People sometimes suggest that because we do what we choose, and choose what we want, it follows that we're 'selfish' - after all, we're merely doing what we want to do. But I think what this argument really shows is that 'doing what you want' is a poor definition of selfishness. If you want to help others, that isn't selfish - not according to what I mean by the word, anyway.
Common usage suggests that there is a meaningful distinction to draw here: some acts are selfish and others aren't. When the egoist denies this, it makes me suspect that he is talking about some other concept altogether, and mistakenly using the same word 'selfish' to refer to it. Further, since every act is vacuously 'selfish' (by his definition), I can only think that the concept he has in mind is not a very interesting or useful one.
A year ago, on the Internet Infidel forums, I suggested some definitions which I think help clarify - and thereby resolve - the altruism debate. A slightly edited version follows:
Desire: A "desire that P" is a motivational disposition to make a proposition P true, and keep it true.
It is important to note the difference between self-regarding desires, and other-regarding desires. The difference concerns who (me, or someone else) is the subject, or primary beneficiary, of the proposition P. (E.g. a desire that I win the lottery is self-regarding, whereas a desire that African children not starve is other-regarding.)
Action/Intention: No need for definitions here, we all know what they mean. Instead, the important thing to note is that people always act so as to (attempt to) fulfill some of their desires, according to their beliefs (false beliefs will obviously impede this).
Best/Self interest: That which will in fact serve to bring about (in the long term) the greatest fulfillment of ALL of your own desires.
Note that action/intention will (alas) not always be consistent with what is in fact one's best interest.
Selfishness: An inappropriate degree of self-regarding behaviour. Acting only according to self-regarding desires, with an inappropriate disregard for others (i.e. lack of other-regarding desires).
Altruism: The opposite of selfishness: Acting in the interests of other people, at the cost of your own best interest. Extreme altruism may be characterized as acting in accordance with your other-regarding desires, with total disregard for yourself (i.e. lack of self-regarding desires).
These definitions make it clear that if you genuinely want to help other people, then acting on that desire is selfless, not selfish. Sure, you're doing what you want (in a sense), but since what you want is admirably altruistic, so is the resulting action. There is a meaningful distinction to be made here; one that psychological egoists neglect.
Egoists often suggest that our apparent acts of altruism are really, deep-down, motivated by a desire to make ourselves feel good. But even if satisfying our desire to help others does bring pleasure, it does not follow that the original cause of our action was a desire for the pleasure. That would be to confuse the true aim of our actions with a beneficial side-product. Just because something good results, it does not follow that this something must have been our motivation all along.
Compare the following two cases:
1) S desires that the old lady gets across the road safely.
2) S desires that he feel good about himself.
Let us stipulate that in both cases, S believes that helping the old lady cross the road will achieve his desire. So S helps the old lady cross the road, in either case.
It should be clear that - despite the identical consequences - these are two quite distinct motivations driving S's actions, and either case is possible. Contra GeniusNZ's comment, the most simple explanation is to take this result at face value, and recognise that not all desires are selfish. The sort of "reduction" he seems to have in mind would require denying the very possibility of other-regarding desires, suggesting instead that we "really" just desire warm fuzzy feelings, and use helping other people as a means to that end.
I find such a "reduction" completely unmotivated. It involves rejecting our common-sense understanding of human action, and implies that we are engaged in massive self-deception. Further, it conflicts with the thought-experiments described in my desire-fulfillment post, which demonstrate that we sometimes care more about how other people really are than how we think they are (and therefore how we feel about it). The results of such thought-experiments seem inconsistent with the idea that what we "really" desire is just our own pleasure.
I don't see that anything is gained by denying the existence of other-regarding desires - certainly nothing that can counterbalance the costs of such a revisionary theory! So why the perverse insistence that everyone is (deep down, "really") selfish? Such a position strikes me as silly and entirely unmotivated. But maybe someone else can explain what I'm missing here...
A couple of clarifications are in order. Firstly, we might desire something merely as a means to fulfilling another desire - lets call the former an 'instrumental' desire. Compare this to 'intrinsic' desires, the content of which we see as an end-in-itself, to be fulfilled for its own sake, not for any derivative purpose. The difference here can be highlighted by considering a counterfactual: Suppose you could attain everything else you wanted (e.g. warm fuzzy feelings, etc.), would you still want to fulfill the present desire? If so, then it is intrinsic.
Psychological egoists claim (in effect) that we have no intrinsic other-regarding desires. Whenever it seems like we want to help someone else, our "real" aim is to make ourselves feel better (or whatever). I think this claim is absurd. I see no reason at all to doubt the possibility of intrinsic other-regarding desires, and hence the possibility of altruism.
Secondly, many people seem a bit confused by the teleological metaphors used by evolutionary theory (e.g. 'selfish' genes 'aiming' to replicate themselves), and have conflated the distinct concepts of biological and psychological selfishness. For example, after a good discussion of how 'selfish' genes could give rise to altruistic behaviour, No Right Turn writes:
So according to biologists, we're not really altruistic. All that money is being contributed not because we genuinely care for the victims of the tsunami, but because we expect them to one day pay us back.
The problem with this is that selfishness and altruism (as used in the present discussion) are psychological categories, and so are beyond the expertise of biologists. (One might as well ask a physicist: he could tell us that atoms aren't selfish, but that doesn't imply anything about the properties of higher-level entities.)
Biological altruism is improving another organism's survival chances at the expense of your own. Such behaviour undeniably exists. Moreover, it can be explained by appeal to purely 'selfish' genes. So we might say, speaking loosely, from the gene's 'point of view', that organisms "behave altruistically, but from selfish motives". For the sake of conceptual clarity, it is critical that one realises such 'loose talk' is not meant literally. 'Motive' is a psychological category. Genes don't really have minds. Hence, any literal attribution of motives to genes would be a category error.
Now consider psychological altruism - the original topic of this post. We might characterise this as being motivated to help other people. This matter is entirely independent of biological and genetic altruism. Selfish genes might build altruistic minds, and that's no disgrace for the latter. One must be careful not to confuse our psychological motivations (i.e. desires) with the metaphorical analogues we attribute to genes. We (qua psychological agents) might act from genuinely altruistic motives, despite the ultimate explanation for both the behaviour and the motives being found in our 'selfish' genes.
So biologists cannot disprove altruism after all, because we're talking about two completely different things. Kind-hearted people donate aid because they really do care (at least some of them). Their genes might not care, but as only a fool would identify himself with his genes, I don't see that we have any problem here.
[15 Jan: First section edited significantly to improve clarity.]