Reason as the Leading Motive

Altruism and Egoism

Posted by Jerry on September 20, 2007

Colin McGinn, the philosopher who claimed to have refuted egoism in a few brief remarks, holds a very willy-nilly concept of altruism, but is adamant that egoism can only be defined as the “maximization of one’s own interest.” According to McGinn, an altruist can properly behave in self-interested actions occassionally; but an egoist–on principle–can never act against his own interests, which includes not dirtying your clothes to jump in to save a drowning baby.

Clearly, McGinn and altruists like him wish to claim sole proprietorship over concepts of kindness, benevolence, and charity.

Let’s be very clear about what we mean by altruism:

The word “altruism” (French, altruisme, from autrui: “other people”, derived from Latin alter: “other”) was coined by Auguste Comte, the French founder of positivism, in order to describe the ethical doctrine he supported. He believed that individuals had a moral obligation to renounce self-interest and live for others. Comte says, in his Catechisme Positiviste, that “[the] social point of view cannot tolerate the notion of rights, for such notion rests on individualism. We are born under a load of obligations of every kind, to our predecessors, to our successors, to our contemporaries. After our birth these obligations increase or accumulate, for it is some time before we can return any service…. This [“to live for others”], the definitive formula of human morality, gives a direct sanction exclusively to our instincts of benevolence, the common source of happiness and duty. [Man must serve] Humanity, whose we are entirely.” [1]

The Catholic Encyclopedia says that for Comte’s altruism, “The first principle of morality…is the regulative supremacy of social sympathy over the self-regarding instincts.” [2] Author Gabriel Moran, (professor in the department of Humanities and the Social Sciences, New York University) says “The law and duty of life in altruism [for Comte] was summed up in the phrase: Live for others.” [3]

More recent reformulations of the word altruism have served up a watered down principle of a general lovey-durvy, fluffy-feely sense of kindness and benevolence toward others to make the principle seem more palatable to most people’s sensibilities. Note how it is better to have a phantasmic notion of altruism than to even permit the possibility of egoism (self-interest) as a plausible moral principle for people to live by.

It stands to reason that no one can adhere to the principle of altruism strictly and consistently in their lives: it is a contradiction at the most fundamental level. To live is to act in self-preservation; to live is to engage in self-sustaining action. One cannot live by selfless action, unless one wishes to die. The proper and consistent act for an altruist would be to give up his life in an ultimate sacrifice for others (like Jesus did; now, the conundrum that the recipient of the sacrifice has to himself be sacrificed to someone else’s interests and so on with every individual on earth is another thorny matter of its own). 

At best, altruism can only be practised inconsistently, whimsically, and often out of guilt.

Since altruism–as a moral principle–cannot be practised consistently, philosophers like McGinn have injected doses of self-interested pursuits and common sense motivations into the principle of altruism. By doing this, altruists have appropriated the notions of kindness, charity, and benevolence, while vociferously denying that these notions are fully and logically compatible with the ethic of egoism.

Egoism is the principle of purusing one’s own rational self-interest with your life as your standard of value. Properly speaking, “life as a standard of value” is a redundant elaboration of the principle of rational self-interest. Only life can provide a context for the existence of a self and for the pursuit of interests; only human life can provide the standard of rational behavior and meaning to rationality. Nevertheless, the redundancy is necessary because altruists are committed to caricaturing egoism as everything that it is not: hedonism, subjectivism, self-destruction, malice, etc.

Egoism–that is, the principle of rational self-interest–is the only principle that can be practised consistently by every individual without leaving behind a trail of mutilated, self-sacrificed corpses. Only egoism makes it possible to have a society of individuals where acts of benevolence, kindness, and charity are performed without contradiction, without conflicts of interest, and without any sacrifice.

[Related posts: Morality in the Jungle; The Right to Life; Moral Evolution]


11 Responses to “Altruism and Egoism”

  1. […] Altruism and Egoism […]

  2. Justin said

    Thanks for providing those references to Comte. I am always at odds with my friends when they tell me that altruism isn’t what I claim it is (namely, sacrifice of self to others as its own moral justification). In fact, one time I was at a friend’s bachelor party. The friend was praising his best man for a job well done, and then, I’m sure because of conversations I had had recently, proclaimed that it was a very altruistic act.

    If the action the best man had taken was truly placing someone else’s values entirely above their own, I argue he shouldn’t have been the best man! Give me someone who is selfishly interested in having a good time with friends, even when it costs him money.

  3. […] Altruism and Egoism […]

  4. […] Source: Leitmotif, Altruism and Egoism […]

  5. […] From Part I and Leitmotif, Altruism and Egoism. […]

  6. db0 said

    I will agree that Comte’s definition of altruism, makes it a very silly life style. I dissagree with it. I will also agree that egoism is the only way to live, as there is no other. We cannot avoid being egoists. However I will state that there are many expressions of egoism.

    You can express it as a strive for money. because “money equals happiness”
    You can express it as a strive for power. because “power equals happiness”
    You can express it as a self-serving behaviour. Because caring only for yourself and your close ones gives you less to worry about and thus happiness through bliss. Objectivism.

    There is also this following mindframe: “To give and expect nothing in return”. For lack of a better word I will call this altruism. I have come to understand that even this, is based on egoism because, in the end, you still get something for your ego. Emotional fulfilment.

