Is human action inherently self-interested?

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Psychological egoism assumes that all human behavior — even the most seemingly selfless action — is fundamentally motivated by self-interest. This assumption has filtered through decades of psychological theorizing. The opposite of psychological egoism is not that all behavior is inherently altruistic, but rather that human beings have the capacity for moral responsiveness to the Other(s) in their lives. We regularly experience invitations to act for the sake of another, and we can respond to or resist those invitations.

Hidden Worldview: Psychological Egoism

Human action is inherently self-interested; we have not explained human behavior until we can reduce it to self-interested terms.

Psychological egoism is the assumption that human behavior is inescapably driven by self-interest. In this view, everything we do, we do because at some level (whether consciously or unconsciously) we believe that doing so will benefit us in some way — even things that are presumably selfless. It is obvious that human beings act for reasons. However, psychological egoism defines “reasons” solely in terms of self-interest. Thus, from the egoistic perspective, behaviors that do not benefit the self are, by implicit definition, irrational.

Almost every major theory of human behavior assumes psychological egoism on some level. Let’s look at the theories of Freud, Maslow, and modern social and evolutionary psychology for three representative examples:

Sigmund Freud. While most psychologists reject the details of Freud’s theories, many of his most basic assumptions about human nature remain highly influential in psychology and psychotherapy even today. Freud argued that:  (1) that at the core of human nature is an unconscious, seething cauldron of desires; (2) our rational mind formed to allow the individual to pursue those desires in less self-destructive ways; and (3) that our conscience is a complex defense mechanism that forms when we are young to protect us from competitors.

Freud taught if we were to peel away all of our social norms and inhibitions, we would find the part of ourselves which he called the id, which consisted of unrelenting desire. However, because we cannot just straight-away pursue our desires without destroying ourselves, the ego forms to repress the brutish sexual and violent impulses of the id and redirect them in more constructive, calculated ways. It is the ego that directs a man, for example, to engage in courtship behaviors that will win the heart of a woman, rather than violence that could lead to imprisonment or death.

Freud believed that the “superego” — our moral conscience — is itself a product of our most basic desire for self-preservation. The superego forms when a young child absorbs the values and preferences of the father, to allay his potentially jealous wrath at their shared affections for the mother. In this way, even our most “selfless” actions are artifacts of unconscious self-interest, and both reason and conscience are servants of selfish desire.

Abraham Maslow. Despite rejecting much of Freudian theory, Maslow agreed with Freud in assuming that the underlying motivation for all human behavior is egoism.  He argued that “any motivated behavior … must be understood to be a channel through which many basic needs may be simultaneously expressed or satisfied.”((Maslow, Abraham H. “A theory of human motivation.” Psychological review 50, no. 4 (1943): 370.)) For Maslow, these needs are built-in, inescapable, and universal: “Man is a perpetually wanting animal.”((Maslow, Abraham H. “A theory of human motivation.” Psychological review 50, no. 4 (1943): 370.)) In Maslow’s scheme all human behavior is motivated, quite literally, by the need to gratify one’s needs.  Indeed, the very concept of a “need” suggests that there exists something of some sort that is lacking, and that the experience of this lack is unpleasant. In order to assuage the unpleasantness of lack we are driven to find gratification. However, some needs, Maslow argued, are more fundamental than others.

The most basic needs driving human behavior are physiological needs (i.e., hunger, thirst, sex, sleep, etc.).  Without food or water, Maslow explained, “all capacities are put into the service of hunger-satisfaction, and the organization of these capacities is almost entirely determined by the one purpose of satisfying hunger.”((Maslow, Abraham H. “A theory of human motivation.” Psychological review 50, no. 4 (1943): 370.)) He made similar claims about the human need for sex, as well.  Next are safety needs. When a person is well-fed, but feels threatened by his environment and others, his “intellect and the other capacities [become] primarily safety-seeking tools.”((Maslow, Abraham H. “A theory of human motivation.” Psychological review 50, no. 4 (1943): 370.)) After safety has been maintained, Maslow argued, the individual “will hunger for affectionate relations with people in general, namely, for a place in his group, and he will strive with great intensity to achieve this goal.”((Maslow, Abraham H. “A theory of human motivation.” Psychological review 50, no. 4 (1943): 370.)) After that comes the need for the esteem of others; and finally, once all of these other needs have been met, we then experience a need for self-actualization, or the full realization of one’s deepest self and its creative, intellectual, and social potential.

We can clearly see the assumption of psychological egoism at work in Maslow’s approach. He argues that all human behavior can be (and must be) explained by the underlying needs behavior is meant satisfy. This includes even our most “selfless” behavior. We do good for others to win their love, esteem, or to satisfy a need for self-actualization. We do not act for their sake, but for our own — even when we do not realize it. All of our activities are designed to meet these needs; like Freud, reason is the servant of self-interest (or, in Maslow’s terms, need).

