To be selfish is quite human, and indeed quite beastly: "Stupidity and
egoism are the roots of all vice" (Buddha). It is also quite
necessary for one's own survival, at least to some extent - and it is quite
false that it is a necessary fact of nature, though many who are greedy and
selfish like to pretend or believe it is.
1. Egoism and altruism
People who believe themselves to be realists
tend to believe that "all men are egoists", and tend to argue this on the
basis of the fact that no men can feel another person's feelings or have
another person's interests, for which reason it follows - according to these
would-be realists - that one cannot be not egoistic, since one always must act
on the basis of one's own interests, feelings and motives.
The fact is that this is a
fallacy. It may be granted that most men are
mostly egoistic most of the time, and it is true that no men can feel
another's feelings or have another's interests.
Even so, not only in humans but in any
animal species that takes care of its young, it is evidently true that parents
do sacrifice quite a few of their own interests and needs out of concern for
- what they believe or feel to be - the good of their offspring. Similarly, persons who love each other may
sacrifice part of their own interests for the sake of someone else, and indeed
human society involves a considerable amount of common kindness, that may be
seen as acts of altruism in so far as they are not based on mere conformism.
The fact that this concern for another and
the resulting small or large sacrifice of one's own present interests for the
sake of those of another are based on a feeling one has oneself - which
is the most telling argument for the thesis of universal egoism of all -
proves nothing for egoism against altruism, since any concern one feels,
however private and personal, is either for another or some thing else
than oneself or else for oneself, and one may act in one's own
or in another's interest from choice or from compulsion (as may be the
case with the mothers of young rats, that walk over electrified grids to get
to their young).
The point is not whose interest is felt (always only one's own,
though perhaps that may consist of an imagination how it would be to stand in
another's shoes), but whose interest is served. If a mother feeds her
children at the cost of her own food during a period of starvation, this is in
their interest and not in the mother's interest, even if she strongly feels
she should do what she does. For one thing, without children she would not
have this strong feeling to serve the interests of these others.
There is a theory by the English-Dutch doctor Mandeville, first published
in the beginning of the 18th Century, according to which much of the good men
do to other men is in fact based on their egoism, that moves them to cooperate
with others for their own interests, to satisfy their own lusts for gain,
status and power.
This may be said to be somewhat cynical, but also to be rather realistic,
in that it does explain fairly well how people may do good to others without
desiring to do so.
One addition this theory needs, though, is that it seems to require a
fairly good and non-biased system of public law, that makes it for most men
attractive to further their own ends by wheeling and dealing, and by thus
contributing to society and others' interests, while forcing them to do so while remaining
within the framework of the law.