Altruism and Egoism
Thomas Ash

Egoism can be construed either as an empirical claim about the motives of human actions - namely that they are always exclusively self-serving - or as a normative claim, which denies that we ever have good reason to act unselfishly. The first view is commonly called 'psychological egoism', and needs little further elaboration; the second I shall call 'normative egoism', and leave relatively undefined. I aim to undermine the temptations of to avoid muddying the waters with the connotations of terms like 'ethical egoism' and 'rational egoism'. 'Normative egoism' should be understood very minimally, as holding that self-interested reasons for action are somehow more respectable

Cynics throughout the ages have doubted whether there are any truly altruistic acts, and suggested that morality is purely a matter of enlightened self-interest. If it seems judgemental to call this cynicism, bear in mind that the first position calls into question people's avowed reasons for acting, and the second challenges the common conception of morality. And it is almost always a good thing to challenge preconceptions, and raise tough questions about how we think about ethics.

The two cynical (or, more neutrally, sceptical) positions are quite distinct. The first is psychological egoism, an empirical claim about the motives of our actions. The second is ethical egoism, so-called to emphasise its normative status, which holds that we ought simply to act self-interestedly. You could be an ethical egoist while believing that your friends have been brainwashed into altruism. Conversely, doctrines like 'original sin' can hold that we are inescapably selfish, but should be selfless, though Broad points out that this is odd, "for one cannot be under an obligation to something which is psychologically impossible."[1]

So psychological egoism could undermine any altruistic ethics. If everyone toiling for Oxfam were in some sense just in it for themselves, our common sense notions of praise and blame and right and wrong might deserve to be abandoned. Even if there were any altruistic acts, this would not undermine a complete egoist (if there were any of those.) The only way to do so would be to defend some positive ethical theory. In Morality, Bernard Williams argues with "the egoist" by appealing to his or her preexisting affections and tendencies, and there are typically inconsistencies here, but such an argument would not convince a complete egoist.

The 21st century is often called one of unprecedented moral uncertainty. But Joseph Butler, a vicar and later bishop in supposedly serene, 'certain' 18th century England, saw his age as exhibiting an unparalleled "open scorn of all talk of public spirit, and real good will to our fellow creatures."[2] In his preaching at Rolls Chapel, particularly in Sermon XI of the Fifteen Sermons, he was concerned to show that the conflict between "self-love" and "the love of our neighbour" was illusory, and that benevolence was an inextricable part of everyday life.

Butler's first argument rests on an undeniable observation of human nature: "Every man hath a general desire of his own happiness; and likewise a variety of particular affections, passions and appetites to particular external objects."[3] Egoism understands the second as sought exclusively for the first, but this is clearly not the case. We have to have desires for "particular external objects" - like food - to achieve happiness. We can't seek pleasure directly, and many of things we do seek do not give it at all - Simon Blackburn gives the example of saving the whales.[4] Butler's point here is that "the love of our neighbour, is as really our own affection as self-love", and does not contradict it any more than malice, whale enthusiasm or other desires do.

It is true that these are all motives that make us 'want' to do things, and so in a sense we act on them out of 'self-love', since our affections, passions and appetites make us 'want' to. This reveals an element of truth in egoism, which might make us re-evaluate the extent to which we praise and blame people for their actions. But, as Butler points out, this is not what we really mean by 'self-love' and 'want': "Private happiness is all which self-love can make us desire."[5] Someone can give to charity while in fact wanting to buy a new TV. And just because a soldier desires revenge, that does not mean it is in his interest - especially if he risks his life for it. Blackburn rightly observes that neither wants simply to satisfy their desire - they want to help people, or have revenge. So Butler's first argument shows that altruism is a real phenomenon, and undermines psychological hedonism. No wonder Broad, in his commentary on Butler, decided: "His chief merit is as a moral psychologist."[6]

But Butler goes on to argue less convincingly that benevolence is entirely consistent with self-love. Having demonstrated that we only become happy through concerns distinct from self-love, he claims that a benevolent man is acting from a desire (to be benevolent) which will gratify him as much as success will gratify an ambitious man - the only difference being that if he fails, trying will have been its own reward. This is a dubious account, and precisely the opposite of Blackburn's claim that genuine benevolence is focused on results for others. The question Butler goes on to ask, "is benevolence less the temper of tranquility and freedom than ambition and covetousness?"[7], also seems to be an appeal to self-interest. Justifying this to his parishioners, he says "there can be no access to be had to the understanding, but by convincing men, that the course of life we would persuade them to is not contradictory to their interest."

