Hobbes set up a view of the world whereby the only possible motive was self-interest, but this perspective borders on the nonsensical. 'Selfish' points to a lack of care for other people, but if the only possible motive were self-interest a notion of selfishness could never have arisen at all. Many of the arguments advanced for egoism rest upon suspicious reasoning. In the 18th century, Bishop Joseph Butler noted the central problem in the idea: if a person willingly performs an action, they must derive personal enjoyment from it, therefore people only perform acts that give them personal enjoyment. The conclusion is identical to the hypothesis in this piece of circular logic.
Nonetheless, the view remains persistent, and even infiltrates scientific thinking. Although sociobiologists insist they are not talking about personal motives, their use of the term 'selfish' frequently exceeds its technical meaning of maximising future gene populations. Mary Midgley makes a comparison between this use of 'selfish' and the preposterous suggestion of using the word 'cruelty' to describe any behaviour which will cause suffering to anyone in the future, or 'sloth' to describe what will fail to affect people in the future. She questions why 'selfish' was chosen as a term at all, if it was not intended to draw the usual inferences, suggesting that what started out as a reasonable scientific enquiry has ended up pursuing some rather scurrilous myth-making.
Part 12 of 23 in the Pentenary series.