Saturday, September 02, 2006

Selfishness

If a person discusses ethics much, he will sooner or later encounter those who hold that all human actions either are entirely selfish. It is said to be a law of nature itself that humans cannot perform any act that does not serve his interests.

I disagree.

Like many popular opinions, this one begins with a small grain of truth. The problem is that it adds to that grain of truth a large shell of fiction.

The grain of truth is this: All intentional actions are those actions that would fulfill the more and the stronger of an agent’s desires, given his beliefs. Furthermore, they seek to fulfill the more and the stronger of the agent’s desires. In other words, false beliefs lead to mistaken actions (which is why a fact-based community puts so much value in true beliefs).

But this is not selfishness.

This says nothing more than that the desires that an agent acts on are his own.

How could it be anything else?

My Beliefs + My Desires -> My Actions

Let us assume that I create a machine. Through this machine, I can move your arms and your legs and even determine what words you speak. Let us say that I use this machine to cause your body to pick up a gun, to drive over to the home of one of my rivals, shoot him, and drive home.

In this case, clearly, you would not be guilty of murder. It would not even make sense to say that you killed my rival. I am the one who killed my rival. I simply used your body (as I would use a robot or some other machine) to execute my will.

The point of this story is to illustrate the fact that an action cannot even be counted as yours unless your beliefs and your desires are the proximate cause of that action. In this case, my beliefs and my desires (to have my rival killed) were the proximate cause of the action. As a result, even though it was your body that pulled the trigger, it executed my action, and I am the one morally responsible for the results.

When I say that all of your intentional actions are chosen so as to fulfill the more and the stronger of your desires, given your beliefs – this is all that I am saying. For an action to count as “your action” then it must come from your beliefs and your desires. If it does not, then the action is not yours. It belongs to the person whose beliefs and desires caused it.

To ask whether your actions are selfish is to ask whether the actions that spring from your beliefs and desires are selfish. It is certainly the case that the actions that spring from your beliefs and desires are actions that spring from your beliefs and desires – this is tautologically true. But are they selfish? That is a separate question.

The Fulfillment of Desires

When I speak of desire being ‘fulfilled’, I have a specific meaning in mind. I am not even pretending that I am using this word in a way that conforms with common usage. I am, instead, stipulating another meaning to an old term; the way that the International Astronomical Union recently stipulated a new meaning of the word ‘planet.’ If you want to use a different definition, you may do so. However, in the context of this blog, whenever I use the term, I will be using it as a short cut for a long and complex phrase that I do not wish to constantly write out in full.

First, in English, what I mean when I say that a desire is fulfilled is, assume that you somebody has a desire that their child is healthy and happy. That child is fulfilled in any situation where the child is, in fact, healthy and happy. The agent does not have to know that the child is healthy and happy – it only has to be true.

Second, in more technical terms, a desire is a propositional attitude that can be expressed in the form of “Agent desire that P” for some proposition ‘P’. A “desire that P” is fulfilled in any state of affairs S in which ‘P’ is true. To fulfill a “desire that P” is to create a state of affairs in which ‘P’ is true. To fulfill a desire that one’s child is healthy and happy one must create a state in which “my child is healthy and happy” is true.

Again, my claims are that (1) people act so as to fulfill the more and the stronger of their desires, and (2) this is not ‘selfishness’.

The Object of Desires

I am going to use the following analogy to better explain some of my concepts.

In order for an article in the New York Times to be ‘self-regarding”, the article must meet two criteria.

(1) The article must appear in the New York Times.

(2) The article must be about the New York Times.

That is to say, this must be an article that the New York Times writes about itself, such as “Starting Saturday, a new columnist will be appearing in this paper.”

In order for an agent’s desire to be self-regarding, it must meet two very similar criteria.

(1) The desire must appear in the agent – it must be one of the agent’s mental states.

(2) The desire must be about the agent.

In order to determine what an article is about, we need to determine who or what is mentioned in the body of the article. An article about the New York Times mentions the New York Times in the body of the article. However, an article that only talks about Iraq is not an article that is about the New York Times. It is an article about the war in Iraq.

This may seem too obvious for words, yet these obvious claims are exactly the types of claims that people miss when they say that all human action is selfish.

