Coming to Understand Altruism in a Time of Anxiety

March 29, 2020 Updated: April 7, 2020


In this moment of panic, when the acrid aroma of moral self-infatuation is wafting through the air, it’s worth stepping back to contemplate the many acts of selfless altruism that brighten the landscape.

The behavior of ICU doctors and nurses, who are working double shifts while putting their own health at risk, is a conspicuous example.

But there are many other examples, not least the clerks who stock the shelves and stand behind the counter in grocery stores and other emporia deemed “essential” by our masters. We are all told to practice “social distancing” (wouldn’t “anti-social distancing” be more accurate?), but it’s in the nature of their tasks that these quietly heroic workers can practice that prophylactic behavior only imperfectly.

Opinions vary about the true nature of the crisis we face. Is it caused by a new virus? Or is the reaction to the spread of the virus even more virulent and destructive?

However we answer, it’s humbling to reflect on many quotidian acts of altruism that surround us and make our lives easier and in some cases possible.

It’s no secret that many people deny that such a thing as altruism even exists. One of the most generous people I have ever met, a doctor himself, denied that there is such a thing as altruism. This supposed absence of altruism in the world didn’t bother him. On the contrary, being selfish, he said, is a good thing. He thought that people renowned for altruism—Mother Teresa, say—aren’t personally admirable, just warped, hypocritical, or both.

What should we think of these opinions? I think that they are wrong. But they are also very widespread—they have always been widespread—and it is interesting to ask why. One reason, of course, is that human selfishness is both deep and ineradicable. The question—one question—is whether there are countervailing, non-selfish impulses.

Most people think so. From the nursery on up, most people are encouraged to “share,” to be considerate (part of which means not giving in to selfish impulses), to think of the other person: to practice, in a word, being altruistic.


But let’s step back a minute. What, after all, is “altruism”? An odd word, isn’t it? Although it comes ultimately from the Latin “alter,” meaning “other,” altruism is a French import. It was coined by the utopian French philosopher Auguste Comte (1798–1857) and was brought over into English in the 19th century.

On the sound principle that non-edible French imports should be considered guilty until proven innocent, I am perfectly happy to dispense with the word “altruism.” But what about the thing it describes? Can we do without that?

Altruism means “selfless attention to the welfare of others.” Is there an English equivalent? Yes, there are plenty. The English philosopher and clergyman Joseph Butler (1692–1752) offered one good equivalent, when he described “benevolence” as “an affection to the good of our fellow creatures.”

I will come back to Butler in a moment. His “Sermons,” published in 1726, are a philosophical classic. They demolish the selfish theory of human nature, the “strange affection in many people of explaining away all particular affections, and representing the whole of life as nothing but one continued exercise in self-love.”

Butler puts selfishness in its place. He also acknowledges that selfishness, or something like it, deserves a place in the constellation of human motivations. If human beings were utterly selfless, they would soon be utterly extinct. A “well-ordered self-love,” Thomas Aquinas observed, “whereby man desires a fitting good for himself, is right and natural.”

Noble Self-Love

But self-love is not simply an instinct for self-preservation. As Aristotle noted in the “Nicomachean Ethics,” “self-love” is an ambiguous term. It can be either a term of reproach or a term of commendation. Self-love is a term of reproach when applied to people who “assign to themselves the larger share of money, honors, or bodily pleasures. … Those who take more than their share of these things are men who indulge their appetites, and generally their passions and the irrational parts of their soul.”

But, Aristotle observed, someone who was “always bent on outdoing everyone else in acting justly or temperately or in displaying any other virtues” can also be described as a lover of the self. In this sense, self-love is a term of praise. The good man, Aristotle concludes, “ought to be a lover of self, since he will then both benefit himself by acting nobly and aid his fellows; but the bad man ought not to be a lover of self, since he will follow his base passions, and so injure both himself and his neighbor.”

I mentioned that my friend who denied the existence of altruism and praised selfishness was a doctor. At first blush, that seems paradoxical. There may be selfish reasons for becoming a doctor—the money, the social prestige. But doctors are conspicuously in the business of working very hard, and often risking their own health, to help others. Think of all those doctors in New York and elsewhere busying themselves among highly contagious COVID-19 patients.

