The Road That Leads to Me

Selfless Good Deeds? Psychological vs. Ethical Egoism

You may have heard it argued that there is no such thing as a selfless good deed. This statement has served as the focal point of numerous books, lectures, and yes, even a Friends Episode (The One Where Phoebe Hates PBS) (I know…I draw from Friends a lot…I digress.) However, there are two main schools of thought on the issue; psychological egoism and ethical egoism.

Psychological egoism proposes that the individual does not choose to be self-interested. Psychological egoists claim that the human is inherently self-interested, and therefore cannot help being as such.

Ethical egoism on the other hand, does not deny that the individual is self-interested, but rather, states that the individual chooses to be as such. Any action, even if seemingly altruistic can be traced to self-interested intentions.

Typically, when presented with the basic description of each position, many find themselves quickly aligning with one side or the other. We identify easily with the notion of self-interest.  In every creature, there is an instinct of and for survival. Therefore the notion of being self-interested is biological. If one doesn’t look out for their own interest, who will? If one wishes to survive, he/she must seek to benefit self, even at the risk of hurting others. Thomas Hobbes even stated that “we would be fools if we didn’t look after ourselves.” Many may also conjure up parallels with social Darwinism and the survival of the fittest.

The ethical egoist may commit a seemingly altruistic act as well, however, the action is ultimately self-interested, in lines with the notion of “what goes around comes around.”

There are several major problems with the theory of psychological egoism. The first is that falsification is not possible. Psychological egoism always looks for selfish motivations and refuses to recognize any other kind. The nature of the theory cannot allow for any other motives. A good theory must allow for the possibility of counter-examples.  The second problem is it does not take motivation into account. Doing something to benefit oneself is not always selfish. It must be taken into account, what it is that the person seeks to gain, rather than just the notion of seeking to gain. Changing language from unselfish to less selfish is incorrect. Lastly, if notions such as true love, and genuine friendship exist, psychological egoism cannot hold true.

Ethical egoism has problems as well. Ethical egoism seems to be self-contradictory. There cannot be a moral theory that says that one’s duty should be something that conflicts with someone else’s duty, so ethical egoism is therefore inconsistent. Few ethical egoists find the above refute of their theory convincing. Ethical egoists don’t agree that we can’t have a moral theory which gives the green light to different concepts of duty. Altruism is inconsistent with egoism.

So where do you fall? Is altruism impossible? Are we hard-wired for self-seeking behavior, even at the expense/inability to perform acts not in our best interest? Do we choose to commit selfish acts or do they run rampant through our brains without any control? Can we live in a world where selfless good deeds are a fairy tale? Do we want to? Perhaps if that is in our best interest….


Self-Deception: Social identity vs. personal identity and its relation to politics and religion

A wholly truthful and authentic life necessitates thoughtful self-examination, that is, the willingness to recognize even the most difficult of truths present within our lives. When the avoidance of truths about certain aspects of our lives extends beyond a single choice, and develops into a pattern of avoidance, self-deception is born. This conscious choice to avoid reality, prevents us from facing difficult facts and certainties, and allows us to remain consistent. In this purposeful distancing of oneself from reality, one adopts a policy of avoidance, which he or she uses as a shield, defense mechanism, or self-created blinder to the sometimes harsh and bitter truths of reality.

The natural tendency to maintain consistency compounds man’s inclination to self-deceive. A lifetime of commitments and experiences can lead men to ascribe to ideas and realities which indeed have changed or ceased to be present. In efforts to uphold a certain sense of stability and self-awareness, the tendency to self-deceive, ignoring obvious changes and truths grows strong. Towards this end, it is those who are good and sincere by nature, that are most prone to self-deceive. The serious tone of these people’s lives holds them in fear, lacking the courage to face reality, and therefore the possibility of their own shortcomings and inabilities.

In an image-based society, where appearance and status make or break one’s individual quality of and outlook on life, it becomes necessary to some to retain a certain self-image. Fear of losing a particular sense of identity disallows a full embrace of the whole of reality. Towards this end, the language, labels, and ideas that surround a person’s sense of self become highly important, as there has become a desperate search and push to “know oneself,” and to gain a firm grasp of who you are as a person. Consequently, identities adopted are not quickly changed, despite changes in the person.

The link between personal identity and social identity has grown increasingly, concurrently pushing the need to maintain certain types of social roles. Often, our actions are sharply influenced by the social group to which we ascribe ourselves, or find our identity in. Actions that are perhaps against our own sense of morality are performed, and subsequently rationalized, simply due to our assumed or presumed social role. Additionally, values and ideas may be professed which are against our own, yet personally heralded, in efforts to remain consistent with a social role. Essentially, it is the fear of change, and the subsequent fear of losing a grip on one’s sense of self-identity, that provides the primary cause of self-deception.

