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Altruism Versus Self-Interest: Sometimes a False Dichotomy*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 June 2009

Neera Kapur Badhwar
Philosophy, The University of Oklahoma


In the moral philosophy of the last two centuries, altruism of one kind or another has typically been regarded as identical with moral concern. When self-regarding duties have been recognized, motivation by duty has been sharply distinguished from motivation by self-interest. Accordingly, from Kant, Mill, and Sidgwick to Rawls, Nagel, and Gauthier, concern for our own interests, whether long-term or short-term, has typically been regarded as intrinsically nonmoral. So, for example, although Thomas Nagel regards both prudence and altruism as structural features of practical reason, he identifies only the latter as a moral capacity, prudence being merely rational, long-term egoism. Similarly, John Ravvls and David Gauthier contrast self-interest and other nontuistic interests—interests that are independent of others' interests—with moral interest. We are morally permitted, no doubt, to act out of self-interest within certain constraints, but such acts can have no intrinsic moral worth. Pursuit of our own interests out of duty (if there is such a duty) does have intrinsic moral worth, but such pursuit, by hypothesis, cannot be motivated by self-interest. Self-interested pursuit of our own interests as such, no matter how realistic, farsighted, temperate, honest, or courageous, cannot be intrinsically moral. And this remains the case even if self-interest motivates us to perform other-regarding acts: only those other-regarding acts that are (appropriately) motivated by others' interests count as moral, because only such acts are altruistic.

Research Article
Copyright © Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation 1993

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1 Kant is the foremost example of a philosopher who makes room for self-regarding duties while firmly excluding self-interest from moral motivation. No empirical interest, according to Kant, can motivate moral concern, because all such interests—including our interests in others—reduce to self-interest. “All material practical principles are, as such, of one and the same kind, and belong under the general principle of self-love or one's own happiness” (Kant, , Critique of Practical Reason, trans. Beck, Lewis W. [New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1956], p. 22).Google Scholar To love another's inclinations or empirical ends is to consider them to be “favorable to my own advantage” (Kant, , Groundwork of the Metaphysic of MoralsGoogle Scholar, Akademie ed., trans. Paton, H. J., in The Moral Law [London: Hutchinson and Co., 1948], p. 400).Google Scholar The moral attitude of respect (including self-respect) “is properly the representation of a worth that thwarts my self-love” (p. 401n).Google Scholar

2 Nagel, Thomas, The Possibility of Altruism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), pp. 3, 1516, 84, and 87.Google Scholar Egoistic interests, according to Nagel, include both self-interest and “the interest we may happen to take in other things and other persons” (p. 3).Google Scholar Nagel evidently does not accept Kant's claim that all interests reduce to self-interest; nevertheless, like Kant, he excludes all egoistic interests from moral motivation.

See also Thomas, Laurence, Liwng Morally: A Psychology of Moral Character (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989)Google Scholar; Blum, Lawrence, Friendship, Altruism, and Morality (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980)Google Scholar; and Murdoch, Iris, The Soivreignty of Good (New York: Schocken Books, 1971).Google Scholar Thomas states that he will “assume without really much argument that to be moral is to be altruistic” (p. vii)Google Scholar, and contrasts altruism with self-interest (p. 67). Blum states that he “will not want to make any general claims about the distinction between moral considerations, judgments, and standpoints and non-moral ones,” but that he “will want to maintain one distinction, namely the difference between concern for others and concern for self, and will want to see this distinction as having moral significance” (p. 9; see also pp. 91 and 213). In a more recent article, however, Blum is concerned to explore the connection between concern for others and concern for self, although he still stops short of saying that the latter can be a moral concern. See Blum, , “Vocation, Friendship, and Community: Limitations of the Personal-Impersonal Framework,” Identity, Character, and Morality, ed. Flanagan, Owen and Rorty, Amélie O. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990), pp. 173–97.Google Scholar The central concept in understanding morality or goodness, according to Murdoch, is realism rather than altruism, but the self and its concerns are still excluded from morality because, she explains, the self is the chief obstacle to realism. “The self, the place where we live, is a place of illusion. Goodness is connected with the attempt to see the unself, to see and to respond to the real world in the light of a virtuous consciousness” (p. 93).

3 Nontuistic interests are what Nagel calls egoistic interests: independent interests of the self, whether in the self or in others. See Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), pp. 13, 127–29Google Scholar; and Gauthier, David, Morals by Agreetnent, hereafter MA (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), p. 7.Google Scholar

4 Thus, according to Kant, we have an indirect duty to pursue our own happiness, because if we are happy we will be more likely to do our various duties.

