The real incentives of a human being in making choices remain a mystery because it is still unclear whether people can act for the common good without thinking about their self-interest. Some scholars argue that every person is egotistic and thus only capable of doing good considering personal benefits (Tilley, 2019, p. 2). Other researchers claim that humans are capable of altruism and sacrifice (Lennon, 2019). However, according to psychological egoism, even such altruists as Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King, Jr. were believed to act from the selfish desire to become famous or feel good about themselves (Rosenstand, 2018, p. 474).
Psychological egoism can be understood as a view that a specific gain drives every person’s deed. In contrast, ethical egoism theory states that it is moral to act to achieve self-benefit (Rosenstand, 2018, p.187). These two forms of selfishness are not criticized because modern society believes that putting oneself is beneficial for the group. Indeed, people always act considering self-interest even when something is done for others, but it does not mean that this behavior is unethical because the best decision for society starts with one person’s choices.
Multifaceted Nature of Self-Interest in People’s Actions
Despite the common belief about heroes who supposedly acted in a critical situation without self-interest, human beings are programmed to behave for one’s survival. Therefore, even if one does something for other people, that person receives direct or indirect advantageous results for oneself (Tilley, 2019). Thus, the concept of self-interest is complex because receiving benefits can also be perceived as selfishness. According to Vila-Henninger (2017), the study participants’ drivers always included self-interest. Specifically, people involved in this survey were asked about their reasons for voting for or against the law and were found to have three types of concerns.
The first group was classified based on their actions regarding self-interest and social order (Vila-Henninger, 2017). A cooperative gain justified the second group’s selfish decision, and the third group of participants believed in the wholeness of the collective and self (Vila-Henninger, 2017). Indeed, self-interest is complicated because it is not always considered a good intention, but it has good outcomes, contrary to Kant’s deontology, which states that the intention is more important than the act (Rosenstand, 2018, p. 272). Still, any voluntary or dutiful action is always beneficial for the doer.
Aiding someone selflessly may seem heroic, but examining these actions will reveal that the majority, if not all of them, have a self-interest. For instance, helping a friend with coursework or mother with washing dishes could be done out of fear of losing a comrade or disappointing the parent. Another scenario is that one can assist in asking for a favor in the future that directly indicates acting with self-interest.
According to Lennon (2019), this person would take responsibility for someone’s duties out of affection and love for another individual. In fact, an upbeat feeling of pleasure that they receive occurs in their minds; thus, this action is done while thinking about self-advantage. Nevertheless, other people’s interest is also considered, which again complicates the concept of personal interest. However, people sometimes do good for others without having any time to calculate if they gain something from it. The individuals whose work requires courageous behavior developed this habit due to multiple similar episodes in the past. Therefore, helping becomes their second nature which brings constant satisfaction from these actions.
Biological Significance of Egoism and Self-Interest
Although the idea of inborn selfishness may seem appalling for most people, psychological and ethical egoism theories state that thinking about self-interest is natural and virtuous, respectively. Indeed, when a person sacrifices one’s life to save others, this act can be described as the biological instinct to protect someone who will pass their genes, ensuring the preservation of the species. Moreover, it is more advantageous for society if people put their interests first because, in that case, they will perform better for the community in general. Indeed, the foundational statement of ethical egoism theory is that every person’s moral duty is to take care of oneself (Rosenstand, 2018, p. 172).
Therefore, helping people in need is also viewed as selfish behavior because this aid implies that a person hopes for a similar attitude from others in an identical situation. Furthermore, the group will benefit from the fact that every member is healthy and independent. It means that everyone can be a strong candidate for acquiring the role of a caregiver for those who lost the capacity to look after themselves or a saver in emergency cases.
Another biological importance of self-interest that makes people behave in a particular way is neurochemical satisfaction. Specifically, dopamine release, which is involved in the reward circuit, was found to be significantly higher when the study participants made voluntary donations or money transfers than when this action was forced (Luo, 2018). It means that pro-social behavior is closely associated with activating the brain reward system, reinforcing learning, and the desire to repeat the action if the outcome is pleasurable.
Although the choice to contribute for the common good is a conscious decision made in the prefrontal cortex of a mature person, a good background experience also contributes to this act. Interestingly, brain imaging experiments demonstrated that human beings experience the activation of the same neural circuits while watching other people’s suffering or happiness and when they have these feelings themselves (Luo, 2018). Indeed, pro-social behavior evolved in humans to help them adapt and survive because a group has higher chances to withstand difficulties. Therefore, every act for others cannot be considered devoid of self-interest because humans are programmed to help others to survive themselves and receive satisfaction from the action.
The Inevitability of Self-Interest in Doing Good for Others
Self-interest is an essential element of any virtuous act because it adds quality and meaning to any deed. It is challenging to determine precisely, but people who claim they did something selflessly could not probably comprehend the concept of self-interest, especially in emergencies (Rosenstand, 2018, p. 168). Indeed, it should not be viewed antipathetically because many entrepreneurs who founded for-profit organizations to reach their personal goals contributed to the societal development by providing multiple jobs and new products. Thus, benefiting oneself and doing good for others are not incompatible notions, especially if the interest is wellbeing or survival.
