I am going to begin by talking about the variety of basic human motives, a variety that in conceptual terms has not, I believe, been fully reckoned with by philosophers or social scientists. We shall see that the variety tells us something important about what human lives or human life on the whole is like, and it will turn out that the variety is underlain by a very significant common feature that allows us to characterize our lives in a unified and unifying way, a way that differs from previous attempts to say what is most fundamental and essential to human life (e. g., Sartre's "man is a futile passion").
In order to see the variety of our motives, we need to focus first on the issue of psychological egoism. A lot of ink has been spilled in recent years over the question whether human beings always act in a self-interested fashion, and the long-standing assumption (since Bishop Butler put his mark on this topic) that human beings can be and often are altruistically motivated in their actions has of late come under historically new sorts of challenges. I want to say something—though not as much as I have said elsewhere—about those challenges because I think they mainly rest on conceptual mistakes.1
The challenges are not as simple-minded as the idea (which one occasionally hears from students) that in seeking, for example, the welfare of another person, one is always attempting to satisfy one of one's own desires and thus invariably acting in one's own self-interest, egoistically. Rather, the most interesting of them are directed at the view or hypothesis, often defended by citing various empirical studies, that human beings are capable of empathy and that empathy is the source of and sustaining force behind altruistic human behavior. The opponents of this hypothesis typically claim that when empathy leads us to act for the benefit of another person, we are often just trying to avoid the guilt we would incur if we didn't try to help the person, and the conclusion is drawn that our motivation in that case is egoistic rather than altruistic. But even if this isn't as simple-minded as the kind of argument cited just above, it involves conceptual confusion of a kind that philosophers at least have long been aware of. We simply aren't capable of guilt unless something other than our own self-interest is motivating us—e. g., a commitment or desire to help others or a felt obligation to do so. I discuss this issue at much greater length elsewhere, but I hope I have said enough for you to see or take it, for now, as given that the above-mentioned argument presupposes the falsity of psychological egoism rather than supporting its truth.
However, those who have criticized the hypothesis that empathy leads to altruism and questioned the existence of human altruism have supported their view with other sorts of arguments that deserve our more extended attention.2 More specifically, they have said that those who feel empathy and act on behalf of others may simply be seeking to avoid the displeasure or disapproval they would encounter if they didn't act helpfully. And they have held, in addition, that the desire to avoid displeasure or disapproval on the part of other people is a clearly egoistic motive. (Even some defenders of psychological altruism have made this last assumption.) But this further sort of argument for denying or doubting human altruism is also, in its own far from obvious way, conceptually mistaken or confused, and it will be important for our purposes in the present paper to explain, briefly, why. And that explanation can benefit from what Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson have said about the desire for approval and the desire to be liked by others.
Now sometimes we desire to be liked by others because we want to get something of material value from them, e. g., money or sexual favors. However, at other times and quite frequently we want others' approval, want to be liked by them, without any ulterior motive. Being approved or liked is something that we humans tend to want "for its own sake," and Sober and Wilson, unlike those who have spoken of the desire to be liked or approved as introducing an egoistic element into what empathy leads us to do, argue that such desires are too relational to count as genuinely egoistic. If they are right about this, then one cannot show that human beings who help others are acting out of self-interest if they are seeking popularity or approval from others. And the general case for psychological egoism will be correspondingly weakened as a result. But as we are going to see in what follows, the criterion Sober and Wilson use for determining whether a desire or motive is egoistic is not as explanatory or philosophically compelling as one might like. Why shouldn't a desire that is relational in regard to others also be egoistic? The desire for fame is relational in this way, but many philosophers—e. g., John Doris and Stephen Stich—have held that such a desire is purely egoistic, and at least initially it is not so clear that they are mistaken about this.3
So I propose that we try to go into this issue a little bit deeper than Wilson and Sober go. Their discussion is extremely helpful, because it raises questions about the argument for human egoism that cites our desire to be liked or approved. But I think there are deeper reasons why such questions should be raised and will explain my reasons in what follows. When they are not based on some ulterior desire for material or physical/appetitive benefit, the desire to be liked and the desire to be approved are not self-interested, and yet desires like these are in fact pervasive of human life. Moreover, what has just been said about them can be said with even greater emphasis, I think, about the related desire for love (i. e., to be loved). That desire can in favorable circumstances lead to altruistic motivation, but in situations where a child is abused or damaged, the thwarting and violation of the child's invariable desire/need for love can have negative results and lead to deep-seated vengeful anger and even a hatred of people in general. And what can be said about the non-egoistic character of the desire for revenge can help us toward understanding how and why the desire for love or for approval is also not egoistic.
