Altruism, or: The Ultimate Asshole Move

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


March 12, 2015

Altruism, or: The Ultimate Asshole Move

Long-time friend of the blog Duff McDuffee wrote a post for the spirituality journal Elephant on the way that ethical principles are advertised by highlighting the supposed instrumental benefits of following them. For example, “compassion and altruism are the key to low inflammation and even a longer life.”

Duff rightly points out that appealing to such selfish motives for doing good is self-contradictory. Compassion and altruism are good because they demonstrate a concern with the well-being of others. Emphasizing how one can personally benefit from compassion fails to challenge the primacy of self-interest as a guide for action, perhaps leading to a society of selfishness and moral decay even while encouraging an ersatz concern for others.

I found this passage quite striking:

Bizarrely, people are more comfortable in our society claiming that the good they do is for their own benefit than admitting the truth—that they actually care about others and want to live a good and noble life.

Peter Singer notes this in his book The Life You Can Save when he talks about individuals who live incredibly selfless lives. One man, when asked why he does his heroic deeds says that’s it’s just “how he gets his kicks,” as if his heroism is morally equivalent to watching television, just something he does for entertainment. But his sacrifices clearly indicate that this is not true: this man’s motivations for helping others ceaselessly cannot possibly be primarily for his own benefit.

The truth is, it is uncool to care.

It is so uncool to care that people who have dedicated their lives to caring for others will actually lie about their selfless motives, as if to protect themselves from being nailed to a cross if word got out. Selfish motives on the other hand are 100% socially acceptable.

Duff’s post is fundamentally about the relationship between egoism and altruism. People who say that altruism is the key to low inflammation are arguing that there’s no conflict between selflessness and selfishness. In my reading, Duff believes that they can’t fully be reconciled. Even if there are situations when the two coincide, at some point, concern for others requires us to sacrifice our self-interest.

This all seems persuasive as far as it goes, but I think the bizzare scenario Duff mentions, of refusing to admit that one is acting out of altruism, somewhat complicates the picture he paints of society. Although I agree in general that we live in a society that prizes egoism, individualism and self-interest, I think its inaccurate to say that members of society are basically immoral and unconcerned with the well-being of others. I would argue instead that the case of individuals refusing to admit to altruism suggests that, in an egoistic society, the way that we understand care for others is modulated by egoistic assumptions.

In general, we follow the principle of moral impartiality: if you act altruistically towards me, then you can expect me to act altruistically towards you. So your altruistic act imposes a social duty on me: out of fairness, I am obliged to return your kindness, or I risk being seen as exploiting you.

Some people don’t want that obligation. Although it sounds strange, we must entertain the idea that some people don’t want to be treated with very much altruism because they don’t want the social duty that comes with it. A selfish (but fair) person not only refuses to act altruistically—they also refuse to receive altruism.

Furthermore, it could be argued that your altruistic acts are ultimately coercive. In order to treat you fairly, I’m forced to give up my self-interest—so aren’t you basically being an asshole by being so compassionate? As Duff points out, selfishness is socially acceptable, which suggests that unselfishness is socially unacceptable. I’d only add that it can even seen as socially transgressive.

This problem is resolved by claiming that your kindness is really out of self-interest. The principle of impartiality implies that I should also follow my self-interest. You get your kicks by being a good person, I might get them by being a selfish person, and that’s fine—your ethical choice doesn’t impose a duty on me to respond the same way.

In an egoistic society, ethics and even altruism still exists: as respect for the other’s right to selfishness. By acting selfishly yourself (or at least claiming to), you free others of social duties which limit their selfishness. Today’s ethical choice is whether to be a compassionate asshole or a selfish good person. This paradox is the result of a mundane fact: that the social order and any moral system never perfectly coincide.