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Hello, I am currently studying philosophy and ethics at my school. We are doing an assignment at the moment on human nature and three element of human nature and how they link in with society itself and help to form and maintain it. I was wondering, could selfishness (a definite part of human nature) in any way, benefit society? As in, would it be able to help form or maintain a society? Thankyou for any responces.

Good luck in your studies! Philosophers have thought quite a bit about self-interest and selfishness. What is often called psychological egoism is the thesis that humans always act in ways that they believe to be in their self-interest (either directly or indirectly), while ethical egoism is the thesis that people ought to do what is (either directly or indirectly) in their self-interest. One point to clarify here is the difference between "selfishness" and "self-interest." If psychological egoism is taken as the view that all persons are selfish because all people act in their self-interest, this seems either false or to involve an odd use of the notion of "self-interest." Clearly many people are interested in living lives of justice, compassion, humility, and so on, but to call such people "selfish" would seem to be quite the opposite of what they are like: namely, they are generous, caring, non-vain, non-pompous, humble. So, I suggest that we use the term "selfish" in ways that pick out traits such as: a selfish person tends to put treat his own needs and desires as more important than others; if food or water is scarce, a selfish person (if he can get away with it) tends to either take or want to take more than his fair share. If a selfish person can achieve an advantage over others through deception, he will be sorely tempted to think of himself first and be tempted to deceive. On this meaning, it does not appear that everyone is selfish (and what might be called psychological selfishness seems wrong) and it also seems that selfishness would do more to endanger social cohesiveness than other traits and motives: like the desire to live in a just society, the motive of caring for others, and so on.

Still, some philosophers have sought to show that rational or enlightened self-interest can lead to benefits. There is a thought experiment called the Prisoner's Dilemma (you can find this outlined on various philosophy website) which is designed to show that while narrow self-interest will lead to the worst overall outcome, enlightened self-interest can lead to the best outcome under the circumstances. And in jurisprudence of philosophy of law, you will find reflection on what penalties or incentives seem required to promote civic life and reduce crime by appealing to the self-interest of citizens. Ideally, you do not want laws that are so lax (imagine the penalty for ponnzi schemes is a few months in jail) that it would be in the self-interest of persons to break the law. Adam Smith is an 18th century philosopher as well as an economist who argued that if persons rationally pursued self-interest they would be guided by what he poetically referred to as "an invisible hand" to bring about the best social benefit.

In terms of books on human nature, I highly recommend two that are accessible, reliable, and clear: Roger Trigg's Ideas of Human Nature and Leslie Stevenson's Thirteen Theories of Human Nature.

If i define philosopher as lover of wisdom, how can i be sure that its a

If i define philosopher as lover of wisdom, how can i be sure that its a rational,critical and systematic investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge, or conduct(one of nowadays favoured definitions of philosophy, it seems to me)that brings wisdom? It seems quite bit too dogmatic to me. It seems like these epithets are implying the only way through one can gain wisdom, but what if there are others means to gain wisdom?

If word origins were a good guide to the nature of a profession, a secretary would be a keeper of secrets and a plumber would be someone who works in lead. That suggests we have some reason to be suspicious at the outset. Even if we grant that "philosopher" comes from the Greek for "lover of wisdom," that doesn't tell us much about what the discipline of philosophy actually is.

Let's take the philosophers who think of themselves as systematically, critically examining principles of being, knowledge and/or conduct. Do they see themselves as engaged in the pursuit of wisdom? Some might, but I'd guess most don't. They're trying to sort through interesting and abstract questions of a particular sort, but no wise person would think of abstract theoretical understanding as amounting to wisdom nor, I submit, would any wise person think that wisdom requires abstract, theoretical understanding.

I'd side with the wise here. Wisdom isn't easy to characterize in a sound bite, but I think of a wise person as someone who has deep practical insight into what matters for human life, and who is able to align the way s/he lives with that insight. Being good at philosophy is neither necessary nor sufficient for being wise in that way. Indeed, though philosophers are no less wise on average than other people, my experience is that on average they are no more wise either. Some of the least wise people I've known are skilled philosophers, and many of the wisest people I've known have no talent for or training in philosophy. [I'll add a parenthetical remark here, so long as you promise not to tell anyone: I'm not convinced that Socrates himself was especially wise, though he was undoubtedly clever.]

This doesn't mean that there's no connection of any sort between philosophy and wisdom. If wisdom has to do with what matters for human life, it has to do with matters of value on which philosophers sometimes reflect. More generally, the question of how best to analyze the notion of wisdom is a perfectly good philosophical question. But being wise isn't a matter of theoretical understanding, any more than being a good musician is a matter of knowing a lot of music theory. In fact, having theoretical insight into the concept of wisdom is no guarantee at all that one will be wise oneself.

Some people may see the disconnect between philosophy and wisdom as unfortunate; I think that's a mistake. What philosophers do has its own kind of interest and value. That etymology isn't a good guide to the relevant value is neither surprising nor a flaw in the enterprise.

Do you think jealousy is morally wrong or is it a natural thing to be jealous?

