(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?