Saturday, March 31, 2012

Self Interest

Here are some questions that I sometimes ask myself: Are all actions driven entirely by self interest? Even altruistic ones? What about on a non individual level, like the actions of entire countries with respect to other existing nations, aka foreign policy? Is literally everything we do selfish?

These questions form the basis for this blog post. If pressed, I suppose I would, in the interest of forming a central thesis, land on the yes side of the questions, and say that yes, I suspect that basically everything we do is primarily (whether consciously or not) motivated by self interest. I do not, however, proclaim to know this for certain, and I am writing this more as a verbal consideration of the issue more than I am as a formal statement of my delineated conviction.

Take a given action on an individual level. Let’s say, for example, hanging out with a friend. Why do we do this? Sure, once answer is that we are social creatures; hardwired to want to spend our time surrounded by others. This is I do not dispute. What is it, however, that forms the why of this observation? Do we hang out with others for them, for someone else, or for ourselves? I find myself inclined to think that it’s more for us than it is them. I mean, you hang out with someone because it is fun. You are bored, and in need of company, so you seek out the company of others and/or accept it when it is offered you. If it is not for you, why then do we say no to hanging out if we prefer to be alone at the moment? Are we not acting based on our particular desires as opposed to for the betterment of the other(s) in this situation?

“Ah, but what about when we hang out with someone even if we do not feel like it,” you ask. Good question. It could be said that we do so because we know it will in the end be beneficial to do so (ie, fun). However, there are times when we do so, at least as far as we see it, purely to benefit the other person. We act against our wishes to the betterment of someone else’s day. Why do we do this? Well, we care about the people in our lives. We are acting altruistically. Which brings me to my next question: Is an altruistic action simply what it appears to be on the surface? An action taken for someone else? A selfless act done to make someone else happy? To alleviate someone else’s sadness, boredom, or malaise? Or, is it done for our own benefit? Does acting in a way that benefits others help us in the end, either in terms of good feelings attained when we help those around us, or incurring some benefit in the future (you scratch my back, I scratch yours)?

I do not proclaim to have the answer to this. As I stated in the beginning of this post, if pressed, I would fall into the “yes, it is at its core for us” camp, but I could easily be persuaded from this position given a compelling argument/piece of evidence. I honestly do not feel as though I know. Helping others does feel good, and we do engender good actions in return (rewards), and we know that, as a basic psychological tenet, people operate within a reward/punishment stimulus framework. However, when we act altruistically, we do not usually think of it in these terms. We genuinely care about those around us, and when we act in a way that aids them, we think of it solely in those temrs, and act in a way that we believe we are doing simply for this purpose. I do not ever think “if I help my friend, I will feel awesome” or “if I help my friend, he will help me at some future time” and you probably do not either. The issue, though, is not whether or not we act selfishly in a conscious manner. The idea here is that are we unconsciously being selfish, and then if so, do we on some level know it, but our ego prevents us from acknowledging it, or do we truly not know it, but it is still there, driving us at a very base level?

I suppose one thing to consider is that, according to evolutionary psychology, the driving force behind our actions is survival (both of us and those around us, and the survival of our genes via procreation). Acting in such a way as to maximize our social standing/success does futher our progress on an evolutionary/survivalist scale. Does this mean that we definitively do these things because of these driving desires? Again, I do not know. Does giving to the needy help the needy? Yes. Do we care about the needy? Yes. Does helping the needy make us feel good, and raise our social standing? Yes. Is it possible to know for sure that this added benefit is a driving factor? Not as far as I know; however, those who say that they help merely for altruistic reasons cannot state with certainty that their altruism does not have a selfish basis to it, because their conscious actions (and reasons for acting) can be, and as far as we know in terms of our understanding of human psychology, likely are affected by underlying, unconscious motives.

When I do something good, like say my yearly donation to the university I attended, I know (well, I assume) that I am doing something that will directly benefit the life (or lives) of someone/some people. This also makes me feel good. Do I do it because it makes me feel good? Do I do it to help? Or is it both? I suppose the best way I can end this is to ask the following question:

If acting altruistically hurt, and did not in ANY way do you any good, AT ALL, would there be as much altruism in the world as there is now? I have to say, my gut feeling is that there would not be. What do you think? 


  1. Interesting topic, something that I find myself thinking about sometimes. I think the idea of "self interest" and "altruism" would have to be examined and discussed differently depending on if you are talking about the "individual" or the "corporation/government" because of the complex issues and motivations surrounding business/financial interests and foreign policy for corporations and governments, respectively.

    I can probably examine the reasons why I personally perform actions such as helping others (an action whose motivations may differ depending on context)and hanging out with people. After some personal introspection, I have a few reasons as to why I may perform such actoins:

    1. Being around people I care about makes me happy and increases my self-worth.

    2. It increases my social standing and social "reputation", in that the people I care about will ideally grow closer to me (and I to them), will think more highly of me, and will take more of an interest in me so that they will keep wanting to hang out in the future.

    3. If a loved one is feeling troubled and is in need of emotional support, or if they need physical help(moving out of an apartment), I would want to help because it alleviates their troubles and benefits them, and I want my loved ones to be happy.

    Looking at the first two reasons, it seems that I perform these actions mainly for my own self interest. I want to be happy, I want others to take an interest in me, and I want others to think kindly of me so that they will keep wanting to hang out. The third reason can be seen as an altruistic reason, but I also think that there may be a self-interest motivation at play here also; I want to help the people I love, but I also want to help them because doing so would benefit me socially.

    However, as you wrote, I don't (usually) think about these things when the situation arises. I don't start saying to myself "If I eat lunch with my friend, he will owe me something later". But I personally believe that these motivations play a part in our actions, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously.

  2. Thanks for the excellent comment, good sir :)

    One thing that comes to mind for me is when people will do something like say, donate to charity, and then 'tweet' it.

  3. Or companies/rich celebrities will do it and then they (or their publicist) will make it public via news release or something.

  4. Well, when it comes to the average Joe/Joanne Schmo, I really don't think many of his/her friends care that they donate to charity lol. I just don't see that many average people proclaiming that they donate to charity unless they're at some church group, book club, or some family gathering or something.

    But the act of donating to charities, organizations, and schools is surely, at least partially, motivated by a self-serving desire to make ourselves feel good about ourselves and increase our self-worth. I don't doubt that for a second.

    Celebrities on the other hand... well, ya that's a different story. The concept of "Celebrity Aid/Charity", as well as aid campaigns that try to recruit a bunch of naive (but good-intentioned) westerners like Kony 2012, and the often negative impact that those things have is a topic that I've read and thought about a lot about during a class I took last year.

    Ultimately, I believe that very few celebrities/corporations do some kind of aid/charity thing SOLELY as a publicity stunt. That may be part of it, but I think it's more of a "How can I use my public image to shine a light on a serious topic while ALSO improving my name and expanding my image?" sort of thing. I believe that there's still the inherent desire to want to do good, but there's also the factor of trying to maintain a good public image. And of course, trying to raise your self-worth is still a factor too in my opinion.


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