Philosophy 4 min read

Dostoevsky on Why We Don’t Do What’s Best for Us

How “the most beneficial” benefit interferes with our pursuit of self-interest.

But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Is it possible for rational people to choose to go against their own self-interest? In Notes from Underground, Dostoevsky challenges the idea of the pursuit of rational self-interest, suggesting that not only is it possible to sometimes intentionally choose something harmful or stupid for oneself, but that sometimes one even ought to. The book is written in first person from the depths of the narrator’s consciousness—i.e. the “underground”—by a radically sincere, spiteful, borderline neurotic voice, which introduces himself thus:

I’m a sick man… I’m a spiteful man. I’m not an attractive man. I think that I have liver disease. Actually, I haven’t a clue about my disease and don’t know for sure what’s causing me pain. I’m not being treated and have never been treated, even though I respect medicine and doctors. I’m also extremely superstitious; well, enough to respect medicine anyway. (I have sufficient education not to be superstitious, but I am.) No, I don’t want to get treated out of spite. This is something that you probably won’t deign to understand. Well, but I do. I, of course, won’t be able to explain to you who it is exactly that I’ll annoy in this case with my spite; I fully realize that I won’t be able to “get even” with the doctors by my not going to them for treatment; I know perfectly well that with all this I’m going to hurt only myself and no one else. Nevertheless, if I’m not getting treated, it’s out of spite. My liver hurts, well then, let it hurt even more!

Why is he acting out of spite to his own detriment? The reason for this is linked to what he says next. The underground man challenges the idea of the rational pursuit of self-interest, explaining that it is impossible for the one simple reason that there exists one benefit, “the most beneficial of all the benefits,” by pursuing which you must necessarily act against your other interests:

After all, man is stupid, phenomenally stupid. Or rather, he’s not really stupid, but he’s so ungrateful that you couldn’t find another like him if you tried. I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if, all of a sudden, amid the rationalism of the future appears a gentlemen with a mean or, let’s say, a retrograde and mocking physiognomy, puts his arms akimbo, and says to all of us: “Why, gentlemen, how about we knock all this rationalism down with one good kick just to send all these logarithms to hell and once again live by our own stupid will!” That won’t be too bad, but what’s sad is that he’ll be sure to find followers: that’s human nature. And all this is due to the simplest reason which, I think, is hardly worth mentioning: precisely because man, always and everywhere, whoever he may be, loves to act in the way he desires and not in the way dictated to him by reason and self-interest; and it’s not only possible to want to act against your own self-interest, sometimes you positively ought to (that is my idea). Your own free and willful desire, your own caprice, however wild it might be, your own fantasy, even if at times it works up into a frenzy—this is what that overlooked benefit is, that most beneficial of all the benefits, which doesn’t fall under any classification and which causes all systems and theories to always fall apart. And where did these wise guys get the idea that man needs a normal, virtuous desire? What made them imagine that man must undoubtedly desire his rational self-interest? Man needs only independent desire, whatever this independence may cost him and wherever it may lead.

“What’s with all this eagerness to desire by a table?” asks the underground man. By table he means a spreadsheet, a formula. If we follow such a formula we will at once turn from a human being into “an organ-stop,” a tiny little cog in a giant machine, made to spin or stop at the command of forces beyond our control. Without independent desire, what are you but a stop in an organ, a cog in a machine? And without the option of choosing something harmful for yourself, how can your desire be independent?

You see: reason, gentlemen, is a good thing, no doubt about that, but reason is only reason and it satisfies only man’s rational faculties, but desire is a manifestation of life in its entirety, that is, the entirety of human life, both with reason and with all the impulses. And even if this manifestation oftentimes leads to a shoddy life, it’s still life and not just an extraction of the square root.

Even if we yield to reason and accept that all the benefits it pursues are indeed beneficial for us and should be desired, there exists still one reason why we would intentionally choose to pick a harmful option, something detrimental, foolish, ridiculous, and that is “to have the right to desire something ridiculous and not be bound by an obligation to desire only what is sensible.”

The last few decades have seen the emergence of “behavioral sciences,” which aim to analyze and improve our decision-making processes. “Nudge theory” has been embraced by politicians to find little ways to influence our behavior, little nudges in the form of how things are designed or presented to us to help us make the “right” choice, or to get us to behave a certain way. In the Christian conception of the world, a human being is endowed with free will, which he must use to decide how to act, decide between good and evil, between virtue and sin. Bad deeds make one a bad person, but they don’t make one less of a human being. What makes one human is the sovereignty of choice. Stripped of the sovereignty, if even “for our own good,” we might become good people, but would we still be human?