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, 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. 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


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