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Egoism and Altruism


Why do we sometimes prefer to consult the interests of others rather than our own interests? What is the relationship between selfishness and benevolence? Is altruism merely a mask for self-interest? At first sight these may appear to be empirical, psychological questions, but it is obviously the case that even if they are construed as such, the answers will depend on the meaning assigned to such key expressions as "self-interest," "benevolence," "sympathy," and the like. It is in connection with elucidating the meaning of such expressions that philosophical problems ariseproblems that are of particular interest because we cannot understand such expressions without committing ourselves, in some degree, to some particular conceptual schematism by means of which we can set out the empirical facts about human nature. That there are alternative and rival conceptual possibilities is a fact to which the history of philosophy testifies.

The problems with which we are concerned do not appear fully-fledged until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. That they do not is a consequence of the specific moral and psychological concepts of the Greek and of the medieval world. In neither Plato nor Aristotle does altruistic benevolence appear in the list of the virtues, and consequently the problem of how human nature, constituted as it is, can possibly exhibit this virtue cannot arise. In the Republic the question of the justification of justice is indeed raised in such a way as to show that if Thrasymachus's account of human nature were correct, men would find no point in limiting themselves to what justice prescribes, provided that they could be unjust successfullyand Thrasymachus's account of human nature is certainly egoistic. But Plato's rejoinder to Thrasymachus is a statement of a different view of human nature in which the pursuit of "good as such" and the pursuit of "my good" necessarily coincide.

In the medieval world the underlying assumption is that man's self-fulfillment is discovered in the love of God and of the rest of the divine creation. So although Thomas Aquinas envisages the first precept of the natural law as an injunction to self-preservation, his view of what the self is and of what preserving it consists in leads to no special problems about the relation between what I owe to myself and what I owe to others. It is only when Thomas Hobbes detaches the doctrines of natural law from their Aristotelian framework that the problem emerges in a sharp form.

Initial Hobbesian Statement

Hobbes is the first major philosopher, apart from Niccolò Machiavelli, to present a completely individualist picture of human nature. There are at least three sources of Hobbes's individualism. First, there is his reading of political experience. His translation of Thucydides reveals his preoccupation with the topic of civil war, with the struggle of one private interest against another. Second, there is Hobbes's commitment to the Galilean resoluto-compositive method of explanation: To explain is to resolve a complex whole into its individual parts and to show how the individual parts must be combined in order to reconstruct the whole. To explain the complex whole of social life is, therefore, to resolve it into its component parts, individual people, and to show how individuals must combine if social life is to be reconstructed. Since the individuals in terms of whose coming together social life is to be explained must be presocial individuals, they must lack those characteristics that belong to the compromises of social life and be governed only by their presocial drives. Third, there is the detail of the Hobbesian psychology, which insists that such drives must be competitive and aggressive because of the will to power over other men that ceaselessly and restlessly drives men forward.

Thus, from all three sources arises a picture of human nature as essentially individual, nonsocial, competitive, and aggressive. From this view it follows that the apparent altruism and benevolence of individuals in many situations need to be explained; the Hobbesian explanation is simply that what appears to be altruism is always in fact, in one way or another, disguised self-seeking. Undisguised, unmodified self-seeking leads to total social war. The fear of such war leads to the adoption of a regard for others from purely self-interested motives. John Aubrey in his sketch of Hobbes in Brief Lives tells of an exchange between Hobbes and a clergyman who had just seen Hobbes give alms to a beggar. The clergyman inquired whether Hobbes would have given alms if Jesus had not commanded it; Hobbes's reply was that by giving alms to the beggar, he not only relieved the man's distress but he also relieved his own distress at seeing the beggar's distress. This anecdote compresses the central problem into a single point: Given that human nature is competitive and self-seeking, why and how can altruism and benevolence be treated as virtues? One's immediate response to this brief and cryptic statement of the problem may well be to inquire whyif one does not share Hobbes's premisesone should take it as given that human nature is essentially self-seeking. To this one replies by posing another question: How can any actual or possible object or state of affairs provide me with a motive, appear to me as good or desirable, unless it appears to be what will satisfy some desire of mine? If the (necessary and sufficient) condition of an object's providing me with a motive is that it satisfy some desire of mine, then it will surely be the case that all my actions will have as their goal the satisfaction of my desires. And to seek only to satisfy my own desires is surely to have an entirely self-seeking nature.

