Are We All Selfish?

Many students imagine that every human being and every action is selfish. Immanuel Kant was rightly suspicious of the tendency to defer everything to the “dear self,” and make ourselves an exception to a rule. However, the idea that everyone is selfish is largely the result of confusions involving language.

Hedonism is the notion that everything we do, we do for pleasure. Aristotle nixed this idea two millennia ago by stating that eating vetch might be the grandest happiness for a cow, but it is hardly sufficient for a human being. If pleasure were the secret of life, it would be possible to install an electrode in the pleasure center of human beings, have a button attached to a battery, and simply press the button for “happiness.” However, most sane individuals reject this scenario as the acme of human flourishing. Such thought experiments involving mechanical devices are simply a variation on the use of heroin. It feels good for a while, but it means nothing, and it prevents most of the things most people consider worthwhile, such as romantic relationships, projects meaningful to the individual, holding down a job, and being self-sufficient, and is likely to cause a premature death. Since heroin is addicting, it also subverts freedom and makes people slaves of a drug.

6What many people seem to find convincing is the claim that since being good, kind, and compassionate can feel good, those who are good, kind, and compassionate are actually shameless hedonists seeking pleasure. Mother Teresa gets her kicks from helping the sick and poor, while I do it using crack cocaine; thus, Mother Teresa and “I” are on a moral par: rabidly, and selfishly, pursuing pleasure.

7The claim is that everything we do, we do because we imagine we will derive some benefit from it. It would cause most parents significant mental anguish not to help their beloved children in their time of need. So, it is imagined, when a parent gets up at three a.m. to drive his child to the hospital because he is worried about the child’s health, he is doing this in the expectation that he will feel good about his decision and derive some 13kind of dopamine rush from the exercise. Or, at the very least, he would feel bad about letting his child suffer and perhaps die, and he wants to avoid these unpleasant feelings. However, this conclusion is the result of confused thinking. In order to derive pleasure of any kind from helping someone, it has to be because the person actually loves and cares about that person, which is the opposite of being selfish. The word “selfish” means the exclusive care from one’s own welfare. Loving someone else is the opposite. Enjoying benefiting someone else is only possible if we are not selfish. It is absolutely fine to benefit from being a good, loving person. That has nothing to do with being a selfish person. We do not love “pleasure” per se; we love people, reading, fast cars, stimulating conversations, video games, repairing radios, speculating about the stock market, helping patients, etc.


If Mother Teresa does not actually like and care about the sick and dying, she will not actually derive any pleasure from it. If I do not like fast cars for their own sake, then I will not feel good driving one. Hedonism as a theory, i.e., the notion that everything we do, we do for pleasure. tries to skip the middle man and go straight for the dopamine rush;8but the dopamine rush, if in fact that is what it is, is the result of loving something or doing something. It is not the cause of it. The hedonist confuses cause and effect.

The claim that we are all selfish is an example of the self-sealing fallacy, This is a fallacy where someone makes an empirical (factual) claim, someone else finds a counterexample, and then the first person states that this counterexample does not count because he is not a “real” fill-in-the-blank.

That is why the self-sealing fallacy is most famously called the “no true Scotsman fallacy,” named after a fanciful instance where a Scotsman is reading the newspaper and reads of an awful rape and murder in London. The Scotsman announces that no Scotsman would behave like that, only to find that the rapist and murderer is named Michael Fitzpatrick, whereupon he states that no “true” Scotsman would behave like that.11In the self-sealing fallacy, we begin with an empirical claim. The empirical claim is proven wrong through a single counterexample. The person making the original claim then retreats into tautology. A tautology has to do with the meaning of words; not empirical claims. The most hackneyed example of a tautology is “a bachelor is an unmarried man.” It would be pointless to conduct a study in which every bachelor the researcher encountered was asked if he were unmarried because, thanks to the sheer meaning of the word “bachelor,” all of them will be unmarried. A married bachelor is an outright contradiction.

