(N.B.C.) I am the centre of my universe

By Signe Jørgensen

I have been swishing around in my head the idea of Egoism. This is the idea that individuals are always motivated by self interest, not to be confused with egotism, which is an exaggerated sense of self importance.

When first introduced to this idea, I found it to be quite interesting, however something about it always rubbed me the wrong way, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

When debating egoism, there seems to always be an answer, but somehow the answer always seemed somewhat disparaging. Being the optimist that I am, I have been trying to explore this. The best way to illustrate my thoughts is to come up with examples.

So: I want to do well at school, so I can have a sense of achievement, and have hopes of getting a good job, so I will have a nice life etc. (You get the drift.) The egoist would say that this is all out of self-interest, and he would be right, it is in my best interest to make sure I do well. But what about situations wherein I do something that I really don’t want to, but I do it anyway, because I feel I ought to, morally or otherwise.

Like helping my mother with the gardening; I hate gardening, but I do it anyway.

Surely it would be in my best self-interest not to do it. I could simply say no, and walk off, and go do something that I would enjoy. But the egoist would argue that I help my mother because it would soothe my conscience. If I did not help her, it would cause me to feel guilty, and that is bad. So in the end I do it out of self-interest.

The same reasoning can apply to a different situation. Say there is a person drowning in a lake, I would (hopefully) jump in and save them. The egoist would argue that I did not do this to save the life of the person, but rather that I did it because I would not be able to live with the guilt of not helping, if the person died. This is where it gets interesting.

Borrowing an idea from a friend, let us imagine that there is a magic pill that can take away all feelings of guilt, and say that by chance I had happened to take this pill before stumbling upon a drowning person in a lake. I could walk away, and never feel a trace of guilt.

But somehow, I feel certain that I would still rescue this person. Not because if I didn’t, I’d feel guilty, not for any self-interested reason, but simply because it is not OK to let people drown.

I have always had a sense that there has to be something more, than just egoism. People’s actions must be driven, if only at times, by something other than self-interest. That is why I like the last example; I believe that most people would save the drowning person, even if there was no way it could benefit them.  


13 responses to “(N.B.C.) I am the centre of my universe

  1. Interesting…

    I feel there are plenty of things people do, every day, that aren’t motivated by egoism or altruism.

    They are the acts (like the drowning incident) that are compelled by our sense of morality…

    ~ Alex from Our Evolution

  2. Following amzolt…

    “the task of education is to transform and integrate those [egoistic and altruistic impulses and desires] into an inclination towards both the common good and our individual goods, so that we become neither self-rather-than-other-regarding nor other-rather-than-self-regarding, neither egoists nor altruists, but those whose passions and inclinations are directed to what is both our good and the good of others. Self-sacrifice, it follow, is as much of a vice, as much a sign of inadequate moral development, as selfishness.”

    – Alasdair Macintyre, ‘Dependent Rational Animals’

  3. Thanks for that quote Andy, I liked it greatly.

    This is from an email conversation I had with a friend last night. The paragraphs in quotes are me quoting my friend.

    “Framing ethics in terms of self interest is also a bad idea, because any time self interest clashes, then it’s ‘dog eat dog’, which I would assume you wouldn’t argue was very ethical. ”

    I think this is EXACTLY backwards. This is the major problem with most conceptions of morality. They divorce it from the rest of life. I had a lecturer who defined it as “doing what is not in your self interest, but doing it anyway”.

    This is problematic. Think about it. People tend to be practical, pragmatic. So the question to ask is, what the utility in have a morality that is ‘impractical’? The answer is it allows one to continue one’s trajectory to one’s goals of self-advancement without troublesome (inefficient) soul searching. So social morality is immorality.

    Why do you think I emphasise the importance of ease. The more power we have individually and collectively, the more moral we can be. Self interest does not have to clash. Win-win is not only possible, but common, and often engineered. When win win is not possible, then the expectation of a rational agent putting another rational agents interest ahead of its own is absurd.

    Now to flow onto your first paragraph:
    “There are some which would never kill another human if it meant that they didn’t die themselves, regardless of the amount of dog they consume ordinarily. There is little reason for this. How many dogs over a lifetime is ethically as bad as eating one of you? How many fish for one dog? ”

    When it gets to dog it dog I have to make such grim calculations. That is a morality of desperation. We are not in that situation. We need a morality of wealth, abundance, power, ease. That was my last point (the separate post) in the blog post. Such question in a state of ease and power are a trick – a way of continuing on your trajectory. In a state of ease and power you can be magnanimous (literally ‘great mind’), very generous, kind, and forgiving. So you round up. Treat them better than they strictly deserve, you can afford to do so. So why don’t you? That can be taken as a polemical barb (which it is) but also as a empirical question to be answered. What is your answer?

