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Is selfishness the only purpose of man?

  1. Aug 25, 2006 #1
    Is "selfishness" the only purpose of man?..

    More than 5 years ago when i was a "High School" student , at the Philosophy class we were studying what was the "motive" for every human action...several opinion were discussed in the book although i paid attention to the cite of the English Philosopher "T. Hobbes"...."The only motive for the man is the egoism (selfishness) the proper interest"...i agree with him in several contexts ..although i'd like to hear other people's opinions.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 25, 2006 #2
    I recently had a discussion with my wife about this, and she largely persuaded me towards the following:

    Consider the situation where a mother places herself in danger to save her child. We generally consider this a selfless act since it is seemingly done without regard for one's self. It is an automatic reaction. We reason, I suppose, this is because there is no time for the mother to reason out the dangers to herself, compare them to the dangers for the child, and weigh the benefits to herself. We might argue that, if the mother considered the effects of bereavement on herself if the child died, viewed the situation from the "selfish" perspective of her assessment of personal gain vs loss, we could say she was selfish, but in this situation such consideration was impossible because she had to act, or not, immediately.

    I believe this is faulty reasoning.

    Permit me to digress for a while. I have observed behavior as a fascinating topic for many years. Let me pick one example to illustrate a point. Consider the scenario when a cup of coffee slips from one's grasp. I have observed the response falls into one of three general categories:
    1. The person's hand darts downwards in an attempt the catch the falling cup.
    2. The person does not react.
    3. The person raises their hand away from the cup.​

    Personally, I generally do (1), but I am embarrassed to say that on occasion I've been guilty of (3). In all cases, however, my desire was to prevent the coffee from falling. Was that an automatic, and therefore selfless, act? I say not. I believe this reaction was a result of my past experiences, and how I perceive them. That in fact my motivation is selfish. Consider the reasons my experience tells me this event is undesirable:
    1. I know if the cup falls, it may break. I lose the cup, and have to pick up the pieces.
    2. I know if the cup falls, the coffee will spill. I don't get to drink the coffee, and again have a mess to clean up.
    3. I know if the coffee splashes, I might get some on me. This could cause pain, stain my clothing, etc..​

    That is not an exhaustive treatment, but the point is clear. I have had experience with falling things. I have some idea what will happen, and the results are undesirable to me. My reasons are selfish. I do not want this to happen. I have previously made this conclusion, so when presented with the situation, my reaction is a result of selfish choices, even though I do not have time to evaluate all the variables while the cup is falling. Automatic reaction does not necessarily equate to selflessness therefore. Furthermore, I have never dropped a glass jar of screws, but should this happen, I'm pretty sure I'd try to catch it. It would seem that my reaction to something falling is therefore generalized. The question then is can automatic reaction ever be a selfless act?

    I say no. As we develop, we continually make evaluations of experiences and choices about how we might respond. Each time we make a choice, however, we do so in light of what is important to us; who do we want to be, what is our self image and how do we conform our decisions to fit that image. All of this is necessarily about self, and hence must be defined as selfish.

    The word, unfortunately, carries a negative stigma, and so we resist this concept. We might prefer to consider ourselves as being at least a little noble, or charitable, or for some perhaps fearsome, dangerous, is their desired self image. But in all cases, the judgments we make for ourselves must be in the context of ourselves. Selfishness is a natural and neutral condition, but people have confused this word with the behaviors which result from the choices we make during this process.

    The process is neutral, our choices are not.

    Consider: The mother once again rescuing her child, compared to a mugger opportunistically killing a passerby for $20. Are these actions the same? I feel it safe to say the common response will be "of course not". So does that contradict my assertion that both actions are selfish?

    I think not. This situation highlights what I believe is a confusion between process and result. The mother has gone through the process of selecting what is consistent with her self image; perhaps nurturing, protective, and the like are the priorities she has chosen. She chooses responses which promote these perceived attributes. This is what she wants, this is about self; this is a selfish (and neutral) process. The result is that her behavior is such that many perceive her as noble, brave, etc. The mugger goes through the exact same, selfish process, and his choices too are based on his self image. The choice of self image for him, however, is very different. He is selecting responses by the same process, it is only that his criteria is such that his behavior in this example is judged "evil" by most people.

    All behavior is selfish because our behavior is driven by who we are, and who we are is a long and complex process of choosing, and these choices must be made consistent with what we want for ourselves, how we wish to be perceived even if only in our own eyes! The criteria for these choices is what others indirectly judge. I say "indirectly" because it is the manifestation of the sum of these choices in our behavior that others see. And this judgment is necessarily subjective.

