Representation in Counter-Strike
Three Ethical Paths

Myths of Selfishness

What kind of secular stories are used to derive moral values? Perhaps the most common are stories concerning selfishness and self-interest, which support a position known as egoism. A great many people subscribe to the rather naïve view that all human action is selfish or self-interested, but such reasoning is confused. A person with a toothache and a fear of dentists will probably not act in a manner consistent with their self-interest, and either way the term 'selfish' is not appropriate for their actions, whether or not they go to the dentist.

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.


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The argument with "future" in it is a non-argument because gens have no foresight. And you can not argue that you should not use a word because people could misunderstand it. As a example should we really stop calling our sun "sun" and say like it is, that it is just a star because otherwise there are people who think there is a fundamental difference between any star and our star, the sun?

I can't speak for those who followed him, but Dawkins was pretty scrupulous about distinguishing between his specialized definition of selfish and the colloquial one in The Selfish Gene.

Jeena: I'm not sure what you mean in your first sentence, perhaps you have misread Ms. Midgley's objection? It is precisely because generations have no foresight (or even sight!) that "selfish" is a queer word to choose, because it implies an agent that does not exist.

"And you can not argue that you should not use a word because people could misunderstand it."

You can certainly argue that some choices of word use are unwise. Using 'selfish' to describe gene maximisation is precisely ill-considered because it invites the naive reading. Why choose this term at all if you don't wish to imply the naive reading?

Similarly, most of us don't hesitate to rail against the use of the term "unnatural" to describe homosexuality, even though there clearly is a context (i.e. reproduction) in which this claim could be asserted. But it's a misleading and a highly pejorative choice of word - we have every right to object to such potentially defamatory and/or ideologically motivated word-choices.

James: Yes, in terms of laying out the definition, Dawkins is scrupulous (although then radically unscrupulous about his use of language in the latter half of The Selfish Gene, although this is a tangential point). But in deploying the term, he is wildly less careful - positively sloppy in fact. The choice of 'selfish' in this role invites this kind of careless thinking. Clearly Dawkins *does* believe in egoism, and the "selfish gene" metaphor bolsters his beliefs in this regard.

See my earlier post on The Selfish Gene as a myth of evolution for more context on this issue. Dawkins is a great populariser of evolutionary theories, but he is easily lead away from objectivity into ideology.

Dawkins gets much clearer and more useful in his later books - Climbing Mount Improbable in particular manages to use central metaphors and images which are instructive and not misleading. The Selfish Gene, however, does not. It is partly a polemic, and as such ideologically suffused - which in turn is precisely why it became such a hit. It's easier for a publisher to sell a firebrand's outburst than a sober scientific treatise. :)

One could even argue that the presentation of scientific theory in ideologically motivated metaphors was against the ideals of science, but only if one truly believed in scientific objectivity, which I don't. This leaves me having to accept that this will happen, but at least it gives philosophers a useful role in "debugging" scientifically motivated accounts. :)

Thanks for commenting! And do check out the earlier post for some more context on this issue.

What I always understood by the more academic usage of "selfish" was a more mechanistic definition. For example, genes are "selfish" because their entire mode of operation is defined by their self-preserving actions. Evolution is a selfish process, because it is mechanized that way; because it does not think, and therefore cannot be empathetic in any way. It is selfish because it has no self (ironically).

I think, and am glad to see becoming more prominent, that most (if not all) conscious, sentient creatures are primarily empathetic and not selfish. This is why your example of a person with a toothache, but with an irrational fear of dentists, makes sense. We (and a lot of other animals) tend to think empathetically, in feelings and emotions. So, we do many selfless, even "anti-self" things that go against utilitarianism because our main driving force is "the Golden Rule". (do unto others, et cetera...)

I am fascinated with empathy, and how it reinforces selfishness in a way that also negates it. What I mean by this is, through acting in the most empathetic fashion, we are being most selfish in a certain, ideological way. To give up one's life for another is selfish, in my view, because it puts the empathetic reward that one feels above anything else. I guess that sounds very unintuitive, but in a certain way, it makes sense.

So, the most beneficial (and most moral) kind of selfishness is empathetic selfishness, even if it leads one to do something entirely selfless. While monotheistic doctrines tend to foster a more narcissistic kind of selfishness, I believe our biology leans toward empathy more than self-interest.

SRS: Thanks for sharing your view here... I find your use of selfish to be quite odd, to be honest. When you say:

"To give up one's life for another is selfish, in my view, because it puts the empathetic reward that one feels above anything else."

