The question I want to pursue in this essay is simple: Does altruism/unselfishness exist? Or, to be more precise: Are the categories “selfish” and “unselfish” or “egoistic” and “altruistic” useful for understanding human behavior? Many people believe that the distinction is illusory—invented to conceal real motives. They think that behind every seemingly unselfish act there hides a selfish motive. Others seem to use these categories without much thought. To answer the question, we will first have to define our concepts and—since concepts and their definitions are never value-free or objectively accurate—analyze their history. Secondly, I will show why the answer to this question depends on how we define the terms.
So what is unselfishness? What is egoism? What is altruism? When trying to find the history of a concept, Google’s Ngram Viewer is an invaluable resource. And we can see that these words start to take off after about 1825, but earlier occurrences are also present.
Egoism became a major problem for the utilitarians. Since utilitarianism seemingly cannot answer the egoist’s question: “Why should I care about the greatest happiness for the greatest number? I pursue my happiness because I can feel it and like it, but yours and that of others I can neither feel nor like.” They couldn’t give the Aristotelian answer, so what could they say? Henry Sidgwick, for example, seems to get entirely stuck on this problem. Towards the end of The Methods of Ethics, he even writes:
And yet we cannot but admit with Butler, that it is ultimately reasonable to seek one’s own happiness. (Sidgwick, 1874, p.473)
But the need for combatting the supposedly egoistic nature of humans came before:
It was in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that morality came generally to be understood as offering a solution to the problems posed by human egoism and that the content of morality came to be largely equated with altruism. For it was in that same period that men came to be thought of as in some dangerous measure egoistic by nature; and it is only once we think of mankind as by nature dangerously egoistic that altruism becomes at once socially necessary and yet apparently impossible and, if and when it occurs, inexplicable. On the traditional Aristotelian view such problems do not arise. For what education in the virtues teaches me is that my good as a man is one and the same as the good of those others with whom I am bound up in human community. There is no way of my pursuing my good which is necessarily antagonistic to you pursuing yours because the good is neither mine peculiarly nor yours peculiarly – goods are not private property. Hence Aristotle’s definition of friendship, the fundamental form of human relationship, is in terms of shared goods. The egoist is thus, in the ancient and medieval world, always someone who has made a fundamental mistake about where his own good lies and someone who has thus and to that extent excluded himself from human relationships. (MacIntyre, 1981/2007, pp. 228-229)
“Egoism,” like “optimism,” “pessimism,” “nihilism,” “altruism,” and so forth, belongs to the newspeak of the Enlightenment. (Voegelin, 1957, p. 256)
The idea that humans in their “state of nature” are egoistic, which gained popularity during the Enlightenment, brought the necessity for a different justification of selfless behavior. If our desires are somehow antagonistic, and if we’re caught in a zero-sum game, then altruism becomes at the same time necessary and inexplicable. J.S. Mill, who maintained that everyone at birth cares only about preserving their existence, tried to show that the association between the pains of others and one’s own, leads to the development of altruism. But the simple idea that humans are naturally social animals—that what is good for me and what is good for others are not always incompatible—was off the table. Already in 1908, Benedetto Croce realized the fruitlessness of this approach:
Altruism is as insipid as egoism, and is at bottom reducible to egoism; in much the same way as sensual love, which has justly been called “egoism for two.” Indeed, why should we be ready to sacrifice ourselves for others, and to promote their desire in every case and in spite of everything? For what reason, save for the blind and irrational attachment to them which makes a man throw away his life or descend to abjection for a wicked woman furiously loved, suffer every shame and torment for an unworthy son, or yield to the impulses of sympathy inspired by an individual? (Croce, 1909/1913, pp. 430-431)
And before Croce, Arthur Schopenhauer argued that egoism cannot really be “refuted”—much like Protagoras’ teaching can never be refuted. Instead, he tried to show that it doesn’t practically exist:
Theoretical egoism can never be demonstrably refuted, yet in philosophy it has never been used otherwise than as a sceptical sophism, i.e., a pretence. As a serious conviction, on the other hand, it could only be found in a madhouse, and as such it stands in need of a cure rather than a refutation. We do not therefore combat it any further in this regard, but treat it as merely the last stronghold of scepticism, which is always polemical. […] We therefore who, for this very reason, are striving to extend the limits of our knowledge through philosophy, will treat this sceptical argument of theoretical egoism which meets us, as an army would treat a small frontier fortress. The fortress cannot indeed be taken, but the garrison can never sally forth from it, and therefore we pass it without danger, and are not afraid to have it in our rear. (Schopenhauer, 1818/1883, pp. 135-136)
In the same work, Schopenhauer later identifies egoism as the state’s raison d’être. This is because if morally correct—i.e. altruistic—behavior was always guaranteed, as for example in the golden age myth in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, then there would be no need for a state:
The state is thus instituted under the correct presupposition that pure morality, i.e., right action from moral grounds, is not to be expected: if this were not the case, it would itself be superfluous. Thus the state, which aims at well-being, is by no means directed against egoism, but only against the disadvantageous consequences which arise from the multiplicity of egoistic individuals, and reciprocally affect them all and disturb their well-being. (Schopenhauer, 1818/1883, p. 445)
We can reasonably conclude that “egoism” came to be understood in these periods mainly as something antagonistic to morality, and “altruism” was taken to be a universal and necessary feature of all ethical systems. But Psychological Egoism, which claims that every subject cares only about their welfare, is a more recent phenomenon. And it is worth noting that the most sophisticated philosophical egoist, Max Stirner, didn’t claim that everyone is always already an egoist:
Now, do you suppose unselfishness is unreal and nowhere extant? On the contrary, nothing is more ordinary! One may even call it an article of fashion in the civilized world, which is considered so indispensable that, if it costs too much in solid material, people at least adorn themselves with its tinsel counterfeit and feign it. Where does unselfishness begin? Right where an end ceases to be our end and our property, which we, as owners, can dispose of at pleasure; where it becomes a fixed end or a fixed idea; where it begins to inspire, enthuse, fanaticize us; in short, where it passes into our stubbornness and becomes our master. One is not unselfish so long as he retains the end in his power; one becomes so only at that “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise,” the fundamental maxim of all the possessed; one becomes so in the case of a sacred end, through the corresponding sacred zeal.
