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Reasons for Altruism*

  • David Schmidtz (a1)

This essay considers whether acts of altruism can be rational. Rational choice, according to the standard instrumentalist model, consists of maximizing one's utility, or more precisely, maximizing one's utility subject to a budget constraint. We seek the point of highest utility lying within our limited means. The term ‘utility’ could mean a number of different things, but in recent times utility has usually been interpreted as preference satisfaction (and thus utility functions are sometimes called preference functions). To have a preference is to care, to want one alternative more than another.

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1 The instrumentalist model is so standard that a viable alternative has yet to find its way into the literature of decision theory, but I am currently working on one in “Choosing Ends,” unpublished. See Section II for brief remarks on the sort of consideration that might get an alternative model off the ground.

2 The distinction between self-regard and other-regard has often been applied to actions to mark a distinction between actions that affect only the agent and actions that affect oth ers as well. (See Mill, John Stuart's On Liberty, for example.) As applied to action within a community, the distinction has proven to be notoriously difficult to draw, at least insofar as it is meant to mark out a sphere of self-regarding activity with which society may not interfere. The problem is that a person seeking to justify interference with activities she dislikes can always claim she is being affected in some way or another. I do not, however, foresee analogous problems arising for the distinction between self-regarding and other-regarding concerns.

3 Note that what motivates one kind of other-regard need not motivate the other. A per son may think it out of the question to violate other people's rights, but may at the same time be unconcerned about other people's welfare. Or a person may be concerned about feeding the poor but have no qualms about taking other people's money to buy the food. In short, unconcerned people can be principled, and concerned people can be ruthless.

4 Note that if I express concern or respect as a mere means to some other end, then the action is not altruistic. It is altruistic only if concern or respect for others is what motivates me to do it. Of course, people can act from mixed motives. Robin Hood may undertake a course of action in order to help the poor, make himself look good, and hurt the rich. His action is at once altruistic, self-serving, and vicious.

5 This characterization leaves open questions about how altruism relates to justice and other essentially moral concepts. There is good reason not to use definitions to try to settle these questions. For example, if we try to use definitions to stipulate that altruism involves going beyond the requirements of justice, then we cannot count ourselves as observing in stances of altruism unless we first settle what justice requires. Someone might wish to define altruism as other-regarding action that goes beyond the requirements of justice, but identifying members of the set of altruistic acts would then be fraught with difficulties, and pointlessly so. The difficulties would be mere artifacts of a bad definition.

6 The people I have polled usually agree that one of the two is the canonical form, but it turns out that they are evenly split on which one it is.

7 I thank Jean Hampton for suggesting the contrast bettveen what we get and what we are.

8 I do not think a means-end conception of rationality should be thought of as entailing that our ultimate ends must be taken as given and beyond rational criticism. There is room even within the confines of the means-end model for reflective rational choice. But that is a story for another time. See “Choosing Ends,” unpublished.

9 Nagel, Thomas, Tlie Possibility of Altruism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), p. 16.

10 As Bricker, Phillip says (in “Prudence,” Journal of Philosophy, vol. 77 [1980], p. 401): “[T]o be prudent is to effect a reconciliation between oneself and one's world.” And, I may add, our world consists in large part of other people.

11 Making a similar point in a more elegant way, Gregory Kavka says that “an immoralist's gloating that it does not pay him to be moral because the satisfactions of morality are not for him [is] like the pathetic boast of a deaf person that he saves money because it does not pay him to buy opera records.” See “The Reconciliation Project,” in Morality, Reason, and Truth, ed. Copp, David and Zimmerman, David (Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Allanheld, 1984), p. 307.

12 How much we have to live for has more to do with the intensity of our concerns than with their number. Sheer multiplication of ends gives us more to live for if we have time for them. But when we take on so many projects that they begin to detract from each other, forcing us to race from one half-hearted pursuit to another, we end up with less to live for rather than more.

13 See Sen, Amartya, “Rational Fools: A Critique of the Behavioral Foundations of Economic Theory,” in Beyond Self-interest, ed. Mansbridge, Jane (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), p. 31.

14 Sen (ibid.) considers sympathy to be egoistic in an important sense, however, on the grounds that sympathetic action is still action done to satisfy one's own preferences. I disagree. Whether my preferences are egoistic depends on their content, not on the bare fact that I happen to have those preferences. But this difference between his view and mine is, I have to admit, relatively unimportant. (We are tempted to seize on minute differences between our work and its predecessors, and then seize on minute similarities between our work and what follows it. The first ploy helps us feel original while the second helps us feel influential.)

15 McCord, Geoffrey Sayre, “Deception and Reasons To Be Moral,” American Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 26 (1989), p. 115.

