The Dallas Examined Life Philosophy Group Message Board › Selfish vs. Unselfish Motivation (Kant)

Selfish vs. Unselfish Motivation (Kant)

James K.
user 139968862
Dallas, TX
Post #: 5
Why do human beings do nice things for others? Why indeed do they make sacrifices for others?

Let’s say you see someone suffering. Maybe you can even imagine the relief that the person would feel if you were to help him. Why would perceiving this inspire you to help that person obtain relief? How could it possibly provide any satisfaction to you?

The explanation of Human Nature I have put together over the past few decades provides an answer. I will dwell on the ontological and epistemological foundations upon which it is based at another time, but right now I just want to explain how my foundational premises ultimately challenge Kant’s key argument that moral motivation must not contain any element of self-interest.

The single most important assertion that I make is my claim that all human beings are born with a fundamental and intrinsic need for the approval of other human beings. I argue that it is this need which largely explains why humans ever feel inspired to help other human beings.

Our need for approval is a mental need which can also be accurately described as an emotional need. As needs go, this one is quite unique when compared to our various ‘purely biological’ needs.

It is apparently an ‘open-ended’ need since there is no point of homeostasis at which the need is finally satisfied. We can enjoy approval from every imaginable source all day and still be hurt by disapproval at the end of the day. More approval received always continues to feel good.

It is a need that has both positive and negative sensitivities, which distinguishes it from many of our purely biological needs. It’s not just a lack of approval that causes emotional pain, even though that eventuality is certainly a very painful experience (loneliness).

Expressed disapproval seems to dramatically ‘aggravate’ the need, often inflicting acute emotional pain (embarrassment, ridicule, rejection). But it’s not just a need to avoid disapproval. Expressed approval feels so good, we are always eager for more.

I argue that it is because we have this need that we are quite ‘selfishly’ motivated to be kind to others, to behave in ways that are commonly thought of as unselfish/moral.

My speculation is that Kant felt it necessary to strip moral motivation of any and all self-serving elements in order to produce an ethical theory that would not threaten the very popular belief among men at the time that it is ultimately possible for a determined mind to annihilate or otherwise dispossess itself of any need for approval that it might once have been burdened by.

This has been a profoundly important belief within our culture for a long, long time, for both men in general and philosophers in particular.

For men, it has always seemed apparent that if they were not actually able to make their need for approval ‘go away’, it would mean that they really don’t have any way to deliver themselves from the ‘curse’ of emotional vulnerability (if I have a need for the approval of others, then you have the power to hurt me with relative ease).

I believe Kant was ultimately not willing to admit that we all have a very sensitive need for the approval of others so he simply declared unselfish behavior to be ‘good’ without actually acknowledging that we need to be good (i.e., elicit the approval of others) in order for us to be truly happy.

Kant found that he could ignore the key role that our need for approval plays in the calculus of moral motivation by simply portraying duty-fulfillment as an irreducible end-in-itself. The truth, of course, is that duty-fulfillment is really only a means-to-an-end.

The ultimate end: the feelings of pleasure/satisfaction that are generated by our need for approval whenever we perceive the approval of others.

The deontological indictment of selfish motivation has unfortunately been responsible for an incredible amount of unnecessary mental anguish.

Individuals have been told that they should act unselfishly because people who do so are worthy of praise (approval), but then they are told that if they are motivated by their desire for praise, their actions are deserving only of contempt.

Pious individuals are forced by deontological assumptions into a perpetual state of self-loathing. They feel compelled by logic to hate their desire for praise in the hope that they’ll become more deserving of it.

Deontological assumptions castigate any and all human beings for a selfish motivational nature that (A) is not actually any kind of sin, and (B) is not something that they can ever get rid of, no matter how much they might try to make it happen.

Our need for the approval of others is imposed on us as a condition of our existence.

I argue that people should never be criticized for their selfishness but only for being ‘stupid-selfish’ instead of ‘smart-selfish.’ If you are smart-selfish, you will always seek to become a perceived source of need-satisfaction in the eyes of others in order to earn their gratitude.

