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Egoism and Emotion

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Recently, the idea that human beings may be totally egoistic has resurfaced in philosophical and psychological discussions. But many of the arguments for that conclusion are conceptually flawed. Psychologists are making a conceptual error when they think of the desire to avoid guilt as egoistic; and the same is true of the common view that the desire to avoid others’ disapproval is also egoistic. Sober and Wilson argue against this latter idea on the grounds that such a desire is relational, but a deeper reason stems from the fact that it places such intrinsic importance on other human beings. And other basic human desires, like the desire for love, the desire for revenge, the impulse to imitate others, and the desire to belong, also treat others as important and on those grounds cannot count as egoistic. Another line of recent argument for egoism stems from the work of Robert Cialdini et al., and claims that the way we identify and feel one with those other people we empathize with and seek to help shows us to be thinking of those others as part of or identical with ourselves. This is supposed to show that our putative altruism is basically self-centered and egoistic, but Cialdini arguably misinterprets what we mean when we speak of feeling one with someone else, and the phenomena he mentions don’t therefore stand in favor of psychological egoism. More generally, many of the positive and negative emotions we feel toward others are best interpreted as non-egoistic, and there is no reason at this point to doubt that humans are capable of altruistic motivation.

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  1. Batson writes in support of what he calls “the empathy-altruism hypothesis,” but this nomenclature doesn’t connote what one might most naturally think it does, namely, the idea that human altruism depends on and is powered by empathy. Rather, Batson uses “the empathy-altruism hypothesis” to refer to the hypothesis that when human beings feel empathy/sympathy/concern for others, they are often or sometimes led to act out of genuinely altruistic motives regarding those others. And, as I see it, this means that his “hypothesis” is roughly equivalent to the more compact thesis or hypothesis that humans are capable of acting out of genuinely altruistic motivation. I shall (therefore) focus on this latter idea in my own discussion here, but the reader should also bear in mind another hypothesis about human motivation that is extremely important to our understanding of such motivation.

    We nowadays distinguish between the empathy involved in (Bill Clinton’s) feeling someone’s pain and the sympathy we feel for another person when we feel sorry for them on account of their pain or suffering and wish for things to get better for them. And many psychologists, most notably Hoffman (2000), view sympathy for others and altruistic motivation as depending on and powered by empathy. The development of empathy then becomes an important factor toward the development of human altruism, and this more naturally titled “empathy-altruism hypothesis” is important if we believe in the reality of human altruism and want to understand how it occurs or can be strengthened. But I shall mostly ignore this more specific issue in what follows and concentrate instead on the general question of human altruism.

  2. There is some tendency in both the psychological and the philosophical literature to confuse selfishness and egoism (see Cialdini et al. 1997, p. 482; and Feinberg 1971, p. 489), but they are importantly different. As Philippa Foot pointed out to me almost 50 years ago, people who make soup for themselves needn’t be acting selfishly, even if their motivation is egoistic. We wouldn’t call their behavior selfish if it weren’t neglectful of what others need or want. But the arguments of those I am criticizing don’t essentially depend on this kind of confusion, and I will not mention this issue further here.

  3. One finds something like this attitude in Sober and Wilson (1999, p.273 and passim).

  4. The same point that Feinberg (1971) made was also made—though more abstractly and without any useful accompanying illustration—by Nagel (1970, p.80n).

  5. See, for example, May 2011; Cialdini et al. 1997, p. 483; and Batson 1991, pp. 2, 98, 136; and 2011, pp. 61, 223.

  6. In their Stanford Online Encyclopedia article “Moral Psychology: Empirical Approaches” (section 5.1), John Doris and Stephen Stich assume it to be obvious that the desire for fame (like the desire for wealth) is egoistic.

  7. The same sort of thing can be said about the desire to “belong.”

  8. I hope no one will be at this point tempted to make the last-ditch argument that the desire to be loved has to be egoistic because it involves the motivation to satisfy one of one’s own desires.

  9. In Starting at Home: Caring and Social Policy, Noddings states the necessary and sufficient conditions for genuine caring relation(ship)s in the terms I just mentioned (Noddings 2002, p.19).

  10. For example, I think a nursing mother needs to feel that her baby is eager to be with her, likes being with her, and not solely for the sake of the milk. Otherwise, there is at least something slightly wrong with or less than ideal about the relationship between the “nursing couple.”

  11. Noddings (2002, p. 66) makes it clear that children and adults need and crave love and affection, but, again, doesn’t make the point that in addition to everything else a good caring relationship involves, it must also in some degree answer to that need and craving.

  12. It might also represent a challenge to how we conceive empathy or even to whether there is such a thing. Students of empathy like Martin Hoffman (2000) conceptualize empathy in terms of a perceived contrast or distinction between self and other. Batson (2011, p.58) also characterizes empathy as other-directed. So it is not clear what we would or should say if what we have been calling empathy turned out not to involve a sense of distinctness from the person one is going to help.

    In addition, it is part of Cialdini’s argument that identification or a sense of oneness in fact correlates better with helping behavior than empathy on its own does, but the idea that one can separate out empathy from identification or a sense of oneness is trenchantly criticized in May (2011).