16 Allan Gibbard notes that feelings can induce beliefs whose acceptance has the effect of making the feelings seem reasonable. See his Wise Qioiccs, Apt Feelings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), p. 276. I might add that the beliefs induced can amplify our original feelings in the course of supplying them with a rationale. Some of us, when angry at our spouses, for example, are tempted to begin dredging up a history of slights suffered at the hands of that person so as to justify our present feelings; and from there our new beliefs about that person's general inhumanity amplify our original anger to the point where our final blow-up is quite spectacular, and only barely intelligible to observers. We need to be careful about our negative feelings, for the beliefs they induce can do lasting damage to our characters.

17 Lest this point be misunderstood, though, let me stress that, unlike the analogy between integrity and justice, the often-discussed connection between the soul of the state and the soul of the citizen is much more than a matter of analogy. Jonathan Lear has convinced me that Plato believed not only that the souls of citizens and the soul of the state are like each other but also that the reason they are like each other is because they are outgrowths of each other. The state is the milieu within which children grow up, while, at the same time, the state's ongoing evolution or devolution lies in the hands of its adult citizens.

18 Since this is not an essay about morality, I will not stop here to consider whether some of these self-regarding commitments should be regarded as instances of moral principle, but see essays by Neera Kapur Badhwar and Jean Hampton, elsewhere in this volume.

19 See Postema, Gerald, “Hume's Reply to the Sensible Knave,” History of Philosophy Quarterly, vol. 5 (1988), p. 35.

20 An important article by McClennen, Edward F. (“Constrained Maximization and Resolute Choice,” Social Philosophy & Policy, vol. 5, no. 2 [1988], pp. 95118) argues that one can be better off being a resolute chooser, i.e., a person who adopts plans and whose static preferences are thus contextually sensitive. Even though people in a Prisoner's Dilemma may prefer the free-rider payoff to the payoff from mutual cooperation, this does not entail that they prefer to choose free riding over mutual cooperation. But then one might ask, how is it possible for rational self-regarding agents to be resolute choosers? How can they possibly choose a less-preferred over a more-preferred payoff? My theory is that dynamically self-regarding agents can habituate themselves to virtue. “Resolve” is the sort of thing we can build up over time.

21 Note that it would be a mistake to say something cannot be altruistic if you really enjoy doing it. This would put the cart before the horse. If you help other people for their sake, you are altruistic whether or not you like having the concern for others that your action expresses. In the Grounding of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant said that whether you get joy out of an action affects the action's moral worth, which seems wrong, but even if he had been right, enjoying an action can affect its moral worth without changing the fact that the action is altruistic.

22 Gregory Kavka points out that it might be prospectively rational to undertake a course of action that will lead one to develop a preference for falling on grenades in situations where that is the only way to save one's comrades. Developing such a preference is extremely unlikely to result in one's actually falling on a grenade, but much more likely to make possible the kind of rewards one reaps by developing that kind of love for one's comrades. See Kavka, , “The Reconciliation Project,” pp. 307–10.

23 I thank Lainie Ross for helping me to work out the connection between altruism and sacrifice.

24 William Galston (elsewhere in this volume) points out important distinctions between progressively more expansive conceptions of altruism, and draws attention to the moral cost of what he calls “cosmopolitan altruism.” For example, the concern expressed by rescuers of Jewish refugees in Nazi-occupied Europe was often part and parcel of a failure to express concern for family members thereby put at risk by the rescue effort.

25 For an intriguing complement to my argument that reflective self-regard weighs in favor of cultivating other-regard, see Neera Kapur Badhwar's argument (elsewhere in this volume) that one cannot act in a wholeheartedly altruistic manner unless one is, in my words, reflectively self-regarding.

26 Also, concerning the moral status of altruism, see Tyler Cowen's remarks on paternalistic altruism and Jean Hampton's remarks on how self-sacrifice can sometimes be a moral failure, elsewhere in this volume.

27 See Harman, Gilbert, “Is There a Single True Morality?” in Morality, Reason, and Truth, ed. Copp, David and Zimmerman, David (Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Allanheld, 1984), pp. 2748.

28 Consider how weak we can be in situations where we are afraid or embarrassed to tell the truth. We react to the possibility of making a bad impression as if the situation were a threat to our physical health. This is a mistake, for what is really at stake is usually too subtle to be properly addressed by such reactions. Covering up the truth in over-reaction to perceived threats to our standing in other people's eyes is self-defeating; it walls off the possibility of our real selves being affirmed by those we are deceiving. Nevertheless, it takes a certain strength of character to act in our reflective self-interest.

* I thank Neera Kapur Badhwar, Walter Glannon, Lainie Ross, and Elizabeth Willott for helpful comments on an earlier draft.

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