Quora Answers: Is there an essentially selfish motive behind every human behavior?
I’ll go ahead and pose the third answer: no, I don’t think every human behavior is inherently selfish, on several levels.
On the surface, it is very easy to hear about the atrocities of the world and throughout history and subscribe to moral pessimism. However, one who has become cynical of our human world has subscribed to flawed logic.
The statement could be boiled down to: Humans commit millions of atrocities on systemic and individual levels, nearly every day, therefore humans are—on the whole—inherently evil and selfish beings.
The reason why this is flawed is because of, well, math. In 2015, the estimated count of US citizens 18 and over was 321,418,820 (reference). In this article written last September (2016), the FBI outlines the breakdown of all the reported crime in the US. Though there is no statistic outlining the amount of people committing crimes versus the census data of the US as a whole, clearly if all ~321 million adults 18 and over in the US were inherently “bad-to-the-bone,” the crime stats would be through the roof. Granted, violent crimes are way lower than theft and robberies (which, in 2015, was ~$12 billion of reported stolen assets—damn).
However, if it were true that humans—all humans—were inherently selfish and acted with little concern for the other, then we’d have way more murders, theft, you name it than was reported in 2015, given the amount of people in the US alone.
Now, since this is a microcosm of the larger 7.5 billion worldwide population and the overall higher quality of life in the US (for the most part, at least) the examples could be raised as a flawed to begin with. But if you examine crime indexes worldwide (unfortunately minus several African nations), it becomes very apparent very quickly that most of the world population—reportedly, at least—is nonviolent, nonaggressive and noninvasive to other people (also, the US is relatively high on the crime index, which is interesting in and of itself).
Again, this is still not the entire picture as a lot of crime goes undocumented, but even so, the numbers (+/- 5% per country as a contingency) do not reflect the assumption of mankind’s flawed existence on the whole.
So that’s crime. What about every day interactions, micro-aggressions, the touted competitiveness of the capitalistic environment, etc.? Unfortunately, there is no light to be shed, statistically, on such interactions. So, I’ll go the quasi-meta-physical route.
What is the separation between YOU and I?
In his book, “No Boundary,” Ken Wilber thoroughly breaks down the barriers of self / non-self, down to the quantum theories that underline the fabric of our entire universe.
The world was viewed as a giant Newtonian billiard table, where all the separate things in the universe acted like billiard balls, blindly smashing around and occasionally colliding with one another. As scientists began exploring the world of subatomic physics, they naturally assumed that all the old Newtonian laws, or something like them, would apply to the protons, neutrons, and electrons. But they didn’t. Not at all, not even a little.
Wilber, No Boundary, pg 35, P2
These ultimate realities couldn’t even be located! As Heisenberg put it, "We can no longer consider ‘in themselves’ those building stones of matter which we originally held to be the last objective reality. This is so because they defy all forms of objective location in space and time." Not only did the subatomic billiard halls not obey established laws, the billiard balls themselves didn’t even exist—at least not as separate entities. The atom, in other words, wasn’t behaving like a discrete "thing."
Wilber, No Boundary, pg 35, P3
What quantum mechanics has taught the modern scientific community is that boundaries are elusive meta-energies that create the illusion of separation where no separation exists at all.
If we deconstruct how we think about the world in archaic terminologies—“the world was created,” “I was born into the world,” “I am my own self”—then it becomes painfully evident that our common sense has not yet caught up with modern revelations about how the universe functions on a foundational level.
That is to say: if there are no boundaries at the atomic level, then what makes you think there’s a boundary between you and I at all?
Cognition and the sensation of I-ness are indeed real things, but what is cognition if not the sum of your experiences, knowledge, emotional concepts, trust in others, and so on, all of which were created from the external world? Your eyes see the world as your brain is able to interpret it into the electrical signals that indicate such as: brown, beauty, green, ugliness.
We absorb these so-called externalities surrounding us and transcribe it into internal reactions and feelings. It’s a transactional process—one implies the other and without the other, there is no one to which it can be implied.
So, let’s bring this back to the question: Is there an essentially selfish motive behind every human action?
Even if we subscribe to the almighty I, no—not every person acts selfishly. People give because they genuinely enjoy giving—we love because we love. I have a pet—as millions others do—because it gives me joy to keep something alive and happy. Is that selfish? No, not if it involves another being, otherwise the moment our dog misbehaves we’d kick it out the door and get a better one. Empathy prevents complete and utter selfish chaos.
Furthermore, if we are brave enough to breakdown the psychological boundaries of our commonsensical life, we’ll see that to act completely and irreverently selfish is inherently impossible. The self, as touched above, is an illusion because separation is an illusion.
So, for the petty thief—what do you gain, ultimately, in your score? And as the victim—what do you lose, ultimately, in your loss?
Your answer to the question, “What is the separation between YOU and I?” will reflect how you feel about loss versus gain.