Philosophical constructs: Ethical egoism and altruism


THAT egoism precedes altruism in order of imperativeness is evident. For the acts which make continued life possible must, on the average, be more peremptory than all those other acts which life makes possible, including the acts which benefit others.

Turning from life as existing to life as evolving, we are equally shown this. Sentient beings have progressed from low to high types, under the law that the superior shall profit by their superiority, and the inferior shall suffer from their inferiority. Which is to say that egoistic claims must take precedence of altruistic claims. Conformity to this law has been, and is still, needful, not only for the continuance of life, but for the increase of happiness; since the superior are those having faculties better adjusted to the requirements--faculties, therefore, which bring in their exercise greater pleasure and less pain.

If we define altruism as being all action which, in the normal course of things, benefits others instead of benefiting self, then from the dawn of life altruism has been no less essential than egoism; for such defect of altruistic acts as causes death of offspring, or inadequate development of them, involves disappearance from future generations of the nature that is not altruistic enough, so decreasing the average egoism. In short, every species is continually purifying itself from the unduly egoistic individuals; while there are being lost to it the unduly altruistic individuals. Let us consider the several ways in which, under social conditions, personal welfare depends on the regard for the welfare of others.

Fullness of egoistic satisfaction in the associated state, depending primarily on maintenance of the normal relations between efforts expended and benefits obtained, which underlies all life, implies an altrusim which prompts equitable conduct and prompts the enforcing of equity. The egoistic satisfaction of each depends in large measure on such altruistic actions as are implied, first, in being just; secondly, in seeing justice done to others; and thirdly, in improving the agencies by which justice is administered.

But the identification of personal advantage with the advantage of fellow-citizens is much wider than this. Whatever conduces to their vigour concerns him: for it diminishes the cost of everything he buys. Whatever conduces to their freedom from disease concerns him; for it diminishes his own liability to disease. Whatever raises their intelligence concerns him; for inconveniences are daily entailed upon him by others' ignorance or folly. Whatever raises their moral characters concerns him; for at every turn he suffers from the average unconscientiousness.

Much more directly do his egoistic satisfactions depend on those altruistic activities which enlist the sympathies of others. By alienating those around, selfishness loses the unbought aid they can render, shuts out a wide range of social enjoyments, and fails to receive those exaltations of pleasure and mitigations of pain which come from men's fellow-feeling with those they like. Undue egoism defeats itself by bringing on an incapacity for happiness. Purely egoistic gratifications are rendered less keen by satiety even in the earlier part of life, and almost disappear in the later; the less satiating gratifications of altruism are missed throughout life, and especially in the latter part, when they largely replace egoistic gratifications; and there is a lack of susceptibility to aesthetic pleasures of the higher orders.

This dependence of egoism upon altruism ranges beyond the limits of each society and tends ever towards universality. That within each society it becomes greater as social evolution--implying increase of mutual evolution--implying increase of mutual dependence--progresses, needs not be shown; and it is a corollary that as fast as the dependence of societies on one another is increased by commercial intercourse, the internal welfare of each becomes a matter of concern to the others.

Though altruism of a social kind, lacking certain elements of parental altruism, can never attain the same level, yet it may be expected to attain a level at which it would be like altruism in spontaneity--a level such that ministration to others' happiness would become a daily need. General altruism, in its developed form, must inevitably resist individual excesses of altruism. Three spheres would ultimately remain for altruism. The first, which must, to the last, continue large in extent, is that which family life affords. The other two are pursuit of social welfare, and the opportunities afforded by accidents, diseases and misfortunes.


A GREAT part of the perplexities in ethical speculation arises from neglect of the distinction between the absolutely right and the relatively right. And many further perplexities are due to the assumption that it can in some way be decided in every case which of two courses is morally obligatory.

Consider the relation of a healthy mother to a healthy infant. Between the two there exists a mutual dependence which is a source of pleasure to both. Consequently, the act of yielding to the child its natural food is of the kind we call absolutely right. In contrast, the wearisomeness of productive labour as ordinarily pursued renders it so far wrong; but then far greater suffering would result both to the labourer and his family, and therefore far greater wrong would be done, were this weari-someness not borne. The act is relatively right. Further, in many cases, there is no absolutely right course, but only courses of which it is not possible to say which is the least wrong.

To make the ideal man serve as a standard of normal conduct, he has to be defined in terms of the conditions which his nature fulfils. We must consider the ideal man as existing in the ideal social state. On the evolution hypothesis the two presuppose one another; and only when they coexist can there exist that ideal conduct which absolute ethics have to formulate, and which relative ethics have to take, as the standard by which to estimate divergences from right or degrees of wrong.

The formula of justice is 'Every man is free to do what he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man.'

Admitting that the establishment of an ethically complete right of property is beset with difficulties like those which beset the establishment of an ethically complete right to the use of the earth, we are, nevertheless, shown by a survey of the facts which existing primitive societies present, and the facts traceable in the early histories of civilized societies, that the right of property is originally deducible from the law of equal freedom; and it ceases to be so deducible only when the other corollaries from the law have been disregarded. Many in our days are seeking to over-ride this right. They do not see the suspension of the natural discipline by which every kind of creature is kept fit for the activities demanded by the conditions of life, which inevitably bring about unfitness for life, and either prompt or slow disappearance.

A product of mental labour may as truly be considered property as a product of manual labour.

Complete ownership of anything implies power to make over the ownership to another; since a partial or entire interdict implies partial or entire ownership by the authority issuing the interdict, and therefore limits or over-rides the ownership.

Government is instrumental to the maintenance of rights--here in great measure, there in small measure; but in whatever measure, it is merely instrumental, and whatever it has in it which may be called right, must be so called only in virtue of its efficiency in maintaining rights. Recognizing the truth that societies evolve, we cannot rationally assume the unity of their nature. A body politic which has to operate on other such bodies is fundamentally unlike one which has to operate only on component units.

When a society is endangered bodily by other societies, its required coercive constitution is one which, far though it may be from the absolutely right, is yet relatively right. The required constitution of the fully developed industrial type is quite different. At first sight it seems that it should be one in which each citizen has an equal share of power with his fellows. But this is not a legitimate corollary, because men will, on the average, be swayed by their interests, or apparent interests. Hence the industrial type of society in which equity is fully realized must be one in which there is not a representation of individuals, but of interests.

The truth we have to recognize is that, with humanity as it now exists, the possession of what are called equal political rights will not ensure the maintenance of equal rights properly so called.

The immediate enfranchisement of women is urged on the ground that women must have the suffrage because otherwise they cannot get from men their just claims. This is practically to contend that men will concede the suffrage knowing that with it they concede these claims, but will not concede the claims by themselves.

The love of the helpless, which may serve as a general description of the parental instinct, stronger in women than in men, and swaying their conduct outside the family as well as inside more than it sways the conduct of men, must in a still greater degree than in man prompt public actions which are unduly regardful of the inferior as compared with the superior. The present tendency of both sexes is to contemplate citizens as having claims in proportion to their needs--their needs being habitually proportional to their merits; and this tendency, stronger in women than in men, must, if it operates politically, cause a more general fostering of the worse at the expense of the better. Instead of the maintenance of the rights, which is but a systematic enforcement of the principle that each should receive the good and evil results of his own conduct, there would come greater and more numerous breaches of them than at present.

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