5 Gauthier, , MA, pp. 327–28.Google Scholar Despite the general agreement over the nature of moral motivation as (entirely or chiefly) altruistic, there is disagreement over the nature of altruism. For example, Nagel, (Possibility of Altruism, p. 15)Google Scholar and Gauthier, (MA, p. 238)Google Scholar see altruism as a purely rational capacity, i.e., a capacity which is independent of our other-regarding emotions such as fellow-feeling or compassion, whereas Thomas sees it as rooted in such emotions. Blum allows for the possibility that certain forms of concern for others, such as those expressed in justice, or perhaps even benevolence, may be purely rational, but insists on the moral worth of the concern that is motivated by sympathy or compassion (Friendship, Altruism, and Morality, especially pp. 121–24).Google Scholar Again, some philosophers regard genuine altruism as directly motivated by another's interests, whereas others—primarily Kantiana—regard it as only indirectly motivated by such interests, via a commitment to some moral principle that requires altruistic concern. Finally, what different philosophers mean by direct altruism also differs. Thus, Blum's idea of direct (emotionally motivated) altruism is Nagel's idea of egoistic motivation, because emotions, for Nagel, , are “intermediate”Google Scholar factors between others' interests and practical reason, factors that constitute part of the agent's own interests (pp. 84 and 87). Direct altruism, according to Nagel, is purely rational motivation by others' interests (pp. 15–16).

I cannot discuss these issues here, but it is important to note that psychological research does not support the idea of altruism as a purely rational capacity. On the contrary, studies of the psychopathic personality, as well as the altruistic personality, strongly support the idea that altruism is impossible without an adequate emotional capacity. See deck-ley, Hervey, The Mask of Sanity, 5th ed. (St. Louis: C. V. Mosby, 1976)Google Scholar and the studies of altruism cited in n. 11 below. I share the vieiv of those philosophers who think that most adult human emotions are not blind impulses but cognitive phenomena, and essential to moral perception, reasoning, and motivation. See de Sousa, Ronald, The Rationality of Emotion (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987)Google Scholar; Blum, , Friendship, Altruism, and MoralityGoogle Scholar; and my “The Rejection of Ethical Rationalism,” Logos, vol. 10 (1989), pp. 99131.Google Scholar

6 Hereafter, by “motivation by self-interest” I shall mean “motivation by rational self-interest” as defined above. And by “moral act” or “moral motive” I shall mean an act or motive that is morally good or right, and not merely one that is morally permissible.

7 Butler, Joseph, Five Sermons, ed. Darwall, S. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1983), preface, para. 39.Google Scholar

8 The only contemporary philosophers I am aware of who defend self-interest as a moral interest are Hampton, Jean, “Selflessness and the Loss of Self,”Google Scholar in this volume; Falk, W. D., “Morality, Self, and Others,” in Morality and the language of Conduct, ed. Castaneda, Hector-Neri and Nakhnikian, George (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1963), pp. 3439Google Scholar; and Pincoffs, Edmund L., Quandaries and Virtues: Agaitist Reductiuism in Ethics (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1986).Google Scholar Falk argues that the precept that one ought to act on principles of courage and wisdom out of “proper care for oneself” is a moral percept, and Pincoffs argues that virtue considerations are both self- and other-regarding, and that both kinds of considerations are moral. I agree with both views, but my focus and line of argument are different. The psychologist Carol Gilligan has also made an important philosophical contribution to the recognition of concern for the self as a moral concern in In a Different Voice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982).Google Scholar Many feminist writers have rejected a morality of self-sacrifice as oppressive and exploitative, and as incompatible with genuine altruism, but without claiming that concern for one's interests, for one's own sake, can be intrinsically moral.

9 An interesting example of the automatic equation of self-interest with immorality or amorality was provided recently by a student who stated that he saw no real moral difference between the view that virtue is choiceworthy because it is an essential component of happiness, and the view that virtue is not choiceworthy because it conflicts with happiness, because both views were equally selfish.

10 Yad Vashem is the Jewish organization that traces and honors the heroes and victims of the Holocaust. It honors those who assisted Jews with the designation “rescuer” only if it can verify that they acted without expectation of material or social rewards.

11 Monroe, K. R., Barton, M. C., and Klingemann, U., “Altruism and the Theory of Rational Action: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe,” hereafter “Rescuers, 1990,” Ethics, vol. 101, no. 1 (10 1990), pp. 103–22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar A longer version of this article, hereafter “Rescuers, 1991,” appears in Monroe, Kristen R., ed., Tite Economic Approach to Politics (New York: Harper & Row-Collins/Scott, Foresman, 1991), pp. 317–52.1Google Scholar will refer to this version only when the relevant point is absent from the earlier one.

