Saturday, February 14, 2015
I have been thinking a lot about altruism over the last few years: its nature, evolutionary origins, and relationship to classical virtue in particular. I turn here to consider the null hypothesis regarding altruism. Egoism holds that there is no such thing as genuine altruism. It strikes me that there are three obvious versions of egoism (there may be more) and that all of them are interesting and wrong.
The most naïve of the three we may call impulse egoism. According to this version of egoism, human beings are only moved to act by sensations and emotions, either pleasant or painful. When we feel pleasure, we are moved to act in order to keep the pleasure coming and when we feel pain we act to eliminate the pain. So I keep eating as long as I enjoy eating and drop a hot object when it burns my hand. Likewise, if I act altruistically, say to rescue a child from some danger or pain, it is only because the sight of the child in distress causes me pain. This view is hardly absurd. We often do act under such impulses, even in cases where we act altruistically.
It is naïve and wrong because I am just as obviously capable choosing courses of action which cause myself more pain or cost me more pleasure in the short run than were otherwise available at the moment. If I sit quietly while the dentist pushes a needle into my gums, I am feeling pain right then in order to avoid pain that I am not and do not wish to experience in the future. The naïve egoist might plead that I am acting out of an impulse of fear over future pain, but that clearly won’t do. I am much more likely to be more afraid of what is just about to happen to me than what might happen later. I get up to attend to my infant daughter even though all I am feeling right then is the agony of interrupted sleep and perhaps no small measure of irritation.
The second version of egoism we may call motive egoism. It acknowledges that we often act contrary to the impulses of pain and pleasure but insists that we always do so from selfish motives. If I go to the dentist now it is to avoid pain that I might experience in the future. If I act altruistically by tending to the hungry infant, it is not for the infant’s sake but to avoid the emotional pain that I anticipate I will feel if and when something bad happens to the infant. The problem with this view is that it gets Descartes before de horse. I tend to the infant or help out a friend because I genuinely care about the one and the other. The pleasure that I will feel when my loved ones flourish is a consequence not the cause of my acting according to altruistic motives.
It may be that the pleasures I feel when I benefit others are part of the process whereby altruistic motives are strengthened in my psychology. Evolved inclinations toward altruism are responsive to experience because that makes them more flexible and adaptive. Just as the absence of love may damage an infant’s psychology in more or less permanent ways, so our natural inclination toward altruism can be unlearned. Nonetheless, in a health person altruistic motives are quite genuine. It were simpler for evolution to design a creature that acts out of such motives and then is rewarded for it by emotional satisfaction than to design a creature that must calculate its own selfish interests in advance of every altruistic act.
The third version of egoism we might call rational egoism. This is the view that we should act selfishly. The only rational motive for my actions is my benefit. If I act to benefit others, even at my own short term expense, it can only be a rational action if it benefits me in some long range bottom line way. Once again, I think that this gets it backwards. I like fine wine and a properly cooked leg of lamb because these things please my palate. There are all sorts of evolutionary explanations for these appetites, but the pleasure follows from the objects of my appetites and not the appetites from the pleasures. If I like protein and fat and sugar, etc., it is because such appetites promoted the interests of my ancestor’s genetic success and make it more likely that I will leave offspring to pass on my genes. What happens to my distant progeny will not benefit me, but I care about it nonetheless.
The fact of the matter is that I do care about my family and my friends and my Republic. I may care about them enough to sacrifice myself for the one or the other, though there is no way to tell until the moment of truth. If caring about others in that way is part of the most satisfying human life, and I think that it is so, then it is simply wrong to say that I should act selfishly.
Human beings are capable of acting from deliberation and not merely from impulses of pain and pleasure. We are capable of caring as much or more about others than we do about ourselves. The best human life is a life lived not only for selfish ends but also for the sake of other people. Egoism says nothing much that is useful to say, except as a series of illuminating errors.