Re: Selfishness vs Altruism; an outdated dicotomy?

James Wetterau (
Sun, 21 Nov 1999 17:02:40 -0500

"Cynthia" says:
> > I believe that the most important quality in the universe is self.
> But
> > not my self alone. All selves are valuable to me (though I do have
> > favorites). I am interested in bettering the lives of all selves, mine
> and
> > others. Of course, my main focus will be on doing what is best for myself
> > and those others I have the closest contact with.
> I like what you say here. But I think you're glossing over how intertwined,
> your well being is with the well being of others.

I've been meaning to reply to this for some time. I have had a number of similar ideas, and what I think amounts to a serious critique of standard objectivist ethics. I acknowledges the absolute necessity for treating people as individuals but still come up with an ethical impulse to service to others.

I think about ethics in terms of time scales. On the shortest possible time scale, the moment of the perceived now, i.e. the period long enough for my brain to signal my body electro-chemically to do something, take the action and receive the sensory feedback, I can only do what I want to do. After all, we each act through our own bodies, so in some sense it makes sense in those moments only to analyze our own goals. This corresponds well I think with Ayn Rand's selfishness: free of coercion, we each follow our own values.

As you broaden the timescale, and consider the hierarchy of meta goals (e.g. I move my legs because I want to walk, I want to walk because I want to go to work, I want to go to work because I want to do my job, I want to do my job for money, pride, fun, etc.) you find a greater and greater admixture of other peoples' concerns in the desiderata. This makes sense, because serving the interests of other sentient beings in a cooperative way is the only method I know to allow for peaceful, mutually beneficial existence among them. If one refused to consider the interests of others, one would have nothing to offer them, i.e. no goods or services to exchange. It's possible one could become a completely self-sufficient hermit, a la the unabomber in his shack, but in so doing one would be deliberately choosing a path of eventual impoverishment, in every sense -- material, mental, and ethical -- relative to the mass of humanity who enjoy benefit from constructive engagement with their peers. No sort of greatness or glory could be attained that way. Even a great mind that did seek isolation would hope to bring back her or his ideas to the public and thus would serve and engage with the mass of humanity in a substantial way.

In fact, I most respect those whose value other selves so highly that on the longest scale they plan to contribute to the good of all humankind or mindkind, to employ Anders Sandberg's coinage. On that scale, one doesn't need to think of oneself at all, since if one has properly planned for one's one productive work, care, and self-preservation in the short and medium term, one can trust to one's labor to earn the means in the future to go on doing so. So in the long run others and their desires are paramount in my scheme.

Another way to phrase this is that my ethical system begins with total respect for the individual's rights and absolute dominion over himself or herself, but, strangely, finds its telos in service to others. So while the instant principle of action is self-interest, my values are utterly philanthropic. I think the standard objectivist ethics lacks any discussion of this ethical telos, though I may simply not yet have read enough.

Still another way to look at this would be to acknowledge that we all face the world from within our own skins. Therefore, we are obliged to nurture and protect ourselves from moment to moment. But on a longer time scale, when our goals may direct the arc of our whole lives, my values drive me to recognize that there's a lot more good to gain from considering and working for the good of others, rather than ourselves, since there is so much more to the world of other people than there is to any individual. I'll note that the most successful businesses have to operate this way; in order to keep on maximizing profits from quarter to quarter, they have to ask themselves: "What do other people need and want?" not so much "How can I make a boatload of money?"

James Wetterau