In sermons given at the Rolls chapel just about three hundred years ago Joseph Butler argued at length against Hobbes's presumed defense of psychological egoism and his presumed rejection of the widespread assumption that human beings often act altruistically. And I think Butler based his argument against egoism to a substantial extent on the examples of malice and revenge precisely because these motives seem far removed from altruism and what we typically think about altruism. Simplifying somewhat, Butler's point about malice and revenge was that these motives seek the unhappiness , ruin, or death of another person for its own sake and often at considerable expense to the seeker's own welfare or happiness. (They very often lead one to "cut off one's nose to spite one's face.") So there intuitively doesn't seem to be anything egoistic about malice and revenge, and, as Butler argued, what applies to them seems equally applicable to the desire to help others.
However, both malice/revenge and the less negative desires for love, approval, or just being liked have something fundamentally in common that we haven't yet mentioned, and that common element will help us make the case against universal psychological egoism in a more intuitive and compelling way than Sober and Wilson's criterion of relationality allows us to do. That common element consists in the fact that all these desires or motives involve our treating other people as very important to us. And, once again, I am speaking of these desires as basic and pervasive in human lives and as not at all necessarily based in ulterior motives. Sure, one can want someone to like one because one thinks that will make it easier for one to sell them a car. But we humans more typically or very typically just want to be liked—for its own sake, as we philosophers put it. We feel uncomfortable at the prospect or thought that others may dislike us because we simply don't want to be regarded in that way. And so I want to say that the intrinsic desire to be liked or to be loved or to be approved (or, for that matter, esteemed) involves treating other people as intrinsically important (to one), and there is nothing egoistic about treating or thinking of other people as intrinsically important, far from it. (Of course, the same point also applies to loving other people and to the altruistic desire to help others.) What is egoistic is simply using other people for egoistic personal ends like money or appetitive pleasure, but the intrinsic desires to be liked, etc., are not at all like this, and it doesn't in fact make intuitive sense to regard such desires as egoistic. (To be sure, one will get satisfaction from being liked, but as Butler showed us, the fact that successful benevolent action can be satisfying and even pleasurable to the benevolent person doesn't show that benevolence aims primarily at the pleasure it may ultimately bring one. And there is no better reason to think that the desire to be liked, etc., are any different.)
In addition, this emphasis on what people take to be intrinsically important helps us explain why the desire for fame isn't egoistic, in a satisfying way that Sober and Wilson's appeal to the relationality of that desire doesn't really allow for. Someone with the intrinsic desire for fame treats other people as important to them in precisely the way that someone who wants others' approval, love, or esteem does. In most cases, in fact, the desire for fame is simply the desire for esteem over a (relatively) wide swath of the human race—those who want fame typically don't want to be infamous or widely despised. And that makes it even easier to see how and why the desire for fame isn't egoistic. So we have a criterion of non-egoism here (namely, that one's motivation place intrinsic importance on other people) that takes us further than Sober and Wilson take us, and in fact we shall be seeing below how our intuitive criterion of non-egoism actually moves us toward criticizing some claims Sober and Wilson make about the egoistic character of certain desires we have not yet mentioned.
In any event, we can now see that an egoistic person is someone who doesn't treat or think of other people as intrinsically important (to him), someone who in effect just uses other people for his or her own independent purposes. But if this is true, then both malice and the desire for revenge fail to count as egoistic for reasons Butler never mentions. Having those highly negative desires involves treating certain other people as intrinsically important to one; and if one is really egoistic, one isn't going to pay someone who has hurt one the compliment of caring about their unhappiness or destruction.4 Rather, one will seek one's own happiness, seek good things for oneself, and only bother to hurt a person who has hurt oneself if doing so will on independent grounds help one toward happiness or various specific good things/benefits. To be bent, or hell-bent, on someone's destruction as an end of action rather than simply as a means to having certain independently valued good things is to treat the fate of that other person as having an intrinsic importance (to one), and that is no more egoistic than it is to want, intrinsically want, other people to like one or think well of one or flourish on their own. So we have, in fact, every reason to think that altruistic motives like benevolence and compassion, non-altruistic motives like the desire to be liked or approved of, and "negative" desires like malice and revenge are all basically non-egoistic.5
More importantly for the purposes of this paper, we have also just expanded the area or range of non-egoistic and non-altruistic motives—what we can call "neutral" motives—in a way that hasn't previously been suggested in the literature of philosophy and psychology. And to get a better grip on what this involves and why it is important to understanding human life, I think we should now consider the work of the psychologist A. H. Maslow.