    Take a soldier in battle. It can be taken as a given that he has made decisions, made choices, about himself, and these choices result in behavior. When he shoots and kills an enemy, it is because of his choices. If you might argue he may have been compelled to these actions, I would counter that he nevertheless made choices. It may be that he was persuaded to change his criteria, or perhaps he had no strong basis for such decisions to begin with. He could even refuse (and choose instead to face the consequences). Circumstances may provide justifications for making different choices, but he still chooses to pull the trigger. In this case, his criteria may be a balancing of his imperative not to kill against his perception of the need to do it anyway. It is still his choice.

    But I digress again. The point is that a process was gone through by the soldier to evaluate what he would do. The criteria he used may be unique to him in some degree, but the process itself (evaluating against his self image) is the same as for everyone. I am laboring to distinguish between a process which is inherently neutral and selfish, and the purpose to which each of us employs this process.

    Some may perceive him as brave, doing his duty, even heroic. Others however might consider him a murderer, a coward who was only saving his own life, and so on. Perception is therefore subjective. But our judgments of his actions should not be a judgment of the mechanical process (we all share) which through his choices lead to those actions.

    This leads me to a concept I developed a long time ago. The emotions we have are also neutral; neither good nor bad, yet often they take on inappropriate stigma just like "selfish".

    Consider Pride for example. This often carries some negative connotations. Yet I say it is neutral. Pride may manifest itself as arrogance, vanity, superiority; attributes most see as "bad". It can also manifest itself as ethics, honesty, reliability; things most would admire. Also, there are grey areas. What of a person who always dresses immaculately? Some may label this as vanity (with negative intent), while others may see it as respect (for themselves, for their associates; with positive intent). The emotion itself is neutral; the manifestation of it is not, but is judged good or bad subjectively. I believe this holds true for all the emotions.

    Pride, anger, envy, etc., are labels we use to group types of behavior into categories and to refer to these in conversation. Once again, we must not confuse a name with perceived results. They are two different things. Just as selfish processes are not the same thing as how our behavior is perceived.

    To summarize. All of our character is evolved from our sense of self; the choices we make that conform to our self-image, hence our motives are definitively selfish. "Selfish" is inappropriately applied as a judgment of behavior. It is comparable to saying a gallon of milk is 10mph. There is no direct relationship of the terms. Under specific circumstances, we could say a gallon of milk moves at 10mph. "Selfish" in our context is an adjective describing a process of self, and under specific circumstances a relationship to behavior can be made, but "selfish" describes a mechanism, concepts of good and bad describe behavior. They are very different terms.

    Coming back a last time to our mother. Let's escalate things by saying it is a total stranger she rescues. If asked why she did it, she might reply she didn't have time to think, she just reacted. If pressed, she might add that it was as simple as seeing someone in need, and answering that need. I would append to her statement, "...because that is the type of person she wants to be". It is a selfish motivation. It is only that we almost universally misapply the term such that it takes on a negative stigma. Being aware of that, if I witnessed the above act, and was interviewed and asked what I thought about her motives, I certainly wouldn't include "selfish" in my reply. I would consider her most heroic, and say so.

    I assert that the processes by which she defined herself are selfish by definition. To me, that is devoid of any qualitative judgment. What I found heroic was a result of the sum of her choices which manifested in her actions. It tells me something about the criteria she used in making her choices; what sort of person she wants to be. And because I have some of the same criteria, I admire her actions.

    I think if people could get their heads around this concept, there would be more tolerance about different ideas.
  4. Aug 25, 2006 #3


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    May I quote (paraphrase) Milton Friedman:

    "The only thing you can be assured of the other man is that he'll put his priorities ahead of yours".

    And that makes sense to me simply on the grounds of Darwinism: we have a 100,000-generation lineage within us carefully crafted by the survival skills of our ancestors. Selective pressures choose those having the traits that favored survival and reproductive success. One of those traits, as cold as it sounds, is selfishness.
    Last edited: Aug 26, 2006
  5. Aug 25, 2006 #4
    WhyIsItSo you basically just summed up my feelings on the matter, exept maybe instead of defending her baby because it is consistant with her image I imagine a mother defending her baby because it is the least painfull to herself to lose. Is it possible for a mother to love her baby so much that losing her baby would inflict more pain on herself then dying herself? I say yes.

