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.


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