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Self-Interest, Altruism, and Virtue*

  • Thomas Hurka (a1)


My topic in this essay is the comparative moral value of self-interest and altruism. I take self-interest to consist in a positive attitude toward one's own good and altruism to consist in a similar attitude toward the good of others, and I assess these attitudes within a general theory of the intrinsic value of attitudes toward goods and evils. The first two sections of the essay apply this theory in a simple form, one that treats self-interest and altruism symmetrically. The third section examines whether the theory can be revised to accommodate an apparent asymmetry in our common-sense thinking about self-interested and altruistic attitudes.

I will start by assuming that each person has a good, or that certain states of the person are intrinsically desirable and others undesirable. Of course, philosophers have disagreed for centuries about what this good consists in, or what particular states are desirable. Welfarists take each person's good to consist in pleasure, the fulfillment of her preferences, or something describable as “welfare” or “happiness.” Perfectionists hold that certain states of a person are good apart from any connection with happiness. Thus, some perfectionists hold that knowledge, achievement, and deep personal relations are good independently of how much a person wants or enjoys them. For the purposes of this essay it does not matter much which initial claims about the good we accept. To discuss issues about self-interest and altruism we need only some initial theory of each person's good, whatever its specific content. Consequently, and to cover as many bases as possible, I will start by assuming a mixed welfarist-perfectionist theory of the good, one claiming that pleasure, knowledge, and achievement are all intrinsically good.



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1 By “common-sense” moral thinking I mean those informal beliefs about right and good that are affirmed by most people in Western (and perhaps other) societies. I do not assume that these beliefs are incontrovertible; sometimes philosophical argument can show that they need to be reformed. But I take it to be (other things equal) a merit in a moral theory if it can affirm common-sense beliefs.

2 Brentano, Franz, The Origin of Our Knowledge of Right and Wrong, trans. Chisholm, Roderick M. and Schneewind, Elizabeth (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969);Moore, G. E., Principia Ethica (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1903);Rashdall, Hastings, The Theory of Good and Evil, 2 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1907); and Ross, W. D., The Right and the Good (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930). For contemporary treatments, see Nozick, Robert, Philosophical Explanations (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981);Chisholm, Roderick M., Brentano and Intrinsic Value (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986);Zimmerman, Michael J., “On the Intrinsic Value of States of Pleasure,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, vol. 41 (1980–81), pp. 2645; and my “Virtue as Loving the Good,” Social Philosophy and Policy, vol. 9, no. 2 (Summer 1992), pp. 149–68.

3 These principles are proposed in Zimmerman, “On the Intrinsic Value of States of Pleasure,” p. 35; Carson, Thomas L., “Happiness, Contentment, and the Good Life,” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 62 (1981), p. 387; and Lemos, Noah M., Intrinsic Value: Concept and Warrant (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 37.

4 A related issue concerns the value of loving or hating for itself what is intrinsically indifferent in value. The recursive theory holds that both these attitudes are also indifferent in value: loving or hating what is neither good nor evil is likewise neither good nor evil. By the proportionality principle introduced in Section II below, loving something indifferent much more than one loves some good can make for a combination of attitudes that is intrinsically evil as a combination and even on balance; this constitutes the vice of fetishism. Considered on their own, however, all attitudes toward the indifferent are indifferent in value.

5 Does the proportionality view not imply that people with slightly disproportionate attitudes have acted wrongly in not making them fully proportional? It does not when people cannot control their attitudes, as they often cannot. And when they can control their attitudes, the implication follows only given a maximizing principle of right action, one telling people always to produce the most good possible. But this principle is not mandatory.

As Michael Slote has pointed out, an alternative “satisficing” principle requires people only to produce outcomes that are reasonably good, in the sense of being above a minimum threshold of goodness; see Slote, Common-Sense Morality and Consequentialism (London: Rout-ledge and Kegan Paul, 1985), ch. 3. Given this principle, people whose attitudes are reasonably close to proportionality need have done nothing wrong in not making them fully proportional.

6 This optimality view is proposed in Nozick, Philosophical Explanations, pp. 431–32.

7 For simplicity's sake, these diagrams do not reflect the principles making indifference to intrinsic goods and evils intrinsically evil. Instead, the lines in each diagram all pass through the origin or zero-zero point, implying, as in the classical versions of the recursive theory, that indifference to goods and evils is intrinsically indifferent.

8 If the person's quantity of love is not fixed, but could be greater, there is another instrumental evil, namely his failure to love as much as he could. Even here, however, his selfishness remains one instrumental evil, or one factor that makes his attitudes less good than they could be.

