Many people today believe that everyone is self-interested at all times. They say that people have no choice but to be selfish, in some way. This is a doctrine of human nature that’s been around for centuries, and it’s called “psychological egoism.” In this video, I’ll explain why this idea is wrong, and how it rests on a confused idea of what self-interest means.
So let’s get right to it. What does self-interest really mean? Does it mean doing whatever you want? No, it doesn’t.
To know what self-interest is, we have to know what the self is, and what it is to be interested in it. Your self is not just what you feel in any given moment. Your self is your whole person. It is everything you are as a living entity, and especially your mind. It is your consciousness and your body. And it includes those things that are part of your consciousness, like the values your mind chooses; that is, the goals you choose to pursue in your life. Your self is you, and it exists as long as you’re alive.
You are also a specific kind of living organism: a human being. And there are specific, objective requirements you need to meet to maintain your self. At the most basic level, this means eating food, rather than poison, and drinking fresh water and potable drinks, rather than seawater or bleach. It means being productive and producing wealth or other values to support yourself. In a society, this means having a legal occupation, rather than driving around the country robbing banks and killing people like Bonnie and Clyde, until the police gun you down.
Being self-interested means being interested in the long-term survival and well-being of your self. So it means finding out what the objective requirements of your life are and then fulfilling them. Those who disregard the requirements of maintaining their lives are not self-interested. They are self-destructive. People have to work and produce wealth to sustain their lives. To do this, they have to be able to think. So people who take harmful drugs like cocaine or heroin, to the point that they neglect their physical needs and damage their ability to think and work, are not self-interested. People who risk their whole futures by driving drunk, for the sake of a momentary desire not to be inconvenienced, are not self-interested.
People can also intentionally sacrifice their own goals and well-being–i.e. their self–for others. They can do it in small ways, like donating to some charity, not because they genuinely value what the charity actually does, but out of a sense of sheer moral duty. They can give in order to feel less guilty, under a morality that extols self-sacrifice. Or they can intentionally sacrifice in big ways, such as by sacrificing the career they really want in order to take care of an ailing relative, whom they don’t love with a passion, but whom they feel a duty to serve. Again, their feelings of guilt and duty are driven by a morality that extols self-sacrifice for others. This is a morality they shouldn’t have accepted in the first place. The self-interested thing to do is not to attempt to “feel better” by sacrificing, as their accepted morality demands. The self-interested thing to do would be to question and then reject that morality that tells them to sacrifice.
Wanting to “be a good person” according to a morality that advocates self-abnegation, is not a self-interested motivation.
In Ayn Rand’s book, The Virtue of Selfishness, there’s an essay by Nathaniel Branden entitled “Isn’t Everyone Selfish?” It’s specifically on this issue of psychological egoism. It clarifies that selfishness is not about doing whatever you feel like. It explains the difference between motivation and self-interest. I quote:
“The selfishness or unselfishness of an action is to be determined objectively. It is not determined by the feelings of the person who acts. Just as feelings are not a tool of cognition, so they are not a criterion in ethics. Obviously, in order to act, one has to be moved by some personal motive. One has to ‘want,’ in some sense, to perform the action. The issue of an action’s selfishness or unselfishness depends, not on whether or not one wants to perform it, but on why one wants to perform it. By what standard was the action chosen? To achieve what goal? If a man proclaimed that he felt he would best benefit others by robbing and murdering them, men would not be willing to grant that his actions were altruistic. By the same logic and for the same reasons, if a man pursues a course of blind self-destruction, his feeling that he has something to gain by it does not establish his actions as selfish.
If, motivated solely by a sense of charity, compassion, duty or altruism, a person renounces a value, desire or goal in favor of the pleasure, wishes or needs of another person whom he values less than the thing he renounced–that is an act of self-sacrifice. The fact that a person may feel that he “wants” to do it, does not make his action selfish or establish objectively that he is its beneficiary.
Suppose, for example, that a son chooses the career he wants by rational standards, but then renounces it in order to please his mother who prefers that he pursue a different career, one that will have more prestige in the eyes of the neighbors. The boy accedes to his mother’s wish because he’s accepted that such is his moral duty: He believes that his duty as a son consists of placing his mother’s happiness above his own, even if he knows that his mother’s demand is irrational and even if he knows that he is sentencing himself to a life of misery and frustration. It is absurd for the advocates of the “everyone is selfish” doctrine to assert that since the boy is motivated by the desire to be virtuous or to avoid guilt, no self-sacrifice is involved and his action is really selfish. What is evaded is the question of why the boy feels and desires as he does. Emotions and desires are not causeless, irreducible primaries: They are the product of the premises one has accepted. The boy “wants” to renounce his career only because he’s accepted the ethics of altruism: He believes that it is immoral to act for his self-interest. That is the principle directing his actions.”
So being self-interested means living a life that is rationally thought out. It’s a life that has a definite hierarchy of values or goals that are mutually consistent and supportive of each other. It’s a life that is consistent with your basic requirements as a human being.
And you are definitely not self-interested merely for wanting so-called “social benefits” from the approval of others. If someone has a high opinion of you, but that opinion doesn’t align with reality, then the opinion is not really a benefit and it’s not genuinely in your interests. This is what Ayn Rand’s novel, The Fountainhead, was largely about. Delusions, falsehoods and irrational ideas don’t refer to reality, and so can’t be real contributors to your life. The fact that someone believes something does not bring that something into reality. And achieving life-promoting goals in reality is what constitutes your genuine self-interest.
So, to sum up, not every action is necessarily in your self-interest, because not every possible motivation drives you toward achieving what’s best for your life as a human being. Being motivated by the whims of the moment in snorting large amounts of cocaine is not self-interested. Nor is it self-interested to be motivated by the approval of yourself or others in acting according to your supposed duties under the morality of altruism. Being self-interested means acting in a way that you genuinely think is best for your life as an individual human being, and a huge number of people don’t do this, a large part of the time.