is unavoidable.20

Stirner employs this account of the development of the self to show how egoism is supposed to be the final stage in the dialectical process of self-development, as far as the history of individuals is concerned. The ego's pursuit of self-interest gradually overcomes the ‘contradictions’ generated by the existence of physical and social constraints (including belief systems). For Stirner, there are two dialectical stages prior to the acceptance of proper egoism, those of realism (childhood) and idealism (youth), where the latter refers to a mode of experience where one seeks to live in accord with universal principles, whatever form these might take. One objection that might be immediately raised here by those sympathetic to Leopold's position concerns the initial phase of development. It might be thought that realism must therefore refer to a period of an individual's development where there is neither the egoist's subordination, for self-interested reasons, to what Stirner calls ‘fixed ideas’ nor the willing assent to an egoistic lifestyle. After all, only the latter phase is supposed to be proper egoism.

But this is not the Stirnerian understanding of this initial phase. I believe we can interpret it as a mixture of egoistic subordination and the first stirrings of what will later (in manhood) develop into proper egoism. The child exhibits fear and deference – at least during those periods when the parents have the upper hand – but also defiance, seeking to fulfill its desires in the face of parental resistance. During childhood then, the actions of the developing individual are often motivated by the straightforward attraction of parental reward and the wish to avoid punishment. However, there are also egoistic attempts to overcome parental authority. Stirner describes this latter type of action when he talks about the turbulence of this first phase of the dialectic:

But both remain enemies, and always lie in wait: they watch for each other's weaknesses, children for those of their parents and parents for those of their children (their fear, for example); either the stick conquers the man, or the man conquers the stick … Before that which formerly inspired in us fear and deference we no longer retreat shyly, but take courage. Behind everything we find our courage, our superiority; behind the sharp command of parents and authorities stands, after all, our courageous choice or our outwitting shrewdness. And what is our trickery, shrewdness, courage, obduracy? What else but –mind [Geist]!21

However, I do not think we can detect involuntary egoism in this phase of the Stirnerian dialectic. The child is conscious of the discrepancy between its wants and parental commands but there is no awareness of inauthenticity. This emerges in the later stages of youth when the self has gained more experience of both the physical and spiritual dimensions of human life. The main difference between the realistic and idealistic periods is that, in the latter, the human agent has discovered the power of reason or spirit. This means that an individual in the idealistic phase of youth is convinced that it is in her interest to devote herself to the ‘pure world of thoughts, logical thoughts’.22 The discovery of spirit or mind was what enabled her to finally overcome parental rule. Now she wants to become ‘rich in spirit’, accepting or rejecting principles by appeal to reason and conscience. This is nevertheless, a one-sided form of egoism, something that one becomes aware of when one reaches adulthood:

Not until one has fallen in love with his corporeal self, and takes a pleasure in himself as a living flesh-and-blood person … not until then has one a personal or egoistic [egoistisches] interest, an interest not only of our spirit, for instance, but of total satisfaction, satisfaction of the whole chap, a selfish [eigennütziges] interest.23

This is the point at which involuntary egoism emerges. On the threshold of adulthood, the ego realizes that the demands of its true nature are not adequately served because the self as youth has concentrated exclusively on the rational or spiritual aspects of human existence.

In contrast, the period of childhood is one in which, for the most part, reason plays no motivational role. During this phase, self-interested action takes place in the context of a system of reward and punishment. Either one is motivated to accept the system because one wants the rewards or one looks for opportunities to successfully challenge authority and thereby fulfill one's desires. It is only with the gradual appearance of youth that the individual begins to employ reason and argument to either persuade herself of the truth of a principle or to fight against it:

Through a considerable time we are spared a fight that is so exhausting later, the fight against reason. The fairest part of childhood passes without the necessity of coming to blows with reason … We are not to be persuaded to anything by conviction, and are deaf to good arguments and principles; on the other hand, coaxing, punishment, and the like are hard for us to resist.24

The same pattern is discovered again when, in the second chapter of the first part of his book, Stirner goes on to look at world history. There the analogue of the various stages in an individual's life is the description of three historical periods i.e. the ancients, the Christian (or modern) and the future. The future is reserved for proper egoism. The other two eras are characterised by the self-interested relationships that humans have to the world around them. In the period of the ancients, people believe in ‘earthly things and relations’ e.g. blood ties, the fatherland, funeral rites. These constituted ‘the truth before which their powerless ‘I’ must bow’, in the same way that parental authority sought to control the child.25 With the transition to the Christian era however, what the ancients had regarded as being of the highest value is now branded as ‘idle lies’. We witness the first stirrings of the shift to the spiritual (Christian) world with the Sophists’ appeal to self-interest i.e. to the improvement of one's earthly existence:

