Are Humans Primarily Driven by Self-Interest?

I will be competing in a new debate forum at my first speech and debate tournament of the new year. ‘Big Questions Debate’ is a new format which presents students with a complex worldwide question and each student is required to debate both sides of the resolution. Big Questions Debate will not only help advance my knowledge and promote interest in learning more about a subject matter but it will also enhance my debate experience by encouraging and challenging me to engage in life discussions that may not align with my previously held beliefs and values.

The Big Question Debate for this weekend’s tournament is Resolved: Humans are primarily driven by self-interest, and here are my arguments for both sides…which side do you agree with?

Psychological egoism, the idea that humans are motivated by self-interest and selfishness, is highly prevalent in society. Despite having good morals or values, at the end of the day, the most important person to you is yourself.


Helping others is a two way street. The “I help you, you help me” mentality is ingrained in people’s minds, creating reciprocity of mutual benefit. People will help others only if it means gaining something in return. Of course, this is completely unintentional, but in the back of people’s minds, they know that if they do someone else a favor, that person will feel obligated to eventually do something in return. The classic, “thank you, I owe you one” clearly expresses this as people naturally feel indebted to those who help them. Therefore, kind gestures are not acts of altruism. They are ulterior motives for people to gain personal benefit.


Even kind acts towards strangers are not completely genuine. As people were raised to be morally right, they instinctively act on these values to satisfy their conscious. However, they will help others because they were taught to do so, not because they inherently need to. Society tell us the proper way to act and how to treat people but no one truly wants to go out of their way to help a person they don’t even know. People do kind things because they believe they have to.


People will immediately make sacrifices to help their loved ones, however this is still done out of self interest. You obviously make decisions based on your established connections, such as your friends and family. But this is because their lives have a direct influence on YOU, so anything that happens to them affects your happiness and your relationship with them. Therefore, helping and making sacrifices for loved ones is not necessarily to improve their lives; it is to improve their perception of YOU as YOU are the one providing the help. People say they will “take a bullet” for someone they love. However, they are actually thinking of themself in this statement because they know how much pain and sorrow THEY would endure if such person were to leave their life and they would rather die than experience such emotion.


Children are the prime example of human behavior because they are less influenced and corrupted by society. For bullying to be so prevalent among kids shows that kindness and altruism do not naturally prevail. Many kids, even the victim’s friends, remain bystanders out of fear of what the bully would do to them. They do not want another person to be hurt, however they naturally just care more about themself and their own well-being.

Lord of the Flies is a perfect depiction of children succumbing to the human instinct of selfishness for means of survival. They initially try to create a civilization with order and rules, however, without an actual society to enforce such rules, they quickly give in to the innate human tendency of savagery. Every character fends only for himself, without a second thought on how others are affected. This proves that society and civilization only suppress selfish instincts but when left alone and free, humans will naturally only care for themselves.

In addition, science concludes that altruism is not an innate human characteristic and children are born selfish. According to a joint study by Yale University and University of Chicago where a group of 5-year-olds were observed, the kids were “strikingly ungenerous” as they chose “better” stickers for themselves when others were not looking.


One’s reputation also plays a huge role in human behavior and interaction. In order to acquire a positive reputation and be perceived as a “good” and “moral” human being, one must exhibit such behaviors. Being kind, making sacrifices for others, and helping others without being asked are just a few actions a person with a good reputation would make. As people desperately strive for society to view them in a positive light, they therefore make efforts to become this perfect person for others to like and approve of. However, this is only a mask, and does not demonstrate that person’s true qualities or behaviors. They are simply forcing themself to act a certain way in order to obtain this desired reputation.


Humans are clearly driven by selfishness as every action they make is intended to somehow benefit themself. While such actions may often be perceived as kind or altruistic, the underlying motivations behind this behavior is always driven by some form of self interest.

Having emotions and feelings is what separates us from animals and what makes us human. Without these qualities, we would be nothing but another barbaric species fighting to survive. Every decision humans make is driven from their emotional attachment to people, places, ideas, or objects.  


Helping others is not a two way street. Everyday, people go out of their way to help those in need, even strangers. They do this out of the goodness of their hearts, not because they want or expect anything in return. For instance, if you help an old woman cross the street you will not receive any benefit besides a “thank you,” yet you still do it anyway. Because humans possess emotion, they have an innate desire to help others and make a positive impact on their lives.

According to research by David Rand at Harvard University, children and adults both have the initial impulse to help others. A recent study from the Max Planck Institute in Germany corroborates this claim and further analyzes infants, as they are the purest form of humanity because they are less influenced and corrupted by society. They measured infants’ pupil diameters and found that they decrease when they help others or when they see someone else helping. This indicates that infants are “not simply helping because it feels rewarding.” They are helping because of an “intrinsic motivation” and a genuine desire to provide benefit.

In addition, people will immediately help a sick or dying animal simply because they inherently want to, not for their own selfish gain. People know that animals cannot physically “pay them back” for any help provided, yet this does not stop someone from bringing a stray dog to the clinic or feeding a duck some bread. For humans to exhibit emotion and care for helpless animals proves that they do not act out of their own self interest; rather they go out of their way to make sacrifices for those in need.


Think about your relationship with your loved ones, especially your parents. Parents dedicate their lives to their children - raising them, nurturing them, protecting them, and guiding them. They go above and beyond to provide everything for their kids, consequently sacrificing their own health, well-being, and happiness. I can 100% attest to the fact that my parents have done everything in their power to ensure a good life for my brother and I. My father continues to puts himself through brutal hours of work everyday without ever once complaining about his mental and physical suffering just for the sake of his children. If this isn’t the epitome of selflessness, I don’t know what is.

Not only do parents do this, but anyone with an established emotional connection to another person will tend to act selflessly to help those they care about. Everyday, friends and family go out of their way to help each other not for their own good, but because they genuinely care about the other person. This action is prevalent in every single human and is driven by one strong emotion: love.


People will jeopardize their own safety and well-being for the greater good. They clearly do not expect anything in return for such noble actions, if anything, they are choosing to put themselves in the fire in order to make meaningful change. Recent history perfectly depicts human desire to help others despite the negative impact it may have on themself. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford came forward to inform the American public of the indiscretions of Brett Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court nominee at the time. Supreme Court Judge, the highest position of power in the country, is a prestigious honor and should be held by someone of great moral conduct. As Dr. Ford knew of Kavanaugh’s true character, she believed it was her civic duty to come forward with her story so Americans would know exactly who was to be elected. She had absolutely no political motive and no personal vendetta against him and actually risked her life, her job, and her reputation by stepping forward. She completely exposed herself to the judgement and criticism of the country, receiving accusatory calls and even death threats. However, she knew from the start what she was getting herself into. But instead of thinking of herself and protecting herself, Dr. Ford did what she did for the benefit of her country.

Clearly, humans are innately compassionate, and they possess a tendency to act altruistically towards others. They WANT to make a difference in people’s lives and society and they therefore often sacrifice themselves in the process. Rather than acting out of their own selfish interests, people are influenced by their emotions and relationships which leads them to make kind decisions for the benefit of others.