Modern approaches. Currently many psychologists are very interested in explaining “prosocial behavior, or any behavior that involves helping, sharing, or cooperating with others. One popular theory is called the negative state relief hypothesis.  This theory holds that for some evolutionary reason (perhaps it was advantageous in terms of reproductive success), we experience discomfort when we see others in pain, and so we help others in order to relieve our discomfort. Another theory is kin selection theory, which holds that we are more likely to engage in prosocial behaviors towards siblings and family members because their genes are similar to our own; we help (similar) others because it increases the odds of reproductive success.

Similarly, reciprocity theory holds that “mechanisms for prosocial behavior can evolve when the likelihood is greater than zero that the recipient of help will be disposed to help the benefactor in the future if the need arises.”((Michael E. McCullough and Benjamin A. Tabak. “Prosocial Behavior.” In Baumeister, Roy F., and Eli J. Finkel, eds. Advanced social psychology: The state of the science. OUP USA, 2010.)) In other words, if norms exist that make it more likely that you’ll be helped by others if you first help them, then genes that promote helping behavior will be selected for. Signaling theory holds that helping others provides an opportunity to “show off” one’s strength, skills, wealth, or knowledge, and that this sort of thing can serve to make you more attractive to potential mates.

In short, because they assume psychological egoism, evolutionary and social psychological researchers (both past and present) do not feel they have explained selfless behavior until they have figured out how it advances the individual’s own interests. Modern psychologists have “supposed that the insecurity and brutality of most of humankind can only be explained on the premise that we are in our natures wholly self-interested — carnal, territorial, possessive, approval-seeking, power-hungry, etc.”((Warner, C. Terry (1986) “What We Are,” BYU Studies Quarterly, 26(1), Article 6.)) Indeed, as Scott and Seglow point out in their recent book on altruism:  “Self-interest is the default position.”((Scott, Niall, and Jonathan Seglow. Altruism. McGraw-Hill Education (UK), 2007.))

Genuinely selfless behavior is simply unexplained behavior. In this way, “the [egoist] view cannot allow that individuals might be motivated by love and integrity rather than self-interest. It excludes the possibility out of hand.”((Warner, C. Terry (1986) “What We Are,” BYU Studies Quarterly, 26(1), Article 6.)) Psychological egoism might provide space for “choice” in what we do (e.g., choosing between possible sources of gratification), but not in why we do them. Psychological egoism allows for rational agency, in which we reflect on which course of action that will best serve our own self-interest; but it does not allow for moral agency, in which we discern between right and wrong and can respond selflessly to moral duty.

The Alternative: Moral Responsiveness

Human beings have an innate capacity to act for the sake of others, and we can respond to or resist our moral sense of how we ought to treat them.

The central assumption of psychological egoism is directly contradicted by sacred scripture. Christ taught that the first and the greatest of all the commandments is to “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind” (Matthew 22:37), and that the second is, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matthew 22:39). Elsewhere, Christ taught: “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another” (John 13:34-35).

In modern revelation, we read that we should pursue the work of God not for our own glory, but for the glory of God and the salvation of others. For example, in the Doctrine and Covenants, we read:  “And faith, hope, charity and love, with an eye single to the glory of God, qualify [us] for the work” (D&C 4:5). This implies that we can invest ourselves in service for the sake of God and others, and not for our own sake.

But more importantly, it is fundamental to our religion that Christ acted for our sake when He atoned for our sins, and died on the cross, and not merely his own. Christ willingly suffered so that “his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:12). In other words, our salvation was always His sole concern. Psychological egoism makes nonsense of Christ’s sacrifice for us, by treating his selfless love as a veneer that masks a sophisticated form of self-interest underneath.

To truly have the image of Christ engraven on our countenances, we must be the sorts of beings who can genuinely act out of selfless concern for others, and not merely out of self-interest. In fact, Christ explicitly calls out those who are kind to others in hope of reciprocity:

[I]f ye love them which love you, what thank have ye? for sinners also love those that love them. And if ye do good to them which do good to you, what thank have ye? for sinners also do even the same. And if ye lend to them of whom ye hope to receive, what thank have ye? for sinners also lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil. (Luke 6:31-35)

Similarly, the prophet Joseph Smith taught, “The nearer we get to our Heavenly Father, the more we are disposed to look with compassion on perishing souls; we feel that we want to take them upon our shoulders, and cast their sins behind our backs.”((History of the Church, 5:24)) These teachings seems to directly contradict the reciprocity or signalling theories of altruism, and even treats such self-interested approaches as sinful. While the scriptures frequently mention eternal and heavenly rewards for righteous living, we argue that they teach that we should learn to act for the sake of God and others, and not for those rewards alone.

God would not ask us to love and serve others for their sake if we were inescapably self-interested beings. Likewise, we see examples of this in the Book of Mormon.  When the sons of Mosiah desired to preach the word of God, they did so because “they were desirous that salvation should be declared to every creature, for they could not bear that any human soul should perish; yea, even the very thoughts that any soul should endure endless torment did cause them to quake and tremble” (Mosiah 28:3). Their most basic concern was not for their own self-interest or benefit, but rather for the interests and welfare of their brethren, the Lamanites.