Indeed, if you are smart-selfish, you will understand that the only way we can experience the optimal levels of happiness that are possible for human beings is if we constantly seek to satisfy the needs of others.

If you are stupid-selfish, you will likely believe that you have somehow ‘overcome’ your need for the approval of others and so you will not perceive any compelling reason to not take advantage of others when you think you might benefit in some way from doing so.

The ultimate implications of my claims are actually quite significant.

It means, for one thing, that we are indeed born with a need that ultimately encourages us to be kind and helpful to each other and to act morally.

Also of great significance: it means that we are all imbued with a need that makes us utterly dependent on others for our happiness.

Logically, if we are absolutely dependent upon others for our happiness, then the goal of ‘Autonomy’ that many theorists recommend is one that can never be obtained, and should never be pursued.

Also discredited is the Self-Esteem Dream, the idea that self-esteem can provide us with an adequate substitute for the other-esteem that we actually have a need for.

It is not unusual these days to hear psychologists refer to those who feel a strong need for the approval of others as individuals who suffer from a ‘personality defect’, or perhaps a ‘character flaw.’ According to my thesis, such characterizations are irrational and ultimately nonsensical.

Nor does it make any sense for individuals to pursue something called ‘Personal Happiness’ since it is simply not possible for us to be ideally happy within ourselves.

Other important implications: if my claims are indeed the ultimate truth of our existence, then Ayn Rand’s Objectivism and Sartre’s Existentialism must be ‘committed to the flames’ as they are based on some utterly delusional assumptions that arise from wishful thinking and little else.

And yes, there is much, much more… :)
Jim B.
user 4260314
Arlington, TX
Post #: 416
Very interesting. I definitely agree with what you write, up to a point. We humans are psychologically 'wired' to be motivated by certain needs, such as acceptance, love, friendship, and the like. Where I question your theory is when you suggest that these needs completely explain or account for ethics and morality. Perhaps you're not saying that, so correct me if I'm wrong.

I see ethics more as a rational/cultural superstructure that emerges out of and is built on top of such a foundation as the one you suggest. The foundation cannot be understood apart from an understanding of physical evolution, psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc.,. In every one of our actions, we are all inevitably motivated by psychological impulses, but that fact alone doesn't mean that every one of our actions is completely understandable in terms of the impulses motivating them. I'm psychologically motivated as I type these letters, but understanding the intended meaning of these letters requires more than understanding just those motivations. Think of Chartres cathedral, which would be a cultural artifact - you may disagree that ethics is cultural, and we can go into that later. The cathedral wouldn't exist if it weren't composed of physical stuff, in this case, stone, wood, glass, etc.,. The stones, or something like them, are necessary in order for Chartres to exist. But they aren't sufficient for understanding Chartres. We can demolish it and inspect the rubble, stone by stone. This may give us some understanding of the building methods but it's not really what we're looking for if we want to understand Chartres as Chartres, as a cultural artifact.

(I cut and pasted the following, with some changes, from my post on another Meetup Message Board.) Similarly, I think that morality and ethics arise out of innate tendencies and capacities, but that these capacities are then subject to reflection, criticism, theorizing, revision and that none of these things are understandable only through appeal to the underlying tendencies. The reflective/critical aspect of morality and ethics is an emergent property with its own explanatory principles. In fact, isn't what you're doing an example of this reflective/critical aspect? You've discovered what you believe to be a more rationally justified foundation for ethics than the ones most people have believed up till now. So through argument, you're trying to revise and improve our ethical understanding and put it on a more secure, justified foundation. It's this emergent cultural aspect of morality that accounts for the great progress in morality that we've seen in just the past two millennia. We see the idea of liberty and individual autonomy, equality and rights and modern conceptions of democracy emerge just in the last few centuries, which suggests to me that ethics is a realm of rational justification, discovery, and progress, in addition to psychological motivation.