Another relevant work by Monroe is a larger study of altruism, “John Donne's People: Explaining Differences between Rational Actors and Altruists through Cognitive Frameworks,” Journal of Politics, vol. 53, no. 2 (05 1991), pp. 394433.Google Scholar

An earlier major work on altruism and rescuers is Oliner, Samuel P. and Oliner, Pearl M., The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe, hereafter Oliner, and Oliner, (New York: The Free Press, 1988).Google Scholar Oliner and Oliner interviewed 406 rescuers, of whom 95 percent were designated by Yad Vashem, and 5 percent were identified by Oliner and Oliner through interviews with rescued survivors (pp. 2–3). (However, on p. 2 the authors also claim that all 406 of the rescuers they interviewed were identified as rescuers by Yad Vashem.) In addition, they interviewed 150 survivors, and 126 nonrcscuers and “actives”—those who claimed to have been resistance fighters or rescuers of Jews, but for whose claims Oliner, and Oliner, had no independent corroboration (pp. 34).Google Scholar

Another important work I shall use is Philip Hallie's account of the rescue effort mounted by the village of Le Chambon, , Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon, and How Goodness Happened There, hereafter LC (New York: Harper & Row, 1979).Google Scholar

12 The names of the rescuers were supplied by Yad Vashem. The interviews, which took place between March 1988 and January 1990, ranged from two to almost twenty hours. The researchers also interviewed five nonrescuers and five entrepreneurs to serve as a contrasting baseline sample. See “Rescuers, 1990,” pp. 103–7Google Scholar, for a summary of the research methodology.

13 Oliner and Oliner state that 54 percent of the rescuers in their sample reported a sense of extreme risk to their lives or welfare at the time of their first helping act, 23 percent said they had a sense of moderate risk, and only 18 percent said they had no sense of personal risk (pp. 126–27). Both during and after the war many rescuers in Europe are reported to have been severely ostracized, and many still seem to be in danger for their lives at the hands of neo-Nazi groups (Oliner, and Oliner, , pp. 12 and 225).Google Scholar On the matter of a consistent pattern of altruism in the lives of most rescuers, see Oliner, and Oliner, , pp. 170 and 245–47Google Scholar, and Hallie, , LC.Google Scholar Hallie describes the attitude of the Chambonnais “as being toujours prêt, toujours prêt à rendre service (always ready, always ready to help),” and cites this to explain why Le Chambon became the safest place of refuge in Europe (p. 196).

14 According to Oliner and Oliner, for most rescuers it lasted for between two and five years (p. 6).

15 Hallie reports that practically every person he interviewed responded in this fashion (LC, p. 20).Google Scholar

16 Over 70 percent of the rescuers interviewed by Oliner and Oliner reported that the first time they helped, they took only minutes to decide (p. 169).

17 “Rescuers, 1990,” p. 121.Google Scholar See Aristotle: “[S]omeone who is unafraid and unperturbed in a sudden alarm seems braver than [someone who is unafraid only] in dangers that are obvious in advance; for what he does is more the result of his state of character, since it is less the outcome of preparation” (Nicomachcan Ethics, 1117a17–20).Google Scholar

18 Nagel, , Possibility of Altruism, p. 14.Google Scholar

19 Oliner, and Oliner, , pp. 156–60Google Scholar; “Rescuers, 1990,” pp. 116–17Google Scholar; LC, pp. 6667.Google Scholar Many rescuers were individuals to whom communal ties meant little or nothing and, like nonrescuers, most rescuers thought that human nature was a mixture of good and bad, and that self-interest was normal.

20 Some nonrescuers also partially identified with the Nazis, despite compassion for the Jews and anger toward the Germans. As one nonrescuer said, “There was also a feeling of distance from the Jews. There was a part of me that also identified with the aggressor. … I felt threatened by what they did to Jews” (Oliner, and Oliner, , p. 118).Google Scholar And, perhaps, there were some who identified with the aggressor even more strongly. But not many: Oliner and Oliner report that more than 80 percent of the rescuers as well as of the nonrescuers denied that they saw any similarities between the Nazis and themselves (Oliner, and Oliner, , p. 175).Google Scholar

21 The Oliner and Oliner study provides empirical evidence for this, as well as for What I say below about nonrescuers: significantly more rescuers than nonrescuers showed a sense of personal efficacy, a sense of being the authors of their actions (pp. 176–77).