    Though what ever the motive the end is the same, it's a selfish act.
  6. Aug 25, 2006 #5
    Indeed. I just looked up selfish in my dictionary. It says:

    sel-fish adj. 1. too much concerned with one's own welfare or interests and having little or no concern for others; self-centered. 2. showing or prompted by self-interest.

    I just got booted, and just as well. In retyping the above, I realised I had misread it. I see that it carries a negative connotation in that is says "too much" and "with little or no concern for others". Pretty much the traditional meaning, would you agree?

    Even so, when one discusses ego, and self, are not matters within this domain selfish by definition? Perhaps, then, given the common usage expressed in the dictionary, one must avoid the term selfish and instead say, perhaps, "of self" to avoid confusion and contention.

    I take Hobbes' point however, and can see that this really boils down to semantics. Though the process, in my opinion, is not worthy of qualifiers like "too much", it does still seem logical to call it selfish in nature, sans any implied negativity.
  7. Aug 25, 2006 #6
    Yet we live in a civil society. In the sense you mean it, selfishness is a negative, therefore undesirable trait. Selective pressures then would favor those who are, at least nominally, not selfish, since this could readily result in social isolation; an undesirable condition.

    From the perspective of selection, we must infer procreation. For your argument to hold, then at the least the results of selfishness (power, wealth perhaps) would have to override the aversion to selfishness in one's mate. You may have a point, though I suspect a mate who displays more "noble" traits would, by and large, be more successful in procreating.
  8. Aug 26, 2006 #7
    Call me crazy, but I don't think it matters what people's motives are, except when harm has been or is about to be done. For example, it pays to investigate the defendant's motives in a murder trial. However, it doesn't matter what someone's motives are for donating to charities. They could be doing it to impress their friends or for religious reasons or both or neither. Whatever. People will do what they want.

    It's only when what people "want" is to infringe on the liberty of others does it matter. If someone's equal right of liberty has been compromised through mistake or negligence, that's different than if it had been premeditated. The latter shows a fundamental disrespect for society, while the others show incompetence or weakness of character.

    There's another criminal motive called "recklessness," and that may show a slightly less fundamental disrespect for society. I'm not sure there is much of a difference between people who die by the hand of recklessness and people who die through premeditation. Both are felonies, after all. I was actually a juror on a felony court for reckless use of a firearm, where the defendant threatened a person with a shotgun and then, as the victim was running away, accidentally fired it. The only thing keeping him from a charge of attempted murder was a lack of witnesses and that smidgen of reasonable doubt about his motive. Yes, perhaps he didn't mean to shoot. And perhaps recognizing that is preferable to giving him life in prison. He still has a profound disrespect for free civilizations.
    Last edited: Aug 26, 2006
  9. Aug 26, 2006 #8
    Which is precisely the argument. People do what they want, thus their motives can be defined as selfish.

    Other people judge the motive by their own standards.

    Judgement includes adjectives like good, bad, careless, generous, devious, noble, etc.....

    ...and inappropriately with selfish.

    My argument is that "selfish" should not be used for labelling motive or actions because all actions are, by definition, selfish.
  10. Aug 26, 2006 #9
    I'm not sure I even agree with that.

    Here's the definition;
    self·ish Pronunciation (slfsh)
    1. Concerned chiefly or only with oneself: "Selfish men were . . . trying to make capital for themselves out of the sacred cause of human rights" Maria Weston Chapman.
    2. Arising from, characterized by, or showing selfishness: a selfish whim.

    If I give away money to charity, I'm most likely not mainly doing it out of my own interest, I might even be doing it anonymously.
    Selfish is used to describe actions that trample on human rights usually, and also people who do those actions while thinking mainly of themselves.

    So all action cannot be selfish.
    While most actions do result in personal gain of some kind, this does not make them selfish, but rather a compromise.

    I also believe there are actions that have no personal gain, I have done them myself.
  11. Aug 26, 2006 #10
    - But every action you make is "most" of times for your on interest... for example:

    a) they have cited the "mother and son case" of course that a mother will risk her own life to save mother/daughter but this is only a question of survival... you are selfish because you're saving your son/daughter for your own interest...would you save other people's son or daughter though?..

    b) Religious belief.. you give out money for charity or behaving like "Bilbe2 (or other sacred book/books) are telling you to do because you're afraid of being YOURSELF pushed down to HELL..or you simply expect some kind of "reward" from god spirits or angels.

    c) You simply make good actions because on the contrary.. a "complex of guilty" would appear inside you and you'd feel uncomfortable.

    " Ambition is the gear to success..and hesitation and scroupulous are their brakes "...

