Are there any popular theories or principles that answer this question: Do all actions proceed from a need to satisfy one's own personal discontent?

In the future I want to study theoretical physics. I don't do this to benefit people, but to satisfy my own curiosity. I don't see any intrinsic value in this, it's just what I feel most compelled to do.

Elaborating on this I thought of other actions, such as helping someone else. This action, in my experience, stems from the aspect of someone feeling personal distress from the immediate connections you establish, relatability, etc.

Are there any established theories that expand on this idea?

  • I removed the line that solicited personal opinions, that's explicitly off topic here. (The rest of the question is a good fit for this SE.) Commented Jan 4, 2017 at 19:26
  • isn't the answer just psychological egoism en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychological_egoism
    – user6917
    Commented Jan 4, 2017 at 21:05
  • What else would they derive from? You (by which I mean that which is in your brain) are the only one capable of instructing your body to act so of course such instruction must derive from a desire not to endure the situation as un-acted on. If you keep unravelling motives to their most fundamental point, they must all stem from your desire eventually. The interest in sociology lies in how far back you have to go to get there, not the fact that you will get there eventually.
    – user22791
    Commented Jan 5, 2017 at 7:25
  • In fact, all systems of ethics, almost by definition, provide a definitive "yes" or "no" answer to this question, sometimes providing conditions on when the answer is "yes" or "no". Hence the answer to your question is every system of ethics. Commented Jan 6, 2017 at 6:36
  • I have the exact same question you posted! I have heard that some private school teaches their students based on the idea. Have anyone heard of it? Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 8:27

8 Answers 8


The theories you are looking for, my friend, are able to be found to some extent in at least two thinkers. The first is David Hume. The second is Ludwig von Mises. David Hume held that all activity spawns from a subjective motivational set of internal attitudes, passions, and sentiments, and that since action, strictly speaking, is divorced from reason, insofar as action is reason instrumentalized upon one's subjective motivational set. Mises conceived of praxeology, the deductive study of human action, by which synthetic a priori truths may be derived from the Misesian action axiom that humans act, which implies the existence of many things, but with respect to motivation it implies the existence of subjective value-preferences, value-functions, time-preference and discount rates for preference-satisfactions, etc.


The closest match is probably the Utilitarian ethical theory called "Enlightened Self Interest". The basic idea is that we act ethically once we learn it is in our own self-interest to promote the interests of others.


Schopenhauer's 'Will to Live', which Westernizes the Buddhist notion of suffering through attachment, seems closest, especially if you focus on discontent.

The thread of Buddhism he taps into is less resigned to the world's power over humans. It has a goal of escape. So it suggests we have the alternative of not being driven by these forces, but overcoming them instead.

The flow of reasoning he pulls this into comes out of Epicurus and feeds back into Nietzsche and Freud. So the rest of the stream around him on the Western side emphasizes positive emotions over negative ones.


You might appreciate Professor John R. Searle's thoughts on "desire independent reasons for action" from chapter 6 in his book "Rationality in Action". The entire book is available online if you modify the end of the embedded URL - there are 9 chapters total (e.g. http...chap1.pdf, http...chap9.pdf). In short, he would argue in response to your question:

Do all actions proceed from a need to satisfy one's own personal discontent?

...that no, not all actions proceed from this purported need. I might also contend that you consider what is meant by need as, biologically, needs consist of air, water, food, shelter from inclement weather and arguably companionship at a minimum for the raising of humans from a helpless infancy. I think the sense of "need" you have offered is on the other hand, psychological.

To Searle's point, it is worth distinguishing what is rational and what may simply be a rationalization when doing something one does not find personally beneficial.


It has been my opinion that everyone acts in their own self-interest – or at least they do as far as they perceive it. The more relevant differentiation then is whether or not that perception or the individual's interpretation of that perception is thus rational.