12So, the trick with the self-sealing fallacy is that someone starts with an empirical claim; he is proven wrong by a counterexample, but he tries to salvage his original claim by retreating to a tautology. The apparent benefit of doing so is that tautologies can never be proven wrong. But this is cheating. Empirical claims are claims about the world. Tautologies have to do with the meanings of words. When someone writes that “all men are selfish,” he is claiming to state a fact about the world, about the nature of men. If he simply came right out and said “human beings, as a matter of definition, are selfish” then we would have to contradict him. That is not, in fact, part of the definition of humanity.

Rhetorically, when making factual claims, it is generally not a good idea to use words like “all,” and “never,” since a single counterexample will prove you wrong.

The test of whether someone is making an empirical claim about reality, rather than something true by definition, is if a scenario can be imagined where the supposed 14empirical claim is false. If I claim that Husain Bolt is the fastest man alive, can you imagine a scenario where this turned out to be false? Yes! If someone called Pete Davies were in fact the fastest man alive. If I say the sun is nine million miles away, under what circumstances would that be false? If it were ten million miles away. If, under no circumstances, you can describe even a hypothetical scenario where your claim would be wrong, then you are not describing something about the world.

If you say “the fact that you did X means that wanted to do it, and we only ever do what we want to do for selfish reasons,” then under what circumstances would you be proven wrong? None. You are claiming that whatever I do, for whatever reason I do it, ultimately I do it because I wanted to do it, and wanting to do something is always the result of wanting pleasure, then no counterexample will ever be possible. You have made it true by definition – not true as a statement about the actual behavior of human beings.

It helps if we get it clear in our minds what “selfish” means. To repeat, it means “exclusive concern for one’s own welfare.” If I derive pleasure from helping other people that is not the same as being selfish. If I were selfish, I would not derive this pleasure. We are allowed to benefit from being a good person. Benefiting from caring about other 15people does not mean you do not care about other people, which is what being selfish means. I cannot benefit from caring about other people if I do not care about other people – and caring about other people is the opposite of being selfish. If good people derive pleasure from helping other people, and this makes them bad people, then good people are bad people. Then there are just bad people who like helping other people, and bad people who do not! There are loving, caring, bad people, and then horrible, hateful, bad people. You have ruled out the possibility of their being good people.

If we focus on the meaning of the word “selfish,” we will have to agree that not everyone at all times is selfish. Benefiting from caring about other people is not a Catch-22 where we are suddenly become bad people. If there were no benefits from being a good and loving person, the universe would be a very sad place indeed.


5 thoughts on “Are We All Selfish?

  1. Pingback: Are We All Selfish? | Reaction Times

  2. Good article, Sir.

    I adopted this notion once upon a time that everyone does what he or she does, including nice things for others at one’s own expense in various ways, for purposes of personal gratification, for lack of a better term. I believe I picked the idea up from Locke, who I was reading a lot of back then. I don’t think it’s altogether false in any case, but I know that in my case in particular I took it way too far there for a time and a season. I was very young then and lacked wisdom, so what can I say? It reminds me of what Kristor says in his article Improper Reduction I believe. To paraphrase Kristor from the article, ‘one learns a new principle, and all of a sudden he’s the hammer and all the world his nail.’ Or something like that.

    I know that stepping into the role of primary caretakers of my dying father several years ago was not enjoyable for my wife and I at all. We derived no pleasure from doing so, other than the pleasure of knowing we were obeying a sacred obligation or duty. It had to be done, and we did it cheerfully because that is what we were both taught to do by the loving fathers (and mothers) who raised each of us from a very early age. We were also merely following the example they had set when our grandparents were getting old and dying. And to be perfectly honest on the point, neither of us could have lived with ourselves had we disobeyed that calling. I should imagine our children will do the same for us once the time comes. And not begrudgingly, either. They already do lots of nice things for us. My wife sometimes feels as though they are depriving themselves and/or our grandchildren in so doing. But I always counsel her to, “just let them do it at their pleasure, and trust them; they like doing nice things for us just as we liked doing nice things for our parents when we were their age.”

