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Hello,
I am currently studying philosophy and ethics at my school. We are doing an assignment at the moment on human nature and three element of human nature and how they link in with society itself and help to form and maintain it. I was wondering, could selfishness (a definite part of human nature) in any way, benefit society? As in, would it be able to help form or maintain a society?
Thankyou for any responces.

February 21, 2013

Response from Charles Taliaferro on March 9, 2013
Good luck in your studies! Philosophers have thought quite a bit about self-interest and selfishness. What is often called psychological egoism is the thesis that humans always act in ways that they believe to be in their self-interest (either directly or indirectly), while ethical egoism is the thesis that people ought to do what is (either directly or indirectly) in their self-interest. One point to clarify here is the difference between "selfishness" and "self-interest." If psychological egoism is taken as the view that all persons are selfish because all people act in their self-interest, this seems either false or to involve an odd use of the notion of "self-interest." Clearly many people are interested in living lives of justice, compassion, humility, and so on, but to call such people "selfish" would seem to be quite the opposite of what they are like: namely, they are generous, caring, non-vain, non-pompous, humble. So, I suggest that we use the term "selfish" in ways that pick out traits such as: a selfish person tends to put treat his own needs and desires as more important than others; if food or water is scarce, a selfish person (if he can get away with it) tends to either take or want to take more than his fair share. If a selfish person can achieve an advantage over others through deception, he will be sorely tempted to think of himself first and be tempted to deceive. On this meaning, it does not appear that everyone is selfish (and what might be called psychological selfishness seems wrong) and it also seems that selfishness would do more to endanger social cohesiveness than other traits and motives: like the desire to live in a just society, the motive of caring for others, and so on.

Still, some philosophers have sought to show that rational or enlightened self-interest can lead to benefits. There is a thought experiment called the Prisoner's Dilemma (you can find this outlined on various philosophy website) which is designed to show that while narrow self-interest will lead to the worst overall outcome, enlightened self-interest can lead to the best outcome under the circumstances. And in jurisprudence of philosophy of law, you will find reflection on what penalties or incentives seem required to promote civic life and reduce crime by appealing to the self-interest of citizens. Ideally, you do not want laws that are so lax (imagine the penalty for ponnzi schemes is a few months in jail) that it would be in the self-interest of persons to break the law. Adam Smith is an 18th century philosopher as well as an economist who argued that if persons rationally pursued self-interest they would be guided by what he poetically referred to as "an invisible hand" to bring about the best social benefit.

In terms of books on human nature, I highly recommend two that are accessible, reliable, and clear: Roger Trigg's Ideas of Human Nature and Leslie Stevenson's Thirteen Theories of Human Nature.


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