Do we act only for our own happiness?

Do we act only for our own happiness?

I would like to hear the thoughts of others on this. I believe we do, but I can only offer evidence, not a proof.
Obviously when we eat, sleep, avoid falling off cliffs etc. we do so in our own interests. We obey laws that we would like to break because a) we would feel guilty if we didn’t and b) because we would be punished (and therefore be unhappy) if we didn’t. When faced with a conflict between two options, we choose the one which will give us the greatest happiness overall.
This is a sort of “self-utilitarianism” (although this may be a contradiction in terms as I don’t know what the word “utilitarian” derives from). However, I don’t mean this is how people should act; it is how we do act.

The first counter-example that springs to mind is “but why do we give to charity?”. However, if someone who donates money stops doing so, that person would feel guilty and their conscience would make them unhappy. They are more content when they are giving to charity than when they are not. On a more cynical note, people also like to be able to say that they give to charity to improve their personal image.

It is worth noting that most people draw the line somewhere and feel that selling their worldly possessions to give away would cause too much personal unhappiness to be worth the happiness they would feel from doing a good deed. However, there are many stories of people who do just that, because they feel that performing such a selfless act brings rewards that outweigh the discomfort of being in poverty. Similarly, martyrs die for their religion because the joy of obeying the will of God has because so important to them that it outweighs any pain they suffer.

Furthermore, philosophers search for a moral philosophy that they feel is right, because it makes them happy to know (or at least to believe) that they are acting in the way that is most pleasing to their conscience.

On consideration, the above proposal should read “When given time to consider, we act in the way that we believe is going to bring the greatest happiness to ourselves”. I get out of bed the same side every morning because on the other side is a wall. If, however, you moved my bed across the room one night and I got up in the dark, I would bang my head on the wall, causing myself great unhappiness, because I have made the wrong decision.

In conclusion, then: given perfect information and perfect logical skills, people will act in the manner that causes them the greatest happiness. If information, intellect or thinking time are lacking (as usually happens) people will endeavour to bring about greatest self-happiness, but may not always succeed. Given very little time to consider, instinct or habit may prevail.

I would appreciate any comments on this, and also the opportunity to defend it. Thanks :smiley:

(On reading the preview, this all sounds a bit haphazard, but the content is there and it’s the best I can do, sorry)

This is obviously related to the discussion of our incapability of truely selfless selflessness that has been going on in this thread.

Some argue than any seemingly selfless act has an ulterior motive behind it.

Others argue that we are simply finding ulterior motives that aren’t necessarily there because it fits our world-view.

So it is. Thanks

The question for you, however, is how you know so much about the motives of a person who gives to charity, whom you obviously aren’t even acquainted with? Have you taken some sort of psychological survey, or read some authoritative study, upon which you are basing your generalization that the person gives to charity because he is trying to avoid the guilt he would feel if he did not? Those are, of course, rhetorical questions since I don’t think there is such a study, nor that, if there is one, that you have read it. But you are making an empirical generalization about the motives of all givers of charity, and you make it on the basis of no evidence whatsoever (except, maybe, because that is how you feel when you give charity. But that would be a very hasty generalization). So, what you are doing is called, “armchair psychology”.
And, suppose you asked me, or another person, whether I was giving charity in order to avoid the feeling of guilt, and I said, no. Would you say I was wrong about my own feelings, or that I was lying? It might be that for in the case of some people that they would, in fact, feel guilty if they did not give. But that is a long way from saying that they gave charity in order to avoid the guilt feeling. And that is what you seem to be saying. Even if the person knows he would feel guilty if he did not give, what makes you think he gave in order not to feel guilty. Aren’t you confusing those two things: (1) A gave to charity, and if he hadn’t, he would have felt guilty, and, (2) A gave to charity because if he hadn’t, he would have felt guilty. How do you know that the second is true, and the first is not?

othafa: what is suffering?

The individual may give to charity for a variety of reasons, and these reasons may or may not be known to others, or even to the individual himself. I am inclined to believe that for whatever reason he gives, the motivation is happiness. Perhaps he gives because to not give would cause guilt, and avoiding guilt promotes happiness; perhaps he gives because the giving itself brings happiness; perhaps he gave for the tax break, and keeping money from the IRS brings happiness. Imagine if the act were something that would more commonly be associated with pain or sadness: imagine the individual has two children, both of which are facing imminent death, and he can only save one. Which one he chooses will indicate something about how he goes about attaining happiness. Even seemingly impossible choices are made with happiness in mind, however far down the chain of events this happiness may be perceived to dwell. If a man chooses to saw his own foot off with a hacksaw, he does it because, at that moment, he is able to conceive of (and does conceive) of a rationale for doing so that will bring him greater happiness than if he should choose otherwise.

