Let us try to get clear upon the meaning of 'egoistic' in reference to a concrete case of behaviour. Suppose a man gives a munificent donation to a hospital. It is commonly recognised that although such an act is outwardly altruistic, it may be inwardly, or really, egoistic. It all depends, we say, on his 'motive.' The ultimate end he had in view may have been to bring health and happiness to less fortunate fellow-creatures. If so, if the act is dominated by his interest in the well-being of others, we have genuine altruism. On the other hand, the ultimate end the donor had in view may have been the social or other advantages which might be expected to accrue to him from the act. The act may be dominated by interest in his own private person, by desire for a satisfactory state of himself which he expects by this means to achieve. If so, everyone would agree in calling his act 'egoistic' The question of whether the act is egoistic or altruistic is, roughly, just the question of whether the controlling interest is in a state of one's self or in a state of other persons.
So far all is simple. But now consider the following point. On either of the alternative motivations above illustrated, the 'altruistic' no less than the egoistic, is not the ultimate end aimed at conceived by the agent as a 'personal good,' in that meaning of the expression which our theory alone claims to be true of the object of desire? If the act was not dictated by mere impulse, if it was a deliberate act at all, then the end in question was conceived by the agent as something which he wanted, i.e. a good for him, i.e. a 'personal good,' even although such terminology approaches the danger zone - as a 'mode of self-satisfaction.' There is not an atom more of difficulty in regarding the 'altruistic' act as directed to a 'personal good' in this sense than there is in the case of the 'egoistic' act. If the agent has not so far disengaged himself from the life of mere impulse as to place before himself the well-being of the prospective beneficiaries as an end which he wants, and therefore as something which he regards as a 'good' for himself, the act was not a willed or responsible act at all.
If this is so, as it surely is, there is no inherent egoism, any more than there is inherent altruism, attaching to the willing of an end as a 'personal good.' As we hinted earlier, the question of egoism and altruism simply does not arise here. What matters for the decision of the latter question is the nature of the end in which the agent seeks his personal good. That end may be a prospective state of the private self. But it may equally well be the happiness of other persons. 'Conceived personal good' is just the common characteristic of motivated action, and is entirely neutral as regards egoism and altruism.
I make no apology for lingering over this distinction,1 for its appreciation is indispensable to any understanding of Idealist moral psychology. The failure to grasp it, combined, it must be added, with the Idealist's omission to emphasise it, lies at the root of an enormous mass of unproductive controversy. Failing to grasp the distinction, the critic very naturally denounces the Idealist doctrine as egoistic, and, because egoistic, in palpable contradiction with the actual facts of the moral life. And he is right, I think, in so far as he insists that selfish motives, in the proper sense of selfish, are far from universal. It is nonsense to explain away the act of the martyr (to take an extreme instance) who immolates himself for some great cause, as really motived by desire for some future state of bliss which the present act is expected to ensure.
1 I.e. the distinction between 'personal good' and a 'satisfying state of the private self'.
There are any number of recorded martyrdoms in which no future life is believed in at all. The martyr is not (or certainly not as a rule) thinking of a future state of his private self. He is thinking of the well-being of his 'cause' - perhaps his country's safety. But his country's safety does present itself to him as something which he wants, as a 'good' for him. Otherwise his act could not be a deliberate act at all. And that is all that the Idealist contends for when he insists that even the martyr's act is directed to a conceived 'personal good'.
It is, again, nothing but this general failure to recognise that 'object conceived as a personal good' is not equivalent to 'object conceived as a means to a future state of private satisfaction 'that has led so many critics to aver that the Idealist theory of desire is open to the charge of involving a 'hysteron proteron' of the same kind as that of which Psychological Hedonism is generally supposed to be guilty.1 Since according to these critics 'conceiving an object as a personal good' means 'conceiving it as a means to a future state of private satisfaction,' they have no hesitation in saying that on the Idealist theory I can be moved to perform a deliberate act for the welfare of others only by the anticipation of a satisfying state of myself expected to accrue from having acted 'benevolently.' It is then very easy for them to point out that the existence of a direct desire for the welfare of others is the precondition of there being any felt satisfaction in having promoted that welfare: and that we can thus come to desire the private satisfaction of benevolent activity only on condition of a prior desire that was not for private satisfaction. But this criticism just does not touch the Idealist theory of desire (and will). All that the Idealist holds is that if my benevolent act is not to belong to the category of mere 'impulse,' I must have exercised such reflection upon the object as enables me to hold it before me as something which I want, i.e. as 'a good for me'.
1 Even against Psychological Hedonism the charge of involving a hysteron proteron is sometimes made in a manner which cannot be sustained. It is not true that every desire for pleasure presupposes an independent desire for the object whose attainment conditions the pleasure. A great many 'pleasures' are discovered 'accidentally.' Bo-Bo's discovery of the pleasure of eating roast pork was not the outcome of a desire to eat roast pork. In this and all similar cases of accidentally discovered pleasure it would be absurd to hold that the subsequent desire for the pleasure is conditioned by a prior independent desire for the object.