Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Why We Are Fundamentally Selfish

by Gabriella Watson



The idea that all humans are incapable of expressing true altruism is explained through the theory of egoism. There are two types of egoism, ethical and psychological, but both theories show that every human action is fundamentally aimed towards maximising the individual’s self being. Ethical egoism is a normative ethic which attempts to give moral agents a guide as to what is right or wrong when faced with a moral dilemma. It is a teleological theory because it justifies its approach to life in terms of good consequences that occur as a result of living an egotistical life as the theory claims that it is necessary and sufficient for an action to be morally right if it maximizes one's self-interest. Psychological egoism differs from ethical egoism because it is a not moral theory. Instead it is a branch of human psychology as it takes the view that each person is only motivated by self-interest, even if it seems to be an act of altruism. Both branches of egoism, however, demonstrate that humans are intrinsically selfish.  

As a consequentialist theory, ethical egoism disregards the concept of altruism in order to achieve the greatest outcome for the moral agent. It claims that every decision ought to be based on achieving the most beneficial result for the individual which goes against the principle of altruism. For example, a manger interviewing two candidates for a post as his deputy recognises that one will do the job adequately and the other will excel in this position. An egoist would argue that the manger employs the less talented individual in fear that the more skilful employee might possibly supersede his job. This example contrasts with altruism because the manager puts his own self-interest over the success of his company and other workers. This idea further illustrates that humans naturally value self-regard over selflessness and is supported by philosopher Max Stirner who argued that selfishness is the root cause of every action, even when an individual is apparently doing “altruistic” deeds. He states that “I am everything to myself and I do everything on my account” .Stirner justifies this by claiming that each person is extraordinary and should reject any attempts to restrict or deny their uniqueness. In fact, he explains that for individuals to maximise their potential, they should be treated as the “highest being” and must concentrate all their actions on themselves and no one else.


Unlike ethical egoism, psychological egoism is not a moral theory and claims that every action is selfish because humans are incapable of selflessness. It therefore dismisses the idea of altruism itself because it asserts that when moral agents choose to help others they do so ultimately due to the personal benefits that they expect to gain, directly or indirectly. For example, an individual donating money to charity appears to be an act of kindness. However, it is merely a disguised form of self- interest because the individual heightens their own self-esteem by feeling good about themselves after assisting the less fortunate. This idea is reinforced by philosopher Epicurus who argued that humans live to maximise pleasure and humanity performs honourable and virtuous acts not for the sake of another but rather to increase the well-being of the self. This is strengthened from an evolutionary perspective by Herbert Spencer, an English biologist, who insisted that humans primarily seek to survive and protect their lineage. Therefore, Spencer asserted that the best adapted creatures feel more pleasure than pain in their environments and so a human, fulfilling its egoist goal of self-survival, would always seek to expand pleasure in a constant strive for survival by overlooking altruism.

Both branches of egotism, therefore, value self-interest over selflessness, whether the action is consciously or subconsciously selfish. Ethical egoism works by intentionally promoting an individual’s fulfilment, regardless of the welfare of others. Psychological egoism suggests that all humans are incapable of true self-sacrifice by arguing that this is evident from the process of evolution through the key principle of “survival of the fittest”. Consequentially, both branches of egoism undermine the concept of altruism by encouraging the moral agent to prioritise their own happiness and, as a result, illustrate that human nature is inherently selfish. 





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