P.S. If you're going to consign Rand's books to the flames, I'll bring the marshmallows. Just kidding. I don't believe in book burning, and anyway, her books make excellent door stops : )
James K.
user 139968862
Dallas, TX
Post #: 6
Where I question your theory is when you suggest that these needs completely explain or account for ethics and morality. Perhaps you're not saying that, so correct me if I'm wrong.
Just time for a quick note here...

As you might well imagine, Jim, I am reluctant to say that "these needs completely explain or account for ethics and morality", but I do believe that they help to explain a great deal.

One thing I will say, I do insist that all human values are derived from specific 'needs' that are imposed on all human beings as a condition of their existence.

People may differ in their guesses re: what they believe will give them the need-satisfaction they desire, but the needs, themselves, are universally experienced.

That, by itself, offers strong support for the belief that all correctly perceived moral constructions are universally applicable. Moral relativism is excluded as a possibility.

I think you might find something I put on my blog a few months ago helpful in explaining precisely what I mean when I refer to a "need":

http://nontrivialpurs...­
Jim B.
user 4260314
Arlington, TX
Post #: 417
One thing I will say, I do insist that all human values are derived from specific 'needs' that are imposed on all human beings as a condition of their existence.

People may differ in their guesses re: what they believe will give them the need-satisfaction they desire, but the needs, themselves, are universally experienced.
Thanks for the link to your blog.

I agree with you that all human values depend in some sense on a universal set of human needs. Where I think I disagree is where you seem to say that all of these 'needs' relate to satisfying one's own desires and one's own pleasure and pain avoidance. This may be misconstruing your thoughts, but it's the impression I get, especially from the blog piece. I think there's a tendency to confuse consequences and ends. If I desire to save a person who's drowning, then I may feel a certain satisfaction when I'm finished, but it doesn't follow that my feeling of satisfaction was the reason, or the only reason, for my saving him. My satisfaction is a consequence of my action, not necessarily the end. Otherwise, why not live inside the 'desire-satisfaction machine' (if there were such a thing)? If we wouldn't choose to, then plausibly there are things we want other than our own desire-satisfaction, or our own pleasure/pain avoidance. Why do people sacrifice their own pleasure, and sometimes even their own lives, for the good of other interests? The soldier who throws himself on top of the live grenade to save his friends cannot be motivated solely by the satisfaction he'll feel for the one or two seconds he has left to live. Many people are motivated by what will occur after their deaths. Are all of these people wrong, or immoral?

I think that one's own desire-satisfaction is an insufficient ground for all of one's motivation, and as I alluded to elsewhere, I think that motivation (desire) alone is an insufficient ground for action, especially moral action which requires justification as well as motivation. After all, if desire alone were a sufficient condition for ethics and morality, then all desirers would be capable of morality. Only one type of desirer that we know of, humans, has this capacity, so desire alone can't be all that's needed to explain the distinction between desirers that are capable of morality and those that are not.

If all human values are derived from a universal human need-structure and if this structure ultimately derives from the universal tendency to seek pleasure and avoid pain, then you seem to think that pleasure and pain are the only measures of good and evil for humans. This would be close to Epicurean hedonism. There are many possible goods and evils that could happen to someone without them ever being aware of its occurrence. One of the assumptions Epicurus seems to have made is that there is nothing good or evil other than experiences, or at least conscious states or conditions, which I tend to doubt.

If all values are explainable in terms of an individual's need-satisfaction, then are you advancing a sophisticated kind of ethical egoism (one in which benevolence and cooperation are integral to meeting the individual's needs)? We are all psychologically egoistic for the most part, but can a psychological fact alone determine a moral fact or theory? It sounds strange to say that we ought to be the way we almost invariably cannot help but be.
James K.
user 139968862
Dallas, TX
Post #: 7
Because you've made a number of different comments that address different aspects of my thesis, I'm going to respond to only some of them at this time, and to others at another time. :)
I agree with you that all human values depend in some sense on a universal set of human needs. Where I think I disagree is where you seem to say that all of these 'needs' relate to satisfying one's own desires and one's own pleasure and pain avoidance. This may be misconstruing your thoughts, but it's the impression I get, especially from the blog piece.
Well, I really am pushing it in that direction, Jim. I realize the perspective I am recommending is not one people are accustomed to embracing, for whatever reason. But I really don’t think there is anything misleading or essentially incorrect in perceiving that all ‘higher-minded’ actions are inspired by higher-minded needs.