In his most well-known book, Motivation and Personality, and in various other works published earlier or subsequently, Maslow developed a "hierarchy of needs" view of human psychology that steered between the behaviorism and Freudianism that dominated psychology at the time he was writing.6 Unlike those other approaches, Maslow saw certain needs, like the need for love or for esteem, as fundamental to human psychology: he didn't think they could be reduced to more basic drives or instincts. But what was arguably most distinctive about his view was its hierarchical character. The human attempt to satisfy a given basic need depends, for Maslow, on the prior satisfaction of needs further down in the hierarchy: we don't, for example, seek love or esteem unless and until our need for security has been satisfied. Maslow also claimed that self-actualization was the highest need in the hierarchy, something people wouldn't want or strive to satisfy until all the other, more basic or lower needs in the hierarchy were already (largely) satisfied.
Now I could go into detail about the nature and structure of this theory, but I don't propose to do that. Despite all that has been written on the subject of self-actualization, I find that notion hard to pin down or to make use of, and Maslow's idea of a hierarchy of needs has been subjected to multiple criticisms by his own followers and others. After all, the poet starving in a garret hasn't satisfied his safety or basic physical needs but still aspires to what everyone would call self-actualization, and Maslow himself in later years made explicit concessions on this and related points, so it is difficult to see his ideas about a hierarchy of needs as having present-day currency or plausibility.7
What seems to me permanently valid or forceful about Maslow's theory is the idea that certain instincts or needs are basic, not to be seen as explainable in terms of "tissue needs" or derived from primitive drive mechanisms of the sort posited by typical behavioristic learning theory. Such tissue needs or drive mechanisms were viewed by most learning theorists as more basic than so-called higher needs for culture or self-expression, and behavioristic psychologists have often sought to explain the emergence of the latter in terms of the former making use of psychological laws/mechanisms of a hard-nosed scientific sort. (This way of putting things is neutral regarding whether the higher desires eventually become "functionally autonomous" in relation to their psychological sources.) Maslow deliberately takes a stance against such views by claiming that the needs, the instincts, are there all along and have an independent basis and status.
But note one thing. This last claim doesn't entail that the desire/need for esteem or love is non-egoistic. If we assume that these needs derive from and remain forever dependent on lower drives or needs, then, of course, we are seeing them as egoistic. But even if we don't make such an assumption, we can still view the higher needs as egoistic, for we might simply regard them as higher but self-standing forms of egoistic motivation: independent of lower drives, but just as egoistic as the latter. And Maslow never says anything to contradict such a view of his higher needs. In other words, the need for love or for the esteem of others may be egoistic, as far as anything said by Maslow would indicate. Maslow tends to assume a dichotomy between egoistic and altruistic motives that seems to ignore the possibility that some of the needs in his hierarchy might fall in between those categories.8 And the fact that the need for love, the need for esteem, and (another one Maslow mentions) the need to belong are all presupposed by a need for self-actualization that might readily (though, as I shall indicate later, mistakenly) be seen as (in the highest sort of way) self-interested, suggests that Maslow didn't see the point we have argued for earlier in this essay: that the need/desire for love or for esteem or for belonging involves an attitude that places so much intrinsic importance on other people that it cannot plausibly be viewed as egoistic.
So I propose that we go beyond Maslow's theory and regard some of the basic needs in his hierarchy as non-egoistic and "neutral" as between the egoistic and the altruistic (and also as not particularly related to one another in a hierarchical fashion). As Maslow claimed, the need for love (or to be liked), the need to belong to units larger than oneself, the need for the esteem, or approval, of others may not be reducible to lower needs, and Maslow deserves credit for being the first psychologist (that the literature talks about) who made this kind of claim (in print). But in the light of the considerations mentioned earlier in this chapter, we should go beyond Maslow and claim that those needs or instincts are neutral rather than egoistic, and, as we shall be seeing in what follows, this latter claim has very important implications for our understanding of the nature of human lives and human life. Once we see these Maslovian needs or (as we might call them) basic desires as neutral, we can come to recognize other human needs and desires that Maslow didn't focus on as also neutral. And we will also see that some desires that Sober and Wilson's relational criterion for distinguishing the egoistic from the non-egoistic counts as egoistic are not egoistic, but in fact also neutral. The latter category is in fact much, much wider and more various than anyone has suspected, and we shall see how this affects our understanding of what the lives of human beings are basically like.
But first I want to say more about the specific desires Maslow mentioned. There are things we can say or ask about them that Maslow doesn't consider, and their significance may be even greater than Maslow himself believed. (If we don't subordinate them hierarchically to self-actualization, that may actually give them greater significance.)
