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Dogma Premise 1

People are intrinsically selfish.

The notion that humans will behave selfishly and without regard to others unless restrained by some external power was old when Thomas Hobbes said it in 1651.  However, counter-examples are so plentiful that most authors, including Plato and Dostoevsky, have instead tried to explain why people so frequently act against their own interests.

Some well-known forms of selfless or altruistic behavior include:

    • Anonymous donations to charity

    • Voluntary enlistment in the military

    • Risking one’s life to save a stranger

    • Taking responsibility for another’s bad act

In all these instances the simple model of a human as a mere rational egoist would predict that the person would avoid incurring cost or risk to benefit others.  Those who believe the selfish or egoist theory posit secret motives: perhaps the anonymous donor expects to benefit directly from the charity’s activities; maybe the military enlistee expects job training and an education; rescuers anticipate some sort of reward in money, esteem, or favors.

There are also extreme examples of selfless behavior:

    • Dr. Jonas Salk forgoes riches by refusing to patent his polio vaccine

    • A suicide bomber gives his or her life for a cause

The egoist might concoct explanations for these people, too.  Jonas Salk might have expected to be more famous and celebrated if his vaccine were broadly distributed.  The suicide bomber must have been delusional.

But then come more and more examples:

    • An impoverished man returns a lost wallet

    • A talented professional chooses a low-paying public interest career

    • A whistle-blower reports illegal activity despite the risk

If the goal is to invent a possible explanation for why people routinely behave this way, a creative mind can reliably concoct a scenario.  But if the goal is to understand the actual explanation for the observed behaviors, the real-world data simply does not match what the egoist theory predicts.

The egoist theory disregards the fact that human psychology is complex.  Humans do not behave like rats in a maze, single-mindedly pursuing just one goal, which is their own self-interest.  Humans care deeply not only for themselves, but also for other people, for places, for things, for ideas, and for values.

The egoist theory does not differentiate between the psychologies of a fish, lizard, bird, or human -- to the egoist all are focused on one thing to the exclusion of all else: meeting their individual needs.

Common sense and all the experimental data show that this view is wrong, and not only for humans, but at least for some other mammals as well.

There is a word for someone who cares only for their own self-interest: sociopath.  Although sociopaths do exist, to suggest that all humans are sociopaths, or secret sociopaths deep-down in their heart, is to fundamentally misunderstand human nature.  Because most humans care about more than just their self-interest, they might describe the egoist theory not only as factually wrong, but also “shameful.” The existence of the word "shameful" shows that people whose behavior is only self-interested will be the exception rather than the norm.

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