Is Altruism Selfish?

by DragonGod 2 min read24th Jul 20176 comments


Altruism is just a hedonistic desire of people to feel good about themselves.

With the above quote as a prompt, let's discuss.
While I may not express it in such strong terms, I do support the idea expressed in the above prompt. For a brief elaboration: People are only capable of acting upon their own utility function. It is quite possible that this utility function includes others utility function. It is impossible for one to act on another's utility function (without first incorporating it into their own utility function). If the well being of others makes you happy, or you gain pleasure from it, then it grants you positive utility. In order for you to be truly selfless in your altruism, then you must not gain any pleasure from it. Helping others must not make you happy, or uplift you. If helping others doesn't grant you pleasure (in any form whatsoever), then you may be altruistic, but you would be quite alien to our conception of altruism (we don't imagine altruists don't like helping others do we), one might even argue that if you derive n pleasure from helping others, that you are not really altruistic but merely putting on airs.
I posit that altruism—at least as we conceive it—is inherently selfish. However, this is not a problem. Being selfish is not immoral, and some moral philosophies posit that people are only capable of acting in their own self interest. Altruism as a selfish endeavour, only becomes a problem if we operate under the assumption that "selfish = bad"—a grossly unfounded assumption. As a trivial counter example, if I save a loved one because I would be heavily distressed at their loss (an inherently selfish motive), then does my action become immoral? Perish the thought. Selfishness is not inherently immoral. It is merely that some selfish actions may be conceived of as immoral, which gives the whole position a bad reputation. If we accept that selfish actions can be moral, then the position of altruism as a selfish endeavour brooks no inconsistencies.
True selflessness—and true altruism if you demand that altruism is selfless—is the sociopath who decides to help someone else despite feeling no empathy for them (maybe out of moral principles or something).
Selfishness is not a problem. Selfishness is desirable; it is a virtue to be lauded, not a vice to be vilified. Humans should act in their own self-interest—it is the rational thing to do—and if that self interest involves helping others, involves making the world a better place, then go ahead.
What I call "The first commandment":

Be ye selfish.

Selfishness is amoral. Selfishness is moral blind. It is neither inherently good, nor inherently evil. A virtuous person who acts in their self interest wrought good works. An "evil" person who acts in their self interest wrought evil works. The selfishness of the act does not determine the morality thereof—only the character of the agent does.
Similarly also, selflessness isn't inherently good; as a counterexample, consider someone who is blackmailed into committing evil act(s) (the act(s) is/are a lesser evil compared to what would be done to the hostages) via holding his family or his city hostage. The evil act(s) he commits are selfless, yet they are immoral (If you disagree with this, you probably subscribe to a form of deontology, and I suggest we agree to disagree).
Neither selfishness nor selflessness knows morality. Only the character of the agent, and neither the selfishness nor selflessness of the action determines its morality.
I don't think I redefined "selfish". The definition I use is:

Actions that are in the self interest of the agent(s) executing them.