The problem with such an approach is that it will never work. Though open deceitfulness and crime will not get you very far, there will always be cases where harming others will serve your interests. For instance, a mafiosi could steal all he wanted if he was prepared to ensure his victims couldn't sing. So defending altruism as enlightened self-interest is a non-starter - honesty isn't always the best policy, though it may or may not be right. Butler would not have achieved much if he only convinced us to be altruistic when they were being watched. Of course, as a vicar, Butler thought we always were being watched. But, even if God exists, this position is vulnerable to the sort of criticism found in Plato's Euthyphro: either what God commands is moral, which remains to be shown, or it is arbitrary and should simply be followed to avoid hell.

Butler has been called "Aristotle clad in a diaphanous [insubstantial] mantle made of Christianity." There is an interesting contrast between these two traditions. In his historical approach to The Moral Philosophers, Richard Norman points out that the ancient philosophers describe morality in terms that seem egoistic compared to the sort of altruism found in the Sermon on the Mount. Christianity famously emphasizes giving, turning the other cheek, and exhibiting the humbleness of "the poor in spirit."[8] This is so strikingly different from Aristotle's description of the virtuous man as magnamimous, self-confident and successful that Nietzche dubs it a "slave morality". Should we abandon it as so much post-Christian baggage?

Most modern philosophers, whether Christian or not, have tended to think that morality requires an altruism as strict as that of the Sermon on the Mount. In a 1928 lecture[9], H.A. Prichard complained that Aristotle justifies morality by saying it is in your interest to be virtuous, not that it is your duty. Much modern morality, from the consequential to the deontological end of the spectrum, requires us to be moral for its own sake. Kant even felt that the noblest action was one which went against inclination and desire for the sake of duty.

By contrast, ancient Greek ethics grew out of an attempt to discover the good life. For Aristotle, this was the life of virtues like friendship, courage and success, all kept in correct proportion to each other[10]; for the Stoics, a virtuous life detached one from all desire. None of this rules out behaviour which we would describe as altruistic, and the good life was plausibly seen as a decent one, lived in harmony with one's fellows. In The Republic, Socrates defends justice as an essential part of a fulfilling, balanced life, as opposed to a dispensable tool of convenience[11]. Still, there is a difference between defending this and saying that we have an obligation to be just regardless of the personal cost.

Broad illustrates a similar distinction between other-regarding and other-referential actions. Clearly, people sometimes act regardless of self-interest. For instance, atheists make wills even though they expect to have lost all interests by the time any will is read. Or take Maksymilian Kolbe, a Polish priest who took the place of a young father in the concentration camps; though he did believe in an afterlife, it was not one in which he would have expected to gain any additional reward, and it is implausible to claim he acted in his own interest rather than that of the father and his children. This was an other-regarding action, because unless Kolbe thought the father's survival was a good thing, he would not have had any reason for acting as he did.

An egoist can't reasonably deny that these sort of deeds happen. However , he could claim that they are still egoistic in the sense of being self-referential: the atheist made the will to be thought of well, even though he did not expect to gain any benefit from it; Kolbe wanted to be a martyr for his church. Had these been their only motives, their actions would have been just as self-centred (as opposed to selfish) as those of a soldier risking his life to revenge a personal slight. However, it would be unrealistically cynical to believe these were their only reasons. If Kolbe or the atheist protested that their concern was at least in part for other people, why should we not believe them? It's difficult to explain Kolbe's laying down his life to save a stranger without assuming that it resulted at least in part from a consideration of the father's life as important like his own.

