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Is man naturally selfish?

Is man naturally selfish?
enLight
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Posted Jul 7, 2005 - 3:08 PM:
Subject: Is man naturally selfish?
It was hard for me to decide whether to place this topic in the Ethics or Politics forum. On the one hand, it concerns the nature of man. On the other, (which is more of a tangent) it concerns government. But since I hope to focus on the former I've placed this in the Ethics forum.

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It seems that many believe that man is, by nature, primarily concerned with self-interest. This is a very individualistic and egoistic interpretation and presents man as a naturally solitary creature. One can see the connection between this interpretation and social contract theory...offering to draw up a contract that can serve all of men's self-interests as efficiently as possible. And from this, of course, stems the ideas of natural or civil rights which maximize man's ability to pursue self-interest uninterrupted. It is the philosophical foundation of our modern way of life, I suppose.

But is it true? Is man, by nature, primarily selfish? I had a heated discussion with a friend about this the other day and we couldn't seem to come to a conclusion. However, I have come up with an argument that suggests man is not entirely naturally motivated by self-interest.

I do not deny that men are selfish at times--we are all capable of pursuing self-interest and preservation from time to time. But do we also have a natural capacity to act selflessly, to care about something other than ourselves? I think the answer to this is "yes" because practically all people have the natural capacity to love. Love is not to be confused with desire and the difference is quite clear: when one desires something he is only thinking about the welfare of himself; when one loves something he is thinking about the welfare of something other than himself.

Love, obviously, begins at man's earliest stage. Perhaps the most powerful form of love is that between mother and child. I think it's safe to say that familial love is usually present between family members (although not always obvious or properly expressed). Confucius claimed that familial love is the basis of society--that society is essentially one big extended family and to form it members must extend their own familial love to outsiders. Whether this extension comes naturally or is an effort of self-discipline, a tempering of one's nature, is another matter to debate. But I do think it's true that familial love is, for man, very natural. Falling in love with a potential mate is also, I think, a very natural activity. One could also interpret this more abstractly, arguing that man has the capacity to fall in love with many things...nature (in the sense of animals and plants), the arts, God, so on and so forth.

Do not forget that man is not always motivated by selfless love just as he is not always motivated by selfish self-interest. And through a little discipline and habit man can also artificially temper his natural inclinations towards selfishness and selflessness. So at times it may be hard to differentiate between natural and artificial motivations.

Regardless, the first objection is the assertion that even if man has the natural capacity to act selflessly, he will act selfishly more often. This is grounded upon a solid catalogue of observable selfish acts. All one needs to do is look at the "real world," the public, to see this. What could possibly explain this dominance of selfishness over love? Well, I would answer that love is only possible if you have an intimate connection with something or someone. This is neither easily nor often accomplished. If you had to list the things or persons you were intimately connected with and those whom you were not, the latter list would vastly outnumber the former. In other words, man will tend to act selfishly around strangers because he is not intimately connected to them. But around those he loves, if the situation calls for it, he will likely act selflessly more than selfishly.

However, this brings up another question which is political in nature: If man is more like likely to act selfishly around strangers, those whom he is not intimately connected with (i.e. the public), than should government (which is burdened with managing the public) be based on a system that accommodates self-interest? To the American Forefathers, the answer was obviously yes. But does this instill a warped view of the nature of man, one that claims he is always selfish? Is it better, instead, to pursue the Confucian model of a government that works to extend love/selflessness from those who are intimate to those who are not? It's hard to say; plus, this question is more of a tangent than a key point to this discussion.

So what do you think? Is man exclusively naturally selfish? Are there other ways to defend the notion that he is not? What side of man should government accommodate or promote?





TStorm
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Posted Jul 7, 2005 - 9:04 PM:

This is a very individualistic and egoistic interpretation and presents man as a naturally solitary creature.


I believe that this may be at the core of the problem. Being self-interested does not mean being solitary.

As for love as self-less, I flat out deny this. Love is indeed "selfish" in that love is one of the most pleasurable things we can feel. Love is not denial of self for the other, but rather taking or receiving pleasure from the pleasure of others. Taking pleasure in other's happiness is not antithical to self-interest, quite the contrary obviously, nor does it lessen one's self interest or self worth.

That you are making the common error of seeing love and self-interest as mutually exclusive could very well be at the very heart of the confusion.



As an aside, can you offer some direction to this idea you describe as a "Confucian" notion of government? From my own fairly extensive studies of eastern philosophy, I cannot say that I agree with this representation of the master Kong's ideas..