When they get up in the middle of the night to save someone’s life, it is difficult to describe their behavior as selfish. Why? Because when we describe someone as “selfish,” we do not mean that he exhibits the noble self-love that Aristotle commends. We mean that he exhibits a grasping disposition that is unconcerned with the fortunes or feelings of others. This accords with the dictionary definition of “selfish”: “concerned chiefly or only for oneself without regard for the well being of others.”

We are naturally taken aback when we hear someone praise selfishness as a virtue because we know it is not a good thing to be “without regard for the well being of others.” Of course, people who praise selfishness as a virtue know this.

Often, I suspect, their praise is deliberately provocative. They know as well as the rest of us that one should not be selfish—that one should not act “without regard for the well being of others.” They know, too, since they are not lunatics, that there is plenty of selfless benevolence around: Just look at the behavior of most mothers toward their infants.

But they praise selfishness in order to call attention to the hypocrisy and sentimentalization that often attends the praise of selflessness and altruism. This is very much worth doing. For there can be no doubt that some people who loudly praise selflessness are concerned less with the welfare of others than in enhancing their own feelings of virtue. Every good is susceptible of perversion, including the good of caring for the welfare of others.

Misunderstanding Selfishness

But to say that a good can be perverted is not to deny the value of the good when rightly pursued. Nevertheless, people who deny the existence of altruism and praise selfishness are not simply being provocative. Nor are they simply calling attention to the abuse, the sentimentalization, of a natural good. They are also, I believe, guilty of a logical mistake.

This mistake was first pointed out clearly by the aforementioned Joseph Butler in his criticism of the selfish theory of human nature. The selfish theory of human nature, like Halley’s Comet, is a recurrent phenomenon: It was popularized in Butler’s time by thinkers like Thomas Hobbes with his idea that human life is at bottom a “war of all against all.”

It is popularized today above all by sociobiologists who tell us that our genes are irredeemably “selfish.” Of course, a gene can no more be selfish than it can be lascivious or fond of Mozart, but try telling that to a sociobiologist.

Butler saw that many people who promulgated the selfish theory confused two very different propositions, one of which was a commonplace truth, the other of which was a shocking falsehood.

One proposition is that we can’t knowingly act, except from a desire or interest that is our own. Not only is this true—it’s what philosophers call a necessary truth—it couldn’t be otherwise.

The other proposition is that all of our actions are self-interested. But this proposition, far from being self-evidently true, is a scandalous falsehood. It’s a tautology that any interest we have is an interest of our own: Whose else could it be? But the objects of our interest are as various as the world is wide.

No doubt much of what we do we do from motives of self-interest. But we might also do things for the sake of flag and country; for the love of a good woman; for the love of God; to discover a new country; to benefit a friend; to harm an enemy; to make a fortune; to spend a fortune.

“It is not,” Butler notes, “because we love ourselves that we find delight in such and such objects, but because we have particular affections towards them.” Indeed, it often happens that in pursuit of some object—through “fancy, inquisitiveness, love, or hatred, any vagrant inclination”—we harm our self-interest. Think of the scientist who ruins his health in single-minded pursuit of the truth about some problem, or a soldier who gives his life for his country.

The fundamental logical error, as the Australian philosopher David Stove has pointed out, is in inferring real-life consequences from a tautology. “If you set out from a tautological premise,” Stove observes, “you cannot validly infer from it ANY conclusion which is not itself tautological.” It does not follow from the tautology that “No one can act intentionally except from an interest that he has” that “No one can act intentionally except from a motive that is self-interested.”

As Stove points out, this is the same sort of reasoning—perennially popular, but nonetheless atrocious—that gulls people into concluding from the proposition “Whatever will be will be” that “All human effort is ineffectual.” The first is a tautology; the second is a silly falsehood. (It’s as silly as inferring from the proposition “Every husband has a wife” that “Every man marries.”)

Sensible people have a low opinion of human nature. They know that human beings are often vain, selfish, calculating, and ungrateful. But to universalize cynicism is not wisdom but folly. We might all wish there were more benevolence and altruism around than there is. But to say that is not to deny the existence or the desirability of those phenomena.

The temptation is to conclude that human beings are simpler than they are. All of us are plenty selfish. Almost all of us have and act on altruistic impulses, too. The important truth to keep in view is that, as Joseph Butler observed, “Everything is what it is, and not another thing.”

Roger Kimball is the editor and publisher of The New Criterion and publisher of Encounter Books. His most recent book is “The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.