Of course, what is meant by happiness?

Well, being “inclined to believe” something, is one thing, but having evidence for what you are inclined to believe is quite a different thing. You don’t know me. Now, the other day, I gave some charity. What is your evidence that I did it in order to achieve happiness? I don’t see how you could have any. You have no idea who I am, or what I am like. Now, it happens to be true that I was, as the phrase goes, “happy to do what I did.” But that is quite different from saying that my motive was to achieve happiness, because that would mean that I gave the charity in order to achieve happiness and for no other motive. It made me happy to give the money, but that doesn’t mean that I did it in order to make myself happy. See the difference? As a matter of fact, by motive was not to make myself happy. It was to make the person I gave the money to, happy. Now, how do you know that isn’t true? Let me say the main point again: Although giving the money did make me happy, my motive was not to make myself happy. My motive was to make the person I gave the money to happy. Now, you cannot look into my mind, and you don’t even know me, so you cannot even make any inferences from the sort of person I am. Isn’t that true. So, how can you possibly make any informed statement about what my motive was? Answer, you can’t.

Sometimes I wonder if you find happiness in being contrary :slight_smile:

Of course I don’t know you. But, then again, I do. You are human, are you not? I am inclined to believe that you probably have a head with a brain in it, because every human I’ve ever read about or met personally had one, including myself. It’s a relationship that does not appear to be specific to individuals, but to the species as a whole.
I don’t have any direct evidence of this, per se, but I can draw a reasonable conclusion based on my experience (which is in fact the best anyone can ever hope to do under any circumstances.) Therefore, I am inclined to believe that it is true. Likewise, I’ve a lot of experience with humans and happiness, and it is my impression that the relationship between happiness and motivation is like that of being human and having a head.

Really, though… “My motive was to make the person I gave the money to happy.” Yes, and making that person happy made you happy. How could you miss that?

Unfortunately, your experience in emotions is extremely limited, you only experience your own emotions.

That isn’t true. I experience the emotions of almost everyone I come into contact with… but I experience them in different degrees of intensity. No, it is not the same thing to feel what I call “sad” and to be around someone who feels what they call “sad.” But second-hand emotions (what’s love got to do with it?) are certainly relevant. In fact, science seems to have identified the neurological mechanism responsible for empathy… I can’t remember what it’s called, but it’s believed to be a function that has evolved in the majority of humans, if not all of them. I actually have the ability to feel what you are feeling on a physical level, and I’m not entirely dependent on you to tell me how you feel. So my experience is not quite so limited, after all.

I’d say that second-hand experience of emotions is rather limited, you only experience the outward expression not the inward effect. Eg. when you experience rage you feel your min gong red hot, but when you experience somebody in rage you only see them fuming.

Yes, and as I pointed out, saying that giving the money to him made me happy (if it did) is not the same thing as saying that I gave him the money in order to make myself happy, which is what is meant by saying that my motive was happiness. And how could you miss that distinction?

As for your previous point, your experience of human beings is limited to yourself and your acquaintances for the most part. Any generalization from that is very chancy. In the second place, your experience is limited by the fact that it is not organized and objective. It is a well-known fact of cognitive psychology that people tend to remember personal experiences which agree with their preconceptions, and discard those which disagree with their preconceptions of what the truth “must” be. That is the force of prejudice. And, in the third place, your “survey” of human behavior in this particular case is undermined by the failure to distinguish between doing something and getting happiness from doing it, and doing that same thing for the purpose of getting happiness from doing it. So, your experience may be of people who are happy to do things for others, but who are not doing it for the purpose of being made happy by doing that thing. As I pointed out, you may observe that people are happy to do something just by observing their behavior, but it is a little harder to look inside a person’s head, and observe why he is doing that. Which is to say, you can draw inferences about a person’s feelings from his behavior, but drawing inferences about the person’s Isn’t that part of your experience too?motives from his behavior is a different matter. (Even the person himself may be clear about how he feels when he does something, and a lot less clear about his motives for doing it.)