Eighteenth-Century Restatements

The root of the problem lies in the apparently egoistic implications of the psychological framework within which the questions of moral philosophy have been posed by a whole tradition of British thinkers from Hobbes on. Within this framework philosophers have oscillated between two positions: the Hobbesian doctrine of altruism as either a disguise or a substitute for self-seeking and the assertion of an original spring of altruistic benevolence as an ultimate and unexplained property in human nature.

On the one side we find, for example, the earl of Shaftesbury, who argues that men are so contrived that there is no conflict, but an identity, between what will satisfy self-interest and what will be for the good of others; the practice of benevolence is what satisfies man's natural bent. Bernard Mandeville, in The Grumbling Hive, or Knaves Turn'd Honest (later retitled The Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices, Public Benefits ), argues by contrast that the only spur to action is private, individual self-seeking and that it is for the public and general good that this is so. Francis Hutcheson, who treats benevolence as constituting the whole of virtue, provides no argument to back up his view, nor does he explain why we approve of benevolence rather than of self-interest.


Bishop Joseph Butler's position is at once more complex and more interesting than Hutcheson's or Mandeville's. Butler believes that we have a variety of separate and independent "appetites, passions and affections." Of these, self-love is only one, and it is not necessarily opposed to benevolence. We satisfy the desire for our own happiness in part, but only in part, by seeking the happiness of others. A man who inhibits those desires of his that find their satisfaction in achieving the happiness of others will not in fact make himself happy. By refusing to be benevolent, he damages his own self-interest and disobeys the call of self-love. Cool and reasonable self-love consists in guiding our actions by reference to a hierarchy of principles; supreme among these is moral reflection or conscience, by means of which human nature is defined and the good that will satisfy it discerned. Thus, self-love itself refers us to the arbitration of conscience, which in turn prescribes that extent and degree of benevolence that will satisfy the needs of self-love.

The chief objection to Butler is likely to arise from the apparently self-enclosed character of his account. In Butler's system the harmony between self-love and benevolence appears to reign by definition rather than in fact, that is, in human nature itself. But this criticism misconstrues Butler's stand, although we can deduce from Butler's psychology empirical consequences of a testable kind that at first sight render it liable to refutation by the facts. For if Butler is correct, those who are benevolent to the required degree do not find their benevolence at odds with their self-interest. In this sense, at least, virtue and happiness may be required to coincide, and if they do not coincide, Butler's view of human nature is false. But Butler allows himself an escape clause. He concedes that in the world as we know it, the pursuit of self-interest and devotion to benevolence may not appear to coincide, but, he says, the divergence seems to exist only if we do not allow for divine providence, which ensures that the world to come will be such as to ensure that self-interest and altruistic benevolence required the same actions of us.

Theology and the Long Run

In contrast with Hobbes's view that altruistic behavior (or at least just behavior) is in our immediate interest as a means of preserving ourselves from the war of all against all and in contrast with Butler's view that benevolence and self-interest are two distinct springs of action that move us to the same actions, there is the view that benevolence is to our long-term, as opposed to our short-term, self-interest. Butler, as already noted, uses something like this view to supplement his basic position, but it is the stock in trade of a form of theological egoistic utilitarianism to be found in Abraham Tucker and William Paley.

In both writers the crucial psychological premise is that men are so constructed that they always pursue their own private and individual satisfaction. In both writers the fundamental moral rule is an injunction to universal benevolence, which is equated with the promotion of the greatest happiness of the greatest number. The problem is how, given the character of human nature, a motive can be found for obeying the fundamental moral rule. The solution is to say that God has so contrived the afterlife that only if we obey the fundamental moral rule will we in the long run, that is, in the eternal run, secure our own happiness. In Paley it is clear that we could find no good reason to be moral if God did not exist, but God's function in bridging the gulf between self-interest and morality is veiled in conventional theological terms. In Tucker's The Light of Nature Pursued the account of how God bridges the gulf is more explicit. God has arranged that all the happiness that men either have enjoyed or will enjoy is deposited in what he calls "the bank of the universe." By working to increase the happiness of others, I increase the amount of happiness so deposited. But by increasing the general stock of happiness, I also increase my own happiness, for God has arranged to divide this stock of happiness into equal shares, to be allotted one to a person, and so by increasing the size of the general stock, I also increase the size of my own share. I am, as it were, a shareholder in a cosmic bank of which God is at once the chairman and the managing director.

