Redefining Altruism

Roger Kimball at Right Reason asks “Is Altruism an Illusion?” He answers in the negative. Here’s the core of his argument:

One proposition is that we cannot knowingly act except from a desire or interest which is our own. Not only is this true: it is what philosophers call a necessary truth — it could not 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 is 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.

Those examples simply prove the proposition that Kimball seeks to disprove. Take the scientist who ruins his health in a single-minded pursuit of the truth. That scientist has simply chosen between health and truth, and truth has won out. That is to say, he revealed through his actions that his self-interest was more bound up in the pursuit of truth than in his own health.

All of our actions are self-interested, to the extent that they are taken with a good understanding of their consequences. An action that seems “unselfish” — that is, directed toward the benefit of others — must necessarily arise out of self-interest. It may simply be that the satisfaction gained from, say, a relentless pursuit of truth outweighs the resulting ill-health.

The problem, as I see it, is merely definitional. Altruism is defined as “the quality of unselfish concern for the welfare of others.” (Other sources also invoke “unselfishness.”) A better definition of altruism would go like this:

Altruism is the quality of concern for the welfare of others, as evidenced by action. An altruistic act is intended, necessarily, to satisfy the moral imperatives of the person performing the act, otherwise it would not be performed. The self-interestedness of an act altruism does not, however, detract in the least from the value of such an act to its beneficiary or beneficiaries. By the same token, an act that may not seem to arise from a concern for the welfare of others may nevertheless have as much beneficial effect as a purposely altruistic act.

Adam Smith said it thus:

As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as he can…to direct [his] industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it….[B]y directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.

…By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it.

As for “altruistic” scientists, only a few days ago I quoted the great mathematician, G.H. Hardy:

There are many highly respectable motives which may lead men to prosecute research, but three which are much more important than the rest. The first (without which the rest must come to nothing) is intellectual curiosity, desire to know the truth. Then, professional pride, anxiety to be satisfied with one’s performance, the shame that overcomes any self-respecting craftsman when his work is unworthy of his talent. Finally, ambition, desire for reputation, and the position, even the power or the money, which it brings. It may be fine to feel, when you have done your work, that you have added to the happiness or alleviated the sufferings of others, but that will not be why you did it. So if a mathematician, or a chemist, or even a physiologist, were to tell me that the driving force in his work had been the desire to benefit humanity, then I should not believe him (nor should I think any better of him if I did). His dominant motives have been those which I have stated and in which, surely, there is nothing of which any decent man need be ashamed. [A Mathematician’s Apology, 1979 edition, p. 79]

There is no essential difference between altruism, defined properly, and the pursuit of self-interest, even if that pursuit does not “seem” altruistic. In fact, the common belief that there is a difference between altruism and the pursuit of self-interest is one cause of (excuse for) purportedly compassionate but actually destructive government intervention in human affairs.