About Altruism

On Altruism

Most people believe that self-interest is antithetical to altruism. Actually, self-interest is one of three necessary motivations that, working together, evoke altruistic behavior. My posts “On Altruism” explain the role of “altruistic self-interest.”

Be sure to read the posts in the sidebar in reverse order, starting with


On Altruism


What I ‘Splained

To summarize briefly, in contrast to conventional uses of “self-interest,” altruistic self-interest is distinctively different. To repeat, instead of the conventional formula “Altruism = unselfish concern for another + selflessness,” I substitute “self-interest” for “selflessness” to yield “Altruism = concern for another + self-interest + unselfishness.” Here, self-interest is at least as much emotion driven as it is reason driven, unlike Rand’s coldly calculated self-interest. Relief from or avoidance of anxiety, shame, guilt, or physical pain; empathy for others; and the positive emotions of happiness (for oneself or for another), of pleasure, of self-respect, and of compassion—all these are among the gratifying emotions that fulfill a person’s self-interested desires and that can motivate altruistic action. In brief, altruism can exist only when the altruist’s self-interest can be satisfied. Put in more formal terms, self-interest is a necessary condition for any occurrence of altruism.

For the Greeks to have offered that ancient Wooden Horse as a legitimate peace offering to the Trojans (as a symbolic pledge of war’s end) instead of as a trap, the motivation for the “gift” would not have been egoism (a ploy to enter and raze the city) but self-interest (saving their own as well as their enemies’ lives and honoring the heroism of both). Self-interest alone, however, would not have made such a gift an altruistic act. To be an act of altruism, the motivation would have had to include also a concern for the welfare of the Trojans and an unselfish willingness to sacrifice their own labor and pridefulness to build and present a conciliatory gift horse.

Now that I’ve done my ‘splaining, in the next section I’ll offer some examples to support my formula.


On Altruism


More ‘Splaining To Do

To differentiate altruistic self-interest from supposed synonyms, let’s start with that mischievous word egoism. Human altruistic self-interest is not egoism, which too strongly connotes a self-importance that values the superiority of oneself above all other persons, at all times. Neither is altruistic self-interest the same as psychological egoism. While my use of the term “altruistic self-interest” bears some similarity to psychological egoism, it differs in its emphasis on who receives the benefits of self-interested behaviors. In “Psychological Egoism,” Joshua May states, “The psychological egoist claims that we ultimately only care about (what we consider to be) our own welfare. . . . One’s desire is egoistic if (and only if) it concerns (what one perceives to be) the benefit of oneself and not anyone else” (italics in the original; bold emphasis added). It should be obvious that this type of egoism stands in opposition to both altruism and altruistic self-interest.

Altruistic self-interest is not selfishness, which has similar connotations to “egoism,” in that the selfish person places others in a third-person “them” (third-person plural object) category of outsiders who are less worthy than the selfish individual. Typically there is little recognition of a “we” (first person plural subject) or an “us” (first-person plural object) unless the selfish individual is dissembling in order to exploit a third-person object (her, him, it, them). Both egoism and selfishness motivate behavior solely for “the benefit of oneself and not anyone else.”

Nor is altruistic self-interest the enlightened self-interest advocated by Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, for at least two reasons. First, Rand’s enlightened self-interest has as its ethical principle the dynamic of reciprocity, which includes the imperative of reciprocal “fairness.” More often than not, Rand’s self-interest must involve a tit-for-tat interaction or exchange between two or more persons. Like a business transaction, this reciprocity of fairness is founded on the expectation that one’s current act of generosity or aid will be matched or repaid in the future, perhaps even with interest. This self-serving notion of self-interest shares no motives with those of a voluntary “gift,” freely given. Second, and more important, Rand sees altruism as irrational and potentially evil because it brings harm to the altruist and to others. In fact, Rand goes as far as to posit that altruism, as it is commonly conceived and defined, does not exist.