For example, we may ask how the adult or childhood desire to be liked by one's peers relates to the instinctual or basic desire or need for love that Maslow posited. Do our later efforts and desire to be liked derive from the strong need for parental love or do they have a separate status and existence? Maslow doesn't really answer this question, but I believe it is an interesting question that needs further consideration and empirical investigation. I won't, however, attempt to do any of that here, and I think we can simply be non-committal as to whether an independent desire to be liked has to be added to a list of (basic) neutral motives that already includes the need/desire for love. (Also, I won't consider where the need/desire for friendship or for romantic love stands in relation to various other needs or motives.)
Then there is the need to belong, about which we can and I think should say a bit more than either Maslow or others who have made use of his ideas have said. The basic human desire to belong involves two elements that need to be distinguished more clearly than they have previously been. Our desire to belong to some larger group or community is attended or even shepherded by a sense of what does or doesn't belong, and these two psychological factors work together in ways that we should at least briefly spell out. And I should point out that the notion of community as it is relevant to our sense of what belongs is actually wider than what the term "community" ordinarily connotes. If one lives in a small town, then the river that runs in back of the local high school and through the center of town will be felt to belong where is it, and if the state decides to allow developers to block the river at some point above the town in order to create a reservoir and if this will likely result in the river's running dry and ceasing to be a river at all beyond a certain point, the inhabitants of the town are going to protest. And the protest will express their sense, precisely, that the river belongs where it is. If the project goes through despite all the protests, then the inhabitants of the town are going to feel bereft in something like the way that the same town's inhabitants would feel bereft if the long-time mayor were suddenly to die of a heart attack. Both the mayor and the river belong in the town, and since the river is a physical thing, the word "community" is stretched if we say that it belongs in or to the local community. A community sounds like a group of people, and the river isn't part of a community in that sense; but a town has both a human and a geographical aspect, and so it doesn't stretch our usage if we say that the river belongs in the town--or belongs with the town's inhabitants and its general store, etc.9
In addition, our sense of belonging extends to larger situations to which the notion of community seems totally inapplicable. At one point in our recent history someone suggested that blowing up the moon with atomic weapons would help us solve some of our environmental problems here on Earth. But think how dazed and bereft we would feel if the moon disappeared. The moon isn't part of the human community, but we can certainly say that it is part of and belongs to our larger overall human habitat (the terms "eco-system" and "environment" wouldn't be as helpful in making this point). And so we not only want to belong to larger communities and even habitats, but resist losing what we feel belongs with us in our community or habitat. Of course, the desire to belong, while it often brings people together, can often work to divide one group from another. But, in any event, it should be clear at this point that the desire to belong and to preserve what is felt to belong with us is neutral in the sense defined above and also exercises a wide-ranging and deep influence in individual lives and in overall (collective) human life.
And let me now say a bit more about the neutral desire for the esteem of other people: not just because that desire is important in itself, but also because what we have to say about it will lead us to further areas or dimensions of what I am calling neutral motivation. We do a lot in our lives to win the esteem, praise, and approval of other people (though I am not going to try to distinguish among these three notions any further). Some of this, as I indicated above, at least partially serves other motives: we seek our parents' approval and their (greater) esteem at least in part or sometimes because we want them to love us (more). But the desire for esteem isn't always or even primarily a desire for the esteem of those we love; we want to be esteemed or approved by people in our school or community or profession.
However, we now have to consider an objection that has been made to Maslow's idea that esteem is a basic need or object of desire. Such a view seems to treat the desire for esteem as unrelated to self-esteem and sheer competence or mastery regarding the world we live in. Don't we want and seek the esteem of others primarily because we want to think well of ourselves and because we view the esteem of others as a means to self-esteem? Aren't we more interested in deserving the esteem of others than in simply gaining that esteem (possibly through no desert of our own)?
These are good questions, and I am not sure anyone knows how to answer them. But they also make us aware of the possibility that all three of the desires/needs just mentioned—the desire for others' esteem, the desire for self-esteem, and the desire for competence or mastery—may be basic to our psychology. Yes, perhaps we desire self-esteem in addition to the esteem of others; but may we not want the esteem of others independently of how well we think of ourselves? The esteem of others can, after all, be a kind of consolation for someone who, despite that esteem, persists in thinking badly about himself. And, yes, perhaps we want to have competence and mastery in addition to having the kind of self-esteem or esteem from others that the competence and mastery can give rise to. But can't and don't we want mastery and competence in relation to our environment independently of what others say or think, just for its own sake? And if we think better of ourselves when we master some task or skill, does that mean we sought that mastery only as a means to thinking better of ourselves? Arguably not. So I think we have no reason to treat the desire for others' esteem as any less basic to human psychology or human life because we also want to think well of ourselves and to be competent in, or attain a mastery of various aspects of, the world around us.10