A common label for many human motivations is “self-interest”, defined in many ways but essentially means to be motivated by the long term promotion of personal needs and desires. We are clever enough as humans to be able to explain everything in terms of this broad category, as even the most selfless or duty-based actions can be linked through a chain of “whys” without much trouble to some future benefit or other. The empirical validity of these chains of whys is completely unestablished, of course, but the problem in disproving self interest is that you don’t simply have to disprove one possible causal chain linking seemingly selfless behavior to self-centered motives, but instead you have to disprove every possible causal chain that might exist. As there are always more possibilities than we can count, many have jumped to the conclusion that this self-interested motive is secretly at the root of everything we do.
I have a few problems with this, but I expect that they are different than the typical objections. The standard objection is that this denies morality and makes us all seem like total jerks. This is obviously true, but it is not, in my eyes, the most glaring problem with these sort of “everything we do is self-interest” arguments.
1) self interest is poorly defined. So in one moment, it can mean someone killing his or her neighbors and taking their wealth, while in another it can mean doing charity work, because it makes you feel good, which is “selfish.” When it is applied both ways like this, it is saying something along the lines of “there’s no internal difference between a thief and a person who does charity work,” which is a good point to make if you are a lawyer defending thieves or an average person who feels a little guilty about not giving to charity. Regardless of the internal differences in motive between burglars and Peace Corps volunteers, using two definitions like this is a logical trick called the bait and switch, and it’s totally cheating.
2) If self-interest is defined more consistently, along the lines of “something that might benefit you in the long term,” it is universally applicable to ALL human actions, including suicide (which might be done according to this sort of circular logic due to the slight probability that you get caught in the act or fail to successfully kill yourself, and then receive pity from family and friends. In your subconscious estimation, therefore, this small probability of failed suicide times the social kindness you would receive as a result of your actions offers a large enough expected utility to outweigh the high probability of death).
All of this is bullshit of course, as these sorts of arguments can be applied in absolutely any situation, and therefore fail Karl Popper’s “falsifiability” test concerning empirical science.
3) But perhaps most importantly, self-interest is an explanation for human motivation that is completely internal. In the nature/nurture debate, it is agreed that both the environment and our internal genetics have influence over our behavior. But in the definition of humans acting “only out of self interest,” all external explanations for motives are excluded. We treat the individual’s behavior like it is subject to both internal and external influences, but we treat the individual’s motives as if they are completely individualistic and personalized.
But this doesn’t exactly make sense. People can be driven by self-interest- in other words, by their internal desires for certain things- or they can be driven by “external-interest”- or the perceived desires of others for certain things. We can no more be perfectly self-interested than we can be perfectly independent or original. It’s not as if- before internalizing some motivation that originated externally- that we necessarily are convinced that it benefits us. We can be seduced by other means. Our minds are not so bulletproof that they cannot be convinced to act towards some end goal other than personal pleasure or achievement. Such an assumption- that all human action is driven by self-interested motives- assumes a certain degree of unconquerable mental toughness that is unrealistic. We can be hypnotized in a literal sense, but much of our behavior can be described as half-hypnotic- as acting in the interests of others, or the perceived interests of others, out of a compulsive desire to please or obey. We can become “infected” by some sort of popular will or public desire, which drives us to act in a way that completely contradicts our past experience/ future expectations regarding personal pleasure or pain.
And this leads to a sort of chicken-egg scenario surrounding our motives. Are we trying to please others in order to get money or power? Or are we trying to get money or power in order to please others? These should not be treated as “equally self-interested” motives, because they ultimately push in different directions. If pleasing others is the end goal, martyrdom or honor suicide make sense- not on the odds that such martyrdom will fail, but because at those moments external desires are more powerful than internal ones. At these moments, what you feel to be the will of your community matter more to you than your own more personal wishes. And equating this social/ moral instinct with the instinct for pleasure or self-preservation seems to be an incredibly imprecise approximation. Including morality in our models is not some sort of naive idealism; it is simply more accurate.