However, a century earlier, Alexis de Tocqueville (noted French “thinker” on culture, history, politics, and social economics) offered a characterization of self-interest strikingly different from Rand’s and very similar to my definition of “altruistic self-interest.” In the 1835 edition of Democracy in America, he writes, “The principle of self-interest rightly understood produces no great acts of self-sacrifice, but it suggests daily small acts of self-denial” (“Alexis de Tocqueville Democracy in America 1835,” Hanover College. http://history.hanover.edu/courses/excerpts/111tocqueville.html. Accessed 1 April 2016). From my perspective, while altruistic self-interest does prompt “small acts of self-denial,” those acts advance the cause of one’s perceived self-interest as they also contribute to another’s welfare. Such behaviors are not limited only to “small acts of self-denial,” but can, and often, include notable, even heroic, acts of self-denial. I also generally agree with de Tocqueville that acts of altruistic self-interest do not require acts of self-sacrifice. As I said earlier, altruism does not include the motivation of self-annihilation, although self-annihilation may be a consequence, as I’ll demonstrate later.

–> Go to Part 5: What I ‘Splained


On Altruism

Part 3

Some ‘Splaining To Do

            “But hold on there, Quicksdraw!” you say. “You’re just using the trick-term ‘self-interest’ instead of “egoism,” which one of your dictionaries says is the opposite of altruism. As Ricky would say to Lucy, “You’ve got some ‘splaining to do.”

Yes, I suppose I do, especially since some contemporary philosophers and social psychologists would raise similar objections. So bear with me as I deal at some length with scholarly work that also seems to question my claims about the role of self-interest as a motivation for human altruism.

One of the most notable social psychologists is C. Daniel Batson, who has written (or co-written) several books and academic (peer-reviewed) articles on altruism, empathy, and religion. Very likely, he also would question, but not dismiss out of hand, my formula. His book Altruism in Humans (2011) presents a conventional definition of altruism as “a desire to benefit someone else for his or her sake rather than one’s own” (3). He further refines his definition by contrasting altruism with “egoism.” He writes, “Altruism can be juxtaposed to egoism, which is a motivational state with the ultimate goal of increasing one’s own welfare” (italics in the original, 20).

Before I explain precisely how my use of “self-interest” is different from Batson’s and the general reader’s understanding of both “egoism” and “self-interest,” I’ll again call upon the help of those ancient Greeks, along with a few more recent Western philosophers. Lest I be accused of what those ancient Greeks called hybris, I admit that my position is neither wholly new nor entirely original. In Western culture, positions similar to mine have been considered (and rejected) more than once within the past two millennia. Perhaps the earliest hint that ethical action—and I presume we all agree that altruism is one kind of ethical action—presupposes self-interest comes from Socrates: “Knowing what is good will necessarily cause one to act on that basis, for no man deliberately chooses that which he knows would harm himself” (Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind, New York: Harmony Books, 1991, 34). That is, for an action to be “good,” it must not cause self-harm by violating one’s self-interest to be free from harm.

Let’s quickly skip ahead through the decline of Greek civilization and the fall of the Roman Empire, through the rise of Christianity and the consequent thousand or so years when intellectual curiosity was forcibly limited, and on through the rebirth of inquiry in the Middle Ages, and then pause at the Age of Enlightenment. In the mid-seventeenth century, Thomas Hobbes also appeals to the “good” and invokes the avoidance of harm yet again, but in a rationally narrower, more personal way: “[N]o man giveth but with intention of good to himself, because gift is voluntary; and of all voluntary acts, the object is to every man his own good . . .” (Leviathan, qtd. in Joshua May, “Psychological Egoism” in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ISSN 2161-0002, http://www.iep.utm.edu/psychego/. Accessed 21 Oct. 2015). That is, as a voluntary act of giving, altruism is motivated by the giver’s desire to serve his or her own “good.” A quarter century later, in Les Maximes, François de La Rochefoucauld asserts the role of self-love as a perhaps unconscious motivation for altruistic behavior: “[E]ven when humans believe they act from altruism or nobility, they do so out of love of self” (Maarten Maartensz, “La Rochefoucauld,” eNotes. http://www.enotes.com/topics/la-rochefoucauld. Accessed 23 Oct. 2015). Rochefoucauld also believes that conventional “self-interest” lies at the heart of a flawed human nature. However, Rochefoucauld’s egoistic self-interest is not the same as altruistic self-interest. When “love of self” inspires nobility, then such self-interest can overcome egoistic flaws of human nature. Avoiding self-harm, acting for the good of oneself, unconsciously or consciously acting out of “love of self”—all point to the essential role of self-interest in altruism.