  4. Hi Signe,

    I’m not sure I follow your argument after the bit where you take the guilt-erasing pill…

    “…but simply because it is not OK to let people drown…”

    So you’re saying that you’d save the person not to serve guilt (which is ultimately self-serving), but to serve morality (because it’s just ‘not OK’ to let people drown).

    But morality is arguably self-interest as well isn’t it? Because I feel pretty good about myself when I satisfy my morality. =)

  5. Hi Anthony,
    I was actually expecting someone to make that observation. “But morality is arguably self-interest as well isn’t it? Because I feel pretty good about myself when I satisfy my morality”. So thank you.
    And in reply: Yes, I think you are right. It can be argued that the gratification that one gets from accomplishing a morally satisfying task, is in one’s self-interest.
    However I do not think that people would jump into a lake, with the thought ‘I’m going to save this person because it is going to make me feel good.’ Rather, I think, that the feeling comes after the act, as a side-effect, and not as the main motivation.

  6. Kai –

    “When win win is not possible, then the expectation of a rational agent putting another rational agents interest ahead of its own is absurd.”

    I’d like to hear what you have to say on the subject of ‘love’, given the above comment.

  7. Hi Signe,

    I agree that you don’t jump into the lake with the thought of self-satisfaction. But that’d be because such thoughts would be overridden by the body’s stress response, wouldn’t it?

    I’m not 100% sure about this…but couldn’t our immediate action to save a drowning person be because ever since we were young, we gained satisfaction from helping people and well, I don’t like comparing humans to animals, but it’s kinda like how dogs learn to ‘sit’, right? They do it once, trainers reward them, the dog feels satisfied; repeat, until they the dogs do it regardless, because the satisfaction comes anyway.

    The point is – we don’t necessarily have to be conscious about our gain in satisfaction from doing moral acts in order to gain satisfaction from doing moral acts.

  8. Anthony –
    I agree that this is a distinct possibility, but I would have to agree with Signe on this one.
    I think that there is more than self-interested behaviour. Or, at least, I would like to think there is more.
    The implication that there is just self-interested behaviour has interesting applications when talking about what makes a good person, or, a virtuous person, if they can be used synonymously.
    Any thoughts?

  9. Anthony,
    Yes, you are right, we do not necessarily have to be conscious about gaining pleasure from doing moral acts. And there is nothing wrong with gaining pleasure from doing these acts, as I have already stipulated.

    However, you talk about conditioning, asking the question whether our responses (that is pleasure/satisfaction) are generated from a conditioned reaction. If this were the case, which I don’t think it is, then it begs the question of why we would be conditioned in this way in the first place.

    If we assume that we have been conditioned in a way that doing good things makes one feel good, it follows that we also have been conditioned to sometimes do good things even if they don’t make us feel good.
    Because, above all, doing the good thing is what is important, regardless of how it makes us feel.

    I hope that this makes sense…

  10. Signe,
    Yes, my thoughts of ‘conditioning’ are incorrect. Kindly disregard them. =)

    I also agree that there is more than just self-interest.

  11. The problem with the whole egtoist argument is that you can pretty much frame anything as motivated by self-interest if you really want to. And as a result, some thought experiments require the source of ‘self-interest’ to be pretty obfuscated — like in conditioning — so that self-interest as a mechanism for encouraging action seems to be entirely divorced from self-interest in a moral sense.
    I mean, is subconscious self-interest morally relevant if its external expression is altruism? It’s plausible that everything is internally framed as something benefitting oneself, but if one layer of abstraction above we’ve got altruism, then what difference does it make?

    That said, believing that there’s more than self-interest is exactly what an egotist with a conscience would want to do 😛

  12. On numerous evening walks , I have encountered fellow walkers inquiring what the time is. I have always wondered why the initial instinct, the fundamental impulse – for which the spinal cord and not the brain, is responsible- is to help the person by intimating the time as my watch shows it. I tried this on others and never have I met a person who responded, ” Go buy your own watch.”

    These reactions cannot be inspired by any sense of morality or egoist pleasure as its an instinctual reflex which does not involve any processing in the brain.
    I believe rational creatures have acquired through evolutionary course an ability to live in harmony with his fellow beings.
    since such instincts are not part of a an action plan they can be hardly termed as egoist.
    Saving a downing man is likewise.

    criminal instincts can only be explained as a failure of society to create an atmosphere conducive to passion the inherent human good.

  13. i HAVE saved 6 ppl, 4 from a house fire, 1 from a carfire, and 1 from drowning. I’m a regular person not a firefighter or a cop.
    I saved these people, because they could not have lived without me, i stroked my ego knowing that, it makes me better than them in my mind. if that isnt self interest, giving yourself a belief that u controlled if they lived or died, heh i dont know what is.
    EVERYTHING u do is in YOUR self interest

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