When Alma the Elder baptized converts in the waters of Mormon, he taught them that baptism was a commitment to “bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light” and to “mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:8-9). These commitments are decidedly other-focused, centering our efforts and our focus on compassionately attending to the needs and concerns of those around us. We sometimes think that the purpose of service to secure for ourselves blessings, usually in the form of personal satisfaction for doing right. However, the term “compassion” literally means “to suffer with” others. Genuine compassion involves bearing their burdens as one’s own, sorrowing with them in their trials.

So what, then, is the gospel alternative to psychological egoism? Well, it cannot be the polar opposite of psychological egoism, which is the idea that we do everything for selfless reasons. We know for a fact that we often do act selfishly. Rather, the gospel alternative to psychological egoism is moral agency, which allows for both self-interested and selfless behavior. In what follows, we argue that moral agency represents our capacity for moral responsiveness.

Each and every day, we receive innumerable “promptings” or “summons” from outside of themselves, which we can refer to as our moral sense. BYU professor Terry Warner calls this “light”, and argues that we are innately sensitive to this light. He explains:

Often we have a sense that something is right or wrong for us to do — a sense, for example, that we should or shouldn’t treat some person or other living thing in a certain way. We have only to pay attention in our everyday experiences to notice ourselves having such feelings about how we ought to act. … We are constantly receiving signals from others that reveal something of their needs and hopes and fears. Martin Buber expressed this idea in these words: ‘Living means being addressed.’ We are called upon by others’ unspoken requests, expressed in their faces and gestures and voices, to treat them with consideration and respect.((Warner, C. Terry. “Bonds that make us free.” Salt Lake City, UT: Shadow Mountain (2001).))

Every day, we respond to promptings such as these. This is expressed in countless forgotten moments in which we hold an elevator door open for a stranger, smile at a cashier, or refrain from judging a friend. In addition, each day we also resist these moral promptings or summons. This happens any time we silently rehearse to ourselves our disappointments with a family member, lazily watch TV when we know we should visit a neighbor who needs help, or resent the seconds added to an elevator trip by someone who presses the wrong button. BYU professor Terrance Olson explains that moral agency, in this view, is “the capacity to live true or false to [our] personally felt sense of what is right.”

When we are responding to this moral sense, we live for the sake of the Other(s) in our lives. When we are resisting this moral sense, we place our own interests in the center of our attention. Warner argues that when we resist, we cannot help but step into an egoistic way of living, in which others become means to an end (or obstacles in our way). But unlike psychological egoism, this egoism is an agentive way of being, and we can step out of it by responding to our moral sense instead. As Warner explains, “We are not inherently self-seeking. Instead, we make ourselves – indeed bind ourselves – to act self-seekingly” by neglecting our moral sense and hardening our hearts to the Other(s) in our lives.((Warner, C. Terry (1986) “What We Are,” BYU Studies Quarterly, 26(1), Article 6.)) In contrast to psychological egoism, according to Warner,

[The presumption of fundamental moral agency] does not deny or discount the insecurity and brutality. But instead of explaining them in terms of our natures, it explains them in terms of sin. It derives the characteristic behavior of fallen mankind from the idea of sin. Far from original, this is the most ancient explanation of such behavior.

This claim is not just an alternative to [psychological egoism].  It is empirically more powerful. But if … what we really are (or would be, if we were not playing ourselves false) is loving, and if sin can be shown to generate all the patterns of self-interested behavior [psychological egoism] can account for, then [this] view explains more than [egoism] does. It explains altruism as well as egoism; love as well as enmity.((Warner, C. Terry (1986) “What We Are,” BYU Studies Quarterly, 26(1), Article 6.))

In other words, the theory of moral agency is more powerful for making sense of human nature and human behavior because, unlike psychological egoism, it accounts for both self-interested and selfless human behaviors. In fact, the perspective of moral agency theory holds that “our agency is inseparable from our capacity to love.”((Warner, C. Terry (1986) “What We Are,” BYU Studies Quarterly, 26(1), Article 6.)) That is, we are moral agents in the first place because we have a moral sense of how we ought to be with and treat others.

Clearly, such a perspective on human nature and agency repudiates psychological egoism. Our moral sense inclines us to treat others not as tools or instruments in the pursuit of our own self-interest (or as hindrances to those interests), but as real human beings who are inherently worthy of consideration and respect in their own right. “To be human at all, then,” Williams and Gantt explain, “is to possess a moral sense – at the very core of our being – of the obligation to account for ourselves, to answer for our choices and actions (or inactions) in the face of another person’s needs or suffering.”((Williams, Richard N., and Edwin E. Gantt. “Felt moral obligation and the moral judgement–moral action gap: toward a phenomenology of moral life.” Journal of Moral Education 41, no. 4 (2012): 417-435.))

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