Do you think jealousy is morally wrong or is it a natural thing to be jealous?

A difficult question! There do seem to be clear cases of when jealousy is a vice, especially when it leads to violence and inordinate, misplaced rage. Imagine I am so possessive of my partner that I constantly read his emails to others (secretly and without permission), I rarely trust him and so I regularly interrogate him when he comes back from a trip and I suspect there may have been some dangerous flirting. But as with envy, there seem to be appropriate and inappropriate kinds of jealousy. Imagine I have been a good father to my son, but when he is in college he becomes fixated on an alcoholic, pro-pornography, racist philosophy professor whom my son idolizes and calls "Daddy." Probably my response would not be jealousy, but to seek to expose "Daddy" as a fraud, but I think I might well feel that the affections my son should have for me (or, dropping "should," my son having emotions that are fitting in a father-son relationship) and directing them to a kind of rival, surrogate bad Dad figure. After all I did for my boy, why is he looking to Professor X as a role model and father figure? Jealousy (at least in normal, non-pathological conditions) can also be a way of showing that one cares about a person and a relationship. We are not jealous of things or persons we do not care about. I would only be jealous of a colleague who receives the lion share of adoration on my campus if I cared what students thought and felt about their professors and I felt as though I deserve at least a little bit of affection. A similar point can be made about envy. Envy is destructive if it is in a resentful, grudge mode. This would be a case in which I might envy a philosopher because I want to have her kind of talent and reputation and I want her to somehow fail or loose her edge. But there is a form of envy which may take another form: I might envy a colleague's talents and take great enjoyment in her success and seek to emulate her wonderful example of what it is to be an outstanding generous philosopher who genuinely cares about colleagues and students.

In my cross-cultural psychology class, we learned about the emotion

In my cross-cultural psychology class, we learned about the emotion "schadenfreude": to take pleasure in someone else's misfortune. If feeling this emotion goes against an individual's beliefs about themselves, i.e., that they are a good person, then isn't it possible that they would deny that they experienced this; doesn't this mean that our own personal experiences are not verifiable and therefore unknowable?

It is more than possible that we would be inclined to deny this feeling. It is probable. But the fact that there are many books on this topic make it plain that not everyone denies it.

Feelings are not things like tables and chairs. They cannot be examined like external objects. Emotions are divided up different ways in different cultures and even within one culture. As Aristotle taught us, we should not expect the same degree of precision in say ethics - or the emotional realm- as we might in physics.

But as for schadenfreude itself, I was recently injured in a bad car accident and home bound in the Minnesota winter. A dear friend sent me a photo of himself lounging on the beach with a beer in hand in the Virgin Islands. I can't say that my first reaction was hoping that he was having a grand time. Maybe more like - I hope you get sun poisoning! Schadenfreude is an ugly feeling, a flower of envy -- which is one of the most painful emotions to own up to. I would consider my life a success if I could get to the point -- at which I have sometimes reached for minutes on end - that I truly took joy in other people's joy -- but that is not the way that I, at least, have been put together. Most of us live in a stew of ambivalent feelings -- even towards those we love.

Is there such thing as a "selfish need"? Often in different contexts sexual

Is there such thing as a "selfish need"? Often in different contexts sexual desires are referred to as "selfish needs". The word "selfish" implies a desire that is excessive and self-indulgent or opposed to the interest of others but the word "need" implies a desire which is natural and important and therefor not excessive.

Good point. But the word "need" is also used in the sense of "strong craving". And strong cravings can be selfish both in regard to what is craved and in regard to how the craving originated. For example, someone starts going to expensive designer shops and comes to need the attention and flattery of the sales people there. Similarly, gamblers may need the next thrill, drug addicts the next fix, and so on. In such cases the word "need" does not imply a desire that is natural and important.

I've been thinking about the concept of revenge lately, and I was wondering what

I've been thinking about the concept of revenge lately, and I was wondering what purpose it served. For example, if someone were to hurt or kill one of my loved ones, I would feel the need to seek revenge, despite the fact that revenge itself does not accomplish anything (if I were to hurt the person who killed my loved one, they wouldn't be brought back). Is this a psychological coping mechanism, or some other sort of phenomenon?

Some philosophers would say that the need for retribution goes deeper than just being revenge, in that a balance is achieved when someone suffers for the suffering caused to others. Clearly this is not just revenge since some perpetrators of crime might feel that the state was justified in punishing them, since they had deserved the penalty, and they could hardly be said to feel better because of their feelings of revenge. On this view punishment is designed to restore the status quo ante the crime and any feelings that accompany it are irrelevant. In that case revenge is not connected to punishment and the latter should not be identified with it.

What part does emotion play in the acquisition of knowledge? Does the role of

What part does emotion play in the acquisition of knowledge? Does the role of emotion vary across the different areas of knowledge (Natural Science, Human Science, History, The arts, Ethics and Maths) ? Thanks a lot for responses

I think your question presupposes that "emotion" is a fairly simple phenomenon, whereas I suspect that it is extremely complex. But let's sidestep that concern and just try a simple case out.

