Many people believe that human beings only act on the basis of self-interest. However, there are some grave problems with that sort of statement. As it turns out, it is extremely difficult to find a technical definition of “self-interest” which is not either exceedingly vague or handwaving. And without any understanding of what “self-interest” is, then the whole argument falls apart right out of the gate.
Dictionary-level definitions are overvague, talking about “personal interest,” which is of no help because it merely reformulates the “self” as “personal,” a substitution which we already understand and therefore is of no help at all. Technical definitions are not much more helpful. For example, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states:
Psychological egoism claims that each person has but one ultimate aim: her own welfare. This allows for action that fails to maximize perceived self-interest, but rules out the sort of behavior psychological egoists like to target — such as altruistic behavior or motivation by thoughts of duty alone.
But this is ultimately a handwavey definition. How do we determine that altruistic behavior cannot support one’s own welfare? Does one’s duty never support one’s own welfare? What about the aims we hold which are not related to one’s own welfare? Finally, it seems to, paradoxically, designate as self-interested actions for which we personally see no benefit (see my argument against equating self-interest with hedonism below).
Some people argue that all actions must be selfish, because we always get something out of them. But this does not take into account the fact that all actions are tradeoffs: doing things requires us to expand time, energy, resources, and whatever else. If the return we get is smaller than what we expand in getting it, then how can this be called “selfish”? So it seems to me that this is a dead end. I have lampooned this sort of simplistic thinking in my satire entry about psychological altruism.
Other definitions equate self-interest with hedonism, or well-being. However, these definitions conflict with what we commonly understand as self-interested actions. For instance, if someone does not value or desire pleasure, then it seems perverse to equate self-interest with hedonism. The same general principle can be applied to well-being. In general, it makes little sense to define self-interest as some standard disconnected from the individual’s subjectivity, since, after all, this is about self-interest, not “a person’s actual interest” (or what would be called “enlightened self-interest,” which is a contradiction in terms unless you either redefine “enlightened” or “self-interest”).
Another definition, which seems more promising, is to define self-interest with desires: a self-interested action is an action we desire to perform. However, this is a trivial definition, because any action we perform involves a desire to perform it at some point. This is just a consequence of being an organism with a will, and has no moral relevance. However, it shows us how people might validate the position that “all actions are self-interested.”
So my general position about “self-interest” is that it’s an equivocation between a number of different meanings of “self-interest.” In general order from narrowest scope to widest scope:
Status-self-interest is a term I use to refer to actions which pull ourselves up in society while dragging other people down. Stealing money or other resources, competing on the free market, manipulating people (a vast domain in itself, applicable to all areas of life), lying for personal gain, fraud, are all examples of status-self-interest. My analysis in this entry was based on status-self-interest.
Because of its narrowness, I believe this is the concept of self-interest which imbues the term with the most meaning. When you combine it with the “we all act in our self-interest,” what it basically means is: people are mean-spirited and will do anything to get the upper hand over everyone else. Human society is “red in tooth and claw.”
Well-being-self-interest encompasses the more ultra-rational “enlightened self-interest” ideologies (as well as the more recent secular “morality as well-being” beliefs, which are just declawed and defanged versions of “enlightened self-interest”). This refers to actions which further the individual’s survival and flourishing. They include some status-self-interested actions, as well as other more mundane actions which fulfill biological or psychological needs. In this sense, something like sleeping at least eight hours a day is a self-interested act, because it is conducive to the person’s well-being.
I believe that this concept of self-interest can serve to whitewash self-interest as a whole, because well-being is a rather benign concept. “Self-interest just means doing what’s best for you and your life.”
Emotional-self-interest is what people invoke when they say things like “giving to charity is selfish because it makes you feel good.” I believe this is used to drag actual acts of altruism under the self-interest umbrella: if someone points out an actually altruistic act made by a certain person, simply assume that the person must have had an emotional reason to do what they did and the issue is resolved. Whether they actually did have such a reason is besides the point, as all they’re doing here is cast doubt on the altruist’s position. Any just-so story is enough to accomplish this, and emotions are so wide-ranging in nature that they always provide some way to formulate a just-so story.
