Wednesday, May 28, 2008


This post is intended to mutilate the view that there is no such thing as “true” altruism, that however noble our actions are, our true motives are always selfish.

First, the two main versions of this faulty view: The first is that whatever we do for others, we do because we expect something from others in return. The second, more subtle version is that whatever we do, we do because it makes us feel good, and we don’t really do for others, but for this good feeling.

The general refutation will, I hope, lay to rest both forms of the view, but I’ll make this one point regarding the first: Even if we fully expect reciprocal (material or social) reward for what we do for others, there is no reason to think that that is the only, or even the main motive for what we do. When we say someone has “mixed motives”, we mean just that – part of the person’s motive is benevolent, part is selfish. If so, then there are benevolent motives, even if most of the time one is only partially motivated by them.

Now the main argument: Some people get pleasure from doing for others, and some people get pleasure from doing for self. Similarly, one’s conscience can cause one pain in the plight of others, a spring to action, or one can become so dissociated from one’s conscience as not to detect its call and command. One can train oneself, even if one doesn’t have the natural inclination, to take pleasure in the flourishing of others, and to be pained by their distresses (except in certain pathological cases). And if one can, I think you’ll agree, one ought to.

Now both the person who takes pleasure in altruism and the person who takes pleasure in self-indulgence take pleasure in what they do. But they are not equivalent – they are not both selfish. Thus we can distinguish between selfish pleasure, and altruistic pleasure. It is in the definition of the refined character that one take pleasure in the good of others. The naturally altruistic person will have an easier job of it, though will still have to combat the temptation to selfishness from time to time. The naturally selfish person who wishes to refine his or her character must take pains in order to develop this attitude.

In the end it will be worth it for the person, as excessive concern for the self naturally leads to a terribly stifling way of life, and the pleasure that can be taken in altruism is genuine.

Our opponent will then respond: “I am confirmed. I told you that we do everything for pleasure, and therefore even when one acts for others, one really has only one’s self-interest in mind. It may be, as you say, that the pleasure one gets in acting for others is better and deeper than the pleasure one gets in acting for oneself. That just means that if someone is really self-interested, it is in his or her own best interest be concerned for others.”

I have already partially dealt with this point, having argued that people may be willing to experience pain in order to develop a benevolent attitude. But it is still valid to press the case that one does this in calculation that overall this will result in greater personal pleasure, (notwithstanding the fact that many people who make the decision to develop morally often don't think they're doing so for this reason.)

The more profound point is this: Why do people take pleasure in being good to others in the first place? (The neurological explanation is informative, but trivial.) People take pleasure in being good. To feel good is not the same as to feel good about yourself. One feels good about oneself when one does the right thing. This has nothing to do with satisfying one’s libidos or gaining social status, etc. Sometimes, in order to be good, one must forget about oneself and surrender to more important things. A good person can only be happy when he or she does good actions. Paradoxically, then, the confirmation of self sometimes requires an absolution of self. This is hardly the same as mere indulgence in pleasure.

If the pleasure that comes from the recognition of the moral good doesn’t have a different metaphysical source than selfish pleasure, though I think it does, it certainly has a different psychological source.

People judge altruism to be a masked form of self indulgence in order to advance a certain amoral philosophy. But what is often forgotten is that the correct ordering and control of one’s appetites is a crucial part of the development of a moral character. One’s observance of morality is what determines whether a person is good or bad Therefore a morally sensitive person will take pleasure in being good and will feel pain when moral flaw is recognized, and work to regulate one’s attitudes in accordance with one’s principles. The amoral person will not regard the morality of one’s actions as valuable in determining which pleasures are to be prioritized, but only how good they feel.

If one takes pleasure in altruism, then that person deserves our highest respect, and we shouldn't think that our respect is a necessary motivator for that person, or a condition of his or her happiness.


Dave the Philosopher said...

Two footnotes - to avoid misunderstanding:

1-Altruism isn't the definition of the moral good. There are cases where selfish behavior is correct and altruistic behavior wrong.

2-Altruism is concern for the good or flourishing of others. I never said it is concern for their pleasure.

Anonymous said...

Just because feeling good is a byproduct of doing something good for someone doesn't mean they're doing it for that feeling.

Dave the Philosopher said...

well put

kisarita said...

i would take it a step further

happiness itself is a byproduct and not a goal

when one makes happiness one's goal, it rarely works.

I wonder if that's the difference between a truly altruistic person and one with self serving motives. I bet the truly altruistic will be alot happier.

one of the ironies of life.

Dave the Philosopher said...

-1- that's interesting. your comments always are.
-2- done