    Nobody has given me/ you/ him/ her/..an opportunity (in most of cases) without getting a profit in return..just keep this on mind.
  12. Aug 26, 2006 #11
    True, but I think selfish is the wrong word to use.

    Selfish is a word that's used to explain actions that are more self centred and more aimed towards personal gain than other actions.

    Donating to charity while there may be some personal gain there it's not a selfish act by definition.
  13. Aug 26, 2006 #12
    You missed my point. I said selfish should not be, not is not, used to label behavior.

    Would it help if we abandoned the word "selfish", and say instead "of self"? In this way we can distinguish between a judgment of someone's action and how the mental process occured which resulted in the choice to commit said action.

    The simplest way I can state my argument is to say the actions you describe above are ALL made because they were the action desired; a choice was made.

    If you read (and follow) my first posting, you will see that the primary foundation I attempt to lay is a clear distinction between the process we all share by which we choose who we are, what we want to be, and the subjective evaluations of the behavior which reflects the nature of the sum of our choices.

    My argument is that the process is "of self", and is neutral; neither good nor bad. But the choices we make during the process, resulting in types of behavior, are subjectively good or bad (or whatever adjective you feel suits).

    It really is only semantics. Whether our choices are good or bad, they are ALWAYS made according to what we desire ourselves to be. Pretty much defining "choices", yes?

    So Hobbes' contention, and what I've argued also, is that because because our choices are made by a person according to what that person wants, the choices must be selfish; or to avoid confusion, "of self".

    It is really that simple. There is no offense meant, by me at least, when I argue that we are all "of self" in our choices.

    When you gave to charity, even if in secret, did it not make you feel good about yourself?

    What if you do something you don't like, something that perhaps harms you, or costs you in some way, but aids another? Most would deem that selfless behavior. And the actual mental process you went through may have been very complex (or not), but at the end of it all, the action you chose was what you wanted to do. Maybe you felt it was more important to you to help than to improve (or protect) your self or situation, but after weighing everything, to help was what you wanted to do.

    Different case. You give to charity, but you do it in an ostentatious manner, with the intent of winning the praise of those who witness your generousity. A shrewd observer would likely not have a high opinion of your action. A very different perception to the previous case, nevertheless you have done what you wanted.

    Third case. Someone is in need, and you are easily able to assist, with minimal inconvenience to yourself, but you refuse. Most would look very poorly on your action. Once again, however, it was what you wanted to do.

    These three examples are to show that in every case, you were doing what you wanted - the choices were yours, "of self". Yet the three examples evoke very different responses from any who observe the actions.

    To understand my argument, you must grasp the concept that the processes in one's mind is not the same thing as the behavior others see and judge.

    That you make a choice (the process), is neutral. It's just some mechanical thing your mind does to make a decision. And because it is YOUR choice, made to conform to your desires about who you are and what kind of person you want to be, the processes are "of self". Your act of choosing is selfish (and neutral) in this definition. The nature of your choices is what manifests in what you do and tells observers something about who you have chosen to be.

    Have I cleared this up?
  14. Aug 26, 2006 #13
    I read about this awhile ago, and while it may be surprising to begin with, it's really not when you think about it.
    I just thought selfish was the wrong word to use.
  15. Aug 26, 2006 #14
    Honestly, I tend to agree with you. I'm certainly not going to go around telling everyone they are selfish :bugeye:

    But that's everyday life; this is philosophy o:)

    "Philosophers go down deeper, stay down longer, and come up with less than everyone else".
  16. Aug 27, 2006 #15
    Read Ayn Rand, "The Virtue of Selfishness", 1961, Signet Book. The "purpose" of human life is to continue to exist. My understanding of her thinking is that, because ethics is an objective necessity of individual human survival in a social setting, rational selfishness is the only moral means to this end for both the individual and the group as a whole.
  17. Aug 27, 2006 #16
    No, I don't think so. Sometimes people want to flagellate themselves. Some people want to submit to other people. Why do they want these things? It doesn't matter.

    Then you have not presented an argument at all. You've only presented a definition.
  18. Aug 27, 2006 #17
    Perhaps the "why" doesn't matter (unless you are their shrink). "How" they make decisions, and whether or not this is self-serving (even if in some obscure way) is the thrust of the debate
    ...which is a key to my argument, not my entire argument. I realise my early posts are long, but you really must read them if you are going to make a criticsm which has any meaning in context.
  19. Aug 27, 2006 #18
    I highlighted the words which show that any act is selfish, any act or thought of which a person WANTS to do is selfish (or for a better word, "of self" like WhyIsItSo said).

