Can philosophy help us reconcile altruism with self-interest?
Prima facie, it seems an open and shut case that altruism and self-interest are opposites. The majority view is taken to be that almost all, if not indeed all, human action is premised on the latter. Economists have long assumed that the only rational form of agency is self-interest, and cynics are quick to note that the long-suffering maiden aunt martyring herself for others is subconsciously, or in secret, enjoying herself immensely.
But there is, to use a shop-worn phrase, a third way in the argument. This is to domicile other-regarding and other-supporting actions in a form of acceptable self-interest often described in debates about moral psychology as “enlightened.” Simply put, agents recognise that benefits accrue to themselves in the longer run even if at their own expense they benefit others in the shorter run. A more inclusive view has it that individual members of a community perceive that general community benefits yield benefits for themselves in more and less indirect ways.
This latter accords well with biological accounts of the way many species are organised so that sterile siblings of fertile individuals sacrifice themselves for the benefit of the latter’s offspring. The unit of self-interest is the species, whose individual members therefore appear to act with supreme altruism.
In familiar kinds of morality, altruism is regarded as good, self-interest as (at least often) bad. In the cluster of concepts to which the former belongs, one finds kindness, concern, self-sacrifice. In the self-interest cluster, one finds selfishness, egoism and greed. This indeed is why the term “self-interest” is deployed in moral psychology and economics, precisely to distinguish it from these other terms, from which it is genuinely different.
On this view, the responsible agent is one who takes care of his and his circle’s interests before he takes care of others; altruism on behalf of distant strangers might sometimes be irresponsible if it involved neglect of proper duties to oneself and one’s close circle.
An intriguing theory is advanced by William Hazlitt in his Essays on the Principles of Human Action. He argues that all action is “naturally disinterested” because it is relative to the future (whether seconds or years from now); but neither the future nor therefore one’s future self exists, so the latter is on an ontological par with all other selves. Accordingly, to be able to act in…