Rebirth of Reason


An Analysis of Egoism and Altruism
by Merlin Jetton


This article uses Venn (or Euler) diagrams, so I begin with a prelude. They offer a useful tool for a logical analysis of categories. Venn diagrams, typically using circles, can be used as “mental containers” to sort candidates as included or not included in a category. They can help clarify what we refer to by a particular word or term. For example, we could have two circles – one labeled cats and the other dogs – into which we classify particular cats and particular dogs. In this case, the two circles would be separate and mutually exclusive – since nothing is both a cat and a dog - like the top pair of circles here. Something that is not a cat or dog would not belong in either circle. On the other hand, if the two circles were for categorizing cats and black things, the two circles would need to intersect and overlap. See the bottom pair of circles linked above. A black cat would fit in the overlapping area. A crow would fit the black thing category, but not in the overlapping area. A white cat would fit the cat category, but not in the overlapping area.


Turning to the main topic, should a Venn diagram of egoism and altruism be drawn as separate, mutually exclusive circles or as overlapping circles? I think it depends – on whether they are regarded as moral ideals or as describing particular concrete actions. Both diagrams are shown here. As moral ideals, they are mutually exclusive and polar opposites. What would belong in either “mental container” are principles expressing such ideals. Ayn Rand’s principle that a man should live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself, belongs in the egoism circle. Auguste Comte’s principle that individuals have a moral obligation to renounce self-interest and live for others belongs in the altruism circle. Comte’s moral ideal is Ayn Rand’s inverted. For Rand egoism is good and altruism is bad. For Comte it is the reverse.


Rand and Comte are not unique. Most modern philosophers treat egoism and altruism as mutually exclusive, as do many other people and religions. On the other hand, using separate, mutually exclusive circles is quite inadequate for classifying particular concrete actions. In this sense, egoism and altruism pertain to the question: Who benefits from the action? Oneself or somebody else? Overlapping circles recognize that a particular action can benefit oneself and another person as well. This is why egoism and altruism overlap in the second Venn diagram.


Trade, many jobs, and many actions involving family and friends provide numerous examples that belong in the overlapping area. Secondly, mutually exclusive circles, with egoism as Ayn Rand’s version of it, allow no room for benefitting oneself while sacrificing others or otherwise harming or exploiting others. The diagram also divides each circle further. The “sacrifice others” label should be construed broadly; it is also intended to include being a predator and fraud. Thirdly, Rand’s depiction of altruism allows no room for benefitting others without self-sacrifice. Similarly, Comte’s altruism precludes benefitting oneself simultaneously. Therefore, the bottom diagram is a more complete model for classifying a wider range of actions.


Altruism is often regarded as morally good and egoism as morally bad or neutral at best. The bottom diagram challenges that oversimplification.


About “selfishness” and “altruism”

Ayn Rand’s use of “selfishness” and “altruism” are controversial. She equated selfishness with egoism, even titled a book The Virtue of Selfishness, and rejected egoism as traditionally described. See “traditional egoism” in Letters of Ayn Rand. Her use of “selfishness” differed from common usage. There are clearly some activities – e.g. studying hard in school, eating nutritionally, getting enough exercise, choosing a career – that are “selfish” in the sense they are for one’s own benefit only. On the other hand, common usage of “selfishness” denotes pursuing one’s own interest while disregarding the interest of others. Examples are the child who wants to play with another child’s toys but refuses to reciprocate, or the basketball player who shoots too much, even when teammates have better shots. These are mild examples; of course, there are much worse. Such common usage is usually learned when young, is deeply entrenched, and trying to ignore it is problematic. Rand’s use of both words is often cited as one of the biggest barriers to Objectivist outreach.


Auguste Comte coined the term altruism, but more common meanings are not as extreme as his. There are several more specific definitions which do differ, but the common core is to benefit another person (or animal in the case of biologists).


Despite Ayn Rand’s many polemics against altruism as a moral ideal, it is not the case that she totally rejected altruism in the practical, concrete sense. For example, the following is from John Galt’s speech in Atlas Shrugged. “Do you ask if it's ever proper to help another man? No—if he claims it as right or as a moral duty that you owe him. Yes—if such is your own desire based on your own selfish pleasure in the value of his person and his struggle” (AS975).


This strikes me as an odd use of “selfish” when the primary beneficiary of such action is somebody else. Moreover, her use of the term has caused Rand's arguments to be frequently misrepresented and made a frequent target by critics.


Further reading

For a more extensive article see my “Egoism And/Or Altruism” in The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, Volume 13, Number 2 (December 2013). Sharing, rights, and more are addressed there.


© 2014

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