    We have a good friend – Robert – who worked for me for seven or eight years starting in his mid-50s and extending thru his early-60s. Entering into his 60s Robert’s health began to deteriorate little by little until he was no longer of much use to me at work, but I kept him on for two more years purely out of loyalty to Robert and as a kind of repayment for his loyalty to me and my family all those previous years. That is to say he had a job when he was feeling well enough to come to work.

    Keeping Robert on those two years was a net loss to me and my family monetarily speaking, but there’s more to life than money and personal comfort, as you well know. In point of fact, I never actually let him go; Robert eventually quit of his own volition, and I know that a big reason for his decision was that he felt like a burden on us. So Robert’s quitting work was largely self-sacrificial on his part.

    A couple of years later Robert got into some trouble with a respiratory illness and wound up on a ventilator in the ICU of the local (McAlester, OK) hospital. Eventually the doctors got him off the ventilator, but Robert was, by this time, so weakened and demoralized that he felt like he wanted to die and therefore would not eat. While I was visiting him one evening after work, his nurse on shift took me aside and told me in no uncertain terms that if he didn’t begin to eat he would surely die in very short order. She asked whether I thought I could get him to eat. I said, “no, I don’t think so, but I’ll bet you my wife can.” Prior to that moment I had been blissfully unaware that Robert wasn’t eating, although I could of course see he didn’t seem to be getting any better and was suffering from depression. Following the conversation with the nurse, I immediately called my wife from the hospital lobby and told her I was coming home to pick her up and we were going to Walmart to buy a bunch of baby food (by this point he couldn’t eat anything solid) with which she would feed him. We both knew he wouldn’t eat for me, but we also both knew that he would likely eat for her. The nurse aforementioned graciously let us into the ICU after visiting hours that night so that my wife could feed him little bites of baby food while I stood back and more or less coached him to take “just one more bite,” and then again, “just one more bite, Robert” and so on. Long story short, my wife and I nursed him back to health feeding him from baby food jars day in and day out for two or three weeks until eventually he could eat solids again, and would eat the hospital food brought to him on his own. It was a total “team effort” too. He wouldn’t eat for me alone, nor would he eat for her alone. But for some reason or other he couldn’t (or at least wouldn’t) deny the both of us.

    That thing with our friend, Robert, dragged on and on. Even after we got him eating on his own again, he had another episode, and then another, and eventually landed in the Tulsa hospital, ninety miles from our house. We stuck with him throughout that entire thing, visiting him on an almost daily basis. Ultimately he was well enough and “out of the woods” enough to be moved back to the McAlester hospital, where he underwent several weeks of rehab. My wife did a lot of the “heavy lifting” during a lot of this time because I of course had to get back to work and make money to keep our heads above water. In a manner of speaking. But here again, we did all of the above out of loyalty to our friend, not for pleasure or self-gratification’s sake. And once more, we did it because this was how we were both raised, and felt it was our duty and a sacred obligation.

    I will admit that Robert and I had a lot of fun together during the rehab portion of that ordeal. Wheeling him outside into the fresh air and sun where we would just “shoot the breeze” together and laugh and laugh about some of the goofy stuff that went on during those years he worked for me, was one of my favorite pastimes at that point. And I should imagine his as well. We don’t see Robert very often these days since we live about 150 miles apart. We stay in touch, though. And as far as I know ol’ Robert loves life as much as he ever did prior to getting ill.

    Well, anyway, I have gone on and on here. Sorry about that. I hope in having done so I have contributed something valuable to the theme of your article.

    • That was great. Thank you, T. Morris. What you describe is all very human and humane. Blanket reductionistic and nihilistic, “explanations” of all human behavior seem like the product of autistic minds. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the necessity to test a philosophical outlook by how well it deals with descriptions of actual human life.

  3. Very good point! I studied this question in philosophy, naturally, but I never saw the solution presented as clearly as here.

    “In order to derive pleasure of any kind from helping someone, it has to be because the person actually loves and cares about that person, which is the opposite of being selfish. The word “selfish” means the exclusive care from one’s own welfare. Loving someone else is the opposite. Enjoying benefiting someone else is only possible if we are not selfish.”

    Amazing! Thanks.


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