It may be the case that there are certain questions within Philosophy that will always stay within the realm of philosophy. Those types of questions may look something like questions related to conceptual analysis, ontological modeling, the nature of causation, justification for knowledge and so on and so forth. Those types of questions seem to require a level of abstraction greater than what is necessary in the sciences. However, one traditional philosophical question in particular has benefited greatly in the 20th century as a result of advances in Empirical Psychology and Mathematical Game Theory; that question is the nature of the motivations for human behavior. This post will not be a rigorous defense of self-interested behavior, but rather should serve as a spring board for discussion, I even included a poll, as to how the reader would have acted given the situation that I am about to reveal…
You are a student in a class that recently took its first exam. The class median grade for the first exam was 55, however your grade for the first exam was 75. Your grade is not fantastic, but it is better than more than half the students in the class. One week after the grades were posted, the Professor comes into class with a grin and a stack of index cards. The Professor hands each of the thirty students in the class an index card and states that each student should write either three or six and their name on the index card. The number that the student writes on the index card will correspond the number that the Professor will increase that student’s test grade by. The Professor further states that if more than two students write six, then none of the students will receive an increase in their test grade (The Professor collects the cards at the end and goes through them). The following are the relevant results
- All the students write three and everyone gains three points
- All the students write six and nobody gains any points
- Two students write six, twenty-eight write three and the students gain their respective points
- More than two students write six and nobody gains any points
What type of results are we to expect? Well, that depends on how we interpret the motivating factors for human behavior. I am inclined to believe that the only factor that motivates behavior is self-interest, however, this view still leaves open the possibility for altruism or action that is done for the service of others. The key question that I believe any investigation of human behavior should ask is ‘What is the ultimate motivating factor, whether it be explicit or tacit’ This is not to say that we should expect all the students to have written down six, indeed some students may not have viewed the additional three points as worthwhile, presumably those at the upper end of the scoring distribution, and thus wrote down six.
Whether or not this form of strong egoism is desirable for Society as a whole is a question for perhaps another blog post or is better left as fodder for discussion in the comments. That said, I offer this unscientific public poll to see where you, the readers, stand on this issue. What number would you have written down on the index card?