Bad Ideas, Human Nature, Self, Self Interest, Values

Do We Only Act from Self-interest?

(about a 3 minute read)

“No one does anything good, or kind unless it suits their own personal agenda whatever that may be, or they wish to be seen as good and kind.”  — Harry

Last night, a friend of mine asked me to take a look at Harry’s statement and offer an opinion of it.  The first thing that struck me about his notion that always act in our own self-interest was how popular it is.

Quite a few people today seem to subscribe to the cynical notion that people are only interested in themselves.  I’m not quite sure why the notion is so popular, but I come across it both on and off line.  If anything, it seems to me to be growing in popularity.

Like so much cynicism, it strikes me as having a bit of truth to it.  That is, it does seem to

me that most of us, most of the time, are motivated by what we think it is in our interests to do (or not do).  And that goes both for doing good and doing bad.

But I would hesitate to claim that we are only motivated by our self interests.  And that is the first point at which I depart from the cynic.  The cynic claims our only — or at least, our ultimate — motive is self interest.  I do not.

Suppose I wanted to buy a car from you, my friend, because I felt you were unlikely to screw me over with a bad deal.  Obviously, that would be a case of my acting in my own self-interest.

But now suppose I want to buy a car from you for both the above reasons and because I know it will help you out if I buy a car from you.  Obviously, it still can be said that I’m acting in my own self-interest in so far as I take any pleasure in helping you out.

But why can’t I be motivated both by a desire to feel good from buying a car from you, and by a desire to help you out?

Now, a cynic might say, “Ultimately, Paul, your desire to feel good is more important to you than your desire to help out a friend”.

It does seem the human mind cannot think of doing something without considering whether or not that will benefit or disadvantage its owner.  But does that mean we can safely say that self-interest is always more important to us than, say, helping others?

Consider this sort of situation: Your alcoholic friend comes to you begging for cash to buy wine.  You refuse him despite that in doing so, you risk losing his friendship.  In situations such as that, where is the self-interest?  I mean, you could have given him the money, seen his face light up, and taken pleasure in having made him happy for a bit. But you didn’t – and at cost of all of that.

Of course, a committed cynic would argue that you did in fact still have at least self-interested motive.  Namely, you didn’t want to feel bad about facilitating his self-destruction.

But that raises an important question:  Is the notion we always and only act to further our own self-interests a falsifiable hypothesis?  If there is no conceivable way in which it can be falsified — proven false — then it is logically meaningless.  That is, if there are no conditions under which something can be proven wrong, then there is no logical way of testing whether it could be right.

And that, to me, is what seems to be the case here with Harry’s notion that we always act only, or at least ultimately, in our self-interest.  There is no conceivable test that would disprove it, and hence no logical way of testing whether it could be right.  All else being equal, it’s mere speculation.

Questions?  Comments?  Tearful stories of being unable to eat sufficient ice cream to satiate yourself in just one day?  Inquiries into whether farts are actually emotions?

9 thoughts on “Do We Only Act from Self-interest?”

  1. A question of
    Do we only act out
    Of self will reminds
    Me of A Claim there
    Is No
    Free Will
    It’s all relative
    And all Poetry
    Too the Illusion
    Is the Science
    Of it all as
    To sHOW..
    And as Far as
    Science goes
    It’s rare
    For any Social
    Animal to act
    Out of only Self interest
    In Fact it is Species Defeating
    And usually only seen in Psychopathy.. with Trump
    As a current best
    Study defeating
    Both Group interest
    And eventually as
    The History oF
    Most interesting
    Groups do this too
    As Life is not
    Positive Poetry..;)


    1. In an important sense, yes. But in another important sense, no. That is, if by “self”, you mean a psychological self, an “I” or “me”. At least, that’s how I see it. Am I missing something?


      1. I am not sure “Self” is a well-defined concept, whether by biologists, psychologists or philosophers. It is fine when left as a common-sense assumption, but becomes less coherent or consistent the more you really think about it. Especially, where religion and philosophy and culture become involved. If you say “All people act in self-interest”, this leads you to eventually confront the fact that not everyone defines self in the same fashion, even if (as is definitively untrue of Buddhists for instance) they accept the existence of something like a self in the first place. So ten people selected randomly from around the planet could say “I act only in self interest” and mean it, but actually mean ten rather different things by it. Some would be referring to a walking bundle of carbon-based cells and bacteria, others to an entire family or clan at once, others to a “spiritual” concept, others to the link between a human and a companionate animal, etc. To the point that, with these wildly differing concepts, I’m not sure you learn anything by saying it.


  2. What a “coincidence”, I just blogged about this yesterday because I had been thinking about it all day. And regardless whether or not there is an identity of the self, in the 3D world we live in inside this molecular structure of illusion we call a human body, any decision we make is based on a form of self interest.


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