We have all heard the stories of human beings sacrificing themselves and doing good for others, whether it is someone jumping down onto the tracks of a subway platform as a train was approaching to save a man who had fallen or a person leaping in front of a bullet to save another’s life. Acts like these seem like the epitome of altruistic behavior. Yet, some still doubt the existence of true altruism.
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Although some may argue that selfless act will always provide some internal satisfaction to the self, psychological egoism is not a valid counter argumentto the existence of true altruism because it cannot be disproved empirically and desires can be satisfied without satisfying the self.
Before arguing for its existence, is important to define what actually constitutes an altruistic act. Altruistic behavior is behavior that is intended to directly or indirectly benefit others, not the self, at a cost to the self. Pure altruism must fulfill all three elements of this definition; benefiting others, not benefiting the self and at a cost to the self. This is a very high threshold to cross.
Furthermore, a key fact when questioning whether true altruism exists is the motivations behind the acts. This is an extremely important distinction to make. Economic outcome-based altruism simply focuses on the outcome of the action, as the name would suggest. Did the action help someone else at my expense? Most people would not consider acts that fall under his category as pure altruism because when we ask whether human beings are altruistic, we want to know about their intentions. This is known as psychological altruism, and its premise is based all around motives. If a person behaved in an altruistic manner because they wanted to look decent in the eyes of others, gain fame, soothe their conscious or feel good about themselves, this would not be considered true altruism.
They are violating the second element of the definition because they are hoping to receive some form of internal satisfaction and therefore, are benefiting themselves. This is one of the central premises for the argument against altruism.A very common logic refuting the idea of pure altruism typically has the following thought process. We act as we are motivated by our desired, when we act on our desires, we are seeking the feeling of satisfaction that comes from fulfilling them, and since feeling satisfied benefits us, all actions have some level of self-interest to them. This idea is called psychological egoism. Supporters of psychological egoism believe that this is true for everybody; that we all act in our self-interest all the time and only rationalize our actions later.
There are two main fundamental errors with this argument. The first being that the view is impossible to disprove. Take, for example, the scenario given earlier where the man jumps onto the train tracks to help someone who had fallen. When you look at this act through the eyes of a psychological egoism proponent, they could argue that the guilt the man would have suffered if he ignored the situation and kept walking would have been immense and therefore, he was really only acting so he wouldn’t be in pain later- a selfish motive. While although the impossibility of disproving egoism should sound like an advantage of the theory, philosophers of science know that it is a fatal drawback.
Any theory that claims to explain something about the universe, as egoism does, should be falsifiable. This does not mean that it is false, of course, but that it has at least the capability of being tested and thus being proved false. Karl Popper created this ideology, which is called falsifiability. If every action can be explained with egoism, then ironically, it doesn’t really tell us anything, it just restates how everyone already thinks and fails to show us anything distinctive about how things are. Anytime someone behaves in a way that can be considered altruistic, it is always possible to conceive of their motives in egotistic terms. Its inability to be proven false is a main reason why the theory of psychological egoism is unscientific and problematic.
The second error with psychological egoism is that its premise that satisfying our desires always satisfies us is simply not true. This fault of egoism deals with the confusion and perhaps the incorrect .. interchangeably of the ideas of desire and the satisfaction of desire. If people possess altruistic motives, then they sometimes act to benefit others without the prospect of gain to themselves. In other words, they desire the good of others for its own sake, not simply as a means to their own satisfaction. If we were to use the other example given at the beginning of this essay, the man who jumped in front of a bullet to save another’s life clearly desired that the other guy did not die, and acted accordingly to save his lives. Therefore, it could be argue that yes, he succeeded, and therefore his desire was satisfied. However, and this distinction is imperative, he himself was not satisfied since he died in the attempt to save the man. From the fact that a person’s desire is satisfied we can draw no conclusions about effects on his mental state or well-being.
Not only is the idea of psychological egoism invalid, but it can also be dangerous and counterproductive to believe. It is easy to see the lure of egoism and why so many people believe it. Perhaps the skepticism people have about their own motivations and the convenient justification for selfish behavior is why rejecting the prospect of pure altruism seems like an ideal belief. Yet, if people truly believed that everyone else’s behavior is always selfish and that this selfishness is impossible to overcome- then there would be no reason to feel guilty about our own self- interested behavior or any motivation to try and change it. However, further analysis shows that the ideology of psychological egoism has several flaws and therefore is not a valid counterargument to the concept of pure altruism.
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