…‘use your understanding, your wit, your mind, against everything; it is by having a good and well-drilled understanding that one gets through the world best, provides for himself the best lot, the pleasantest life26

Stirner contends that self-interest provides the motivation both during a settled period of human existence and when individuals and groups begin to show dissatisfaction with the prevailing belief system. The Sophists are still representatives of the period of the ancients in that they do not contemplate the possibility of escaping this material world by taking up residence in the spiritual or heavenly realm. But, says Stirner, the Sophist believes that by using his understanding he can improve his life, just as the child uses trickery and defiance.27

Escaping this worldly existence is made possible when humans are convinced that their ‘proper self’ is a spiritual one that will survive death. This alteration in belief signifies the crucial move from the ancient to the Christian era:

… when you emigrate from the mortal body, as one day you must, then you will have to help yourself without the body, and therefore it is needful that you be prudent and care in time for your proper self. ‘What should it profit a man if he gained the whole world and yet suffered damage in his soul?’28

Later, with the advent of atheism, belief in immortality will be rejected by many. However, the conviction that the spiritual element of human existence – to be found in an individual's assent to the rational or universal idea (patriotism, humanity, morality, etc.) – is the better part of a human being, prevails. This post-Christian modern, who has not yet embraced the future, curses the proper egoist i.e. the individual who ‘pursues material and spiritual interests just as he pleases’. He curses ‘at everybody who does not look on the spiritual interest as his “ ‘true and highest interest’ ”.29 Again it is in the modern period that we witness the appearance of involuntary egoism. It is at this point in history that the individual is torn between the rewards of living a religious or moral life and the attractions of freeing oneself from all forms of heteronomy.

Although I would agree with Leopold that involuntary egoism is restricted to certain stages in the Stirnerian dialectic, it is not the only form of egoism that exists prior to the appearance of the Stirnerian adult and the post-modern period. In this section then, I believe I have strengthened my case for regarding Stirner as a psychological egoist by producing further evidence that his division of both an individual's life and world history into three stages does not allow for the existence of any motivational sources of practical reason other than egoistic ones.


Leopold completes his criticism by indicating passages in Stirner's book where involuntary egoism is regarded by the author as the opposite of egoism proper, as non-egoism:

… it seems that for Stirner this ‘involuntary egoism’ is in fact not egoism, but its opposite; ‘unconscious egoism’, he insists, is ‘not egoism, but thralldom, service, self-renunciation’ (p.149).30

He also mentions as evidence a passage in The Ego and Its Own where a girl forgoes her love for someone in order to respect the wishes of her family.31 Here, says Leopold, it would appear to be the case that Stirner first allows a description of the girl's decision as one in which she obtains more satisfaction by this self-sacrificial act. However, according to Leopold, Stirner ends his discussion of the example by offering an alternative account i.e. that this could also be a case of piety and not egoism.

Let us first consider what Stirner actually says on p.149. The reader will, I am sure, form a quite different opinion of what Stirner is trying to do here when we look at the argument of the second paragraph. Indeed, our examination will reveal even more evidence for the general claim I have been making about psychological egoism's place in the argument of The Ego and Its Own.

I quoted earlier from the second paragraph on p.149, in connection with our initial presentation of what appears to be Stirner's advocacy of psychological egoism. That paragraph contains an assertion that we are now familiar with, namely that people are deceived or deceiving themselves into thinking that they are not egoists, whereas they always have been. Idealism promises them freedom through self-denial. Instead, they should each take the liberating step and become an ‘almighty ego’, letting go of their ‘hypocritical endeavours’ to be something else than they are:32

Hypocritical I call them because you have yet remained egoists all these thousands of years, but sleeping, self-deceiving, crazy egoists, you heautontimorumenoses, you self-tormentors. Never yet has a religion been able to dispense with ‘promises’, whether they referred us to the other world or to this (‘long life’, etc.); for man is mercenary and does nothing ‘gratis’. But how about that ‘doing good for the good's sake’ without prospect of reward? As if here too the pay was not contained in the satisfaction that it is to afford.33

Here again we see the claim of the psychological egoist. Despite appearances to the contrary, nobody does anything for nothing. Stirner clearly says on the same page that this covert egoism motivating religious belief is not egoism.34 But this is simply the distinction he wants to make between the individual who follows a fixed idea – and thus only seeks to fulfil a certain desire (e.g. for eternal life) because she believes it is in her interest to do so – and the proper egoist who does not make this sort of sacrifice.