I think there's a tendency to confuse consequences and ends. If I desire to save a person who's drowning, then I may feel a certain satisfaction when I'm finished, but it doesn't necessarily follow that my feeling of satisfaction was the reason, or the only reason, for my saving him. My satisfaction is a consequence of my action, not necessarily the end.
To address this level of complexity, we really do need to make a distinction between (1) the mental pleasure we feel when we experience the approval of others, and (2) the mental pleasure we feel when we have acted---or have embraced a commitment to act---in a way that we know is deserving of the approval of others.

I attribute the satisfaction that is experienced in (2) to the mental need I have described elsewhere as our mental need for ‘Security’: our need to be able to reasonably expect need-satisfaction in the future. It is an ‘anticipatory’ need that is either satisfied, or dissatisfied, depending on what we perceive is likely to happen in the future.

If we think we have good reason to expect that we will be experiencing some type of need-satisfaction that we value in the future, this mental need’s ‘mechanism’ will begin to generate a form of mental pleasure that the mind will find altogether satisfying. We feel ‘optimistic.’

If we think we have good reason to expect that some need is likely to be deprived in the future, the mechanism will begin to generate a form of mental pain, a pain which in turn can be expected to trigger the arousal of our Fear Instinct.

(2) plays an important role in moral motivation because even though we find the approval of others desirable, there is no guarantee that we are going to experience it in the future, even though we know we are going to act in a way that we believe is worthy of that approval.

Whether or not others will behave in the future in a way that we would find desirable is not something we can control. But we can attend to that part of the ‘equation of approval’ that is within our control: we can actually carry out the actions that we believe are worthy of the approval of others.

Now, one might wonder why an anticipatory need to expect future need-satisfaction would begin to generate feelings of satisfaction when there is no guarantee that the need-satisfaction desired/anticipated is actually going to be experienced, but I point out that this anticipatory need is not quite as insistent on guarantees as some would perhaps think.

We often carry out actions that show only the slightest potential for providing us with some need-satisfaction in the future, but that perceived chance is usually sufficient enough for us to act. As long as we continue to see the mere possibility of future need-satisfaction, this anticipatory need will continue to generate mental pleasure (the ‘feeling’ of hope).

It is only when we perceive that there is no chance of obtaining the satisfaction we desire that we finally see only futility in making an effort.

I think this ultimately explains why individuals feel motivated to ‘do the right thing’; they find that they are rewarded with feelings of satisfaction (generated by their anticipatory needs) when they review the fact that they have acted in ways that are deserving of approval, and that potentiality is enough to make them feel satisfied ‘within themselves.’

I think this also explains why it is perfectly reasonable for us to focus our attention on ‘doing good’ instead of on the ultimate satisfaction we might experience that we know we would enjoy. Even if we don’t experience the ultimate satisfaction that is possible, we will still experience the satisfaction generated by our knowledge that we have ‘done good.’

In effect, it (the ‘internal reward’ we experience) is reason enough for us to do good.


Now, if that measure of complexity is not enough for you, there is plenty more we can add to it. :)

For example, sometimes the satisfaction that individuals feel within themselves for ‘doing good’ is generated by perceptions that are wrongly conceived/irrationally based. Often, individuals who clearly perceive themselves to be ‘good’ are actually guilty of committing/advocating acts that are truly evil.