9 Gilligan, Carol, In a Different Voice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982).

10 The importance of evaluating combinations of attitudes as combinations, rather than just atomistically, is stressed in Holly M. Smith, “Varieties of Moral Worth and Moral Credit,” Ethics, vol. 101 (1991), pp. 279–303.

11 Moore, Principia Ethica, p. 28.

12 Ibid., p. 214f.

13 Another version of the proportionality principle changes the zero-value point for divisions of love. The original principle holds that the best division of love, a perfectly proportioned one, has zero value as a division or combination, and that any disproportionate division has negative value. An alternative principle says that a perfect division of love has positive value, as (to a lesser degree) do mildly disproportionate ones, and that only seriously disproportionate divisions have negative value. Given this principle, the zero-value point for divisions of virtuous love is not perfect proportion but some moderate disproportion. The revised principle makes perfect divisions of love intrinsically better on balance, since they involve not only the intrinsic goods in their component attitudes but also the further intrinsic good of proportionate division. It also raises the level of disproportion at which traits such as selfishness and self-abnegation switch from shortfalls in virtue to vices, so that a degree of selfishness or self-abnegation that would be on balance intrinsically evil given the original principle is still on balance good. It is an arbitrary matter where one places the zero-value point for divisions, and though my original choice of perfect proportion is one possibility, there are others.

14 Sidgwick, Henry, The Methods of Ethics, 7th ed. (London: Macmillan, 1907).

15 Moore, Principia Ethica, pp. 97–102. The debate between Sidgwick and Moore has been taken up more recently, with Amartya Sen defending agent-relative goodness and Donald H. Regan challenging it. See Sen, “Rights and Agency,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 11 (1982), pp. 3–39; and Regan, “Against Evaluator Relativity: A Response to Sen,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 12 (1983), pp. 93–112.

16 Moore, Principia Ethica, ch. 1.

17 Brentano, The Origin of Our Knowledge of Right and Wrong, p. 18; Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, p. 112.

18 This qualification may need some refining. Common sense certainly holds that it is wrong to prefer a trivial good of one's own to a much greater good of a person immediately present before one. It is not so clear that it condemns a similar preference for one's lesser good over the greater good of someone far away, e.g., in a distant country. Still, there is clearly some qualification on the common-sense permission to prefer one's own lesser good.

19 See Scheffler, Samuel, The Rejection of Consequentialism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982).

20 Is it not inconsistent for common-sense morality to allow this disparity between its claims about right action and its claims about good attitudes? I do not believe it is. In granting the agent-relative permission, common-sense morality already holds that an act which it is permissible (i.e., not wrong) to perform has consequences that are intrinsically less good than those of some alternative act. It can likewise hold that the former act, if performed, will issue from motives that are intrinsically less good than some alternative. In both cases the permissive claim about the right is partly independent of claims about the good.

21 See Slote, Common-Sense Morality and Consequentialism, ch. 1.

22 Sir Ross, W. David, The Foundations of Ethics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1939), pp. 282–84.

23 See my “Virtue as Loving the Good,” pp. 160–63; and Moore, Principia Ethica, pp. 219–20.

24 Ross's claim has an equally unacceptable implication in the theory of right action. As Michael Stacker points out, it implies that a person who acts to produce a greater pleasure of himself rather than a lesser pleasure of someone else always acts morally wrongly; see Stacker, “Agent and Other: Against Ethical Universalism,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy vol. 54 (1976), p. 208.

25 Michael Slote comes close to this extreme claim in From Morality to Virtue (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 106–7.

26 For a similar view, though applying to beliefs about right action, see Milo, Ronald D., Immorality (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), pp. 18, 251–53.

27 The recursive theory does imply that the Nazi's pursuit of extermination could in certain imaginable circumstances be intrinsically good. First, the pursuit would have to derive only or primarily from his evaluative belief and not from immediate emotional hatred of Jews. Second, his belief could not have been formed by rationalization or in a way that manifests indifference to Jews and their moral standing. (Recall that indifference to a good is intrinsically evil.) These conditions could perhaps be satisfied if the Nazi was encouraged to form his belief as a child by parents whom he had other reasons to trust and believe, and was not subsequently exposed to sufficient reasons to change his belief. (This would presumably involve his never meeting any Jews.) I think it is correct to say that in these very special circumstances a Nazi's pursuit of the extermination of the Jews could be intrinsically good, even though it would also be enormously instrumentally evil and there-fore evil all things considered. But the circumstances are highly unusual and probably did not apply to any actual Nazi. In a similar way, it is very hard to imagine any actual circumstances in which self-abnegation resulting from the belief that one's own good matters less agent-neutrally is intrinsically good.

* For helpful comments I am grateful to Ellen Frankel Paul and to the other contributors to this volume.

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Social Philosophy and Policy
  • ISSN: 0265-0525
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