Posted by: captainfalcon | September 17, 2009

The Impossibility of Selfishness?

There is an argument, apparently somewhat influential,* to the conclusion that it is impossible to act selflessly. It basically runs as follows: If you do something putatively selfless (e.g. save the drowning child) you do so because you want to save him. So you do so to fulfill one of your wants. But an act undertaken to fulfill one of your wants is a selfish act. So whenever you do something putatively selfless you’re actually doing something selfish (call this conclusion NS).

Or, put more formally:

1. If you do something putatively selfless you do so because you want to. [Premise]
2. If you do something because you want to then you do it to fulfill one of your wants. [Premise]
3. If you do something to fulfill one of your wants then you act selfishly. [Premise]
4. If you do something putatively selfless then you (actually) act selfishly. [1-3]

Assume (1), arguendo. Still there is a problem, which is that there is an equivocation in “you do it to fulfill one of your wants;” it can mean either (a) you do it because it fulfills one of your wants, or (b) you do it with the aim of fulfilling one of your wants. So you get either

(2a) If you do something because you want to then you do it because it fulfills one of your wants.
(3a) If you do something because it fulfills one of your wants then you act selfishly.

or

(2b) If you do something because you want to then you do it with the aim of fulfilling one of your wants.
(3b) If you do something with the aim of fulfilling one of your wants then you act selfishly.

I think (2a) is true whereas (2b) is false, and (3a) is false whereas (3b) is true. Thus, the only reading of (1)-(3) on which all premises come out true is {(1), (2a), (3b)}. But that doesn’t imply (4). So the argument fails.

Let’s go, briefly, through each of (2a)-(3b).

(2a) is a tautology. Let’s say I feed the starveling because I want to. That is, my desire to feed the starveling causes me to feed him. Does this imply that I feed the starveling because doing so “fulfills one of my wants”? Yes – if it didn’t fulfill one of my wants then I wouldn’t want to feed the starveling (because if feeding the starveling doesn’t fulfill one of my wants then it is not the case that one of my wants is to feed him). So if I feed him because I want to then feeding him does fulfill one of my wants.

(2b), however, is false. Take two people A and B. A feeds the starveling because he wants to fulfill his want to feed the starveling. B feeds the starveling because he wants to alleviate hunger. A and B therefore have different goals, which are given by the content of their desires. A’s goal is “to fulfill his want to feed the starveling.” B’s goal is “to alleviate hunger.” So A acts “with the aim of fulfilling one of his wants,” but B does not. But (2b) implies otherwise; if B feeds the starveling because he wants to alleviate hunger then, according to (2b), he feeds the starveling with the aim of fulfilling one of his wants, not with the aim (which he actually has) of alleviating hunger.

(3a) is also false. B feeds the starvelings because it fulfills one of his wants, but he also acts in order to alleviate hunger. That is not a selfish goal, so B does not act selfishly.

(3b) is true as long as we can say that A acts selfishly. (Why? Because all we know about A is that he acts to fulfill one of his wants. So, if we can say on that basis that A acts selfishly, then it must be, as (3b) says, that acting with the aim of fulfilling one of your wants is a sufficient condition of acting selfishly.) I think A does act selfishly – his aim, after all, is his own preference satisfaction. (Of course, if selfishness is a value-laden term then I’ve not justified my evaluation.)

The bottom line is that whether an act is selfish depends on whether the content of the want that causes it is other-regarding. It is not enough simply that the act is caused by a want.

* I’ve heard it three times, all, ironically, from those with Objectivist sympathies. Ironically because Objectivists seem to think selfishness is a virtue that we ought to cultivate (Cf. The Virtue of Selfishness). But if we are inescapably selfish then this enjoinment has a funny ring to it – akin to saying “having free will is a virtue that we ought to cultivate.” (Although, to be fair, the Objectivist might actually be urging us not to regret our selfishness, in which case there is no irony, only an uncharitable attribution of it.)

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Responses

  1. The argument as you outlined it I have seen occasionally, generally more as an example of someone feeling snobbish than an actual strongly-held viewpoint. There is a similar variant, however, which I have heard debated more forcefully and which I suspect some people actually do hold dearly to. They would replace 2b with a 2b’:

    If a human does something because he wants to then he does it with the aim of fulfilling one of his wants.

    Instead of a (false) premise about the nature of action and desire, it becomes a cynical take on human nature which asserts that, while many people might present a beatific face to the world, they’re only fooling people (including, possibly, themselves) as the true aim of their actions is quite different. It’s often also paired with a denial of free will and arguments about evolution, brain chemistry, etc. to help get over the instinctive denial that you could be convinced you’re doing something selflessly while actually it’s quite the contrary.

  2. Why do you distinguish between my (2b) If you do something because you want to then you do it with the aim of fulfilling one of your wants and your (2b’) If a human does something because he wants to then he does it with the aim of fulfilling one of his wants? Don’t both express the same thing?

  3. 2b’ admits that person B would indeed be doing something for a different aim, but asserts that all humans are actually of type A.

    It gets a little weird after that, because one can fairly clearly establish that there are people who think they’re doing something with a different aim in mind than fulfilling a want, so a supporter must also argue that all such people are deluding themselves about their true aims. It’s in defense of that premise that arguments about evolution, brain chemistry, etc. tend to get brought up to claim that the supposed aims are always just rationalizations of an already-made decision.

  4. You’re right that (2b) can be be construed as a possible truth or an actual truth. You’re also right that, interpreted (as it was intended to be) as defending (2b)’s actual truth, my argument is considerably weakened (at least for me)* if we can establish that, often, we think we act because we want x, when in fact we act because we want y. (It’s weakened because, implicitly, my evidence for it is largely introspective.)

    (I think it’s possible that there’s someone like this; we can imagine someone who (a) only does things that will benefit himself and (b) [we’d be inclined to interpret] sincerely thinks he acts for others’ good.*)

    So I agree with the point you’re making. But I’m still foggy on how (2b’) itself differs from (2b). Your criticism points out an ambiguity in (2b) – it could be read as expressing an actual or a possible truth – but (2b’), too, could read as expressing either of those. Unless maybe you thought the “you” in (2b) was supposed to denote “a person” – in which case (2b) would be more naturally taken as a claim about agents as such – while the “human” was supposed to signal that (2b’) was a truth about the psychology of actual earthlings?

    * I wonder whether we’d interpret someone of whom (a) and (b) is true as selfish. I’m inclined (rather unexpectedly) not to because he does not pursue his own benefit “calculatingly.” If I’m right, then (3b) is in need of emendation, but nothing of much significance turns on that.

  5. Should the issue of intent be also part of this evaluation? What role does “intent” play in all of this?

  6. Any Objectivist who gave you that argument was confused, since Rand explicitly rejects psychological egoism.

    It’s possible, though, that you may have mistaken the Objectivist claim that “if you choose what you value more, it’s not a sacrifice” for the argument you describe. The two positions aren’t the same, since what Objectvists mean by “valuing more” does not make it a truism that we always choose what we value more.

  7. Roderick — I don’t disagree that the three (self-styled, at least) objectivists who argued to me that we are all, analytically, selfish were likely confused. [At this point, more than three years on, I can’t remember who they all were … but I trust my diagnosis.] The aside you’re responding to was a pop-sociological observation about people with objectivist sympathies, not a claim either about Rand’s beliefs or (if, pace Peikoff, they come apart) the implications of objectivism.

    Given that I did not characterize (and, thus, did not mischaracterize) objectivism, your error theory wants for an error.


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