You are assuming here that this kind of self-sacrifice is expressly motivated by the reward to be felt, and not by the desire for the outcome (that the other person's life be saved). While empathy is certainly involved in the motivation to save one's life, no unexpected hero makes a conscious decision "I will save this person, because I will feel good about it", rather, they see the person whose life is in peril and act instantly and unhesitatingly - often only later realising that they have risked their life.

To call this kind of behaviour "selfish" is to have a strange concept for that word! For if it is selfish because you are acting in a manner consistent with your self, then all behaviour fits this definition and the claim is circular and meaningless. If on the other hand you want to claim that saving another person's life is selfish because you are motivated by the reward you will feel, this just doesn't match the phenomenology of the heroic experience.

Selfish, in its usual meaning, implies gain for one person at a cost to someone else. There is no way to examine an act of heroism and conclude it is selfish (unless, say, it is motivated by a cynical self-serving story such as "There isn't much risk to me and this will make me famous!", but this is rarely if ever the case).

To reach the conclusion that simple heroism is selfish you have to deploy 'selfish' in a context that doesn't match how this term is usually used - that's what it seems to me you are doing. You seem to want to say that actions whose motive begins inside the self can be called selfish. But what action will not begin inside the self? If selfish is reduced to a tautology it has no meaning.

"For example, genes are "selfish" because their entire mode of operation is defined by their self-preserving actions."

You're buying into the mythology here! :) The entire mode of operation of a gene is defined by their self-preserving actions? This is a preposterous claim, I'm afraid! A gene is a chemical code that replicates via a complex and amazing chemical process, and transcribes a protein by another equally amazing chemical process. No aspect of that operation I have described (which is all a gene does) is self-preserving, and certainly not selfish because (as you rightly observe!) there is no "self" to consider.

The proteins the genes produce can confer behavioural benefits - including the ability to act in a self-interested manner, and the ability to act in an empathic manner. But the gene is just the specification of the protein. The genes that survive and increase in number do so because they are *useful* for the survival of the animal and/or species, not because they are *selfish*.

The argument as usually advanced to defend the selfish gene mythology is that the gene only "cares" about those benefits that allow it to have more copies in the future. But this is a twisted anthropomorphic fantasy! The gene has no mind - it doesn't "care" about anything. The genes that have more copies in the future are those that conveyed a benefit to the life and reproduction of the animal whose proteins they coded for. That, I'm afraid, is as far as it goes, and even metaphorically it is a stretch to call the survival of advantageous traits/proteins/genes "selfish".

(Perhaps a better metaphorical word to use to describe the genes would be "blind", as in Dawkins' Blind watchmaker riff off William Paley, but even this could lead to misunderstandings).

The gene-centric view rightly observes that those genes that confer advantage will persist. The claim that this can be understood as "selfish" is *supposed* to rest on the idea that genes don't care what happens to the organism, only about their own survival. But this is nonsense! The gene doesn't care about its own survival either because it has no mind to think or care with. It is not because the gene is selfish that it survives, rather, it is the genes which are advantageous that persist.

The mythology of the selfish gene wants to implicate a claim that *people* are selfish because *genes* confer behaviour that is self-interested. But this is a hugely stilted view, one that either becomes circular or just plain false.

"Evolution is a selfish process, because it is mechanized that way; because it does not think, and therefore cannot be empathetic in any way."

You can't claim that things which do not think and thus cannot be empathetic are selfish and expect selfish to survive this usage! :) I am currently drinking a cup of tea - you think my cup of tea is selfish because it is not empathic? It's a truly strange meaning for the word 'selfish' you are deploying! Everything without motives is ascribed the motive "selfishness!" :-D

"I believe our biology leans toward empathy more than self-interest."

Here, we are closer to agreement! :) I would say we are balanced on a knife edge between these forces - the force of self and the force of the others around us. And when we stray too far towards self-interest, and neglect the others in the process, *that's* when it is meaningful to call one's behaviour selfish, because one is choosing oneself over others and that, frankly, is what the term means in its ordinary usage.

Thanks for wading in! I'm certain others share your perspective, but to me it's a very strange use of language. :)

Well, I'm flattered that you extrapolated on these ideas so much -- I usually don't get this kind of articulated response (I mean that in a good way).