With regard to the description of the ‘pliable’ girl's action, Stirner does indeed make a distinction between an explanation in terms of selfishness and one which relies on the notion of sacrifice:

One might say that here too selfishness prevailed … the pliable girl felt herself more satisfied by the unity of the family than by the fulfilment of her wish … but what if there remained a sure sign that egoism had been sacrificed to piety? What if, even after the wish that had been directed against the peace of the family was sacrificed, it remained at least as a recollection of a ‘sacrifice’ brought to a sacred tie? … There egoism won, here piety wins and the egoistic heart bleeds; there egoism was strong, here it was – weak.35

But here Stirner is talking once more about the difference between involuntary and proper egoism, bringing our attention to the conflict that can take place in an individual who has subjected herself to a higher power but is also susceptible to the promptings of proper egoism.


I think it is clear from the above discussion that Stirner is a psychological egoist. This conclusion however, necessitates making a critical point about the plausibility of the Stirnerian view of the self in The Ego and Its Own. Stirner sees the self as being something quite separate from its various qualities. That is, there can be no exhaustive account of the individual in terms of general categories. To describe someone as a Catholic, member of the Labour Party, football fan, mother, etc., is not to provide an exhaustive delineation of what makes that particular person unique. For Stirner, these descriptions refer to essences that we (can) all share but they do not capture each person's unique ego. The ego, the ‘I’ of the agent, lies beyond any such description. Thus there is always a potential gap or room for motivational manoeuvre between the particular ego and its general properties. X can behave in a certain way because she is a Catholic. However, she can also be motivated to perform the same (or a different) action after realizing that her ego need not subscribe unconditionally to the way of life associated with acceptance of Catholicism. If the ego is not determined by general categories in this fashion, then what ‘I’ choose to do need not be regulated by them. By way of illustration, here is Stirner criticising liberalism:

I – do I come to myself and mine through liberalism? Whom does the liberal look upon as his equal? Man! Be only man – and that you are anyway – and the liberal calls you his brother. He asks very little about your private opinions and private follies, if only he can espy ‘man’ in you.
But, as he takes little heed of what you are privatim– indeed in a strict following out of his principle sets no value at all on it – he sees in you only what you are generatim. In other words, he sees in you, not you, but the species; not Hans or Thomas, but man; not the real or unique one, but your essence or your concept; not the bodily man, but the spirit… The humanreligion is only the last metamorphosis of the Christian religion. For liberalism is a religion because it separates my essence from me and sets it above me, because it exalts ‘man’ to the same extent as any other religion does its God or idol … because in general it makes some of what is mine, out of my qualities and my property, something alien – namely, an ‘essence’; in short, because it sets me beneath man, and thereby creates for me a ‘vocation’.36

This is why adherence to a religious belief or a particular set of moral principles is for Stirner a form of alienation or self-deception. The unique ego or ‘I’ does not locate itself in any description of the individual which refers to a person's absolute compliance with or acceptance of, principles – as would be the case if an agent regarded an account of herself as complete although it made reference only to the sorts of general categories exemplified above. The religious believer, for instance, denies her individuality any form of unique expression because she allows her actions to be dictated by self-stultifying moral codes and religious devotion, even though she thinks such subjugation to an ‘essence’ actually serves her interests. Liberation is achieved when the self can break these bonds, realizing that the ego is not identical with any general description that can be imposed on an individual to ensure that she always abides by certain principles or rules.

However, as I have shown above, Stirner also wants to restrict the scope of human motivation. In his version of psychological egoism, there are only distinctions between different types of egoist. But this, I believe, creates problems for his account of the self and his denunciation of all forms of heteronomy. The authentic individual (proper egoist) is able to maintain her independence only because she cannot be determined in terms of essences or general categories. But Stirner's insistence on psychological egoism means that he has retained a form of determinism that is more damaging to his picture of the isolated self than the essentialist view he rejects. There is no isolated, non-determined self if psychological egoism is true. Acceptance of this version of egoism would mean that the ego is categorised from the very beginning because it insists on a particular view about the nature of the self. It would be better for Stirner if he were to argue for a form of ethical egoism. Then the ego might be able to retain its independence from any essentialist description in terms of properties.


I have argued that Stirner is a psychological egoist. Leopold's argument against this interpretation ignores significant sections of the text of The Ego and Its Own and thereby does not take into consideration the comprehensive, dialectical aspect of the Stirnerian position. The human story, for Stirner, at both the personal and historical level, is exclusively one of interplay and conflict between various types of motivational belief based on the pursuit of self-interest. Seen in the light of the arguments against psychological egoism that were discussed in section II, this is a grave weakness of the Stirnerian viewpoint and I believe it is important to expose this fundamental error in Stirner's position. Any attempt to take on board his account of individuality must somehow overcome this deficiency because it lies at the heart of his concept of egoistic action. Furthermore, Stirner implores us to break away from the influence of moral and religious principles to become proper egoists. It is only then that we can be authentic. But for Stirner, authenticity means being able to isolate the self completely from its properties so it can then freely choose between the projects on offer. In section VI I have argued that, unfortunately for Stirner, his insistence on psychological egoism prevents him from stripping the ego in this fashion. This form of egoism is itself based on the attribution of certain properties to the human agent. It is a belief about human nature that already binds the individual to certain modes of action.


