Self-Interest And Tautologies

The Libertarian take on “self interest” can be annoying:

A colleague of mine still insists — after a good twenty years of our discussing the subject — that people can act altruistically. “Give me one example,” I ask, “just one. We have numerous and varied interests we pursue, and we act only in anticipation of being better off afterwards than if we had not acted,” I tell him. “In other words, all volitional action is self-interest motivated.”

I like Butler Shaffer and a lot of what he writes, but when you start bandying about “all” statements you’re bound to wind up in a logical wasteland.  Your seemingly emphatic statement about this or that becomes, when further considered, meaningless and without content:

A rhetorical tautology can also be defined as a series of statements that comprise an argument, whereby the statements are constructed in such a way that the truth of the proposition is guaranteed or that the truth of the proposition cannot be disputed by defining a dissimilar or synonymous term in terms of another self-referentially. Consequently, the statement conveys no useful information regardless of its length or complexity making it unfalsifiable. It is a way of formulating a description such that it masquerades as an explanation when the real reason for the phenomena cannot be independently derived.

Grant the point:  all volitional action is self interested.  So what?  Then on that score, no act can be distinguished from any other, by definition.  Murder is the same as a self-sacrificial effort to heal the sick.  Yet because these two acts are obviously so profoundly different they can still be distinguished; we’ll just call it something else other than the one being “altruistic” and the other being “self interested”.

Logic is not a silly word game.  The world is a real thing.  You can dogmatically define yourself into a corner and claim victory, but you’re still painted into a corner.  What’s the point?

Ayn Rand had some valuable insights.  But “all volitional action is self interest motivated” is not one of them.


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