  13. On the effect of (felt) similarity on helping behavior, see May (2011); and Batson (1991), pp. 82–7. But let me tentatively make a further point. Cialdini’s argument against psychological altruism boils down to saying that we have to think of other people as one with us in order to be devoted to them and want badly (i. e. strongly) to help them. But what if the order of explanation is reversed? What if we have to be devoted to certain other people and want badly to help them in order to be able to think of them as one with us? That would suggest that the very strength of our altruism can make us blur the lines between certain others and ourselves, and such an order of explanation, far from calling altruism into question, may actually highlight its powerful role in our psychology.

  14. Let me also mention a criticism of the specific idea that real human altruism is powered by empathy that I believe to be misguided. In his “Comments” on my book Moral Sentimentalism (forthcoming in the on-line journal Analytic Philosophy), Karsten Stueber says that since (sociopathic) sadists can empathically get into other people’s heads, but show no signs of sympathetic/altruistic motivation, there may be a correlation between sympathy with others and altruism, but not between empathy and altruism, contrary to the idea that empathy powers altruism. But the sociopath who can project himself into the mind of another won’t feel the other’s pain or joy (they may feel joy at the other’s pain), and it is the absence of such Humean associative/contagious empathy that arguably undercuts their capacity for sympathy and altruism. If full-blown empathy involves the capacity to feel another’s pain, then a reasonable version of the hypothesis that empathy powers (and reinforces) altruism will be safe from Stueber’s criticism.

  15. A spilt milk type of argument can also be used to show that envy isn’t egoistic. We speak of envy involving a cutting off of one’s nose to spite one’s face, but the motivational structure of envy is similar to that of revenge. If someone has won money or got a job you wanted, and you have a choice between trying to make them lose that money or their job, on the one hand, and just working hard to make money or find another good job, then the egoist could say: that they got the job or money rather than you is spilt milk, and to try to make them lose this without focusing on ways to get money or a better job yourself, is crying over spilt milk. Others have recognized that envy is not egoistic (Rawls recognizes or comes close to recognizing this in A Theory of Justice (Rawls 1971, p.532)), but I don’t believe that the point has been defended using a spilt milk argument based on an analogy with mourning.

  16. We have been focusing on negative emotions rather than positive because (I believe) they are more helpful to us if we want to expand upon Butler’s arguments against universal egoism. But if the desire to be liked or loved is non-egoistic, then joy one feels if one discovers that one is loved will also count as non-egoistic. And actions done from joy may in fact then count as non-egoistic for two separate reasons. Rosalind Hursthouse has pointed out that when we jump for joy, we are expressing a sense of well-being but not trying to promote our well-being. In that case, when someone jumps for joy at the thought of being loved, their action or behavior reflects and originates in their non-egoistic desire to be loved and is also free of any egoistic purpose.

  17. In the famous section “Of the Love of Fame” in his Treatise of Human Nature, Hume says that sympathy (understood as associative empathy in our contemporary sense) can lead us “to embrace the opinions of others” (my italics).

  18. Some recent Kantians have held that love for others is based on the same acknowledgement of human rational worth/dignity that they believe is fundamental to morality (see, for example, Velleman 1999). This suggestion doesn’t take in the desire to be loved or the desire to be like or assimilate to other people, and my embryonic counter-suggestion is that all these central elements of human life (including or together with empathic altruism) are instances of the fundamental attitude of seeing other people as important to us. There are also important egoistic elements in human nature, but the naturalness of the grouping of elements mentioned just above is reason to treat all of them as non-egoistic. (It is also reason to think that ethical rationalism can’t give us a comprehensive view of what is really significant in human life.)

  19. This is true even if it turns out that, on our best theory of human well-being, one is better off for being loved. For that doesn’t mean that in seeking or craving love, we are seeking to make ourselves happier or better off, any more than the fact that someone who succeeds (after hard efforts) in helping others was trying to make herself better off. She may in fact be better off (a point Butler made); she may feel a satisfied sense of accomplishment and that may in effect make her life better or constitute its being better than it otherwise would have been. But that doesn’t mean her motivation was egoistic. And in the case of being loved, the strength of the desire or craving for love shows how much importance we place on (the attitudes of) other people and largely undercuts any sense we might have had that such a desire is selfish or egoistic. But that needn’t mean that one isn’t (inherently) better off for being loved (or liked).

  20. In their “Altruism,” Stich et al. (2010) have argued that the evolutionary considerations discussed by Sober and Wilson in their book have less force against the hypothesis of universal egoism than the (earlier) work of Batson does. They also think Batson’s own (earlier) arguments against psychological egoism aren’t conclusive, but in saying this, they rely on the assumption (shared by Batson) that the desire to avoid guilt is egoistic. And once one rejects the latter assumption, it is not clear how strong a case they have or would think they have against Batson’s earlier defense of altruism, much less the more elaborate and empirically informed defense of it one finds in his recent book Altruism in Humans (Batson 2011).


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Slote, M. Egoism and Emotion. Philosophia 41, 313–335 (2013).

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