I am not unselfish so long as the end remains my own, and I, instead of giving myself up to be the blind means of its fulfilment, leave it always an open question. My zeal need not on that account be slacker than the most fanatical, but at the same time I remain toward it frostily cold, unbelieving, and its most irreconcilable enemy; I remain its judge, because I am its owner. (Stirner, 1844/1912, pp. 78-79)
People who deny the existence of unselfishness often begin with the banal observation that individuals pursue their interests. If an individual can give a reason for her actions, they are her reasons. But this says nothing about the nature of these actions. The argument that all action is self-interested because it comes from a self would make “egoism” all-encompassing and “altruism” obsolete. Hence both of these concepts would become useless. An individual seeking her self-interest would put off her efforts to help another if she could be satisfied differently; an individual motivated to help others wouldn’t do so:
A nation that conquers the world, acts from self-interest; a nation that submits to a conqueror acts from self-interest. A spendthrift and a miser alike act from self-interest: the same principle animated Messalina and Lucretia, Bayard and Byng. To say that when a man acts, he acts from self-interest is only to announce, that when a man does act, he acts. An important truth, a great discovery, calling assuredly for the appearance of prophets, or if necessary, even ghosts. But to announce, that when a man acts, he acts from self-interest, and that the self-interest of every man prompts him to be a tyrant and a robber, is to declare that which the experience of all human nature contradicts, because we all daily and hourly feel and see, that there are a thousand other motives which influence human conduct besides the idea of exercising power, and obtaining property; every one of which must rank under the term self-interest, because every man who acts under their influence must necessarily believe that in so acting, he acts for his happiness, and therefore for his self-interest. Utility, Pain, Power, Pleasure, Happiness, Self-interest, are all phrases to which any man may annex any meaning he pleases, and from which any acute and practised reasoner may most syllogistically deduce any theory he chooses. (Disraeli, 1835, pp. 13-14)
So we can see that everything hinges on how one defines “egoism,” “altruism,” “self-interest,” and so on. These categories can be useless if defined how many psychological egoists and utilitarians define them or not if defined how pretty much everyone else, including egoists like Stirner, defines them. And we can also conclude that not defining “self-interest” or “egoism” as all-encompassing, circular concepts is not fatal to egoist philosophy. These positions are compatible:
I do not want to recognize or respect in you any thing, neither the proprietor nor the ragamuffin, nor even the man, but to use you. In salt I find that it makes food palatable to me, therefore I dissolve it; in the fish I recognize an aliment, therefore I eat it; in you I discover the gift of making my life agreeable, therefore I choose you as a companion. Or, in salt I study crystallization, in the fish animality, in you men, etc. But to me you are only what you are for me, to wit, my object; and, because my object, therefore my property. (Stirner, 1844/1912, p. 183)
- Croce, B. (1913). Philosophy of the Practical: Economic and Ethic. Biblo & Tannen Publishers. (Original work published 1909)
- Disraeli, B. (1835). Vindication of the English Constitution in a Letter to a Noble and Learned Lord. Saunders and Otley.
- MacIntyre, A. C. (2007). After virtue: A study in moral theory. University of Notre Dame Press. (Original work published 1981)
- Schopenhauer, A. (1883). The World as Will and Idea, Volume 1. Trübner & Company. (Original work published 1818)
- Sidgwick, H. (1874). The Methods of Ethics. Macmillan.
- Stirner, M. (1912). The Ego and His Own. A. C. Fifield. (Original work published 1844)
- Voegelin, E. (1957). Order and History, Volume 3, Plato and Aristotle. University of Missouri Press.