Tucker's absurdities, though unimportant in detail, do bring out how impossible is the task of reconciling an egoistic theory of human nature with a moral theory of benevolent utilitarianism. Of such impossibilities are absurdities born; to this the secular utilitarianism of David Hume, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Henry Sidgwick is as much a witness as is the theological utilitarianism of Tucker and Paley.

Hume and the Utilitarians

Hume's initial approach to the problem is as flexible and undogmatic as that of any philosopher. In the Treatise of Human Nature Hume poses the question why we approve and obey rules that it is often in our interest to break. He makes no assumptions of the kind found in other eighteenth-century writers (men are entirely ruled by self-interest). He merely remarks, apparently on empirical grounds, that it is often the case that self-interest would, if it were followed, lead us to disregard the rules of justice. Nor does he invoke any compensating natural regard for the interests of others. We do have some regard for the interests of others, but it varies with the closeness of their ties to us, and we have by nature no regard for the public interest as such. "In general, it may be affirm'd that there is no such passion in human minds as the love of mankind, merely as such, independent of personal qualities, of services, or of relation to oneself" (Treatise, Bk. III, Part II, Sec. i).

If, then, self-interest would lead us to disobey the rules of justice and if we have no natural regard for the public interest, how do the rules come into existence, and what fosters our respect for them? The crucial fact is that did we not have respect for the rules of justice, there would be no stability of property. Indeed, the institution of property could not and would not exist. Now the existence of property and its stability is to all our interests, and we are always conscious of how much we are injured by others failing to observe the rules. So we have become conscious that although our immediate and short-term benefit rests in breaking the rules on a given occasion, our long-term benefit resides in insisting upon a universal observance of the rules.

By the time Hume came to write the Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, he had shifted his ground. He now sees self-interest and "a tendency to public good, and to the promoting of peace, harmony, and order in society" as two independent, coexistent springs of action; he sees the independent power of sympathy and of a sense of the public good, rather than a rational view of what is of long-term benefit to self-interest, as moving us to benevolence and altruism.

bentham, grote, mill, sidgwick

The utilitarians present the problem in terms differing somewhat from those of Hume because they were more rigidly committed to a psychology derived from David Hartley, according to which only pleasure and pain ever move us to action. In this psychology both "pleasure" and "pain" are the names of sensations. Clearly in this view the only pleasure whose prospect attracts me is my pleasure, and the only pain the prospect of which repels me is my pain. It seems to follow that all action is egoistically motivated, yet all four utilitarian writers make "the greatest happiness of the greatest number" either the only criterion of action or at least a central criterion. How can so egoistically motivated an agent as the utilitarians assume consult the general happiness? That he will have to learn to do so is what Bentham takes for granted in his legal and political writings. Bentham provides for inducements that will counteract the self-interest of legislators, for example. He affirms expressly that "the only interest which a man is at all times sure to find adequate motives for consulting is his own." But in the Deontology he seems by contrast to take it for granted that the pursuit of my pleasure and the pursuit of the greatest happiness of the greatest number will always as a matter of fact coincide.

This assumption of coincidence is abandoned by John Grote, who tries to minimize the difficulties by reducing our obligation to consult the general happiness to an injunction to consult the general happiness insofar as to do so will ensure our own happiness. Yet even Grote presupposes that, for the most part and generally, my happiness and that of the greatest number will not conflict.

Mill's arguments are of two kinds. He first argues that pleasure and the absence of pain are desired by all; here what is meant is clearly that each desires his own pleasure. The proof, and the only possible proof, that pleasure is desirable is that all people desire it, and since all people do desire it, it must be admitted to be desirable. Hence, everyone must acknowledge that it is desirable to produce as much pleasure as possible, and here what is clearly meant is that each ought to desire the pleasure of all. The fallacy in the transition from the premise that each desires his own pleasure to the conclusion that each ought to desire the pleasure of all is usually thought to reside in the transition from fact to value, but it lies, rather, in the transition from an assertion about the agent's own pleasure to conclusions about the general happiness.