Government should not exist. If it does exist the sole purpose is to act so as to protect the value and rights of the individual. ANY violation of this is unjestified and unjustifiable.
Timothy
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Posted Jul 7, 2005 - 9:39 PM:

Trying to rebate a speculative idea, such as the "man is naturally selfish", which seems to invocate a "human nature" that may have never existed, from the grounds of even more speculative and naive thoughts, such as "love", seems just pointless.
Both the "theses" and the "refutation" are highly problematic.
It may be a nice talk, but, pragmatically speaking, it's a waste of time.
enLight
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Posted Jul 8, 2005 - 9:59 PM:

TStorm wrote:
As for love as self-less, I flat out deny this. Love is indeed "selfish" in that love is one of the most pleasurable things we can feel. Love is not denial of self for the other, but rather taking or receiving pleasure from the pleasure of others. Taking pleasure in other's happiness is not antithical to self-interest, quite the contrary obviously, nor does it lessen one's self interest or self worth.

Well it is true that you gain pleasure from the pleasure of the object/person you love. But that is not the whole picture of love. For instance, when that object/person's welfare is threatened, if you truly love it, you will be willing to sacrifice self-interest in favor of preserving that which you love. To illustrate: a soldier may love his comrades-in-arms and consequently throw himself on a grenade to save them. The question then is do you do this because you genuinely care about the welfare of something other than yourself or because you wish to restore the pleasure you gain from their pleasure? I think the former is more true than the latter.

However, when there is no danger or conflict then of course love will be more or less and exchange of mutual pleasure (which as you noted, does not necessarily conflict with self-interest). But then again, it is crisis that really tests love, to determine whether or not it is genuine.

As an aside, can you offer some direction to this idea you describe as a "Confucian" notion of government? From my own fairly extensive studies of eastern philosophy, I cannot say that I agree with this representation of the master Kong's ideas..

Oh, I did not mean it in that sense. What I tried to get at was the Confucian idea that one should extend love from the family to strangers (as a basis of creating a stable society) and whether or not governments ought to pursue that philosophy.

Government should not exist. If it does exist the sole purpose is to act so as to protect the value and rights of the individual. ANY violation of this is unjestified and unjustifiable.

Humans are, by nature, pack animals and every pack needs a leader. Government is the formal manifestation of the pack leader. So I would argue that government, in whatever form (though certain forms are better than others), is not only necessary but inevitably part of human life. But this, of course, is the subject of another debate...
Timothy
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Posted Jul 9, 2005 - 7:28 AM:

enLight wrote:

Humans are, by nature, pack animals and every pack needs a leader. Government is the formal manifestation of the pack leader. So I would argue that government, in whatever form (though certain forms are better than others), is not only necessary but inevitably part of human life. But this, of course, is the subject of another debate...


And why is that "human nature" true? Doyou think so for any particular reason, or only because Aristotle said so?
enLight
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Posted Jul 10, 2005 - 10:54 AM:

Well first of all, if you believe that evolutionary theory is correct, humans are descent from primates and primate species are pack animals and very social in nature. I don't see why humans would radically differ from their common ancestors. Secondly, every example of primitive man observed and discovered has been that of a tribe, the most basic form of society. Thirdly, sociological studies of humans (particularly children) who were discovered living outside of any form of society show that they do not develop properly and are not at the appropriate mental stage that a normal person of their age would be at.

Therefore I find it very hard to deny that man is, by nature, a pack/social animal.



However, at the risk of being rude, I would rather this discussion remain on the topic of human selfishness, not whether or not man is a social animal. So I will not discuss this further in this thread (if you'd like to start another thread I'd be glad to participate in it).


***Edit***

All this talk about man being naturally social has sparked perhaps another argument in my mind. If man is naturally social then would that suggest that he is not naturally selfish, since humans must work together to achieve what we call society?

I figure there are two paths one can take: First, that society does not conflict with self-interest because it is merely a series of compromises. That is, people only work together to further their own self interests; I get a little of want I want and you get a little of want you want. Second, as an alternative, you could argue that society, to function, must have its members sacrifice self-interest (to different degrees, of course) for some sort of selfless "greater good." That is to say, conform to some sort of standard or fullfil some sort of duty even if it conflicts with self-interest.

I think in modern society we try to have our cake and eat it too, combining both theories. We expect people in society to make compromises to serve self interest and yet we expect our statesmen to serve the greater good rather than their own self-interest (when they do the latter we call them corrupt or tyrannical).

This is, obviously, not a completely developed argument or even an argument for that matter! Just an idea I'm kicking around. Let me know what you think...

Edited by enLight on Jul 10, 2005 - 12:03 PM
Timothy
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Posted Jul 11, 2005 - 11:30 AM:

enLight wrote:
Well first of all, if you believe that evolutionary theory is correct, humans are descent from primates and primate species are pack animals and very social in nature.


