Altruism vs Egoism

This debate began as a response to some comments on the post Altruism, Pragmatism and Moral Relativism

What is morality? Why does man need it? Is there a morality proper to man?

K. M.

I1 face choices every instant. I can choose to act in a manner that prolongs my life. Or I can choose to act otherwise. In effect, I have a constant fundamental2 choice to make – pro my life or not. It is this need to make choices that is at the basis of morality. Once I have made the choice to live, I need a moral code to guide my choices accordingly. If I do not choose to live, morality is irrelevant to me. Morality applies only if
1) I have the power of choice.
2) I hold my life as my ultimate value.

1) I am going to argue this debate from a first person frame of reference
2) By fundamental, I mean that this choice precedes any moral code.


9 Responses

  1. You can choose to prolong your life one aspect and choose not to in another, a choice that does not prolong your life does not mean morality is irrrelevant to you altogether. If you smoke, and you are a vegetarian, then you have just contradicted yourself as we all do every single day, that does not mean there is no moral code that one abides by. Life itself is a risk, so the thousands of variables that are involved in it do not always follow one straight choice of survival. How can we be so sure that any choice we make will undoubtedly prolong our lives. By simply choosing to live in a metroplex and breathe low quality air I have made the choice to make my life shorter, yet I excercise to offset that, so as far as “pro”ing your life or not, the setup itself is arguable.

  2. First let me tackle the issue of certainty about whether a particular choice will prolong my life. Every choice that I make is within the context of my own knowledge. That is the only context in which I can act. I do not make every choice with full certainty; I make a choice by considering all that I do know and using my best judgement.

    Let me take your example of choosing to smoke. I do not smoke because I do not enjoy the smell. But let us assume I enjoy the smell and do smoke. Then, the pleasure that I derive from smoking will energize me physically as well as mentally and thus will be a value (will help my ultimate value – life). But there is also the risk of the smoke shortening my life. Smoking then wont be a clear cut choice. I will have to balance the value against the dis-value and make a choice. This is nothing new – this is what every rational smoker does. But the standard of identifying whether smoking is a value or a dis-value or a bit of both is ultimately the same – life.

    The same argument applies to your example of choosing to live in a city and dealing with the pollution or living in a remote village and dealing with all the inconveniences. I live in a city because I judge the values to far outweight the dis-values.

    Very few choices are clear-cut. Most have both positive and negative aspects. But positive and negative with respect to what? By what standard? By the standard of life. The setup of pro-life is not dubious, it is the only setup in which the concept of value can be formed.

  3. Yes, I agree with you that choices are not clear cut, and that the standard is life, however morality doesn’t always apply in these situations. That is what i meant and stated incorrectly when I said, “as far as pro-ing your life, the setup itself is arguable…” THE SETUP is when you said, morality only applies to me if I hold my life as my ultimate value. That is what I was alluding to when i used the examples of smoking and choosing to live in a polluted city. Perhaps they were poor examples, but I will provide another. Take a human being with morals, starve him for weeks, and you will see how his instincts to feed will overcome all forms of morality since morality can be based upon instinct. On the contrary, immorality applied here if one truly held life as their ultimate value. That is the small piece of the setup I was talking about, I apologize.

  4. I am antonio, sorry for the different names. (marc, antonio, artrock)

  5. Ok, let me take your new example.
    A person has been starving for a few weeks.
    Consider a couple of cases:

    a) The person is usually capable of earning his livelihood and has been starving because of some accident (maybe he got marooned on an island!). If he holds his life as his ultimate value, it would actually be moral for him to say break into someone’s house to get food as long as he compensates the owner for it.

    b) The person is not capable of earning a livelihood. If he holds his life as his ultimate value, he should know enough to resign himself to charity. If he resorts to theft to satisfy his hunger, he will get into big trouble (atleast in a society ruled by law) and such behavior is certainly immoral.

    In either case, it is the standard that holds life as an ultimate value that determines what behavior is moral. Of course, what is moral depends on context. That said, I am not sure if I got your point. If you had something else in mind, please clarify.

  6. Altruism, at least some degree of altruism, grows out of my own self-interest. I (and men in general) can find great personal fulfillment through altruistic acts. That is, through showing compassion or giving to the poor, I increase my own sense of fulfillment.

    In fact, there is no reasonable motivation for doing anything except to maximize my own sense of fulfillment. It turns out that altruism (at least to some extent) is part of the sheme of maximum fulfillment. this scheme also includes honor, justice, freedom, and self-determination.

    I understand that I may be watering down the definition of altruism, since the altruism I advocate is really in my own self-interest.

    It is interesting to look at this from the Christian perspective. It is arguable that Jesus Christ exemplifies altruism. And yet, the Bible says that he endured the cross “for the joy set before him”.

    I think that any “altruistic” or charitable acts undertaken without this kind of underlying motivation (though such motivation may not be immediately aparent to the subject) are suspect in that their motivation is unreasonable at best.

  7. wgreen,
    “I understand that I may be watering down the definition of altruism, since the altruism I advocate is really in my own self-interest.”
    More than that. The essence of altruism as an ethical doctrine is that the purpose of one’s acts should be the achievement of other people’s interests. Showing compassion or giving to the poor are incidental to altruism, not essential to it.

    Consider an example. I see two beggars on a street. One is an old, crippled man. The other is a young child. I might decide to give to the old man but not to the child on the belief that giving to the child will actually destroy his life. As long as my sole concern is the interest of the old man or the interest of the child, both the act of giving and the act of not giving are altruistic. If however, my concern is my own interest, in the form of satisfaction in creating a ‘compassionate’ society, neither act is altruistic.

    Secondly, although it is not related to this debate, a sense of fulfilment is not a proper standard for making choices. It can only be a proper purpose. A sense of fulfilment is based on ethical principles that one has already accepted, explicitly or implicitly.

    Consider some examples.
    1) A deeply religious and superstitious person experiences a sense of fulfilment in performing meaningless rituals.
    2) A fanatic jehadi experiences a sense of fulfilment in blowing up ‘kafirs’ (heretics).

    Would you hold that the sense of fulfilment that these people experience is a proper standard to judge their acts?

  8. talking about the minimum objective in life which is to be alive as long as possible. morals can be defined as an instinct, like in all other creature animals for instance. at this point morals or codes that guides our choices are a must , and a part of us I mean no one can live without a moral .

  9. It does not work that way. To be alive as long as possible, one has to discover what values are needed for life, what one must do to pursue those values. To do so effectively, one has to discover principles that can serve as a guide to behavior. None of these things can be achieved by instinct. Conscious and deliberate thought is needed.

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