However, elsewhere in Utilitarianism Mill faces the difficulties in such a transition explicitly. He reproduces familiar arguments in an interesting form. The feelings of sympathy that Hume stressed in the Enquiry reappear as a man's "feeling of unity with his fellow-creatures." A man who has this feeling has a "natural want" to live in harmony with others. It is often overshadowed by selfish emotions, but those who do possess it know that they would be worse off if they did not possess it. The reason for this conviction is that the best prospect of realizing such happiness as is attainable is a willingness to sacrifice the prospects of one's own present and immediate happiness to an ascetic devotion to altruism and benevolence. Sidgwick became conscious of the difficulties that Mill brushes aside in this account. In the Methods of Ethics, however, Sidgwick could find no way to make the transition from the desire for one's own pleasure to that for the general happiness, and these remain for him independent goals, as they had been for some eighteenth-century philosophers.

The Problem in Empirical Psychology

The philosophers from Hobbes to Sidgwick who analyze the concepts of egoism, altruism, and sympathy often write as if they were empirical students of human nature, disputing the facts of human action and motivation. But it is more illuminating to read them as offering conceptual accounts of what it is to have a good reason for action and of what the limits upon the range of possible good reasons are. But so closely allied are conceptual and empirical issues at this point in the argument that it is not surprising to find that the would-be empirical accounts that psychologists claim to have derived from observation should sometimes turn out to be a rendering of conceptual schemes which have already been encountered in philosophy. So it is with Sigmund Freud, most strikingly in his earlier writings. The important place in Freudian theory held by the pleasure principle, the concepts of gratification and of libido, and the consequent view of socialization all lead to a theory in which the gratification of the self is primary and in which altruism and benevolence are interpreted as secondary phenomena that acquire the regard that they do because they are originally associated with forms of self-gratification. Freud's genetic account differs in detail from that given by Mill, but the form of the account is the same. Nor is this accidental; the pre-Freudian psychologies of Hartley, who influenced Mill, and of Alexander Bain, Mill's contemporary offer associationist accounts in which the genetic order is the same as it is in Freud. There is, therefore, not only the task of clarifying the concepts involved in these accounts, but also the task of settling how far the issues raised are genuinely empirical and how far genuinely conceptual. The concepts in need of clarification are of five kinds: the nature of desire; self-interest; altruism and benevolence; motives, actions, and sympathies; and the genetic fallacy.

nature of desire

If I want something, it does not follow that I want it because it will give me pleasure to have it or because it is a means of getting something further which will give me pleasure. It is, of course, true that if I get what I want, I have thereby satisfied one of my wants. Having any of my wants unsatisfied is certainly less satisfactory than having them satisfied, but it is not necessarily painful or even unpleasant. So it is neither true that I necessarily desire pleasure nor true that in seeking to satisfy my desires, I necessarily seek pleasure or the avoidance of pain.

Moreover, if I do something, it does not follow that I do it because I want to, let alone that I do it because I shall get pleasure from it. It has sometimes been suggested that the performance of an action is itself an adequate criterion of the agent's wanting to do whatever it is, and those who hold this view interpret such an expression as "doing what one does not want to do" when it is applied in cases of action under duress as meaning that the agent would not want to perform that particular action normally but does want to do it on this occasion rather than endure the threatened consequences of not doing it. This contention is less than self-evident. Moreover, if there is a sense of "want" such that if I do something, it is thereby true that I want to do it, that sense is a weaker and a different one from that given when I explain what I do by citing as a, or the, reason that I want to do it. For it is precisely because we have independent criteria for asserting that the agent did or did not want to do what he did that the want can be cited as an explanation for the action.

Action, desire, and pleasure, then, do not stand in so close a conceptual relationship that we cannot ask as a matter of contingent fact on any given occasion whether a man acted to get pleasure or whether he did what he did because he wanted to or not. To understand this is a necessary preliminary to understanding the notion of self-interest.


What is to my interest depends upon who I am and what I want. This elementary but too often unnoticed truism underlies one of Socrates's implied answers to Thrasymachus in Plato's Republic. The question "Is justice more profitable than injustice?" will, as Plato makes clear, be answered differently depending upon whether it is answered by a just man or an unjust man. For what the just man wants is not what the unjust man wants. Thus, there is not a single spring of action or a single set of aims and goals titled "self-interest" that is the same in every man. "Self-interest" is not in fact the name of a motive at all. A man who acts from self-interest is a man who allows himself to act from certain motives in a given type of situation. The same action done from the same motive in another type of situation would not be correctly characterized as done from self-interest. So if I eat to sate my hunger or do my job well in order to succeed, I do not necessarily act from self-interest. It is only when I am in a situation where food is short or my rising in the world requires a disregard for the legitimate claims of others that to consult only my hunger or my ambition becomes to act from self-interest. The notion of self-interest therefore has application not to human behavior in general but to a certain type of human situation, namely, one in which behavior can be either competitive or noncompetitive. Equally, in this type of situation alone can the notions of benevolence and altruism have application. Therefore, it is to the elucidation of these that we must next turn.

