Altruism and Egoism: Misunderstandings and Potential Political Implications

Understanding the widespread, but often false, understanding of the ideas of altruism and egoism, how this plays into philosophical continuities, and the implication this understanding brings.

Posted by Nicholas Vizzi on July 30, 2021

The understanding of altruism and egoism on its face seems rather simple. When the average person thinks of altruism, they are likely to conjure an image of helping others. Egoism likely makes one think of the word “egotistical” and makes them think of selfishness, greed, and narcissism. Historically, many have tried to take the terms of egoism and emphasize a necessary and moral ought to act in such a way. Ayn Rand, despite the lack of coherency in much of her work when it is applied, was a proponent of this idea, familiarizing the term “ethical egoism.” Another individual who took on the veil of egoism and arguably was one of the first to argue on its behalf was Max Stirner. However, Stirner’s support of egoism is often co-opted by left-wingers due to Stirner’s proposal of some kind of Anarchist-Egoist society. Now, I will not sit here and pretend to be someone who fully understands Stirner or Rand’s work or ideas in full (and to be honest I would like to dive into Stirner’s work at some point and I guess I should read Rand at some point, but Bioshock has convinced me her ideas are just flat out doomed to fail in practice). However, I believe the framing of altruism and egoism as these dichromatic opposites which are antithetical to one another is ridiculous. The two ideas can co-exist in one action, and I believe the recognition of the occurrence has positive implications in relation to discussing the ideas of individual and collective support in modern society.

In the paper Altruism and Egoism: A False Dichotomy?, Dennis L. Krebs. Professor of Simon Fraser University, challenges the conclusion of Batson and Shaw in their attempt to identify the qualitatively distinct motives of egoism and altruism. According to Batson and Shaw, “egoistic motives are structured by the ultimate goal of increasing one’s own welfare, altruistic motives are structured by the ultimate goal of increasing another’s welfare, and never the twain shall meet.” Krebs pushes against this assessment by pointing out that “no motive consists entirely of the goal of enhancing the welfare of another exclusive of concerns about the welfare of the self.” Through this conclusion, we necessarily have to accept that no motive could be only altruistic because this would entail that the individual receives no positive welfare for themselves when acting in the interests of others. Kreb’s also points out that self sacrifice would often be considered inherently altruistic. However, the outcome of a decision is not what the emphasis is being placed on here. Rather, the emphasis is placed on the motivation of the individual making the decision. Kreb’s agrees that all situations which people claim to be altruistic are often based around the consequences of the decision being made. These consequences are the goals of the individual making the decision. So, if we were to accept this understanding of self sacrifice, then it would be impossible to disagree with the idea that the ultimate goals of the actor involve an attempt to obtain an optimal balance between the welfare of the self and someone else because, as Krebs points out, “altruism is at least as complex as the attribution of motivation in everyday life.”

When we come to the conclusion that due to the complexity of attributing motivation to decisions, and the fact that the individual who makes said decision may not even be able to fully understand why or how they make a certain decision in the moment beyond some kind of surface level idea, we are thrusted into accepting that this emphasis on egoism and altruism within are decision making process is almost impossible to identify. Despite various arguments, it is impossible to prove whether individuals make all decisions in their own self interests or whether some actions are actually altruistic in the same way that we could never account for every factor which deterministically decides anything. So what’s the point then? If it is impossible for us to know if something is egoistic or altruistic then what is the relevance of the terms? Well, I believe the implications of supporting an egoistic world has more utility in bringing about positive change which I’d hope to see in society. If we look historically at the most significant philosophical ideas that still have strong implications within western society, it is clear that liberalism has had more luck in surviving. The Enlightenment ushered in many ideals of personal and individual freedoms and actions. After the continual subordination of the individual throughout history at the hands of a monarchical leadership and lordship, it makes sense that such ideas would be popularized. However, the popularization of these ideas has put the western world in an interesting predicament today. Many people, especially the modern right wing, are directly opposed to ideas of collectivism or even publicization despite the potential for positive outcomes to result from it. Now whether this can be attributed to an accurate understanding of said Enlightenment ideals is up for debate, but the reality was and still is in many ways hyper-individualism.

As an advocate of publicization of certain industries and collective ownership and bargaining within society under the certain conditions, I have noticed that a large majority of the push back that I get from these positions places a strong emphasis on individual decision making being a main result of an individuals economic and social circumstance. This is what I mean when I say that many Enlightenment ideals still have modern repercussions that seem to trump any kind of understanding of deterministic development. This inhibits the ability of various positive economic and social policies to be passed as a result of this extrapolation of Enlightenment ideals which places the socio-economic condition of the individual on the individual alone. There doesn’t seem to be a ton of utility in trying to force a kind of altruistic rhetoric, but rather we should try to take this idea of altruism which Kreb’s draws attention. Kreb makes clear that it is nearly impossible for decision making to (1) have its motivations fully understood and (2) view altruism and egoism as antithetical to each other. We should attempt to establish an understanding that egoistic (not egotistical) decisions can often, in varying ways, have positive implications for the majority which have the ability to come back around and make the individual's condition better. A really easy example for me to draw on is the publicization of the healthcare system. It generally plays out that within countries which have publicized, over governmentally distributed healthcare that the populace is happier, more productive, and other cool stuff. However, more philosophically, why should the individual make the sacrifice of paying taxes if it means they are losing money which isn’t in their own interest? Well, if we accept the empirical consensus which says that publicized healthcare has all these positive benefits, then the individual would eventually be able to reap the benefits of not only quality healthcare but also a generally more productive and happy society.

This egoistic outlook on a situation which seems altruistic at face value makes the idea more digestible to a society which places such a strong emphasis on the individual and its decisions. Understanding the false dichotomy of egoism and altruism which has been proliferated as well as the implications of this proliferation helps reveal the potential for politically efficient rhetoric to be established that pushes for ideals which seem altruistic at face value but, with a few more steps, could be conceived as egoistic. And in a society which so heavily values individualism, this shift in rhetoric could potentially make policies with very positive results more politically viable.

Disclaimer: These are pretty philosophical ideas and many people (including myself) can sometimes fall short and explain them in reductive ways, so I am totally open to criticism and implore you to go out and read more about these topics. If anyone has any disagreements or believes I did not account for something, please leave a comment and let me know.