In order to determine what a desire is about, we need to determine who or what is mentioned in the object of the desire. Technically, to determine what a ‘desire that P’ is about, we need to look at who or what is mentioned in the proposition ‘P’. We can separate desires into categories of ‘self-regarding’ and ‘other-regarding’ by whether P mentions the agent. This is true in the same way that we can separate New York Times articles into ‘self-regarding’ and ‘other-regarding’ articles according to whether the article mentions the New York Times.

Examples

I would like to live on a space station. Or, in other words, I desire that I live on a space station. In this case the object of the desire – “I live on a space station” – refers to me. So, this is a self-regarding desire.

I wish that I could quit my day job and spend more time reading and writing about moral issues and moral theory. This, too, is a self-regarding desire; it is a desire that “I spend more time reading and writing on moral issues and moral theory.”

I would like the human race to survive long into the future – long after I am dead and long after the last flicker of memory that anyone has of me has died. This desire does not refer to me at all. It is a desire that “the human race survives.” Even though I am a member of the human race, it is not my survival that I desire. Those future people that I hope will exist are people that I do not know, and who will not know me. Yet, I hope that the future universe will contain these people. This is an other-regarding desire.

I would like everybody to be able to get an education – to have access to the facts that would allow them to make intelligent, informed decisions. This means that I am adverse to anything that gets in the way of people acquiring accurate information – lying politicians and public-relations companies, religious dogma that bans people from getting an education or considers it a sin to investigate theories that contradict religious teachings, economic barriers to affording an education, and civil unrest that does not make it possible for schools to exist. This is an other-regarding desire.

These are just some examples, and one of the things they illustrate is how both self-regarding and other-regarding desires are possible. Just as a person can have beliefs about things other than himself (beliefs about other people, beliefs about things, beliefs about future events that he will not be a part of), he can have desires about things other than himself (desires about other people, desires about things, and desires about future events he will not be a part of).

Recall that all desires motivate an agent to making or keeping a proposition true -- a proposition like, "I live in space", or "I can spend all day, every day reading and writing about moral theory", or "The human race survives," or, "Everybody has an opportunity to get a good education."

Last Trace of Selfishness

Some, some may be tempted to argue that, since an agent always acts in ways that will fulfill his own desires, this means that he must ultimately be selfish – ultimately, deep inside, he is selfish.

Let me return once again to the New York Times to illustrate why this is not the case.

If I were to say that the New York Times only publishes stories that appear in the New York Times, it would be completely absurd to say that this proves that the New York Times is an entirely self-centered newspaper that only writes about itself. It is, in fact, entirely obvious that, yes, every story that has ever appeared in the New York Times is a story that has appeared in the New York Times. My statement would be a tautology – like saying that all round things are round.

To say that everybody always acts on his or her own desires is the same type of statement. Yes, it is the case that every intentional action that I perform is my action. I cannot prevent it from being the case that I can perform an intentional action that is not my action. It is as impossible as the New York Times publishing a story in its paper that it does not publish in the New York Times. Of course my actions are my actions. Of course, my actions come from my beliefs and desires (otherwise they would not be my action).

However, it is as absurd to say that this proves that all of my actions are self-regarding (or selfish) as it would be to say that all of the New York Times’ stories are self-centered (or about the New York Times). There simply is no valid argument to be made from this tautologically true premise (all of my actions are my actions) to the conclusion that all of my actions are selfish.

Conclusion

So, if all humans are selfish, then every story that appears in the New York Times is a story about the New York Times.

In order to get to the conclusion that humans are selfish, you have to use a definition that says that the mere fact that a desire is one’s own, is enough to make acting on it ‘selfish.’

However, if we use that definition of ‘selfishness’ then the mere fact that a story appears in the New York Times – regardless of what the story is about – would have to be classified as a self-centered story.

If all desires that a human acts on, merely by the fact that they are his, is selfish; then every story that appears in the New York Times, merely by the fact that the New York Times publishes it, is “self-centered.”

Clearly, these conclusions are absurd. The New York Times runs a great many stories that do not even mention the New York Times. People have a great many desires that are desires about people and things other than themselves.

Because of this we can abandon the idea that people are always (necessarily) selfish.

1 comment:

Mark said...

I think I understand your arguement but disagree.
Even when we do thinghs for others, we subconsciously are doing it for ourselves also, to feel good. Eveything we do, we do to feel good.

Mark
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