And why should I believe so? It's just a theory, you know, not a fact, so you believing that it's true doesn't makes the "man is social by nature" statement into a fact.

enLight wrote:
I don't see why humans would radically differ from their common ancestors.


Assuming that they are our ancestors. Assumptions prove to be weak bases of argumentation.

enLight wrote:
Secondly, every example of primitive man observed and discovered has been that of a tribe, the most basic form of society.


And what makes you think that those tribes are the really "primitive/natural" state of man in nature? What if it is a middle state? Only because they don't have tv's doesn't proves that such state is "the first, the most primitive, THE natural".

enLight wrote:
Thirdly, sociological studies of humans (particularly children) who were discovered living outside of any form of society show that they do not develop properly and are not at the appropriate mental stage that a normal person of their age would be at.


That proves nothing, other than the educational system in our current societies is better than nothing.

enLight wrote:
Therefore I find it very hard to deny that man is, by nature, a pack/social animal.


I find it quite easy, given your premises (that were mainly some beliefs mixed up with curiosities)

enLight wrote:
However, at the risk of being rude, I would rather this discussion remain on the topic of human selfishness, not whether or not man is a social animal. So I will not discuss this further in this thread (if you'd like to start another thread I'd be glad to participate in it).


The discussion of man being naturally social is directly related to the discussion of wether humans are naturally selfish or not. It's even a more basic discussion that you're trying to avoid in order to continue the speculation flying around.

enLight wrote:
All this talk about man being naturally social has sparked perhaps another argument in my mind. If man is naturally social then would that suggest that he is not naturally selfish, since humans must work together to achieve what we call society?


See? You backed up what I've just said. Why should we leave the "man:naturally social" discussion behind, being so important to the discussion you "rather" have?

I will read no moe until you acknowledge the mistake you've just made.
Apathy
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Posted Jul 12, 2005 - 4:13 AM:

"enLight" wrote:
It seems that many believe that man is, by nature, primarily concerned with self-interest. This is a very individualistic and egoistic interpretation and presents man as a naturally solitary creature.

I don't see how the social and the egoistic are mutually exclusive as you suggest. Quite the opposite, really, in that man must appeal to at least one other individual to fulfil his own needs. Can you qualify your statement?



"enLight" wrote:
But is it true? Is man, by nature, primarily selfish? I had a heated discussion with a friend about this the other day and we couldn't seem to come to a conclusion. However, I have come up with an argument that suggests man is not entirely naturally motivated by self-interest.

Can you elaborate upon what you mean by "natural"? All human behavior is reactionary, a universally "natural" mechanism, regardless of the potential misappropriation of any such reaction. Thus, you are necessarily using the term "natural" as a metaphorical distinction and it must therefore be concretely defined before we can continue in any meaningful way.



"enLight" wrote:
I do not deny that men are selfish at times--we are all capable of pursuing self-interest and preservation from time to time. But do we also have a natural capacity to act selflessly, to care about something other than ourselves?

It seems that we've the capacity to care about something other than ourselves, but is this concern not always positively related to the self? A relationship which, it could be argued, qualifies all action up to and including self-"sacrifice" (self-destruction really) as inherently selfish.

We must be careful to observe, contrary to what the ruling morals of the day would assert, that selfishness isn't by default devoid of virtue - especially if all action is selfcentric on the most fundamental level - and nor does a selfish act require a total disregard for all else where decision making is concerned; selfishness is an orientation and not a boundary. I only mention it because this thread will surely deteriorate under its own inertia if it is contaminated by misunderstanding on these grounds.



"enLight" wrote:
I think the answer to this is "yes" because practically all people have the natural capacity to love. Love is not to be confused with desire and the difference is quite clear: when one desires something he is only thinking about the welfare of himself; when one loves something he is thinking about the welfare of something other than himself.

I don't think that this fully penetrates the issue that you begin to illuminate. What you must ask yourself in order to proceed is just why a person loves another. What is the underlying impetus; is it a need for companionship (selfish)? Is it a desire to continue ones lineage (selfish)? Does the human need for appreciation (recognition of the self) come into play (selfish), or perhaps it is all of these things and more?

You'll also need to define love before we can work with it here. Your post is initially problematic because it is very vague; I can't even begin to address the political aspect without clarity regarding the above.
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Posted Jul 12, 2005 - 5:13 AM:

"Is man naturally selfish?"

The fact/value dichotomy should've been the first refutation to come up in this debate.
Timothy
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Posted Jul 12, 2005 - 7:57 AM:

Ladon wrote:


The fact/value dichotomy should've been the first refutation to come up in this debate.


Not really a debate, as for some refutations are asked to "go and open a new thread and leave me alone".
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