Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Are we really that selfish?

There is a well known theory called Psychological Egoism. Most people don't know that it by this name, but it has been discussed many times before, even in the TV show, 'Friends'. It's the episode where Joey challenges Phoebe by saying that there is no such thing as a selfless deed. In other words, every deed is selfish. Phoebe tries to prove him wrong by getting stung by a bee and saying that she did it so that the bee's friends would be impressed. Joey points out that the bee would have died and that would have done him little good. But he also fails to point out that even this deed is selfish: the only reason Phoebe let herself get stung was to prove Joey wrong. So ta daa! Not a self-less deed at all.

You can think of any charitable action as a selfish deed. Look at Mother Teresa. According to the psychological egoist, the only reason that she helped all those people was to make herself feel better. But is this an accurate picture? Many people have sacrificed their lives for their country, or to save a loved one. But does that mean that they did it for self-glory?

As of yet, there hasn't been one counter-example found to this theory. But that doesn't necessarily make it correct. In this case, it makes it suspicious. It seems like every situation has some selfshiness in it, and the Psychological Egoist says 'aha!' - this must have been the prime motive of the action. Not only is this pessimistic, it's unjustified. If we only cared about our self-gratification, then the following situation would be true: Bob is only interested in feeling happy. He doesn't care about art, music, other people, and anything that you can imagine being worthy of value. He only cares about his own happiness. So selfish Bob does whatever he can to make himself happy. But he doesn't care about anything else, so making someone laugh wouldn't make him happy. Saving the lives of a hundred people wouldn't make him feel happy. In short, caring only about happiness is the fastest way of losing it.

So the idea that Mother Teresa cared only about herself when she helped others makes no sense. She must have cared about the people in order to have felt any sense of satisfaction.

Feeling good about helping others makes it clear that we can't be that selfish.


Further Reading:
  • Feinberg, J., 1995, "Psychological Egoism", Ethical Theory, Belmont, Wadsworth, pp. 62 - 72

15 comments:

Doctor Marco said...

It is true that if you involve human feelings like pleasure or happiness, eventually even the most altruistic action could be regarded as selfish. This is why I believe that selfishnes should not be assessed in that way but only in termes of material/survival benefit/loss

N B Saunders said...

should you assess selfishness in terms of survival? they say that you can't condemn a starving man for stealing bread.
you make the distinguish between self-interest and selfishness. this is what most philosophers do, saying that self-interest describes all those actions that don't have a direct selfish motive. so yes altruistic actions would not be selfish, they would only be self-interested

Andy Dabydeen said...

Well said.

Doctor Marco said...

If you want to go deep into the topic, it just gets more complicated. The conclusions of some evolutionary biologists, with whom I mostly agree, is that the selfish unit is not the individual, but the gene. This theory is beautifully shown in a book called The Selfish Gene (Click in the link or check the link in my personal blog). Of course, the genes are only a set of instructions made by DNA so they cannot be selfish, however, the results of their actions could be described as selfishness and can explain the selfish actions of the diffrent species including the human

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