    Thus you can be an egoist and express it as altruism. For you live happier when you help others without expecting material reward and then bask in their appreciation of you.

    I argue that this expression of egoism is superior to Objectivism for it makes the world a better place to live.

  7. Ergo said


    You’re confusing many concepts here. In philosophy, egoism and altruism have specific definitions and are used technically. It appears that you’re not aware of it, because you confuse psychological egoism with ethical egoism, and you confuse altruism with reductionist egoism.

    There’s no way we can have a fruitful conversation unless we get our concepts clear and definitions straight. Otherwise, we’ll just be talking past each other. As Ayn Rand said, definitions are your defenses against cognitive anarchy.

  8. db0 said

    FFS! I just gave you a definition and then called it altruism for lack of better word. I have not studied in philosophy but nevertheless I try to be as clear as possible.


  9. Ergo said


    The reason I didn’t address your definition of altruism is because it does not qualify as one. But, since you insist, here’s the problem.

    You said: “To give and expect nothing in return”. For lack of a better word I will call this altruism…. I argue that this expression of egoism is superior to Objectivism for it makes the world a better place to live.”

    So, your definition of a superior moral principle is “To give and expect nothing in return.”

    1) To give what? Higher values or lesser values? Values or disvalues? Values to whom? And values evaluated by what standard?

    2) To give what to whom? People you care about or random strangers? Anybody or everybody? To what extent should you give–until you have nothing left or until you have a bare minimal necessity or until you meet some arbitrary level decided by someone? Decided by who? What level of necessity?

    3) Expect nothing in return–on what justification? Why should one expect nothing in return? To what extent should one continue to give and not expect anything in return? Who gives you? Do you expect people to give you and not expect you to give back? So, who’s collecting and who’s giving?

    As you can see, DbO, your “principle” is far from “superior”. I cannot even make much sense of it.

    And why do you have such a revulsion to my advice that you learn about the ideas you choose to refute before you attempt to refute them? If you’re going to discuss philosophy–and Objectivism in particular–and you choose to refute these ideas, I do believe it is your intellectual responsibility to know philosophy–and Objectivism in particular–before you get on your task of refuting it. This only serves to bolster your argument’s credibility and validity. And no, I’m not being offensive.

  10. db0 said

    But, you see, I was only refuting what you said in this text. I see here the argument against altruism from the point of view of an egoist in the objectivist sense. I dissagree with part of it (especially after being prompted to read said text by you) and I state my dissagreement. Instead of being countered, I’m told to run along and read more stuff.

    I would not even presume to attempt Objectivism itself unless I read it first and then created a coherent argument against it. The reason why I seem to be objecting objectivism is because of the discussion that started in Evanescent’s journal wherein objectivism was brought in as a argument by itself. Now I have some familiarity with Objectivism but I cannot claim expertise in it and I try to respond to the arguments presented to me. When the response I receive is to the likes of “Objectivism explains all that, you only misunderstand it so go and read more about it” I believe it is within my right to exasperate: “I’m not the one who brought Objectivism into this whole damn discussion! The burden of proof (so to speak) falls upon you

    Now, on to your points.

    This is only what I consider a superior behaviour to self-centered egoism. I believe it is so because of my current life philosophy. I did not claim that it is a complete set of moral guidelines or a philosophy for life.

    1) Give something positive. Does not matter what, as long as you & the recipient considers it beneficial.

    2) Whoever will reward with you with the emotional bounty which is your true purpose of your action.

    3) I should have clarified in the same sentence (although I did so below). Expect nothing material in return. You are of course supposed to live in a society where this behaviour is the norm and thus people give you what you request as well. Of course This is a very simple explanation and it would require a lot of words to adequately present the whole idea in order that it makes more sense. Suffice to say, that for this to work it would also require a complete mind shift in a large mass (if not all) of people…like Objectivism.

  11. D.J.R. said

    Since we beat him in the numbers game couldn’t we just conclude his judgment of morality is worthless and dismiss it? He is the one who says society determines what is good or evil couldn’t we just consider it evil and be done with it? Or can he accept that possibility that a code of morals can exist when held by only one individual because essentially you are asserting your morality from the desert island of your own conciousness?

    Remember Db0 morality for Objectivists is not a code of societally proper behaviors (though morality does have something to say about it) it is a code for living, you would do well to learn our position before refining your own. As well as checking on how ingrained ideologies (like the morality of selflessness) lead to the destruction (not the superior operation) of societies. Have you not heard of Socialist societies? Are you not curious as to why they all become murderous dictatorships? (I’ll give you a hint, it has a lot to do with the phrases “The Public Good, Comrade!” “Sacrifice for Das Volk! The German youth is the most Altruistic!”) Yet we haven’t had a dictator yet in the history of the United States with the Constitution (built on Enlightenment philosophy). Don’t bother saying China (at the price of millions dead it finally figured out its selfless theory starved its people out of existence) now and the European nations are Socialists. They are mixed economies because they do not own their peoples means of production. They are in the process of getting there though.

    Also superior entails an evaluation by a consciousness and a statement of relationships that indicate one is better than another for a certain purpose. Superior as compared to what? Superior technologically? Superior morally? Superior how? Superior for sustaining human life? And yes Ergo I did smile and laugh on the last one.

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