I don’t really disagree. I can’t look inside your head. I have a limited range of experience with emotions. And, perhaps you don’t even know what your motivations are, or perhaps they simply are very different than what I can imagine. However, this doesn’t change what I am inclined to believe based on my observations. It makes more sense to me that you gave the person money because making him happy makes you happy (whether you realized it or not at the time) than to think that you gave the money and then suddenly realized, after having performed an act for no apparent reason known to yourself, that it made you happy. Perhaps “happy” is too general a term. “Content” or “fulfilled” might be better… The point is that you had a motivation, and the motivation was selfish before it was selfless.

That you are inclined to believe that I gave money because I believed it would make me happy is a biographical fact about you. Since you have no reason to think so, I am not clear why you think it is of any interest to others. But, if you like, post other biographical facts about yourself. It’s a free country.

But I think you are confusing two things: (1) getting happiness from performing an action, and (2) doing the action because you will get happiness from doing it. You still have not indicated that you understand the distinction. So, I suppose, you will continue the confusion.

Think of it this way. Suppose I know that if I do something, it will hurt my parents. I do it anyway. Does that mean that I did it because I wanted to hurt my parents? (In order to hurt my parents) Of course not. Then why do you think that because I do something that will make me happy, that I did it because I wanted to make myself happy.

By the way, I don’t know about you, but I sometimes find I do things which do not make me happy at all. For instance, I may visit my sick grandmother in the hospital. I really hate to go to hospitals. And when I visit my grandmother, she always insults me. It is all a very unpleasant experience, and, in fact, it makes me unhappy to visit her. Nevertheless, I visit her because I believe it is my obligation to visit her. So not only is it not true that I visit my grandmother in order to be happy, it is also true that it doesn’t even make me happy to visit her. In fact, it makes me miserable. So, somethings I do voluntarily don’t even make be happy.

And, by the way, again: is that all you are saying? That when I do something voluntarily that I have some motivation? Well, that’s hardly news. I thought you were maintaining that whenever I did something that my motivation was the achievement of my own happiness. It now looks as if you have given this view up. And you are right to give it up, since it is clearly not true. Well, I agree with you. Most people who do things have some motivation in doing it.

But now, let me ask you what you mean by the word “selfish”, since you tell me that most motives are selfish. I thought that the word “selfish” meant taking something for your own satisfaction to which you are not entitled. Let me give you an example: When Mom goes she leaves two pieces of cake for her sons, Tom and Jerry after school. One for Tom, the other for Jerry. Scene 1. Tom comes home, and eats his piece of cake, and leaves Jerry’s for Jerry. Scene 2. Tom comes home and not only eats his own piece of cake, but also eats Jerry’s. Question: Was Tom being selfish in scene 1, or in scene 2.? Most people would not say that Tom was acting selfishly in scene 1, but only in scene 2. Now, it is true that Tom was acting self-interestedly in scene 1. But is would be bizarre to say that he was acting selfishly. Of course, in scene 2, when he snatched Jerry’s cake as well as his own, he was acting selfishly.

Moral of the story: there is a difference between self-interest and selfishness. When I go to bed because I am tired in the evening I am acting self-interestedly, but certainly not selfishly. My action doesn’t affect anyone else, so how could it be a selfish action?


Lets say you gave to charity… Now, think up any 1 rational explenation for why you gave to charity. Now you are going to say something like:

“To make a person feel good”

But thats not enough. Ask why. Why would you make a person feel good? Keep asking why, see where that gets you.

there are many identies we take on: I am an individual specimin of homo sapiens, I am a member of the humanity, I am a mamber of a certain culture, i am a mamber of a subculture which extends beyond my primary culture, I am a person interested in philosophy, I am a person who likes to go fishing, I am a liberal (who I so liberal I have alot in common with alot of {honest} conservatives), I am a corporeal being and I am also a spiritual being … I am a this, a that and one of the other things too.

All these selves have a place and some rank higher than others.

So, to say that I engage in some of my more altruistic behaviors might be restated as saying that I am engaging in a higher selfishness.

How about this: What if our happiness is found in another. The scholastic school said that our happiness is truely found in love of God, and all else must be means. Even for seculars, one might notice that happiness is sought in what you love, whether human person or cause. So acting for our own happiness, may mean not acting for our own happiness – which one might sense as bringing a rather frustrating sense of ennui.

