Rebirth of Reason


Incompatibility of Altruism and Egoism
by Joseph Rowlands

A question that comes up often is whether it is possible for an action to be both altruistic and egoistic. Is a morality of self-interest always in conflict with a morality of altruism? Or is it just some choices that conflict?


One version of this confusion recognizes that some of our actions help other people as well as ourselves. There's no necessary conflict between the interests of others, and our own interests. If that's the case, couldn't an altruistic act be in our own interest? Or couldn't a selfish act be in the interest of others?


While it is true that our actions can benefit ourselves and others, this is irrelevant. An altruistic act is not an act that happens to benefit others, and an egoistic act is not one that happens to benefits ourselves. The beneficiary of the act does not define the moral system behind the act.


Morality is fundamentally about making choices. It is a process of evaluation that enables a person to choose between various options. Morality provides the basis of the evaluation. It provides a moral standard. This means the moral system is concerned with the reason behind the choice, and not simply the effects of the choice.


An egoistic act is one chosen because of the benefit to yourself. An altruistic act is one that is chosen because of the benefit to others. The fact that an act benefits both is beside the point. The real question is which moral standard was used to evaluate one option as better than the other. That determines whether the act was really altruistic or self-interested.


A different version of the confusion is based on the recognition that a self-interested person might perform an action with the primary intention of benefiting someone else. For instance, you might by a gift for someone you love. Is this an altruistic act, since the intent is to provide a value for another person? Is the moral system based on who the intended beneficiary is? If the intent is to benefit another person, isn't that altruistic?


This isn't quite right. It's common to talk about a moral system in terms of who the intended beneficiary is, so it sounds like this is appropriate. However, a moral system really defines the source of value. An egoistic system sees your self as the source of value, whereas an altruistic morality sees others as the source. Any specific action is appraised by one of these sources of value.


Consider buying a gift for a loved one. The action may be intended to benefit the person you love, but the evaluation of the action as good is based on the value to your own life. Making someone you love happy or better off is a benefit to your own life. The option is evaluated based on the benefit to your own life.


The fact that the action is aimed at benefiting someone else is irrelevant. It is not valued simply because it benefits someone else. If it was, then it would be equally valuable to provide the benefit to a stranger, or potentially even more valuable if the gift would have an objectively larger positive impact on the stranger's life. But if the value stems from the fact that you value the person you love, and improvements in his or her life also improves yours in some way, then it is an egoistic act.


An altruistic act would be one where the value stemmed from the effect on another person. So if someone wants to offer you a gift, like offering to pay for your lunch, you could accept because of the effect on him. He may feel generous if he is allowed to pay for your meal, and you could accept it because of that benefit to him, and not because you get something out of it. Although in practice, the fact that you gained in the process would diminish the moral worth of the act.


A third confusion about the compatibility of altruism and egoism comes in the form of wondering whether someone might accept both of these standards simultaneously. Is it possible to value things that help yourself and value things that help others? Are the two fundamentally in conflict?


It is possible to be driven at different times by either moral standard. Consistency in morality takes focus and effort. It's possible for someone to accept both. But these moral standards are different, and there's no way to combine the evaluations.


When choosing between two alternatives, a standard of evaluation allows you to compare the two based on a single criteria. If the standard is egoistic, then you will compare the impact both options have on your life, and determine which best promotes your life. Note that you don't evaluate them separately and then compare the magnitudes of the values. The values don't have a quantitative value. The comparison is direct. You forecast the likely consequences of both actions, and decide which option leaves you in the better position.


You can perform this analysis with an egoistic comparison, or an altruistic comparison, but you can't combine them. If you tried to do both, you would simply be making a comparison based on one of the standards, and when completed, perform a comparison based on the other.


If you did perform both kinds of comparisons, you would either find that the conclusions conflicted or were compatible. Both might agree that option A is better than option B, or they might disagree. Even if they agree about which is better, the evaluations are different. One might strongly prefer option A while the other one barely prefers option A. And they have entirely different justifications for how they value things. So even when they are compatible, they are not the same.


Since the two standards can't be combined, you have to pick one over the other. So even if they prefer the same option, this just obscures the real decision making. When they conflict, you have to pick one standard over another, or possibly pick a third one, like your emotions. But if one of the standards is chosen, then it is the real standard you are using. So even if an action seems compatible with altruism and egoism, which is unlikely, that compatibility is not proof that an action is both altruistic and egoistic. It is chosen based on at most one of those standards.

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