Naturally Selfish?

December 14, 2011

Political Theory

The question I would like to ask readers of this blog post is, do you think that humans are naturally selfish beings?

Before you answer that question however, I ask that you either watch the animated speech below entitled The Empathic Civilization by Jeremy Rifkin, an American economist and political advisor, or, if you don’t feel like watching the ten minute speech (I recommend you do), read the much shorter summary of it that I provide.

The speech details the discovery of mirror neurons, special brain neurons that all humans and some species of animals possess.  When a human being performs an action, special neurons associated with that action light up in the brain.  When a human being sees another human being performing that same action, mirror neurons cause the exact same neurons to light up.  So how does this affect us?

Say you were watching a horror movie and in that horror movie a spider crawled up on one of the characters.  The mirror neurons would make you feel emotionally how creepy it would be to have a tarantula crawling up your back because the same neurons are lighting up in your brain that would activate if you actually did have a spider crawling on you.

The way Rifkin puts it, “We are soft wired to experiences another’s plight as if we are experiencing it ourselves.”  He goes on to discuss other research that suggests that a human’s first instinctual drive is not self-interest but the drive to belong.  Finally, he suggests that the awareness and global connection brought by modern technology may allow humans to build a civilization based on this principle of empathy.  Though he doesn’t get too political, his suggestions are obviously very comparable to Rousseau’s social contract, in which everyone works for the betterment of the community as a whole.

I would like to raise one possible counterargument that I think Hobbes, who believed humans are inherently self-interested, might agree with.  If we experience another’s plight as our own, then doesn’t that provide us with the self-serving motivation for helping them simply in order to alleviate our own discomfort?  Do you think Mother Teresa would have done all that charity work if it hadn’t made her happy?  I’m not at all trying to suggest she was selfish or purely self-serving, not in the least.  I’m simply saying that she was also benefitting from her own charity work.  What I’m arguing is that humans will not do something unless there is at least some benefit in it for themselves.

So what do you think?  Are humans naturally self-centered, naturally empathetic, or maybe some of both?  Do you think that a civilization in which everyone acts exclusively for the good of the whole is possible or is it an unrealistic goal?



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3 Comments on “Naturally Selfish?”

  1. asgersh Says:

    I do not think it will ever be possible for everyone in a community to be working for the greater good of the whole group. There will always be people who do not buy into the system. I think that most people only do things that will either benefit them or bring them happiness. We as humans often need a motivation to do something, the first question that goes through most people’s head when asked to do a task is usually” why? whats in it for me?”. In contrast though i think everyone has empathy too and can relate to not only the struggles of other people, but their successes. No on is perfect and everyone at times is selfish, but if we were able to get the majority of a community to buy into the idea of doing not all, but most things for the betterment of the whole the world would be a better place. In times with such economic downturn and war in the world it would be very hard at this time to get people to look past just their own self interest.

  2. joethahn Says:

    Personally I believe that humans are naturally self-centered. From a biological standpoint the main goal of life is to be able to reproduce to pass on your genes to the next generation. For this reason, acts of altruism are rarely found in nature because altruistic acts are non-ideal uses of energy. However, I do not see this as a bad thing though because it allows the survival of the fittest. Many people would say that we commit altruistic acts because we are humans, not animals. I agree with this because humans are different from animals in that we have the ability to cognitively understand the difference between right and wrong. The definition of altruism is “the principle or practice of unselfish concern for or devotion to the welfare of others” ( So what this means is that a person is willing to perform a behavior that is to his or her disadvantage for the sole reason of aiding another. I do not think that true acts of altruism exists. When a person commits an act that is considered altruism there is always an ulterior motive. A person could commit a selfless act but it would be motiviated by a need for people to recognize him or her as a “good” person. I think that the main reason why people commit selfless acts is due the the idea of mirror neurons that you brought up. People act altruistically because they feel the same negative feeling that another is feeling and aid them in order to relieve themselves of that same feeling. Based on these thoughts I do not think that it is possible us to create a society where everyone acts exclusively for the good of the population.

  3. William Burton Says:

    I don’t think we are naturally greedy or that selfishness is an innate part of our psyche, rather that this is a result of our surroundings. Thinking about it from an economic standpoint, if there were unlimited resources in an environment, there would be no need to lie, cheat, steal, or horde anything because there would be an infinite availability of it. Fighting for resources when there is enough for everyone is simply a waste of time. However, we all know that in reality, this is not the case and that all resources are finite. Some may argue that because resources have always been finite, it is logical that we would by this time, due to natural selection, be hardwired to be greedy. If that were true, would people have the ability to go out of their way to help others? would anybody volunteer in homeless shelters? I think this video on empathy is a great example of, not greed being a natural part of us, but rather something we develop.

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