This leads us to the conclusion that our mental needs can reward us for irrational perceptions (ultimately guesses) re: the morality of our actions. Which is why, of course, it is necessary for us to regularly examine our beliefs/assumptions. It is also the big reason why we cannot simply rely on what we ‘feel’ is right/wrong in a given situation (we may be tempted by circumstances to embrace assumptions that we sense will favor us if they are accepted).
Otherwise, why not live inside the 'desire-satisfaction machine' (if there were such a thing)? If we wouldn't choose to, then plausibly there are things we want other than our own desire-satisfaction, or our own pleasure/pain avoidance.
I'm thinking that I may just put my response to this in your thread on Epicurean Hedonism...
Why do people sacrifice their own pleasure, and sometimes even their own lives, for the good of other interests? The soldier who throws himself on top of the live grenade to save his friends cannot be motivated solely by the satisfaction he'll feel for the one or two seconds he has left to live. Many people are motivated by what will occur after their deaths. Are all of these people wrong, or immoral?
My response to these comments as well as those on 'other desirers' will have to wait until another time... :)
James K.
user 139968862
Dallas, TX
Post #: 9
Why do people sacrifice their own pleasure, and sometimes even their own lives, for the good of other interests? The soldier who throws himself on top of the live grenade to save his friends cannot be motivated solely by the satisfaction he'll feel for the one or two seconds he has left to live.
I often use the example of a soldier throwing himself on a live grenade to save his friends as a dramatic example of just how powerful our need for approval is as a motivator in our lives. This need’s imagined satisfaction is enough to motivate a person to endure extreme physical pain. Fear of especially painful expressions of disapproval are enough to motivate many people to kill themselves, because they imagine the disapproval will be too painful for them to bear (usually based on past experience).

Yes, belief in an afterlife makes such an action a bit easier to execute (because one can imagine experiencing approval for those actions later on, although in circumstances that are currently unknowable). But I also assert that such a belief is not absolutely necessary to persuade some non-believers [in an afterlife] to embrace the role of the mortally wounded hero.

After all, at the moment of decision, the soldier probably expects to die anyway, so simply knowing that his comrades---assuming they survive---may end up perceiving his actions as deserving of their gratitude and approval can provide him with sufficient incentive to go ahead and earn that approval [that he can imagine occurring in the future].

While he is acting to embrace his imminent death, he is at the same time comforted/rewarded in those last seconds by the pleasure that his anticipatory need is generating. He willfully embraces his last actions because he knows he would enjoy the expressions of approval that his actions may very well inspire others to express after he has died.

Our anticipatory mental need to perceive good reasons to expect future need-satisfaction is satisfied when our perception of the facts that we think we are dealing with lead us to a conclusion that future satisfaction/deprivation is likely to happen. That is when the switch is flipped; that is when the need-mechanism begins to generate a form of mental pleasure that we typically associate with the feelings of hope/confidence.
Many people are motivated by what will occur after their deaths. Are all of these people wrong, or immoral?
Whether or not those who are motivated by what they believe will occur after their deaths are wrong, or possibly even immoral, is a question I will get around to addressing later, but it is really too big of a discussion for me to go into right now in this thread.

If all values are explainable in terms of an individual's need-satisfaction, then are you advancing a sophisticated kind of ethical egoism (one in which benevolence and cooperation are integral to meeting the individual's needs)?
Yes I am, but because it does insist that benevolence and cooperation are essential to an individual’s personally experienced happiness, it is not the kind of egoism that any Ayn Randian egoist would recognize.

I think that one's own desire-satisfaction is an insufficient ground for all of one's motivation, and as I alluded to elsewhere, I think that motivation (desire) alone is an insufficient ground for action, especially moral action which requires justification as well as motivation.
This is quite correct. The thing about our need for approval, human beings can and do express approval for behavior that is ultimately immoral. Simply having the motivation to act (possible approval for your actions) is not sufficient reason or justification for acting. Think of street gangs, the KKK, adults initiating incestuous activities with their children, the Hutu tribal warriors in Rwanda. Expressed approval is regularly used to motivate people to act immorally.

That is why, I specify the ‘test’ which ultimately defines whether or not an action is moral or immoral or neither. Our need for approval plays a major role in the calculus of moral motivation, but it does not by itself establish the morality of an action.
Jim B.
user 4260314
Arlington, TX
Post #: 421
James, I think you and I are looking at this thing from opposite ends of the telescope, and yet we're probably not that far apart. After all, we're looking through the same telescope and we're only a few inches apart!