altruism and benevolence

The question canvassed in the eighteenth century whether benevolence might not be the whole of virtue could have been raised only in an age in which the concept of virtue had been greatly narrowed or the concept of benevolence had been greatly widened or both. For in most of my dealings with others of a cooperative kind, questions of benevolence or altruism simply do not arise, any more than questions of self-interest do. In my social life I cannot but be involved in reciprocal relationships, in which it may certainly be conceded that the price I have to pay for self-seeking behavior is a loss of certain kinds of relationships. But if I want to lead a certain kind of life, with relationships of trust, friendship, and cooperation with others, then my wanting their good and my wanting my good are not two independent, discriminable desires. It is not even that I have two separate motives, self-interest and benevolence, for doing the same action. I have one motive, a desire to live in a certain way, which cannot be characterized as a desire for my good rather than that of others. For the good that I recognize and pursue is not mine particularly, except in the sense that I recognize and pursue it.

We can now diagnose one major cause of confusion in the whole discussion. All too often from Hobbes on, a special type of human situation has been treated as a paradigm of the whole moral lifethat is, a situation in which I and someone else have incompatible aims and my aims are connected only with my own well-being. Of course, such situations do arise, but the clash between self-interest and benevolence that characterizes them is only one case out of many in which incompatible aims have to be resolved.

motives, actions, and sympathy

We can now understand that at the root of the confusions lies a belief in the possibility of a purely a priori characterization of human motives. From Hobbes on there has been a tradition, shared by empiricists as well as by their critics, which seeks to discuss human motivation almost entirely in the light of general conceptual considerations about desires, the passions, and pleasure and pain. What evades this tradition is not only the variety of aims and motives that can inform action, a variety to be discovered only by empirical inspection, but also the specific and particular character of certain motives.

The difficulties in the notion of sympathy, for example, are such that one cannot inquire straightforwardly whether there is or is not a sympathy for humankind as such. To say that a man acted from sympathy is always to refer to a set of particular occasions when sympathy was aroused for particular people in some particular plight. How wide the range of a man's sympathies is, is an empirical fact, and there is no conceptual limit to the possibilities. But it is a conceptual point that just as a generalized ambition can be manifested only in particular aspirations, so a generalized sympathy can be manifested only in particular acts of charity and benevolence. Now, suppose a man to perform a charitable and benevolent action; we would be wrong to suppose that we can always answer the question whether he was sympathetic to them because they were his relations (or his countrymen or his next-door neighbors) or whether he would have been equally sympathetic if they had been strangers or foreigners. A man can act out of sympathy without the range of his sympathies being determinate. Thus, the eighteenth-century question whether there is, as such, a general benevolence toward humankind implanted in human breasts is misleading.

genetic fallacy

The question of innate benevolence toward humankind is also misleading because the eighteenth-century view disregards both the variety and the variability of human nature. Philosophers discuss what passions men have and not what passions they might acquire. Learning is, at best, peripheral to their inquiry; insofar as it does enter, there is another fallacy in writers from Hobbes onthat of confusing the question of what motives there were originally (for Hobbes, in the state of nature; for Freud, in early childhood) with the question of what the fundamental character of motives is now, in adult life. Because the instinctual drives and desires of young children have to be socialized, it does not follow that adult attitudes and emotions are only masks for such drives and desires. This is not to say that they cannot be such masks, but if the notion is to have any content, whether they are must be an empirical question.

See also Altruism; Aristotle; Bain, Alexander; Bentham, Jeremy; Butler, Joseph; Ethical Egoism; Freud, Sigmund; Grote, John; Hartley, David; Hobbes, Thomas; Human Nature; Hume, David; Hutcheson, Francis; Machiavelli, Niccolò; Mandeville, Bernard; Mill, John Stuart; Paley, William; Plato; Self-Interest; Sidgwick, Henry; Thomas Aquinas, St.; Thucydides; Utilitarianism.


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