22 How, then, should we interpret the following remarks made by one of the rescuers, Tony: “I have very strong thoughts about altruism. … [O]ne of the most important teachings in Christianity is to learn to love your neighbor as yourself. And I was to learn to understand that you're part of a whole. … You should always treat people as though it is you. And that goes for evil Nazis as well as for Jewish friends who are in trouble or anything like that. You should always have a very open mind in dealing with other people and always see yourself in those people, for good or for evil both” (“Rescuers, 1991,” pp. 346–47)?Google Scholar Did Tony really identify with Nazis and nonrescuers in the same way he did with the victims of the Nazis? If he did, then he could not have been aware of his own separateness and distinctness as an independent, responsible agent. However, the tone and language suggest that Tony was communicating his philosophical thoughts about the Christian dictum, rather than reporting how he had felt at the time of rescue activity. Furthermore, whatever he meant by saying that one should treat even a Nazi “as though it is you,” he clearly saw a moral difference between “evil Nazis” and “Jeivish friends,” a difference that led him to act far the latter and against the former. In any case, as already noted, most rescuers denied that they saw any similarity between themselves and the Nazis (n. 20 above).

23 See “Rescuers, 1990,” p. 120Google Scholar, and also Hallie, , LC, p. 10.Google Scholar Only Oliner and Oliner make no claims about a necessary incompatibility between altruism and self-interest (pp. 5–6).

24 Thanks to David Schmidtz for pointing out the latter possibility.

25 This, as David Schmidtz has correctly remarked, would probably not have happened if the threat to innocent lives had come from, say, an infectious disease: it is important to remember that the threat that rescuers responded to was an extraordinary moral evil.

26 As one rescuer explained, the interest in safety led him to be cautions, but the choice to help was made independently of considerations of safety. “[I]t's just like flying,” he said. “I'm going to fly [next week]. I know we've just had three major air crashes and I really don't like flying. But what am I going to do about it? Not go on the trip?” (“Rescuers, 1990,” pp. 108–9).Google Scholar

27 This premise, it is important to remember, does not hold of all rescuers, but only of those who acted spontaneously and with a sense that they had no choice. There may well have been rescuers whose sense of themselves did not incorporate such a strong identification with other human beings and who, therefore, could conceivably have gone through the kind of reasoning described above, before deciding to act against their own judgment of their self-interest.

28 Although a few did express disappointment at being forgotten by their beneficiaries (Oliner, and Oliner, , pp. 234 and 239).Google Scholar Most rescuers, however, felt that they had been sufficiently rewarded—by a sense of inner satisfaction that they had done something to help (although many felt they had not done enough), by the knowledge that their actions had been successful, by their continuing relationships with the survivors, and by the appreciation they had received from the Jewish community (although many felt that they had not done anything calling for such appreciation) (Oliner, and Oliner, , p. 239).Google Scholar One rescuer said, “I think about these moments. Everything lives in me. I have good feelings about what I did. I respect myself for doing it” (Oliner, and Oliner, , p. 227).Google Scholar Some expressed a sense of thankfulness that their actions had borne fruit, and that the people they had saved were now having children and grandchildren (Oliner, and Oliner, , p. 231).Google Scholar But it was Irene's testimony that was probably the most poignant. Irene, who was held as a slave laborer in a German army camp, and who had to become the Major's mistress in exchange for his silence when he discovered that she was harboring Jews, told her interviewers, “[T]he older I get, the more I feel I am very rich. … I would not change anything. It's a wonderful feeling to know that today that many people are alive and some of them married and have their children, and that their children will have children because I did have the courage and … the strength” (“Rescuers, 1990,” p. 110).Google Scholar

29 Moreover, if rescuers had been indifferent towards their own altruistic dispositions, then, since altruism is essential to moral agency, as moral agents they would have been selfless with the selflessness—and unreliability—of “wantons.” See Frankfurt, Harry G., “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person,” Journal of Philosophy, vol. 68, no. 1 (01 14, 1971)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, reprinted in his The Importance of What We Care About (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 1125.Google Scholar “The essential characteristic of a wanton,” says Frankfurt, , “is that he does not care about his will”—the dispositions or desires that move him (1988, p. 16).Google Scholar Thus a wanton lacks a full-fledged self and sense of self. Everyone short of a wanton will have some attitude towards some of his own dispositions, and an interest either in affirming those dispositions (if the attitude is favorable) or changing them (if the attitude is unfavorable).