Our disagreement reminds me a little of the Euthyphro dilemma from Plato, which in this case would be something like: Are things morally right because they are pleasing to us or are they pleasing to us because they are morally right? This may be a false dilemma at least the way it's phrased, but I would say that the second option is closer to the truth with some qualifications, which I can touch on at another time.

It seems that you're not really answering the key metaethical questions ( I don't claim to have the answers to those either, btw.) but more deferring them or pushing them back to another level. You're saying that ethics has to do with what we ought to feel satisfied doing, not what would actually satisfy us, and about what everyone ought to desire, not necessarily what everyone actually does desire. But that doesn't address the fact that the 'oughtness' is the key criterion of the ethical, not the feelings that accompany the oughtness. If we can separate the two, would you opt for the feelings or the oughtness? The 'satisfaction machine' is a thought experiment designed to separate the two things.

If I were a big landowner in the early 18th century southern US, there would be no reasonable prospect of satisfaction in my being an abolitionist. If long-range satisfaction were my goal, I would probably not be an abolitionist. I may feel in my heart that owning slaves is wrong, but that just defers the question of why I feel that it's wrong without answering it. Is my feeling the reason I think it's wrong? But where does that feeling come from?

You're arguing something like this: for every act A, the act is accompanied by a feeling of satisfaction, so the actor does A in order to obtain satisfaction. Satisfaction is the goal. But this is like reasoning that because a car emits exhaust fumes when running, that the purpose of a car is to emit exhaust fumes.

We all act out of our overall value structures and find satisfaction in reaching our goals, but this is not an argument that the satisfaction was the purpose of our actions. For the same reason that I would not choose to live inside the 'satisfaction machine,' I don't live my life for the purpose of feeling satisfaction. I want to do those things that are worthy of satisfaction ( things that justify satisfaction). Satisfaction is what accompanies my achieving intrinsically worthy goals. If I had to choose
between

1)doing something that doesn't bring me a feeling of satisfaction but on reflection I would believe to be worthy of satisfaction

2)feeling satisfied doing something that I would judge on reflection isn't worthy of satisfaction,

I'd choose 1). I think most people would. You may say in response that we'd choose 1) because if the action in 1) is more justified than the action in 2), then I would know that I'd have a better chance at greater feelings of satisfaction by performing 1) rather than 2). But there's no reason to assume this. And even if it were true, you're still missing a premise that establishes what causes this anticipation of satisfaction and why this feeling is the reason for my choice rather than the result. If 1) is more justified than 2), that justification can't be because it will bring greater satisfaction. Why would it bring greater satisfaction? The satisfaction, whether present or anticipatory, follows the justification and doesn't cause it. The 'satisfaction machine' removes justification from the 'satisfaction calculus.' It's a thought experiment designed to separate feelings from justification. So obviously the feeling of satisfaction is not what drives me; the feeling accompanies the justification as a consequence, like the wake of a boat follows the boat.

I, my "self", am necessarily the means to realizing or implementing any value that I hold, but that does not mean that I am or should be the end or the object of any value that I hold or implement. The good that I recognize and pursue is not "mine" except in the sense that I recognize it and pursue it. My values, especially my moral values, by definition extend to things that lie beyond my "self". We value truth, but no person is truth. Truth transcends us as moral agents. It's something we aim at and it's one of the values around which moral selves are shaped.

As for acts of self-sacrifice, many are done anonymously with no chance of approval. And many are done even when the actor is in no danger. The reason you give for the soldier throwing himself on the grenade sounds strange. If all that matters to me are feelings, why would I give up ever feeling anything again simply for the imagined chance of approval that I will never feel?

Jim B.
user 4260314
Arlington, TX
Post #: 422
Where I wrote "feelings" in the last post, you could substitute "desires," "desire-satisfaction," and "everyone's desire-satisfaction." What I wrote could apply to those things as well.
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