"Even at our best, we are only out for ourselves" claim many people, including many eminent psychologists. Everything we do--from the considerate to the heroic, we do ultimately for our own benefit. In some instances, the personal gain is obvious, such as when we reap public admiration or praise. In other instances, it's not so obvious. Consider this:
You're walking down a quiet road one evening and suddenly come upon a horrible scene. Ahead of you is a truck turned on its side and lying on the pavement is the driver, a young man. His face is bloody and he is barely moving. What do you do? You help. But why do you help? What, exactly, is your motive?
You are likely to reply that you helped because you wanted to reduce the man's distress. But many psychologists would offer a different explanation: When we see someone in distress, we ourselves experience feelings of distress, such as shock, alarm, worry, or fear. This unpleasant emotional arousal leads us to want to increase our own well being by reducing these feelings. One way to this goal is to reduce the other's distress. Helping, then, is only a means to reducing our own distress. What appears to be altruistically motivated behavior is really only self interest in disguise.
The view that human beings act from self-interest and from self interest alone is not new. It has long been the dominant view in psychology and in much of Western thought. Thomas Hobbes, the seventeenth century philosopher, believed that human beings always acted from self-interest. On one occasion Hobbes was seen giving money to a beggar. When asked why, he explained that he was trying to relieve his own discomfort at seeing the beggar in need.
But if it is true that human beings always act from egoistic motives, then it's difficult to talk about ethics. First, ethics as traditionally conceived is supposed to override self-interest: if we have a moral obligation to do something, we ought to do it even when it's not in our own interests to do so. It makes no sense, however, to tell people that they ought to act contrary to self-interest if they can act only in terms of self-interest. Moreover, an important traditional element in ethical decision-making is an impartial consideration of the interests of others. The moral point of view goes beyond self-interest to a standpoint that takes everyone's interests into account. Ethics, then, assumes that self interest is not the basis for all human behavior, although some philosophers, e.g., Hobbes, have tried to base ethics on self-interest. Their efforts, however, have not been widely accepted. While egoism may be a strong motivator of human behavior, ethics traditionally assumes that human beings are also capable of acting from a concern for others that is not derived from a concern for their own welfare.
One challenge to the Hobbesian view of human beings comes from recent studies in psychology by Dr. C. Daniel Bateson of the University of Kansas. Bateson and his colleagues have performed a number of experiments to examine how people respond to others in need. He hypothesized that if people were motivated to help others only out of self-interest, e.g., to relieve their own distress, they would help only when helping was the easiest way to accomplish this goal. If they could easily escape the situation and thereby escape whatever was causing them distress, they would do that instead. By contrast, if people were motivated to help out of a genuine concern for another in need, their ultimate goal would be to reduce the other's distress, which could only be accomplished by helping the person, whether or not other ways of reducing their own discomfort were available.
Through a series of experiments, Bateson found that when subjects encountered someone in need, they typically reported experiencing two distinct kinds of emotions: personal distress (alarm, worry, or grief) or empathy (sympathy, compassion, or tenderness). While subjects experiencing either of the emotions helped the person in need, the underlying motivations differed according to which emotion was present. When escape was made easy, 67% of subjects reporting feelings of distress escaped rather than helped. However, only 17% of the subjects reporting feelings of empathy escaped; the overwhelming majority of them stayed to help the person in need, even though they could have easily escaped. Feelings of empathy, Bateson claims, appear to arouse a genuinely altruistic motivation to help that is not derived from self interest, a finding contrary to the Hobbesian point of view.
The motives which lie behind our behaviors are often mixed and complex. But studies such as these are among the challenges to the long held view that even at our best, we are only out for ourselves. Rather, at our best, we may only be out for others.
". . . the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." --Thomas Hobbes
". . . there is some benevolence, however small, . . . some particle of the dove kneaded into our frame, along with elements of the wolf and serpent." --David Hume
For further reading:
C. D Bateson, B. D. Duncan, P. Ackerman, T. Buckley, and K. Birtch, "Is Empathetic Emotion A Source of Altruistic Motivation?" Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 40 (February 1981), pp. 290-302.
C Daniel Batson, L. Dyck, J. R. Brandt, J. G. Batson, A. L. Powell, M. R. McMaster, and C. Griffitt, "Five Studies Testing Two New Egoistic Alternatives to the Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 55 (July 1988), pp. 52-77.
AIfe Kohn, "Beyond Selfishness," Psychology Today, Vol. 22 (October 1988) pp. 34-38.
This article was originally published in Issues in Ethics - V. 2, N. 1 Winter 1989