In Autonomy: An Essay in Philosophical Psychology and Ethics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986)Google Scholar, Lawrence Haworth identifies the interest in self-affirmation with the interest in autonomy, and argues that the interest in autonomy is a fundamental, natural interest. Autonomy, as he says eloquently, is inseparable “from our sense of ourselves, not just our sense of what we happen to be, but our sense of being at all” (p. 185).Google Scholar

30 In Quandaries and Virtues, Pincoffs points out that for “the reflective agent there is … always the subjective side” of questions of right and wrong: “the concern with the sort of person one has been, is, and is becoming; the sense of direction or the lack of it; the strengthening or weakening of will …” (p. 116).Google Scholar He suggests that moral considerations could not “have any leverage” on a being who cared nought about any of this (p. 129). The good person, as Aristotle notes, is a self-lover (Nicomachcan Ethics, 1168b28–33).Google Scholar

31 Dettleheim, Bruno, TJte informed Heart: Autonomy in a Mass Age (New York: The Free Press, 1960).Google Scholar

32 Oliner and Olincr remark that “the main goal” of those with a principled orientation (as distinct from a normocentric or empathic orientation), was to “reaffirm and act on their principles” as a way of keeping them alive (pp. 188 and 209). But although I do not think this was the main goal, the fact that it was a main goal can help to explain why they sought to help even when they expected failure. And the same may be said of rescuers with a nor-mocentric or empathie orientation: they also sought to reaffirm the norms or empathy central to their sense of themselves.

33 Trocme, Magda told Hallie, : “I do not hunt around to find people to help. But I never close my door, never refuse to help somebody who comes to me and asks for something. This I think is my kind of religion. You see, it is a way of handling myself” (LC, p. 153).Google Scholar

34 Altruism is the “willingness to act in consideration of the interests of other persons, without the need of ulterior motives” (Nagel, , Possibility of Altruism, p. 79).Google ScholarAltruism, is “a regard for the good of another person for his own sake, or conduct motivated by such a regard”Google Scholar (Blum, , Friendship, Altruism, and Morality, pp. 910).Google Scholar Altruism is “an interest in other people for their own sake” (Dictionary of Philosophy, ed. Flew, Antony [New York: St. Martin's Press, 1979], p. 11).Google Scholar

35 Kant thought that excluding motivation by empirical interest, even another's, was the only way to ensure that an act was an end in itself and not, ultimately, a means to one's own ends. But what such an act—an act not motivated by another's interests—cannot be is an act for another's good, for his own sake.

36 These individuals are not, of course, among the group under discussion in this essay, or among those designated as rescuers in any of the studies I have used.

37 “Rescuers 1990,” p. 110Google Scholar; Monroe, , “John Donne's People,” pp. 423–24.Google Scholar

38 As, for example, in George Eliot's story of Silas Marner, an embittered, lonely miser who regains his trust in human goodness when chance makes him father to the abandoned orphan, Eppie, (Silas Marner, 1861).Google Scholar

39 Andre Trocme might seem like a counterexample to this claim, because walking in the footsteps of his moral exemplar—Jesus—was a strong motivating force in his life (LC, pp. 161–62).Google Scholar But Trocme is not really a counterexample, because he was already a person with an acute sense of the worth of each life, and this was sufficient to motivate him to help the refugees who came to Le Chambon, (LC, pp. 159–62).Google Scholar

40 Monroe, , “John Donne's People,” p. 423.Google Scholar

41 Ibid., p. 424.

42 “Rescuers, 1991,” p. 326.Google Scholar See also LC, pp. 152–53 and 204.Google Scholar According to Oliner and Oliner, 67 percent of rescuers were asked for help and only 32 percent initiated rescue activity, but the significance of this, they point out, is limited by the fact that a person was asked only because he or she was seen as the kind who was likely to help (p. 250).

43 As Magda Trocme did in the case of the first refugee to come to Le Chambon, (LC, pp. 120–24).Google Scholar

44 In Hallie's portrayal, the first of each of these alternatives is exemplified by Magda Trocme, the second by Andre Trocme. Andre Trocme emerges as a profoundly energetic, creative man, overflowing with love for people, and inspired by the example of Jesus (LC, pp. 157–62)Google Scholar, Magda Trocme as a practical, no-nonsense woman, uncomfortable with talk of love and goodness, and skeptical of theology and religion (LC, pp. 152–56).Google Scholar

45 As noted above, Andre Trocme was grateful to the refugees for giving him a chance to help.

46 There is another sense of loving another as oneself that I have not discussed, namely, loving another not just as a human being but as a particular individual, as one does a beloved friend, or child, or sibling. Such loving relations did arise between many rescuers and rescued over time, and they supplied an additional self-interested motivation to help—the desire to help a beloved individual not just for the sake of that individual's happiness, but also for the sake of one's own. But obviously this kind of personal identification and self-interested motivation could not have been present at the time of most rescuers' initial decision to help.