This is a continuation of the series, Morality in the Modern World, (start from the beginning here). The goal of this series is to promote a secular theory of ethics that all people can follow. Religion, though not without cons, was once a potent force in guiding its followers to good will. With religion deteriorating in the modern world, a void in moral theory has been created, and has allowed for some truly dumb ideas to gain traction. I aim to fill that void with a consistent, practical theory of what constitutes good and bad behavior.
In this post, I will explain what constitutes acting for good, and the reader should feel relief by the end of this as they discover that they do more good than they previously believed.
So this is the problem:
Do we do good things because we actually care about other people in an unselfish manner, or do we do good things in a more deceptive manner, acting only to promote our own self-interest under the guise of good-will? This is a question that has perplexed ethical writers for centuries, but it’s really a misleading question.
Henry Hazlitt, in one of his greatest, yet most unknown works, Foundations of Morality, (of which I’ll steal from a great deal), devises a brilliant thought experiment.
“A fire breaks out in a crowded theater in which the audience consists solely of pure egoists. Each rushes immediately for the nearest or the main exit, pushing, knocking down, or trampling on anybody in his way. The result is a panic in which many people are needlessly killed or burned because of the stampede itself.
The fire breaks out in a crowded theater in which the audience is made up solely of pure altruists. Each defers to the other — “After you, my dear Alfonse” — and insists on being the last to leave. The result is that all burn to death.
— Foundations of Morality, pg 134
Written like this, we can see the absurdity of both possible worlds. Luckily the world is not so black in white. Hazlitt then continues and introduces who he calls the mutualists to the thought experiment, which I can think of no better word to describe how humans actually behave:
The fire breaks out in a crowded theater in which the audience is made up solely of cooperatists or mutualists. Each seeks to get the theater emptied as quickly and with as little loss of life as possible. Therefore all act much as they would at a fire drill, and the theater is emptied with a minimum loss of life.”
The word mutualism is a biology term that describes the phenomenon of two animals in a symbiotic relationship, where both are pursuing their own self-interest, and coincidentally, both still benefit from the other’s actions.
We can remember a scene from Finding Nemo to understand this more clearly. In nature, clownfish are immune to the anemone sting, and are able to hide within its tentacles. The anemone also benefits by consuming leftovers and waste from the clownfish, and the clownfish’s movement creates a healthy aeration. Both of these animals are not acting in self-sacrifice, they are acting truly in pursuit of their own self-interest and it just so happens that they both benefit by it.
The exact same phenomenon occurs in people on a much wider and intricate scale. This is, in fact, the only real way people can effectively cooperate with each other. Self-interest must come before selflessness, for how are we to help our fellow man if we do not first prioritize food and water?
“Egoism comes before altruism. The acts required for continued self-preservation . . . are the first requisites to universal welfare. Unless each duly cares for himself, his care for all others is ended by death. . . .”
—Herbert Spencer, Data of Ethics, 1879
I hope this doesn’t come as too much a shock to the reader who may have started reading with an intuition that people are inherently altruistic, but the fact of the matter is that the dead body of a selfless individual doesn’t help anybody. After all, my choices and decisions are chiefly mine; I do what gives me satisfaction. If we extend this definition of egoism to every decision we make, all actions become egocentric. But we must remember how impractical pure altruism actually is. The following may be a chore for the reader to follow, but I encourage you to read closely as the following hypothetical formulates a great point:
“Take any two individuals, A and B, and suppose the whole care of the happiness of A confined to the breast of B, A himself not having any part in it; and the whole care of the happiness of B confined to the breast of A, B himself not having any part in it; and this to be the case throughout. It will soon appear that in this state of things the species could not continue in existence, and that a few months, not to say weeks or days, would suffice for and consequent action in another — this is the most simple. If, as has been said with less truth of the blind leading the blind, both would in such a state of things be continually falling into the ditch, much more frequently and more speedily fatal would be the falls supposing the separation to have place upon any more complex plan. Suppose the care and the happiness of A being taken altogether from A were divided between B and C, the happiness of B and C being provided for in the same complex manner, and so on, the greater the complication the more speedy would the destruction be, and the more flagrant the absurdity of a supposition assuming the existence of such a state of things.”
— Jeremy Bentham, The Constitutional Code
To sum up, it would be challenging enough for one person to completely care for another, let alone care for every person in his reach. Pure altruism would be completely impossible.
But if I did not mention the strong emotional intelligence that humans possess and the feeling of guilt, I would… feel guilty. We are more intelligent than the clownfish, whom surely doesn’t take into account the well-being of all of his neighbors. We do understand that our neighbors play a vital role in keeping us alive and well, and we logically should, at least sometime, take interest in their well-being. Spencer continues further to explain this:
“In various ways the well-being of each rises and falls with the well-being of all. . . . Each has a private interest in public morals, and profits by improving them. . . . Personal well-being depends in large measure on the well-being of society.”
Humans have come to rely on mutualism to such an extent that evolution seemingly hand-picked those who possessed the greatest desire to help others to survive the centuries. This capacity is not shared by our closest relative, the chimpanzee, who as far as we can tell, are no more likely to share food with their neighbor as they are to block access to it; they are truly selfish creatures. And we are truly unique in this emotional capacity.
So, in summary, it is correct to say that humans are first driven by egoism, and then altruism. We should clear our minds of the negative connotations associated with the term egoism, for there is clear distinction between the person who acts to satisfy his own desires, and the person who acts to satisfy his own desires at the expense of other’s well-being; the latter is an inconsiderate, downright worthless human being… that’s not a biased statement, such a person stagnates overall happiness in society. And again, simply because I act to satisfy my own desires does not mean that these desires concern only me and my own personal welfare. I could actually desire the satisfaction of others.
The reader should lose no faith in humanity here; in fact that faith should only be strengthened. For we are intelligent enough to help ourselves and simultaneously help others. Egoism and altruism are not mutually exclusive but are intertwined in practical application.