Discover more from Utility Monster
TLDR: Words are complicated. I understand why someone would consider an action 100% altruistic if they define action solely as a thing someone physically does. But I doubt my decision-making process ever consists of 100% altruistic thoughts. And a “100% altruistic action” would still be a “self-interested” (but not a “selfish”) action too.
After reading my post, Long-term Short-term Happiness, my friend Dima objected to my statement, “I don’t take any 100% altruistic action.” He said he thinks these types of actions exist.
I defended myself by saying that I was talking about myself. But I did lean towards believing, with less confidence, that what I said in that post was true for almost every present human and many other beings.
So I took Dima’s suggestion to look at Fundamentals of Ethics by Russ Shafer-Landau to understand why he thought purely altruistic actions exist.I skimmed its chapter on psychological egoism (egoism), the idea that everything we do is motivated by a desire to benefit ourselves.
I’m not sure I agree with psychological egoism. It would depend on what someone means by a desire to benefit themself.
Helga and Horace
Let’s pretend Helga dives in front of a bullet, fully expecting to die, to save her friend Horace? Is that a purely altruistic action?
One defense of egoism would be that Helga sacrificed herself because she would’ve had her reputation damaged otherwise. If that’s true, I agree that’s not an altruistic action. But I think it’s plausible that Helga’s reputation wouldn’t be hurt. I’d imagine plenty of people don’t feel society expects them to take a bullet for a friend.
Helga is hypothetical. So I guess someone could speculate about a lot of things along those lines.
But it seems plausible that Helga only receives pleasure from sacrificing her life because she’d be sad if Horace dies. So sad that, in the moment she sacrifices herself, she’d rather be dead than live knowing she could’ve saved him. That could still be seen as egoistic. It would mean she took the bullet to maximize her immediate happiness.
So I’d agree that Helga’s sacrifice is a self-interested action.Does that mean it can’t be altruistic too? When googling altruism, the first definition I found claimed that to be altruistic, someone must be selfless. I initially interpreted selfless as a complete lack of self-interest. But that same dictionary defined selfless as “unselfish.”
And Helga would only be sad if Horace died because she cares about Horace. If Helga only genuinely cared about herself, she wouldn’t help Horace. The only way her sacrifice maximizes her happiness is through helping Horace. It doesn’t sound like she’s being “selfish” to me.
Therefore, I still think every action I take is self-interested. But that self-interested action could be 100% altruistic.
It depends on how action (and every word) is defined too.
I could take the term action somewhat literally, to refer to Helga physically diving in front of the bullet. However, I don’t know how I’d 100% define the difference between what’s an action and what’s decision-making. Aren’t we always thinking as we take actions?And I’m skeptical that anyone’s decision-making process ever consists of 100% altruistic thoughts. As I’ve said, I feel like the “moral part” of me is constantly fighting with my selfish desires. That means my perception of whether an action is moral feels like one of many variables that affect my happiness.
So I’d guess that when anyone sacrifices themself, their subconscious thought process wouldn’t be asking, “Should I save that being’s life?” They’d ask themselves, potentially with a split second to answer if they’re considering diving in front of a bullet, “Should I sacrifice my life to save that being’s life because the happiness that would bring me outweighs the amount of happiness I think I’d have in the rest of my life without that being?”
I don’t mean to suggest they’re vividly imagining their lives as a senior citizen. It’s hard for me to do that now, even though I’m not trying to make a split-second decision. Based on my hazy memory of my experience irrationallyfeeling like I was going to die when I went skydiving 4 years ago, I’d guess someone considering diving in front of a bullet would judge their future happiness based on their current level of happiness. And if they have a little more time to think (skydiving was a few minutes), I wouldn’t be surprised if people think about how their looming death would prevent them from achieving their wildest dreams.
Ultimately, I doubt anyone’s purely altruistic. But their selfish desires may never be reflected by their “actions.”
So, if a mutation led you to not fundamentally value happiness, this post doesn’t apply to you. Theoretically, a mutation could've led me to value happiness more than others. But other people seem to really like being happy too.
I skimmed the 4th edition of the book.
Lexico, the dictionary Google features results from, defines self-interest as “One's personal interest or advantage, especially when pursued without regard for others.” I’m interpreting that to mean self-interested actions are often selfish.
So by selfish desires, I mean the self-interested desires the moral part of me doesn’t consider to be altruistic.