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. 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


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