One of the most important things I took from Nietzsche was the idea that, while pure relativism is completely inane and pointless, there is a degree of it that is appropriate when dealing with any action. In my view, destructive selfishness is selfishness that disregards empathy (empathy being a broader term for the reaction to outside stimuli). I was listening to Jeremy Rifkin talk about the Empathic Civilization, and he says that all of the destructive, ignorant aspects of selfishness come from suppressing empathy, and from valuing the self over others. However, I don't think that others should be valued higher than the self; I believe that both should be relatively equal. So, to me, a person sacrificing his life, even if it is an unconscious, knee-jerk reaction, is on some level valuing both himself and others. He is acknowledging his own judgment that the situation warrants his sacrifice, and is judging the person(s) sacrificed for as worthy of the action. On some abstract level, I think that this takes place, however rudimentary.

So, what I meant by calling this selfish is that this imaginary martyr is, in the end, acting on his own accord, and so is being selfish in that kind of abstract way. It's hard to find a term for that kind of self-judging... "selfish" and "self-interest" seem to evoke the kind of ignorant greed that lacks empathy.

"For example, genes are "selfish" because their entire mode of operation is defined by their self-preserving actions."

Maybe what I -should- say is:

Genes are "selfish" because their mode of operation is largely defined by processes that, through process of elimination, end up being processes beneficial to survival / propagation of an organism.

I've listened and read Dawkins' thoughts on the idea of "selfishness" in this respect, and I really don't think he meant it in the same negative way that you're thinking. I believe he meant "selfish" in much the same way that evolution is selective -- not because it thinks and consciously weeds out bad things, but simply because whatever lends to survival and procreation ends up being passed on.

The more I try to think of a way to explain that definition of selfishness, the less I feel confident that I can. But, it's a fun exercise nonetheless!

Definitively, I believe that any action that favors the self to the detriment of others is immoral, no matter the context. I am not one of those Adam-Smith-Self-Interest cavaliers, nor am I a believer in pure capitalism. I just think that, given the proper context, selfishness does not always have to carry the horribly negative connotation of greed and subjugation that it tends to do nowadays.

I do have a non-sequitur question regarding this, though -- What are your thoughts on monotheistic religions when concerning the history of selfishness? Personally, I believe that it was these religions that fostered the idea of pure self-interest, because they are modeled on authoritarian philosophies. Christianity, Judaism, Islam -- these are religions that do much to nurture greed, self-deception and repression, and are counterproductive to the development of positive, realistic empathy. By this I mean a kind of empathy that is not based on martyrdom or sacrifice, but of common sense and critical thinking. An empathy that is realistic, and all the more positive to Human society.


SRS: If you like overly analytic rambles in response to offhand comments you've come to the right place! It seems to be something of my speciality. :p

The problem with your account seems to be that "selfish" seems to be the wrong word to express what you are gesturing at... it seems you are talking about being true to self-identity - self-consistency, if you like - and I find it misleading to call this selfish.

Similarly, my complaint (and Mary Midgley's) with Dawkins isn't with the actual science but with the misleading use of the term selfish. I find it much fairer to say in respect of genes that advantages to persist than to invoke the image of a "selfish gene". The gene has *nothing* to do with the selection process, after all - it survives *if it is useful*. Selfishness has nothing to do with it.

Regarding the Abrahamic faiths, I think your analysis here throws different themes together. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have a call for empathy right at the core of their spiritual teachings. However, Judaism is a remnant from a very violent time (*all* the desert tribes of this era were into annihilation of their enemies until the Assyrian Tiglath Pilesar III in the eighth century B.C.).

Christianity got its imperial bent from being adopted as the State religion of the Roman Empire, not from Jesus' ministry, and Islam was not intended by Muhammad to be imperial - but it inadvertantly founded a common identity among desert tribes who previously had none, and this lead to an expansionist era.

However, the Muslim empire was not, for the most part, as brutal as the Christian empire, at least in respect of its treatment of other religions. Islam was practically the stepping point for tolerance of other faiths (although the Hindu tradition's attitude of inclusiveness predates this of course) - which makes it only more ironic when it betrays the ideals of its founder and becomes profoundly racist.

But far from being counter-productive to the cultivation of empathy, I believe the Abrahamic faiths have been crucial to its fostering. It's just along with this spiritual core has come a lot of imperial or racial baggage which threatens to obscure the key message. I would suggest that these nationalistic themes would have been present even without the Abrahamic faiths' influence, but there is room for debate on this point.

Joseph Campbell (although quite anti-Christian for the most part) brings out these points quite clearly in his analysis of the mythological traditions of the world.

All I have time for this morning. Thanks for extending our conversation!

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