Moreover, as biological bases of pro-social behavior show, self-interest is imprinted in humanity’s genetics, providing an incentive to act virtuously without noticing how they helped someone. The outcome is that they feel good about themselves, make valuable connections, or become heroes. It appears that every human deed holds self-interest, but it does not suggest that altruism is nonexistent. Conversely, generous gestures are performed due to an individual’s understanding of the material or emotional benefit for themselves. However, sometimes these selfless actions are done unconsciously, creating a myth about the absence of self-interest.
Regardless of the scale of the reason that elicited altruistic behavior, large or small, the direct or indirect profit is considered even if it is not the primary thought during the act. Since “the cognitive processes of real people show behavioral patterns being dependent on both neurological processes and socio-cultural interactions,” self-advantage appears to be an integral element of human nature (Cojanu, 2017, p. 674). According to Cojanu (2017), people expect a benefit, but they do not always notice it because their minds oscillate from intuitive to rational thinking. Therefore, some individuals cannot always remember why they contributed to the common good.
Still, there is no single correct explanation why self-interest is an inevitable element of human action because it depends on the observer. For instance, neuroscientists may explain particular behavior in terms of molecular mechanisms in the brain, sociologists will talk about cultural values, and economists may argue that every deed is an investment to the future benefit (Cojanu, 2017). Hence, self-interest can be found in any circumstance, even if it will never be admitted due to the commonly accepted misconception about the immorality of egoism.
Are People Capable of Acting without Self-Interest for Others?
Despite multiple scientific papers demonstrating some degree of egoism in people’s actions, some groups still consider that not all human actions imply self-interest. Their main argument is a multitude of cases of heroic actions during wars and charity organizations. For example, Liviu Librescu was a 76-year-old holocaust survivor, aeronautical engineering professor at Virginia Tech, and the man who saved his students at the cost of his life during a 2007 mass murder (Rosenstand, 2018, p. 168). It could probably be cynical to discuss selfishness in such cases because people lost their lives to help others survive without thinking about the praise they might receive.
Furthermore, labeling these truly heroic deeds as selfless acts cultivates courageous and honorable behavior in young generations, showing them exceptional abilities of human nature. Moreover, according to Paternoster et al. (2017), “people are heterogeneous concerning their preferences,” consequently, “rationality need not be restricted to narrow self-interested materialism” (p. 849). It appears that the rationale behind the counterargument to the inevitability of self-interest is the spectacular cases of bravery or generosity that led to thousands of children being fed and educated.
Although the abovementioned argument against self-interest seems plausible and benevolent, absolute selflessness is most likely an illusion. Even the most selfless act can be explained with evolutionarily developed mechanisms in the human brain to express pro-social behavior to ensure the species’ survival (Luo, 2018). However, removing the genetic predisposition factor, which is a lever on an unconscious level, does not exclude self-interest for two reasons. Firstly, nobody knows what were those heroes’ thoughts because they lost their lives. Therefore, it is impossible to state that they were not thinking about benefits for themselves or their families.
Indeed, everyone has the moral duty to act because, as the consequentialism theory suggests, only the outcome of people’s actions matters (Rosenstand, 2018, p. 218). Furthermore, self-interest is always a strong motivator for extraordinary effort. The second reason is that humanity created an unwritten social contract which suggests that helping others is the best way to look after self and maintain balance (Rosenstand, 2018, p. 171). Most adult people learn and prefer to follow this rule when they become fully functioning units of society because it benefits themselves and others.
The value of self-advantage is undeniable, indicating that debates about selfish and selfless actions are needless. Furthermore, some people want to aid others because they enjoy it, which is self-interest, but it does not mean that it is not a good deed (Rosenstand, 2018, p. 176). It just brings material or immaterial profit for both parties, creating the pattern of reciprocal help, which makes society better.
To conclude, self-interest is an integral component of any human action, even when done for others, because people are genetically programmed for pro-social behavior reinforced by societal rules. Indeed, if an individual helps a friend or a relative, it ultimately benefits both of them because of satisfaction from doing good and possible future profit. Any heroic or charitable act can be explained by evolutionary mechanisms or the brain reward circuits.
Moreover, according to psychological and ethical egoism theory, self-interest is considered moral because society becomes better when all its members take care of themselves and are capable of protecting others. Furthermore, self-advantage is a robust incentive to put more effort into every act; therefore, it is not only moral to have interest but valuable for the collective. Finally, since all human deeds are governed by learned societal rules or driven by inborn instincts, selfless behavior is not possible.
Cojanu, V. (2017). Self-interest and the modernity of homo economicus. International Journal of Social Economics, 44(5), 670-682. Web.
Lennon, T. M. (2019). Sacrifice and self-interest in seventeenth-century France: Quietism, Jansenism, and Cartesianism. Brill.
Luo, J. (2018). The neural basis of and a common neural circuitry in different types of pro-social behavior. Frontiers in Psychology, 9(859), 1-17. Web.
Paternoster, R., Jaynes, C. M., & Wilson, T. (2017). Rational choice theory and interest in the “fortune of others.” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 54(6), 847-868. Web.
Rosenstand, N. (2018). The moral of the story. An introduction to ethics (8th ed.). McGraw Hill Education.
Tilley, J. J. (2019). Francis Hutcheson and John Clarke on desire and self-interest. The European Legacy, 24(1), 1-24. Web.
Vila-Henninger, L. (2017). The moral economies of self-interest: The popular confluence of norms of self-interest and norms of solidarity. Sociological Perspectives, 60(1), 168-185. Web.