Scientist A believes that he will very much impress his lover if he unlocks the secret to some phenomenon. Scientist B has no such motivation (and, let us suppose, no other motivator that makes him as eager as A's desire to impress his lover), but works on the same problem.

In this case, it looks to me as if scientist A's success (if he achieves it) will be partly explicable in terms of his emotional motivation, whereas that would not be the case for B. Indeed, it seems reasonable to think that A's emotional motivation might provide stronger motivation than we would find in B. On the other hand, we might worry that A's emotional motivation might also cloud his judgment somewhat, and make him more likely to make mistakes. But this much seems obvious, such an "extrinsic" motivator can certainly function in such a way as to make the acquisition of knowledge more likely.

As a kind of generality, I think it is fair to say that those who have enthusiasm (from the Greek enthusiasmos, which essentially means to be possessed by a divine spirit) are more driven to the discoveries and acquisitions of knowledge than those who are not enthusiastic about their pursuits. I see no reason why this would differ across different disciplines. An excited and enthusiastic mathematician will not necessarily be smarter than a bored one, but I would expect the enthusiastic one to be more likely to advance knowledge. The same, I expect, would be true of historians, scientists, and even philosophers!

What is it about certain situations that makes anger, hate or rage morally

What is it about certain situations that makes anger, hate or rage morally justified (beyond merely being excusable)?

Anger is normal, but it is important to take responsibility for the effects of one's anger. Anger or rage can never justify actions that inflict harm on others. Why? Well, because we are not terribly aware of what triggers such destructive power, but often the real target is not the person or object we are responding to. Take, for example, road rage. Some persons blast their horns and flip persons off - all out of anger that is often misdirected. That's an easy case, but think how anger at a spouse - that may be morally justified - often gets directed at the family dog, or worse, the children. There is little universality about anger/rage as a human feeling - and yet what triggers you may not trigger me. This suggests to me that our moral outrage tells us more about ourselves than about the world and objective moral evils in it. I am willing to grant exceptions such as the holocaust, but the need to invoke Nazi's is always a sign of a weak argument.

Professor Leaman is correct of course: human emotion is not under voluntary control and therefore not a rational enterprise. Philosophy cannot tell us how to feel! Be sure to note that he is referring to feelings evoked over horrible crimes, and I fully agree. Nonetheless, what moral agents do with their anger needs critical examination. Any philosophy that can help us take a broader view and thus set aside our anger, say at the traffic making me late to work - even if it is caused by human wrong doing - is not necessarily wrong. In fact, it seems like a very good thing indeed.


I cannot remember the last time I was unhappy, annoyed or felt jealous. I have

I cannot remember the last time I was unhappy, annoyed or felt jealous. I have read, on some of the answers, references to emotional pain being inevitable. I do not agree. I think it is very possible, but difficult, for one to learn how not to feel 'destructive' emotions, such as anger, jealousy and unhappiness. If one were to, for instance, lose a friend in a 'tragic' accident, they would be expected to feel upset. I think it's correct to say that this is an illogical feeling; an unfortunate bi-product of the way that we have evolved. I think that if one were to be extremely logical, then they would be able to override the emotions, in the same way that many people can override the nefarious feeling of jealousy, if their spouse seemed to be attracted to another person. So, with that context, my question is: Do you think/agree it is possible, or even logical, to live one's life without feeling negative emotions?

Whether it's possible is an empirical question. I'd guess it's highly unusual, but it might be so sometimes for all that.

As for whether it's "logical" to live without negative emotions strikes me as not the best question. What I'd ask is whether it's desirable—whether it's a good thing. I don't quite see why it would be, at least given what we're actually like.

Suppose my friend is seriously ill and in pain. Feeling bad about that seems appropriate. If I were unruffled by my friend's pain, he might well wonder how much I really cared about him. Or suppose I neglected to do something I ought to have done, causing considerable inconvenience for someone else. Feeling sorry (not just saying it but feeling it) also seems fitting.

We did, indeed, evolve so that emotions, negative ones included, are part of our motivational system. Of course, sometimes our emotions can get in the way of responding well. But sometimes. the lack of emotion can have the same result.

That's how things are. Would it be better if they weren't? This is the sort of question I'm not sure we have a good basis for answering. The world it asks us to consider is too far from our experience for us to trust our judgment. Speaking for myself – human that I am – all I can say is that if I were given the chance never to feel sad about sad things, or never to feel regret about the regrettable, I wouldn't take it. For better or worse, the human form of life is the one I'd rather stick with.

In scenarios where the metaphorical glass is either half-full or half-empty, so

In scenarios where the metaphorical glass is either half-full or half-empty, so to speak, are there any compelling rational reasons to come down on one side or the other? Or is a person's optimism or pessimism just a character trait independent of rational thought?

Thank you Andrew, for this thoughtful response. I have been wanting to respond with notions of false dichotomies and the like, but yours is far more probing and engaging. In my thought world, however, when someone asks me if the glass is half-empty or half-full (as my academic dean did once!) I simply say it is neither - it is time for a refill!

In Vino Veritas, and cheers,