“God saw all that He had made, and it was very good.” – Gen 1:51

my real name

Well, I suppose in the case of charity it is to relieve the distress of the person to whom I give the charity. But to the question, why do I want to relieve his distress, my answer would be that it seems to me a good thing to do, or even the right thing to do. And, of course, perhaps that I was glad to do it. But that is a far cry (as I keep saying) from saying that I relieved the persons distress in order to make myself happy. Perhaps it made me happy to relieve his distress, but that doesn’t mean that my motive in relieving his distress was to make myself happy. Just as, in the analogy I gave before, it may be that when I act in a certain way, I hurt my parents. But, although I voluntarily act in a way that hurts my parents, I do not act that way in order to hurt my parents. Those are two different things.

In fact, if you come to think of it, suppose I did give charity in order to make myself happy, and realized that. Wouldn’t that undermine my happiness? For, if I realized that I was giving charity just to make myself happy, it might reduce my happiness in giving charity since I would recognize I was doing it for self-interested motives.

“my answer would be that it seems to me a good thing to do, or even the right thing to do.”

Keep asking questions. This is not sufficient rational, though this is where alot of people can go no further. First of all, consider what makes you believe its the right/good thing to do. Second of all, though this actually turns our to be a similar line of questioning, why do you do that which is right/good?

Edit: More to say…

“if I realized that I was giving charity just to make myself happy, it might reduce my happiness in giving charity since I would recognize I was doing it for self-interested motives.”

Only if you are convinced that self-interested motives are somehow worse than any alternative, and you dont realize that there is no alternative.

It seems fine to me. But, if you want to know why I think it is a good think to relieve a person’s distress, my reply is that I have a general principle, namely, that in ordinary circumstances, you should try to help people when you can.

I don’t think that you would think I have a sufficient “rationale” unless I told it that I did something in order to be happy. Nothing else would count. That’s because you have a preconceived view of the matter, so that unless what I say fits into that view, you won’t think what I said is sufficient.

My motive for helping someone in distress is that I want to relieve his distress. Why do I want to relieve his distress? Because I think it is a bad thing for people to be in distress. It makes me sad. But, did I relieve his distress so as to prevent myself from continuing to feel sad? The answer to that is, no. My motive had nothing to do with me, nor with my feelings. It had to do with the person and his situation.

Let’s go to a perhaps clearer example. Suppose my child has an accident, and is hurt. I then take him to the hospital. Why do I take him to the hospital? Because I want to stop his pain, and repair any injury he suffered. It is true that I am distressed by his pain and injury. It is also true that if his pain is relieved, and if his injury is repaired, that my distress will be relieved. But why should it follow that I took him to the hospital in order to relieve my distress at his pain, although it did, in fact do that? I took him to the hospital in order to relieve his distress and pain. Why do you insist that I did it in order to relieve my own distress in pain? Why suppose that every motive is the same?

Let me ask you a further question. I suppose that your view that whenever anyone does anything, he does it in order to attain happiness. This is a form of what is called in the introductory philosophy texts, “psychological hedonism”. Now, psychological hedonism is, or at least pretends to be, a psychological theory about human motivation. It is supposed to be an empirical theory, which is to say, it is supposed to be based on empirical evidence about how human beings behave. Now, apparently, people who post in on this, if they provide any evidence at all for PH provide what they call their “personal observations”. I think you know enough about science and its methods to know that personal observations are really not an adequate basis for a generalization about the behavior of all human beings. That is not how science operates- on the basis of personal observations. That is one thing. But there is another thing about empirical theories one of which PH is supposed to be. They have to be falsifiable, which is not to say that they have to be false (of course not!) but that it must be possible to think of evidence that, if it occurred, would lead us to discard the theory. Another way of saying that is that an empirical theory has to be testable. The question for you is what observations would be for you, if you made them, reasons to give PH up? What observations, if they happened, would be such as would lead you to say, “Well, I guess I was wrong. PH doesn’t seem to be true”? Now, from your posts it would seem (and I may be wrong) that you would hold on to PH “come what may” (to use a phrase by Quine). You would not allow it was false whatever observations about how human beings behave, occurred. If that is so, then the theory is not testable. And if it is not testable, then it only masquerades as an empirical theory of human motivation. In other words, it is what is called “armchair psychology”, or more technically, “a priori psychology”.