Over the past century or so, some sociobiologists - academic and amateur - have tried to use Darwin's Theory of Evolution to explain altruism away. Evolution operates without concern for what is right and wrong, simply ensuring the survival of the fittest. It is argued that this shows self-sacrificing tendencies must have arisen as a tactic which helped the genes people shared with others in their family or species go on to last. But it is not the case that every widespread tendency is carried by a gene with a tendency to spread itself widely. Consider the tendency of most humans to ponder their place in the universe once in a while. We would want to explain this as a byproduct of our unique intellectual faculties, rather than as the reproducatively advantageous result of a particular combination of genes. It seems very possible that the same is true of our complicated ethical systems.

None of these scientific facts establish what we ought to do, however. Showing that it doesn't spread your genes to help strangers, or whales, is not the same as showing that it is right or wrong. Some, though not all, cooperation may have developed because it propogated our genes. But it is ludicrous to think that this means we cooperate because we really want to help our genes. Simon Blackburn sharply calls it "the biologist's fallacy."[12]

Psychological egoism is often seen as a hard-headed understanding of how the world works, a refusal to be anyone's sucker. But it does not really explain human psychology, or any contemporary morality. Many people see their ethics as a matter of enlightened self-interest, but much of what they do is against their interest, from a 'hard-headed' point of view. An ethical egoist could still claim that people should act only in their interest, but this remains to be shown, and does not fit as comfortably with human nature as might be supposed.


1. Broad (2), p231

2. Butler, Sermon XI, paragraph 2

3. Butler, Sermon XI, paragraph 5

4. Blackburn, p138. The examples given are: "...water, food, or the happiness of my neighbour ... the continuation of the whales, or the destruction of my enemy, or the triumph of the Party, or the death of the infidels..." Many of these clearly do not give direct happiness, but are sought nonetheless. An egoist could argue that this is because they give indirect happiness, but this seems implausible.

5. Butler, Sermon XI, paragraph 8

6. Broad (1), p55

7. Butler, Sermon XI, paragraph 14

8. Though similar elements can be found in other moralities, pre-Christian as well as post-Christian.

9. Included in H.A. Prichard, Moral Obligation and 'Duty and Interest', (London, 1968)

10. Broad sees Butler as holding a similar view. He regards "the ideal nature of man" as one in which self-interest and all other aspects of human nature (none of which are "intrinsically evil") are present, but do not show "excessive or inappropriate functioning." "Wrong-doing ... is like a watch with a spring which is too strong for its balance wheel." Broad (1), p56-57

11. Glaucon describes this view in The Republic, though he does not advocate it himself. Some of the Sophists, especially Thrasymachus, were famous for thinking morality really was just a tool of convenience which could be abandoned when a tyrant ceased to be vulnerable to others, and didn't have to reply on their reciprocity. An illustration of this was the myth of Gyges' Ring which made its wearer invisible and thus let him do anything he wanted.

12. Blackburn, p148


Ruling Passions, Simon Blackburn (OUP, 2000)

Five Types of Ethical Theory, C.D. Broad (1) (Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co, 1934)

Ethics and the History of Philosophy, C.D. Broad (2) (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1952)

Fifteen Sermons, Joseph Butler (Originally published by Robert Carter & Brothers, 1860, reprinted by Lincoln-Rembrandt Publishing, 1993)

The Moral Philosophers: An Introduction to Ethics (2nd edition), Richard Norman (OUP, 1998)

Morality: An Introduction to Ethics, Bernard Williams (CUP, 1993)

Utilitarianism in the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, Simon Blackburn (Ed.) (OUP, 1996)

Egoism and Altruism by Richard Kraut in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward Craig (Ed.) (Routledge, retrieved October 28, 2003, from

© 2003

About the author...
Tom Ash is the webmaster of Big Issue Ground and Atheist Ground. He studied philosophy at Oxford and Cambridge, where he was president of the University Atheist and Agnostic Society. He currently does non-profit work and freelance web development. See more information about Tom Ash.

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