There are various ways to describe the relationship between egoism and altruism. One is to say they are the two faces of a coin; another is to say they are night and day. Perhaps, they can even be described as black and white. Whichever imagery one chooses, the relevant thing is they are opposites.
Egoism is an inherent human trait to act for his good while altruism is a concern for others, usually superseding one’s self-interests. Many have viewed egoism as a bad trait in humans. However, this view is not universal. Others also consider it a great trait, which is an indispensable one to which we all owe survival today.
This essay examines the egoism versus altruism philosophy with an emphasis on the relationship between the two.
Egoism is a theory in philosophy that believes that the ultimate motive for all actions is self-interest. There are three branches of egoism – psychological, ethical, and rational. Psychological egoism is a descriptive theory that believes that every action is solely motivated by the doer’s self-interest. On the other hand, Ethical and Rational egoisms are normative, stating that an action should be performed because it maximizes the doer’s interest.
An altruistic act is one whose motivation lies in a desire that does not benefit the doer. Thus, altruism is an unselfish concern for the interests and welfare of others. Instances of altruism are abundant in our daily lives, from the man who helps an older woman cross the street, to the soldier who sacrifices himself to save his comrades. Altruism is considered a virtue, and society expects everyone to exhibit them in their actions.
However, various types of altruism present divergent perspectives. Altruism could be pure when an act is done solely to benefit the other person, and there is no identifiable reward for the doer. It could also be in the form of mixed motives where the act is done out for concern for others’ welfare, but there is also a reward attached (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).
For instance, a driver who is driving below the speed limit in a busy neighborhood can be said to be altruistic as he seeks to avoid harming others. Still, he is also rewarded as he is safe, and will not get punished for breaking traffic laws (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).
Another distinct branch of altruism is self-sacrifice. One may be tempted to consider self-sacrifice as pure altruism, but this not always so. Sometimes, even the highest form of self-sacrifice, which is sacrificing one’s life, carries with it a reward only realizable by the doer’s death (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).
On a cursory look, altruism supposes that humans act solely for the good of others. However, when examined further, one will discover that every selfless act usually comes with a form of reward for the doer, either materially or even a psychological satisfaction in doing good. This begs the question of whether there can be pure altruism.
From the definitions, it is crystal clear that either egoism and altruism can be motivations behind an action. Many philosophers have held man to be naturally egoistic, claiming that this is so because of the survival instinct. This school of thought states that from the moment humans were mere sperm cells, the survival of the fittest was ingrained into its biology. They believe that it is only by learning to survive, which means putting his own needs above others’, which has allowed man to thrive (Spencer, 1892).
Thus, it is their opinion that pure altruism runs contrary to the principle of self-preservation. This means that where a human truly puts others' interests ahead of his’ all the time, the result will not be more love to give but less because those who put others ahead of themselves will lose themselves in the process.
However, there are equally views that support the evolutionary nature of altruism. Darwin, the father of evolution, started that sympathy or benevolence, words that can be synonymous with altruism, is an essential part of social instincts. Recent studies in neuroscience have also backed this up with a discovery that engaging in altruistic acts triggers the part of the brain associated with reward (GGSC).
On whether humans are altruistic or egoistic by nature, a study was conducted where random people were put together in a group. Their interactions showed that humans are naturally predisposed to selfish behavior rather than group benefits. This predisposition, however, does not mean they can’t cooperate towards an ultimate good.
However, another study shows that whether a person is altruistic or egoistic can be a function of many determinants apart from evolution. Factors such as the environment, childhood, or even moods have been associated with altruism or egoism. If we are to go with this view, altruism or egoism are not evolutionary at all. Instead, they are learned and circumstantial behaviors (Klimecki, 2014).
It is worthy of note that egoism does not nullify altruism. Rather, it disproves pure altruism, i.e., the possibility that an action can be motivated solely by the care of others without any likely benefit for oneself. It posits that egoism, leading to selfishness, does not preclude a person from caring for others. But such care is still motivated by self-interest.
For example, while altruism philosophy will consider a mother taking care of her child and even sacrificing her comforts for the child’s to be genuinely altruistic. Egoism sees such an act as motivated by the mother’s desire to preserve her life through her child’s, a selfish desire rooted in our genetic predisposition to self-preservation. Knowing fully well that we cannot live forever, we seek procreation to achieve what is closest in semblance to living forever.
However, it has been argued that the fact that self-interest plays a role in acting for others' benefit does not necessarily mean the act is not altruistic. As long as the ultimate motive is to help others, regardless of the benefits that accrue to the doer, it is altruistic. A selfless act will only be egoistic if it was done solely out of a desire to benefit.
From this discourse on the egoism v altruism philosophy, it can be established that the relationship between the two is more than that of mere opposites. They are interrelated in such a way that one cannot exist without the other, and both are ingrained in human psychology. Both have evolutionary roots and are responsible for human survival.
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