As an example, I point out that someone who holds esteem for a faith-based belief that is predominantly (alleged to be) altruistic, will act according to how they perceive the belief, or perceive the extensions from it's dogma, to expect them to behave. In this case, even if the actions appear to be selfless in nature (altruistic), the reasoning for undertaking said actions extends from the individual's desire to conform with the belief or dogma.

I extend this further to belief in general, especially mystical belief in 'god' entities to suggest a filter to rational evaluation and esteem – what I refer to as god esteem (as opposed to self esteem). It is a conceptual collection of ideas that places itself between the individual and their own rational self-interest in that every evaluation of some thing or act as having to be subject to the suffix 'according to god'. (feel free to insert your own object of worship or arbitrary esteem for 'god')

In other words, the evaluation of self-interest then becomes subject to something being good 'according to god' or something to be right 'in the eyes of god' and so on. Consequently, it is one of the reasons I see 'faith based' ideas of any kind as fundamentally evil – because they either seek to or ultimately exist as an impediment that exists in man's mind between his rational faculties and his own rational self-interest.

  • 1
    Can you explain how this answers the question "Are there any established theories that expand on this idea?"?
    – user2953
    Commented Jan 19, 2017 at 0:01
  • David Sloan Wilson in "Does Altruism Exist?" associates the word altruism with Comte and atheism rather than faith-based perspectives. In the book he also refers to a study showing that altruism (individual actions that benefit a group at the expense of the individual) are not how traditional perspectives view good behavior which has to be more a win-win for both individual and group. Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 13:35
  • All action is individual. Which means individual actions are all that exist. Group actions are merely a conceptual grouping for the actions of multiple individuals. If all action is individual, all motivation for action must also be specific to the individual. Which in turn means self-interest can be the only cause to action. Thus altruism is also merely conceptual as a way of describing someone who's individual motivation is based on a personal perception that it is in their best interest to act on behalf of others.
    – Scott
    Commented Jan 17, 2018 at 17:49
  • (mind you, even a group of people pushing in unison to create a single force to action still consists of individual forces combining to create the whole)
    – Scott
    Commented Jan 19, 2018 at 17:21

All of the answers offered stem from an acceptance of the materialist/behaviorist model of human nature in which the person is a'kingdom within a kingdom' thus only individualist subjective motives are considered.

A completely different understanding of human nature is Spinoza's which recognizes that all humans, irrespective of culture or ethnicity, share one nature or'conatus'. For him this conatus is defined as an inherent organic desire to sustain life. This is not therefore subjective and bears no resemblance to psychological egoism.

For more visit either academia.edu and in the search box enter, papers on Spinoza's Conatus or search for Spinoza, conatus or your search engine.


Do all actions proceed from a need to satisfy one's own personal discontent?

The term needs is more adequate than 'discontent', when speaking of different types and levels of them. Effectively, Abraham Maslow proposes that our needs need to be satisfied at different levels. First, our survival needs (have something to eat, drink), then, safety, belonging, etc. (see the image).

An interesting feature of Maslow's hierarchy of need is that the basic needs (physical 'discontempt') decrease as they're satisfied. Conversely, complex needs (self-actualization 'discontempt') increase as they are satisfied. Evidently, higher level needs can only be satisfied if the basic needs are so. It cannot be expected for an individual in risk of dying to make art.

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Nietzsche "Ecce Homo" "On the Genealogy of Morals" "Thus Spoke Zarathustra Kierkegaard "Either-or" "Fear and Trembling" "Diary of a Seducer" C. S. Lewis "Screwtape letters" "Mere Christianity" "The lion the witch and the wardrobe" Salinger "Catcher in the Rye" W. Golding "Lord of flies"

You can go with the direct approach, where you find an existing doctrine and follow it or create your own; the other approach is to detach from reality/ civilisation like Lao-zi and other hermits did. You can also dive into metaphysics and pretend the problem is irrelevant and become a philosophy professor.

"Whiplash" "Lord of War" "Mollies game" "Seven years in Tibet" "Revolver" "1408" are good movies to follow that quest.

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