Desire-self-interest is, as I’ve already pointed out, trivially true because all actions are preceded by a desire to perform them. This means that desire-self-interest has the widest scope of all, as all actions automatically become part of it simply by the fact that they are actions performed by willful organisms. Therefore this concept can be used to drive home the “fact” that self-interest is inevitable. “We all do the things we want to do, therefore we all operate on self-interest.” (a similar way to do this is by using value-self-interest, which pretty much amounts to the same thing)
You can also replace the term “self-interest” with “selfishness,” “benefit,” and so on, with the same effect.
As in other structures of equivocations, the passage from one version to another carries a lot of argumentative weight. That is why equivocation is a fallacy; as long as the other person does not realize you are equivocating, being able to jump from one version to the other means that your argument is a lot more flexible than it would be if you were arguing logically. Status-self-interest establishes the moral claim, well-being-self-interest makes the claim appear inoffensive, emotional-self-interest and desire-self-interest justify and universalize the claim.
But by looking at the different versions listed separately, we can now see that they all contradict each other. Actions which raise my status may not be conducive to my well-being (especially if they are violent or criminal). An action might make me feel good if I performed it, but I may have no desire to perform it. In some contexts, I may not feel the need to, or want to, do what supports my well-being (I may instead want to take some unhealthy risk). And so on and so forth.
While evolutionary psychology is not based on equivocation, it does share certain attributes with the “self-interest” construct. For one thing, both crucially use and abuse just-so stories: self-interest uses just-so psychological stories as a way to explain away altruistic actions, while evolutionary psychology uses just-so evolutionary stories to fit its agenda onto observed human behavior. In both cases, we are talking about imaginative but irrational guesses, not stories made on the basis of actual evidence or data.
But I think the most important similarity between the two is that they are both pseudo-rational means to support a certain view of human nature. People who claim that the only motivation we have is self-interest are not putting forward a moral claim but rather a claim about human nature, and that claim is that human nature is innately evil or destructive. In that claim is also contained the possibility of change, although many proponents of self-interest believe that we should not try to change our self-interested natures. Evolutionary psychology puts forward the claim that human nature encodes human behavior, that the traditional genderist Western view of the world is not only correct but necessarily correct, and that these things cannot be changed.
These claims are harmonious, but they are not equal. One can believe in self-interest but not in evolutionary psychology, and vice-versa (although admittedly the vice-versa is very unlikely, since virtually all evolutionary psychologists are part of some category of conservatism). Rather, my point is that we should not let claims about human nature masquerade as supposed immutable realities. And I say the same thing about my position too: all positions about human nature should be based on evidence, not on a priori.
In general, the claim that we are all self-interested can be used in one of three ways:
1. We (necessarily) are all self-interested and we have no choice in the matter.
2. We (or most of us) are all self-interested and this is a good thing.
3. We (or most of us) are all self-interested and this should be changed.
Some people from the Leftist side take the third position because they assume that self-interest refers to status-self-interest (because this is the only version of self-interest which is both not inevitable and undesirable). The second position most likely refers to emotional-self-interest or well-being-self-interest. The first position most likely refers to desire-self-interest. This is not set in stone, of course. Ultra-rationalists may argue that status-self-interest is a good thing, because they have been indoctrinated in believing in some form of Social Darwinism (generally of the “unfettered capitalist” kind).
I am not saying here that the equivocation is done on purpose. I don’t think most people who advocate for self-interest in some form (whether saying it’s a good thing, or that it’s just an innate fact we can do nothing about) are aware of this. Indeed, I’ve advocated self-interest in the past, and none of this ever crossed my mind. The whole equivocation is not at all what I was planning on writing about in this entry, because I was not even aware of it. It was only after researching various definitions of self-interest from different sources that, after some deep confusion and some panic, I came to the slow realization that there was an equivocation there. It came to me as a complete surprise, but it only goes to show how shallow and vacuous these Libertarian-right positions are.