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Author Topic: Are all our actions egoistical?  (Read 64 times)
Gareth Southwell
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« on: 27/06/09 @ 19:01 »

OK, that's a fair enough position - and one that a lot of people hold in modern times.

Now, here is the challenge: can this view account for all actions? Let's take two examples:

1. a man dives in front of a car to save a stranger, dying in the process.

2. a man deliberately drives his car into a crowd of strangers, dying in the process.

Now, 1 is obviously intended to be a good act which some would say is selfless, and 2 is an evil act, which would seem to have no personal gain. If the man in 1 is giving his life for goodness, then how can we see goodness as being egotistical/hedonistic? If the man in 2 is giving his life motivated by some malevolent (evil) purpose, then how can he benefit?

What do you think?
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LostInAShaftOfSunlight
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« Reply #1 on: 28/06/09 @ 07:51 »

The problem with this appeal to egoism is its immodesty.  We've heard of Ockham's razor, but this is more like Ockham's mother-of-all-doomsday-devices.  It can be used to explain any action without being put to a real test, something along the lines of: 'if this theory is right, the agent will do this and not that'.  This is just what it does not do.  Any proponent can rather calmly watch what the agent does and then, after the fact, with whatever explanatory sleight-of-mind-and-mouth they can muster, pronounce it to have been a matter of the agent's own pleasure or interest.  I noticed this kind of problem in a different thread when we were talking about unconscious motivations to action.  It seems that anyone can read anything into them.  (I suppose the Will to Power is open to this questioning too)

A man dives in front of a car to save a stranger, dying in the process.
- He knew he couldn't have lived with himself if he had done nothing
- He did it because it was the right thing to do
- He did it without thinking at all
- His family says it was characteristic of his wonderful character
- Actually his intention wasn't to die, but to get some sort of reward
- etc.

Can anything - any one theory - explain all human action?  An alternative is something you suggest in your book (in a different context i think), looking at all available perspectives.  So we could look to unconscious explanations, agent recognizing ones, life history ones, genetic ones, physiological ones, evolutionary ones, social ones, etc.  But then the problem is how to balance them out?  How to decide which ones are really relevant causally?  Why do we stop at these as their may be others? Obviously I have no hint of an answer.

There are cases where egoism is true, but to extend it to all cases?  What is the limit to skepticism about human action?

If we find out that some behaviour we have has its source in evolutionary adaptation, for example, does this render the day to day carrying out of it fake and meaningless?  

But aren't some 'adaptations', or traits which confer survivability, or benefit, those which have been chosen by humans?  Is it not true that by choosing what we value and what survives that we have influenced our evolution as well?  Why might not the 'veils' of morality, courtship, and altruism be just as real as selfishness, lust, and dominance?

Quote
I would say that our ego, drives us to do what is "moral" because that garners benefit in our lives.  "If I am seen as trusting than people will think well of me"  "If I am upright in business, word will get around and I will do more business, thus making more money"  "If I am faithful to my girlfriend, she will marry me and I can reap in constant compainship, provision, sexual benefits, and offspring"

Do you mean to tell me that the only reason you are "moral", including all the commisions and omissions of action contained in that term however slight or violent, is because of the points you stand to gain or lose in some sort of social game?  I think the examples you give have been simplified just for the purpose of being skeptical about why people behave scrupulously or faithfully. Don't see this as some sort of attack.  I can hardly be said to have 'the answers'.  I do have many questions though.

The problem I have is that on one hand I recognize that I am a partially hirsute bi-ped who was once breast fed.  I recognize my animal inheritance, and the at least face validity of a kind of 'knowing wink' skepticism regarding the behaviours of my fellow mammals. On the other I recognize that my own teeth and claws are not really all that red, and the last word on the causes of my behaviours has not come in yet.

Is to say that good and evil are human concepts to devalue them?  Is to say that our actions have causes or purposes behind them unknown to us to devalue them or expose them as merely surface and illusion?
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Man, when I was young I shoved my ignorance in people's faces. They beat me with sticks. By the time I was forty my blunt instrument had been honed to a fine cutting point for me. If you hide your ignorance, no one will hit you and you'll never learn.
Gareth Southwell
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« Reply #2 on: 28/06/09 @ 10:15 »

Well, someone's had their coffee this morning!

I think your general point here is to invoke what is termed the genetic fallacy: pointing out the humble origins of our values does not in itself invalidate them. Good and evil may still be meaningful even if they do not originate from outside.

I also acknowledge your point about there being multiple possible motives behind different behaviour, etc., and that we do not need to/cannot identify one single unifying one.

However, here is a problem:

To adopt such an enlightened position on motives (i.e. that there are many conflicting possible reasons why people do things) is to adopt a unified position, isn't it? There is a bit of a paradox, here, and it sounds like a smart alec remark, but is there a more serious point behind it? Perhaps the most fundamental need ('drive') here is one to find a unifying explanation. So, whilst there might not be one NATURAL unifying motive, perhaps the human mind will eventually impose one?

If we turn this back to good and evil, it seems we are faced with the same choice: good are those actions which fit in with the dominant intellectual drive (what we classify as good), and evil those that we do not (those things which conflict with the rational drive - but which may still be a part of 'me'). So, perhaps it is just a matter of which 'picture' of the self works for us: if I choose to say that good/evil are both external (what we might call the Platonic approach), then I am effectively denying certain drives in favour of others; however, if I say that they are a part of me (the naturalist approach), then it would seem that I still faced with the problem of control (how do we control unconscious/irrational drives which do not fit with our conscious desires and motives?). Perhaps it just comes down to which picture works for us?

Not sure if I've explained myself very well, here!
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