Ethical Theory and Moral Practice

, Volume 3, Issue 2, pp 115–136 | Cite as

Methodological altruism as an alternative foundation for individual optimization

  • Christian Arnsperger


Can economics, which is based on the notion of individual optimization, really model individuals who have a sense of exteriority? This question, derived both from Marcel Mauss's sociological analysis of the social norm of gift-giving and from Emmanuel Levinas's phenomenological analysis of the idea of 'otherness,' leads to the problem of whether it is possible to model altruism with the tool of optimization. By investigating the ways in which economic theory can address this challenge, and by introducing a postulate of methodological altruism following Levinas's theory of the constitution of subjectivity through otherness, this paper uncovers an alternative foundation for the very notion of optimizing calculation - no longer as a self-centered initiative, but rather as an other-centered response. This makes it possible to clarify the implicit content of usual economic individualism, and to see on the basis of which ethical arguments the economic method of optimization may be upheld. The paper studies the consequences of this renewed foundation of optimization for the organization of a fair and efficient interaction between altruists.

altruism gift-giving Levinas Mauss methodological individualism philosophy of economics rational choice theory 


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  • Christian Arnsperger
    • 1
  1. 1.Belgian National Fund for Scientific Research (FNRS) and Chaire Hoover d'Éthique Économique et SocialeUniversite Catholique de LouvainLouvain-la-NeuveBelgium

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