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No Need to Thank Me,

I Did It for Myself

Joshua Yi
Essay II
October 30th, 2014
Are Humans Selfish By Nature?
You are driving down the 8 East after a fun-filled weekend spent with your friends and
family in your home town of Mexicali. You fail to realize your fuel tank is low on gasoline and
to your misfortune your car ceases to run; to make matters even worse, there is absolutely no
sign of human civilization in sight. Its 2am, the streets are unlit, and your cellular device fails to
acquire a signal youre tired, cold and just want to get to the comfort of your warm, tranquil
bed. After waiting around anxiously for 20 (or so) minutes you see a dim light in your rear view
mirror. Joyously, you spring out of your car to wave down the approaching vehicle, ever so
hopeful that whomever is gracious enough to stop to assist you. To your relief, the vehicle slows
down and comes to a stop at your rear. With gratitude you approach the driver and praise him of
his selfless act of altruism. The driver looks back at you and with a curious gesture on his face
responds: Please, there is no need to thank me. Im not really doing this for you; Im doing this
so I can ultimately feel better about myself. You respond to this remark with a confused look on

your face, but the thought of a glorious slumber in your warm bed is too prevalent so you brush
off the statement and just go with it. The driver proceeds to take you to the nearest gas station,
then back to your car. You fill up your car, relieved that this mess is finally over. What did the
driver mean with that questionable remark? How could it be that the drivers initial intentions
were motivated not by the desire to do good to you, but motivated by a self-interested desire to
manifest positive feelings within himself, when ultimately the driver had to sacrifice his time in
the middle of a cold night to a complete stranger? Odd as it may seem, this idea makes complete
sense to someone who holds the position of psychological egoism. Psychological egoism is the
notion that peoples motivations are exclusively driven by self-interest rather than altruistic ones.
I argue that psychological egoism is rooted in speculative assumptions that are ultimately
unfalsifiable, therefore discounting its validity as a theory.
The idea of psychological egoism has been around for quite some time now. Its
beginnings in Western Philosophy can be dated back loosely to Aristotle (384 BCE-322 BCE)
and his theory of causes. He claimed that everything in the universe has a fundamental sense of
becoming, or telos (end/goal). For humans he claimed that our telos is the pursuit of happiness.
It can be assumed that the actions required to pursue happiness will always be self-serving. In
more recent times, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) formed a more modern argument for
psychological egoism.
For no man giveth but with intention of good to himself, because gift is voluntary, and
all voluntary acts, the object is to every man his own good; of which if men see they shall
be frustrated, there will be no beginning of benevolence or trust, nor consequently of
mutual help. (Leviathan Ch.25 pg.47)

Hobbes clearly is in full support of psychological egoism. He stems this support from Aristotles
positions when he says the object (telos) is to every man his own good. He then takes it one
step further by saying that when people realize mans object is in his own good, people cannot

begin to trust one another or desire to do good to others. When initially pondering on the remarks
of Hobbes, it appears that there are all too many seemingly empirical verifications for his
position. For one, the prevalent economic system of the world today is capitalism. This is a
system that promotes hostile, cut-throat competition of people against each other. To drive this
point even further, communism, the directly-opposing economic system to capitalism that
ideologically promotes the unity of the state and its peoples, was and is currently corrupted by
mans self-interest acquisitions for more political influence and power. Given this uncomfortable
yet true fact, how can one come to say that there exists man-made actions that are rooted not in
self-interest, but in altruism?
On a cold winter afternoon on January 2nd, 2007, New Yorker Wesley Autrey was
accompanied by his two daughters in a subway station when a young man unexpectedly broke
out into a violent seizure. The seizure somehow managed to get the young man to stumble off the
platform and down into the ditch of the tracks. To his misfortune, a train happened to be arriving
at the station, putting the seizure victims life at risk. Instinctively, with his two daughters
watching, Autrey dove down into the tracks and secured the seizure victims body in a drainage
trench between the tracks out of harms way. To everyones disbelief, both Autrey and the
seizure victim walked away from the incident unharmed. Following the incident Autrey became
a national hero and was dubbed Subway Superman. He received numerous donations and
gifts, and made a multitude of appearances on a variety of television programs. What initially
motivated Autery to perform such an insane, life-risking act for a complete stranger with his two
daughters watching anxiously nearby?! On the account of psychological egoism his motivations
for performing that act were rooted in self-interest. Perhaps he was motivated by the positive,
self-affirming feelings he would receive after performing the act. Maybe Autrey is an adrenalin
junkie and was looking to get a hit of adrenalin into his blood stream. Or most cynically of all,

maybe Autrey was thinking of all the monetary gain and national praise and attention he could
potentially (and did) receive. Are all of these explanations plausible? Yes. But are we able to
validate a single explanation to his motivations on empirical grounds? Regretfully no. This is
where the problem arises out of psychological egoism.
Again, psychological egoism is the notion that peoples motivations are exclusively
driven by self-interest rather than altruistic ones. Given this definition, someone who supports
the idea of psychological egoism can effectively say that all actions of people who have existed,
who exist presently, and who will exist in the future are exclusively driven by self-interest. We
are unable to justly validate Autreys motivations on any empirical basis. Similarity, the
psychological egoist is also unable to validate this claim on all of humanitys motivations as
well. To put is simply, the position that psychological egoism holds is an unfalsifiable one. This
effectively invalidates the theory of psychological egoism. On the flip side, again, because we
will never be able to know the initial motivations of all people, that means we are also unable to
verify whether some actions are altruistically motivated. It seems then that this position is an
unfalsifiable one as well. If both contrasting positions are both unfalsifiable, is it possible that
one position holds more merit than the other? Yes, I believe so! When the psychological egoist
claims all of humanitys motivations to be only self-serving, he makes a simple, over-generalized
assumption, brushing all of humanity under one stroke. Of the infinite number of actions that
have happened, are currently happening, and will happen, it only takes one altruistically
motivated action by a single person to completely discount psychological egoism. Despite the
inability to empirically study this, it seems exceedingly plausible that the likelihood of at least
one (or more) altruistically motivated action has, is, or will occur.