Human Nature: Self-Interest vs. Altruism A debate encompassing human nature has carried on for centuries, and philosophers throughout history have provided a vast inventory of explanations they deem to be sufficient in understanding the perplex idea of human nature. A question commonly debated regarding human nature is determining whether human beings are naturally self-interested or altruistic. Political philosophers Bernard Mandeville and Francis Hutcheson specifically addressed this question, but each arrived at different conclusions based on personal observation and reasoning.
Mandeville, influenced by Hobbesian thought, advocated the belief that human beings were naturally self-interested. Opposing the idea of self-interest, Francis Hutcheson attacked Mandeville’s notion and reasoned that human beings were inherently altruistic. Although both sets of ideals originated in the early 18th century, both can be utilized to infer about current events and situations (Tannenbaum & Schultz, 2004). Dutch political philosopher Bernard Mandeville, author of The Fable of the Bees or Private Vice Publik Benefits, attacked a common notion for the time that human beings were naturally altruistic.
Mandeville believed that humans were naturally self-interested while most thought of altruism as virtuous and self-interest as vice. He stated that empirical evidence supporting human altruism was non-existent, and it is selfish actions that benefit society. Society that runs on altruism and benevolence is a stagnant society that fails to progress. In Mandeville’s The Fable of the Bees, he emphasizes that when people seek self interests, comforts and pleasures, society inevitably progresses with occurences of new inventions and a circulation of capital.
According to Mandeville, a benevolent society is an honest one, “but if they would likewise enjoy their Ease and the Comforts of the World, and be at once opulent, potent and flourishing” as well as a self-interested society, it is likely impossible (Kaye, 1989). Likewise, a self-interested society experiences invisible cooperation, in which greed leads to cooperation if property is sufficiently channeled. The Fable of the Bees is also considered a political satire of England during the time, and Mandeville describes a society having virtues along with ontent and honesty. The society mentioned lacks self-love, a Hobbesian idea that Mandeville emphasizes as a barrier to progress. Virtues held by such a society are hypocrisy that arise from a selfish desire to be superior. While Mandeville concludes his essay with statements expressing that the purpose of his essay was not to directly oppose Christian values, he states that modern honor “bids you bear injuries with patience”, but religion “tells you if you don’t resent them, you are not fit to live” (1989).
Finally, Mandeville concludes his thoughts rejecting altruism, and emphasizes that “the seeds of every passion are innate to us, and nobody comes into the world without them” (1989, 2004). A political philosopher during the Scottish Enlightenment, Francis Hutcheson opposed Mandeville’s Hobbesian view that humans are naturally self-interested. He advocated the notion that human beings are naturally altruistic and benevolent. While declaring these attributes as factual about human nature, Hutcheson also stressed the importance and success such qualities have on society.
He believed humans are endowed with a “moral sense”, or derive pleasure from witnessing someone else perform a benevolent act and in turn have a desire to do the same. This “moral sense”, as Hutcheson describes, is a human being’s natural inclination of pursuing happiness. Hutcheson, a major contributer to the advancement of utilitarianism stated that, “regarding the pleasurable and painful consequences of actions as morally significant” provided the “formula that that action is best which procures the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers” (Peach, 1971).
He divides what he refers to as “exciting reasons” and “justifying reasons” into functionality. He considers exciting reasons as merely an appeal to self-interest, and “have nothing to do with moral justification” (1971). Differentiating, justifying reasons “establish the virtue, moral goodness, or moral obligations of actions” (1971). This reasoning explains his opposition to Mandeville’s view that moral distinctions derive from self-interest, and declares these distinctions as undoubtedly self-determining.
The basis of Hutcheson’s theory expresses that the “moral sense” tends to be consistent as long as it is not interfered with. Interfering forces such as “ignorance, mistaken belief, prejudice, or the like” are corrected and addressed by reason (1971). He concludes his statements with an underlying theme which states “the benevolent one is reasonable and the malicious unreasonable”, based on the approval and disapproval of one’s moral sense (1971, 2004). Although both philosophers theorized about human nature more than two centuries ago, opposition and advocation for both is seen throughout current events.
For example, Mandeville’s views can be advocated by the constant confrontation between the Israelis and the Arab world, more specifically the Palestinians. Neither side will relent to the interests of the other, viewing altruism with the other as being a weakener of their own state. If the Israelis recognize Palestine as a legitimate state, they lose both land and resources, while also fearing further invasion and conflict within Israel. Numerous negotiations and attempted treaties have failed, because neither side ultimately recognizes sufficient advantages to their own state if they comply.
While this situation conflicts with Hutcheson’s view, a current example advocates it. Disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and 9-11 have sparked a numerous amount of community benevolence. Countless organizations and people have joined together to help those affected in the disasters recover. Hutcheson would most likely state that such expressed benevolence for others is the result of their “moral sense”, while Mandeville would describe it as merely human beings seeing an advantage for themselves by joining such an organization; possibly honorable recognition or status improvement.
Clearly seen, support and opposition for both Mandeville’s and Hutcheson’s theories has divided thought on this issue still today (2004). References Kaye, F. B. & Mandeville, B (1989). The Fable of the Bees. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Classics. Peach, B (1971). Illustrations on the Moral Sense. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Tannenbaum & Schultz (2004). Inventors of Ideas. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.