    Edit: I'll expand a bit, people never do something that they don't want to do, only things that they don't want to happen are done to them. If a child doesn't want to do chores but does it anyway it is because he doesn't want to be punished, or he wants to please his parents etc.
    Last edited: Aug 27, 2006
  20. Aug 27, 2006 #19
    There's no necessary connection between want and selfishness. It looks like some of you have already decided what the answer should be a priori.

    I have no issues against the virtues of selfishness. Actually, I think the world would be a better place if everybody wanted things for selfish reasons. Unfortunately, we currently do not live in such a world. Altruism continues to cause great harm to this day.
    Last edited: Aug 27, 2006
  21. Aug 27, 2006 #20
    Ok we really do have to throw away the use of the word "Selfish" because it has negative connotations and in this situation it is meant neutrally. It should be interperated as "of self" which is what we have been discussing. All actions that one chooses to do, and wants to do are "of self" there is no arguing that.

    There is NO situation situation which falsifies this as the only situation that would also breaks logic. The situation would have to consist of a person choosing to do what they chose not to do. (But obviously by choosing that decision -they chose it-).

    The premise of the argument is that; Anything that one chooses to do, one chose to do (and thereby the definition one chooses "of self"). It's a tautology and has to be true.

    Even if someone chooses in consideration of others for what ever reason they chose that action because they themselfs weighed up the options and chose that particular decision. It is what they wanted to do, and hence is a decision "of self".
  22. Aug 27, 2006 #21
    Isn't this kind of a "so what?" type of thing?
    I don't really see any ramifications from such a discovery.
  23. Aug 27, 2006 #22
    Neither do I, I didn't make the topic, I'm just commenting on it. The motive for humans is self-interest; "so what?". Pure Altruism doesn't exist; "so what?". There are no real ramification for any of that.
  24. Sep 2, 2006 #23
    Well, if you can view our actions as selfish, then you can view them as selfless. Why did WhyIsItSo put all that effort into explaining what he thinks if he didn't do it for all of you? He spent all that time typing and thinking for the benefit of this discussion. He's a trooper, and we should all thank his efforts, because he did it for us. Otherwise, he would've never posted it, and kept it for himself if he did it out of selfishness. Everything anybody does is done for other people. We make music for each other, we eat food so that we can offer others our company, we engage in conversation because we fill the role others like to see filled, we knock over coffee cups so that we can be someone elses entertainment--if nobody is there, then we have a story to tell them.
  25. Sep 3, 2006 #24
    Thank you for the complimentary assessment.

    For the record, I can state unequivocably that my motivations for participating in this thread were (are) selfish. It satisfied some desires within me to put the effort into presenting a cogent argument.

    As to the "So what" factor, I agree. I do think this whole thing comes down to semantics for the most part...

    ...but not entirely. As I've read peoples' thoughts, I realize some do not appear to "see" the simplicity of this thread. It is a personal thing I satisfy by helping people make connections like this. If only one person reads my input and goes "Ah, I get it", then I am happy.

    Actually, my first posting was a second draft. The site kicked me out near the completion of the first and I could not retrieve it. I was very annoyed, because the first was much, much better than what you see now. The mind is a strange thing, and the complex interaction that occasionally result in profound results is difficult to reproduce. I think my point was more elegantly said the first time.

    Be that as it may, it would seem that participants have formed their views. Perhaps a few have a broader appreciation of the issue now, and if I've had some impact on that, then I am rewarded.

    As I said, my motives are selfish :biggrin:
  26. Sep 3, 2006 #25


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    I don't think pure "selfishness" isn't the only purpose of life, but not for altruistic reasons.

    I've recently read a book: "The Lucifer Principle" by one Howard Bloom, where he establishes a pretty strong analogy between social groups (superorganisms made of individuals) and individuals themselves which are made of groups of cells.

    Do you get where he's going?:)

    Just as cells have mechanisms that prevent "selfishness" in order for the whole body to function, so do individuals have mechanisms to help the greater good of the social beast.

    We've been evolving as social groups for dozens of millions of years now, it only seems natural to be so.

    Random examples that come to mind where "selfishness" isn't the main drive:
    - suicide. Just like cellular death (apoptosis), individuals will randomly take their lives when they get cut off from the superorganism when they feel they're no longer needed, or when they lose someone close.
    - submission. Individuals on lower parts of the dominance hierarchy will be conditioned by their bodies to accept their social status (outwards signs of submission include: lowered tails for dogs, or hesitant behaviour for humans).
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