I’m starting a philosophy MA at Georgia State University in Atlanta, and I’ve been thinking about a recent exchange in a political theory seminar that I’m in. The subject of the conversation was self-interest and its relation to morality. There were a couple of students in the class who maintained that everything people do is actually self-interested, and that humans cannot behave in a non-self-interested way. This wasn’t the first time I’d heard somebody advocating this view; some Ayn Rand devotees I’ve run into argue the same thing. So how can these egoists explain the fact that people frequently act altruistically? Well, they say, when somebody gives to charity, or volunteers to teach at afterschool programs for underprivileged children, or whatever, that person is actually engaging in the so-called altruistic activity because of the personal feeling of satisfaction that they get, or because they think that their (seemingly) altruistic behavoir will make it so that people will help them if they ever fall on hard times. What really motivates whatever action a person might take is furthering her own self-interest.
This view is wrong. Observation of human behavior reveals that people often act selfishly and sometimes act altruistically. An interesting question is, what mechanisms cause one type of action, and what mechanisms cause the other? Is there a theory that can account for these behaviors? The crude egoism that was being defended in my seminar doesn’t offer any sort of interesting explanation of human behavior because it’s non-falsifiable. The philosopher Bernard Gert called it “tautological egoism”. The whole point of a theory of this sort is to explain empirical phenomena (in this case, human behavior). Tautological egoism substitutes for explanation a definitional bait-and-switch in which the meaning of “selfish” is changed so that it applies to all human actions. It offers no explanation and is not falsifiable, and therefore is theoretically extraneous and practically uninteresting.