  1. 1 For examples of philosophers who refer to Stirner as a psychological egoist see Clark, J.P. Max Stirner's Egoism (Freedom Press, 1976) Chp. II, Marshall, Peter. Demanding the Impossible (Fontana Press, 1993) p.225, Adler, Max. ‘Max Stirner’ in Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, Vol.13 (The Macmillan Company, 1954) p.393 and Hook, S. From Hegel to Marx, 2nd edition, (Michigan, 1962) Chp.V, p.172.

  2. 2 Stirner, Max. The Ego and Its Own trans. Byington, S.T., ed. Leopold, D. (Cambridge University Press 1995) p.37.

  3. 3 Stirner 1995 p.37

  4. 4 Stirner 1995 p.37

  5. 5 Stirner 1995 p.149

  6. 6 Stirner 1995 p.258

  7. 7 Stirner 1995 p.257

  8. 8 Stirner 1995 p.191

  9. 9 I argue this in the first draft chapters of my Ph.D thesis Max Stirner's Egoism.

  10. 10 Stirner 1995 p.258

  11. 11 Stirner 1995 pp.262–263

  12. 12 Feinberg, Joel. ‘Psychological Egoism’ in Feinberg, J. and Shafer-Landau, Russ (eds) Reason and Responsibility, tenth edition, (Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1999) p.504

  13. 13 See the introduction by Leopold, D. in Stirner, Max. The Ego and Its Own trans. Byington, S.T., ed. Leopold, David. (Cambridge University Press, 1995) pp.xxiv-xxv and Leopold, David. ‘Max Stirner’ in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta. Fall 2002 edition, URL= 2.3. In a later article on Stirnerian anarchism he states that there is some textual justification for viewing Stirner as an ethical egoist. But there is no mention of psychological egoism. See Leopold, David. ‘A Left-Hegelian Anarchism’ in The European Legacy, Vol.8, No. 6, 2003 p.779.

  14. 14 Leopold 1995 p.xxv

  15. 15 Stirner 1995 p.51

  16. 16 Stirner 1995 p.149

  17. 17 Stirner 1995 p.147

  18. 18 Stirner 1995 p.147

  19. 19 Stirner 1995 p.13

  20. 20 Stirner 1995 p.13

  21. 21 Stirner 1995 pp. 13–14

  22. 22 Stirner 1995 p.15

  23. 23 Stirner 1995 p.16

  24. 24 Stirner 1995 p.14

  25. 25 Stirner 1995 pp. 20–21

  26. 26 Stirner 1995 p.21

  27. 27 Stirner 1995 p.21

  28. 28 Stirner 1995 p.31. There is a passage in Stirner that refers to the ancients as humans who have subjected themselves to ‘ghosts’, ‘higher essences’ and ‘the spirit of the people [Volksgeist]’:
    …they saw in each other ghosts … The people is a higher essence than an individual, and, like man or the spirit of man, a spirit haunting the individual – the spirit of the people [Volksgeist]. For this reason they revered this spirit, and only so far as he served this or else a spirit related to it (as in the spirit of the family) could the individual appear significant (Stirner 1995, p.42)
    This would appear to conflict with what I say about the difference between the two historical stages prior to egoism proper i.e. the future. But what is crucial for Stirner is that there is among the ancients (and among children) a gradual move to the point where liberation is achieved by the transition to another realm or mode of existence where a human being becomes identified with thinking itself, with spirit. (Stirner 1995, pp.76–79) In childhood and the ancient world, thought is initially employed to overcome problems and obstacles encountered during one's earthly, corporeal life. In the periods of youth and Christianity, people are absorbed by a process of thinking deeply and logically about their own nature. That is why Stirner introduces the notions of conviction and conscience to characterise youth and the Christian age. A point is reached at the end of the ancient world where individuals renounce ‘family, commonwealth, fatherland, and the like’. This is ‘the result of the gigantic work of the ancients: that man knows himself as a being without relations and without a world, as spirit’. (Stirner 1995, p.22) It remains true that, as far as Stirner is concerned, the ancient and the child are only motivated by the belief that their actions are beneficial to them.

  29. 29 Stirner 1995 p.32

  30. 30 Leopold 1995 p.xxv

  31. 31 Stirner 1995 pp 196–197

  32. 32 Stirner 1995 p.149

  33. 33 Stirner 1995 p.149

  34. 34 Stirner 1995 p.149

  35. 35 Stirner 1995 pp. 196–197

  36. 36 Stirner 1995 pp.155, 158