Here is an uncontroversial claim: there are a lot of selfish people out there. It does not matter whether you live in a remote village, a monastery, or a tribe of hunter-gatherers; you will invariably find people acting in ways that promote their own welfare and giving little attention to how this affects others. Selfishness is indeed so widespread that some influential philosophers from the Western tradition thought that humans are predominantly egoistic, or even egoistic all the time. Consider this quote from the 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes (which probably made his friends think twice before inviting him to a party): “of all voluntary acts, the object is to every man his own good”. 

While the idea of human nature as markedly selfish echoes throughout the history of philosophy in the works of those like Mandeville, Bentham, and Nietzsche, the theme of selfishness also resonates throughout the sciences. The view of humans as self-interested agents using their rationality predominantly (or exclusively) to promote their own welfare is often an implicit assumption in economics and psychology. An interesting study even suggests that students of economics are more likely to behave in selfish ways, presumably due to exposure to the self-interested models common in this discipline. In evolutionary theory, the picture of nature as a hostile place inhabited by selfish creatures was popularized by authors like T. H. Huxley, known as Darwin’s Bulldog. You open your window in the morning and you might see joyful birds singing or people sharing a casual conversation, but if you are Huxley, what you see out there is a “gladiator’s show”, in which “creatures are fairly well treated, and set to fight—whereby the strongest, the swiftest, and the cunningest live to fight another day”. 

Perhaps altruistic motivation is a mirage, an illusion that we perceive only because our mental eye is not always sharp enough to capture the egoistic motives hiding beneath the surface. However, you might read Hobbes’s quote above and wish you could tag him in a Twitter post about someone who donated a kidney to a stranger, or perhaps email him a copy of Oliner and Oliner’s (1988) book about the rescuers in WW2, who risked their lives to save the lives of persecuted minorities. But since Hobbes doesn’t have a Twitter account or an email address, I will play the egoist’s advocate and say why there might be some initial plausibility to the selfish hypothesis. But before that, I should clarify some of the elements of this debate.

Ok, people do nice things for each other. However, we need to distinguish altruistic behavior from altruistic motivation. Surely, we are capable of performing altruistic behaviors that benefit others and are costly to us in some way. But the tricky part is that these behaviors can be egoistically motivated. We can be moved out of egoistic motivation and perform the most noble and altruistic actions. The question philosophers have asked goes beyond behavior; they want to know whether the motivation underlying the apparently altruistic behavior is genuinely altruistic. 

At this point, you might be wondering what we are talking about when we talk about egoistic and altruistic motivation. So, let me give you the definitions used in philosophy. Egoistic motivation is an ultimate desire to increase one’s own welfare, while altruistic motivation is an ultimate desire to increase the welfare of others. A desire is “ultimate” when we want its object due to a non-instrumental desire—that is, we want it for its own sake, not because of what it can give to us. If you desire to help your attractive new neighbor move in, chances are that your desire to help is merely instrumental. By contrast, if your desire to benefit someone is ultimate, not conditional to any other desire, then you have genuine altruistic motivation. But the question is: can we have such genuine altruistic motivation? Are we capable of, at least sometimes, being motivated to help others for their own sake, regardless of the benefits this brings us? The hypothesis that answers these questions positively is known as psychological altruism, while the hypothesis according to which all of our ultimate desires are egoistic is known as psychological egoism. Now I can return to my role as the egoist’s advocate.

There are two central features in favor of psychological egoism: (1) the existence of egoistic motivation is uncontroversial and (2) it can explain all sorts of helping behavior. It is hard to deny the existence of egoistic motivation, and, if it exists, such motivation can drive people to want to help others. We get quite a lot of benefits from helping others. Even dramatic cases, like a soldier jumping on a grenade to save the lives of her comrades, can be explained by egoistic rewards. Perhaps she wanted fame; perhaps she knew that not doing this would lead to a miserable life haunted by the lives of those whom she did not save; etc. Moreover, another reason to be skeptical of psychological altruism is that introspection is quite unreliable. Some of our desires are unconscious and cannot be accessed by introspection. When we introspect about why we helped an elderly lady carry her groceries home, maybe the only thing that comes to mind is that we did this because we want her to do well. However, egoistic desires can be unconscious, so this introspective evidence is not as decisive as one might think. Perhaps we wanted her to praise us, or we wanted the approval of society—or perhaps we helped as a means to look at ourselves as someone good, eliciting our own self-praise. Finally, explaining the selection of egoistic motivation from an evolutionary perspective seems simpler than explaining the selection of altruistic motivation. That is because altruists are subject to exploitation from (egoistic) free-riders who enjoy the collective benefits caused by altruists without helping the group themselves.

So far, this article has offered challenges for those who believe that we can be genuinely altruistic to each other. However, there is some good news for altruists after all. Contemporary philosophers and scientists have offered new arguments for the existence of altruistic motivation. While past philosophers attempted to offer a priori arguments for psychological altruism (e.g., Nagel, 1970), these contemporary authors try to base their arguments on empirical evidence. The work of psychologist Daniel Batson (1991), for example, allowed the rejection of several egoistic explanations for helping, such as the hypothesis that people help others in order to not feel the discomfort of seeing others suffering. His contribution moved the debate forward, giving empirical support for psychological altruism. Another support for psychological altruism can be found in the second part of the book Unto Others (1998), by the philosopher Elliott Sober and the evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson. Sober and Wilson offer an evolutionary argument for psychological altruism, claiming that altruistic motivation is likely to be selected. The idea, in short, is that altruistic motivation is more reliable as a mechanism to produce parental care than egoistic motivation. Altruistic parents are more efficient and that could select altruistic motivation.

Batson’s experiments, and Sober and Wilson’s evolutionary argument offer support for psychological altruism. Nevertheless, the debate is still open. At the very least, recent discussion has shown that a proponent of psychological egoism will need to do more to support such a view. The Western tradition and its sympathy with an egoistic depiction of human nature cannot go uncriticized. Although there is certainly a lot of egoism in the world, we can no longer safely assume that we are all egoists deep down.

Share this post