This, then, lays the groundwork  for my case regarding altruistic self-interest as it applies to human altruism. Next, I need to distinguish my use of “self-interest” from other terms thought to be closely synonymous with it.

–> Go to Part 4: More ‘Splaining To Do


On Altruism

Part 2


The conventional definition of altruism can be displayed in this simple formula: A = c + u + s, where A stands for altruism, c stands for concern, u stands for unselfishness, and s stands for selflessness. In this definition, concern for others refers to a personal desire to help another person (or an animal). Here, concern stems from empathy. By unselfishness, this definition refers to a willingness to make some degree of emotional or material sacrifice for another. The American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition, defines selfless as “Without concern for oneself”; The Webster’s II New Riverside University Dictionary defines selfless similarly: “Concerned about others rather than oneself.”

However, I think that the combination of selflessness and human altruism is a mutually exclusive pairing in a healthy, sane person. Except in some cases of suicide, a will to self-destruction is pathologically nihilistic. It’s possible and even common, though, in heroic behaviors for self-annihilation to result as an unintended consequence of an altruistic action. I’ll say more about that in Part 4.

So I don’t include selflessness in my formulation of human altruism, substituting self-interest in its place to yield A = c + si + u, where the new term si stands for perceived self-interest. In my view, human altruism results from the interaction of these three motivations working in harmony to move a person to act altruistically. Without feeling some concern for or empathy with another being, what would prompt a person toward altruism? Without a felt recognition of perceived self-interest, a person lacks a strong enough motivation to risk an emotional or material sacrifice. A willingness to take that risk establishes the third motivation, unselfishness. When, and only when, these three motivations unite harmoniously and powerfully enough can they produce altruistic behavior.

–> Go to Part 3: Some Splaining To Do


On Altruism

Part 1


Most of us think we know a horse when we see one. Most of us recognize a gift when we receive one. Most of us cherish altruism when we see it displayed. As the Trojans would warn us, we would be wise to examine the entirety of the horse before accepting it for what it appears to be. The same is true for altruism. Although we aren’t likely to be burned and pillaged by a seeming act of altruism, if we don’t examine the motives for altruistic behaviors, we still may find ourselves fooled. We’re often prone to fool ourselves.

So what is altruism, and what are its motivations? As those ancient Greeks knew and their Trojan adversaries learned, motivations are essential in determining the essence of virtuous and wise thought and action, for instance, whether or not to accept the apparently altruistic gift of a wooden horse. When they accepted the peace offering of their Greek foes, the trusting Trojans may have had in mind these common definitions of “altruism”:

  • “Unselfish concern for the welfare of others; selflessness” (Webster’s New World Dictionary, Second College Edition)
  • “Concern for the welfare of others as opposed to egoism; selflessness” (The American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition).

These definitions point to three essential traits of altruism: unselfishness, concern for others, and selflessness. The second definition also includes a disqualifying trait: egoism.

My definition of altruism also comprises three traits: concern for others, unselfishness, and self-interest. “But wait,” you say. “Aren’t unselfishness and self-interest mutually exclusive, contradictory?”

Sometimes, they certainly are, but not when they are employed in the service of altruism. In fact, altruism is always motivated by self-interest, as well as by concern and unselfishness. None can be lacking.

Before moving on to the next section, I need to emphasize that I am speaking of human altruism, that is, motivations and behaviors that apply to Homo sapiens. I leave to biologists and other scientists the question of whether or not these motivations might apply to other primates.

–> Go to Part 2: I Have a Formula for That