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Nova Vane

this blog will be my musings on the big questions: religion, theology, philosophy, the universe, love, life, etc...

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Location: Montreal

Thursday, June 15, 2006

the Fundamental Question

The fundamental question is: Can the totality of human action be reduced to self interest? Before we have answered this question, no responsible action is possible.

It has been a strong tendency in the recent history of humanity to attribute every action done by a human being to some form of “self-interest”. The strength of this tendency is in part attributable to Darwin, Nietzsche and Freud, even though it has existed as an idea for millennia, and it has been argued philosophically with some success for just about as long.

Let’s first try to clarify this notion. Let’s say we use “self-interest” as a generic term that would encompass all the ways in which the action that is undertaken finds its source in an egotistical impulse. This impulse does not have to intend a material benefit for the person undertaking the action, but it has to intend some form of satisfaction. Thus, an action can be motivated by an “instinct” a “will to power”, a “drive”, or other such impulses even when the benefit to the one perpetrating the action seems non-existent. To achieve power, to satisfy a drive or to obey an instinct, we often put our life at risk, which does not seem very egotistical at first glance, but that is precisely why those authors are so important: They explain to us why we are still satisfying an egotistical impulse even if in a somewhat contorted way. But is it all there is to human behaviour? If that is the case, and if we judge the morality of human action on intent, then there is no moral difference between mother Theresa and Hitler. Both were ultimately striving to satisfy a drive, a will to power, or an instinct.

It means that nothing is moral or immoral. No good, no bad. No right, no wrong. It also means that I am now justified in having no consideration for others, treating them like objects, and being totally egotistical, since I can claim that everybody is the same, no matter under what guise of apparent goodness.

That is the most important point. That is what allows some of us today to put on an even keel being into humanitarian aid and being into shopping, or into accumulating wealth at all cost. “That is your thing, this is mine”.

Is it all there is? It does seem rather reductive of the miracle that is self-consciousness.

If on the other hand we can attribute to humanity the capacity to act in a truly disinterested way, through empathy for example, then it changes everything. The problem is that if the person committing a “kind” action has a feeling of wellness from it, we immediately assume that this feeling was the source motivation for the action. But there is no reason to reduce an action to its ultimate result. That would be like saying that the reason why the allied forces fought the Second World War was to save the Jews. It certainly was not the case. The result might have been saving a great number of Jews from a horrible fate, but it was not the intention. Thus, the fact that I have a certain satisfaction from an action does not mean that this satisfaction was the motor for the action.

Now this indeed changes everything. It means that there can be an altruistic motive for an action. And it gives us a firm ground to distinguish between a moral action and an immoral one. An action that is derived from altruistic motives, or from empathy, is more moral than an action that is derived from egotistical or self serving purposes.