Marked as a defense mechanism and coping device, self-deception can be perceived as either positive or negative. At times, self-deception proves to be necessary in order for existence. Often, one must self-deceive by means of blocking out painful images and memories, in order for healing to become a reality. Overburdened by pain, grief, or negative self-imagery, self-deception becomes nearly compulsory, as the burdened individual seeks to temporarily avoid reality in order to establish a positive outlook. However, when this temporary self-deception used as a coping device develops into a permanent life pattern, it moves beyond a coping device to a destructive pattern of thought and avoidance. Illusion cannot be the dominating force within the mind. The extent to which self-deception can be considered healthy, is the extent to which the mind concurrently holds a grip on reality in some sense.

In consideration of and reflection upon self-deception, I am forced to evaluate my own life, and the extent to which I avoid reality. With a personality dependent upon stability, order, and routine, and a concurrent strict and traditional upbringing, the factors which perpetuate the need or drive to self-deceive are highly present in my life. Additionally, the labels I have come to associate with my identity suggest that I ascribe to certain social groups, requiring an additional reflection of the genuineness and originality of my actions.

In consideration of my self-image, several dominant features surface as irremovable and essential to my being. I cannot imagine living a life void of my “Christian” label. However, the stigma of religion often yields a wealth of attached assumptions and social roles. Attacked and marked as a fundamentalist, I recognize that in my youth I overemphasized my conservative beliefs, in attempts to both uphold my controversial label and to stir up dissension amongst my peers. However, as time has passed and the attacks grown more intense, I found myself proclaiming a “more liberal” mindset to old friends, in efforts to gain their respect while detaching myself from the assumptions surrounding Christian fundamentalists. This active proclamation of a “newfound liberality” was due primarily to a subscription to a new social group. Several years ago, the large majority of my friends were those which maintained similar sets of values and ideas as I did. However, upon my attendance at a liberal and Catholic institution, I had been brought from a position of esteem, where my ideas and values were respected and shared, to a place of scorn. Nearly weekly, my fundamental Protestant and Bible-based beliefs were openly mocked and looked upon as intellectually inferior to those not only of the Catholic church, but of the so-called philosophical agnostics, too intelligent to buy into the idea of “God” and a necessary dependence upon Him. Towards this end, I had systematically quieted my beliefs, moving those things which are intrinsic to my being from the forefront to the shadows. Classroom participation in heated religious debates has ceased, arguments with friends surrounding political and moral issues have dramatically decreased, and my promotion of “my new liberal beliefs” has risen.

Some may survey the situation and decide that the changes made in my life were positive, removing enmity with friends while concurrently opening my mind to differing viewpoints and ideas. I myself have heralded this false adoption of liberal ideas as mentally expanding, self-promoting as one willing to move outside of a “narrow” mental perspective. However, reality remains. Despite the repercussions which may follow, I am not and most likely never will be a liberally minded person. Towards this end, I do not hold that liberal ideas bring about mental expansion any more than other schools of thought do. Additionally, I feel that those who prescribe to liberal ideas as strongly as conservatives, are as “narrow” as fundamentalists. My false ascription to a set of ideas, through both silent acceptance and active denouncement of conservative ideas, had served to perpetuate a form of self-deception, in that I had been avoiding the reality of the ever-present existence of my conservative ideals.

This self-deception suggested that I placed my identity in things other than self. This altogether negative habit speaks of an over-emphasis on the opinions and thoughts of other people, as well as a fear of losing this social identity. Reparation of these wrongful avoidances of the truths concerning my true self and ideals can be found in the willing embrace of my belief system, regardless of the reaction of those around me. With or without social esteem or the acceptance of my peers and professors, I am without question, a conservatively minded, Christian fundamentalist. I must forget about survival within a particular social group, and value self-survival as of higher value. Self-deception will breathe no more, as I now willingly face the reality of my true self. Yes, I voted for Bush. Twice. I’ll vote for McCain, and I don’t care what you think about it. I am who I am.

Throw down the facade

Hermann Hesse phrased it like this, “Nothing in the world is more distasteful to a man than to take the path that leads to himself.” It is on the journey towards finding one’s self that we must invert our eyes, and allow ourselves to see what it is we have been masking. Our mere apparitions of self must be confronted with reality. Idealism meets realism. We must face who we really are. Facades are much easier to maintain….they require no vulnerability, honesty, or original thought. To live as our “projected self,” allows us to blend…to fade into our surroundings as a chameleon; taking on the thoughts, habits, and attitudes that serve us best from moment to moment. I think Hesse understood that no man wants to truly see themselves for what they truly are….To do so would require a level of self-evaluation and change that most people aren’t comfortable with. I feel most of the time we become so used to living as our projected self, that we actually lose who we really are….So afraid that people would turn us away if they really knew….if they actually knew who we really were….We can’t allow ourselves to hide. We must be who we were created and meant to be. We must take the journey down the road that leads to ourselves, despite the hardships and brutal realities about our true self we will face. Throw down the facade. Be who you really are.