SELFISH vs. SELFLESS:

The True Basis of Altruism


A. We naturally distinguish selfish/altruistic actions and people. The cynic

must prove that this is a mistake.

B. The cynic's proof: (1) Altruism requires no benefit for the agent; (2) Every (successful) action is beneficial to the agent; argument by example - choose the most "altruistic" example and you can see that the agent benefits.

C. Response to the cynic: (2) may be correct, but (1) is wrong: altruism requires actions which are not motivated by the agent's benefit (even if he does benefit). The cynic has given no reason to think that the benefit is more than a byproduct of the action - compare new strength from adding sandbags in flood.

D. The cynic's argument is wrong, but his position may still be true; we need an argument which will show the cynic wrong.

E. The argument (Bishop Butler)

1. some pleasures are the result of satisfying desires

2. consider a circumstance in which the only pleasure available (call it P) is a pleasure of satisfying a desire (call it D)

3. in that circumstance, D is not a desire for pleasure

4. proof: if D were a desire for pleasure, then that pleasure could not be P [since P is the result of satisfying D], and then there would be two pleasures available, contrary to assumption

5. therefore, there are desires whose object is not pleasure (of the agent)

F. Altruism is action motivated by desires whose object is another's benefit. We have every reason to believe that there are such desires and hence our intuitive practice is justified. [The life of the altruist may be filled with joy and satisfaction - the pleasure of satisfying his desire to benefit others.]

G. Judaism validates selfish service of G-d [since it involves a recognition of G-d's existence and providence], but commands the development of service out of love for G-d, i.e. altruistic service. We have no reason to think this impossible, at least in part.


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