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Egoism and Altruism; Are We Naturally Selfish

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Egoism and Altruism; Are We Naturally Selfish?

Just as there are moral rules that compel us to keep in mind the interests, emotions, or well being of others, there exist moral rules that demand us to take into account our own interests. An important presumption of morality then, is that it is plausible for us to perform for the concern of another. However, a major theory known as psychological egoism, proclaims that “everyone, in fact, acts for his or her own advantage, and the only reason why people act respectfully or kindly toward each other is that that too, for one reason or another, is to their advantage.” (459-460).

It is believed that each person holds an egoist position, or selfishness, that in some way or another, has every act they do result in their favor. Supposing that this is true because we cannot help doing otherwise is known as psychological egoism (460). On the other hand, ethical egoism supports the idea that even when we feel concerned and want to act for another, we should be acting for ourselves instead.  However, it is the idea of psychological egoism that disputes the belief of morality. In the following paper I will summarize the views of four different philosophers on the question of egoism and altruism.

Plato, The Republic

People understand that in order not to suffer, they need to not inflict suffering onto others, and as a result, mutual agreements have formed amongst parties. From this rose laws that everyone could agree was just. This became believed as “the origin and essence of justice” (460). Plato states his idea that people follow the rules because of this. He believes that if a just and an unjust person are presented the decision to follow their desires, the just person would be seen following the same path as the unjust person. The explanation for this is one’s own impulse that drives them to do the acts that would most do good for them, that the law forces back for the basis of equality.

Plato begins to describe a story of Lydian Gyges, a shepherd who stumbled upon a ring that had the power to turn him invisible. When invisible, he uses the power to take action in his own gain. He uses this story as the base of his ideas of egoism. If a just person had been given the ring, they would also do the unjust. It is in every person’s self-interest to do what is beneficial to them, right or wrong, and if a person had been in that situation and did the just, they would be considered “foolish and miserable” (461).

Contradictory to the concept of egoism, altruism is “acting for the sake of other people’s interests” (461) and it consists of many degrees. Altruism can then be divided into two divisions-- psychological altruism and ethical altruism. Psychological altruism expresses that “people “naturally” act for each other’s sakes.” (461) and ethical altruism “says that people ought to act with each other’s interests in mind” (461-462). However, more people defend psychological egoism to psychological altruism because it seems more farfetched to believe that people are obliged to act altruistically.

Two famous ancient Chinese philosophers, Mencius and Xunzi hold contrasting views on the debate of natural selfishness. Mencius debates for the innate goodness of an individual and that they all hold a sensitivity for others. Xunzi, in opposition to Mencius, argues that human nature is centered on self-interest and greed, and the purpose of moral cultivation is to fix evil temperaments.

Mencius, On Human Nature: Man is Good

Mencius strongly believes that all people have the natural sense of morality to help other people without expecting anything in return. He gives the example of a young child who is about to fall into a well. One would save the child, not because they feel they can benefit from it, but because they feel compassion for the young child. He then goes on to say that someone who would not feel compassion to help the young child is “not human” (463). The emotion to help others is “the germ of benevolence” (463) and for that person to deny these emotions is denying a portion of oneself.

Xunzi, “Human Nature Is Evil”

Xunzi believes that each individual is naturally evil and selfish and is made good for the sake of others. The negative desires that everyone is born with, if followed, will result in their good desires disappearing. It is only with the guidance of laws and regulations with the influence of teachers that peace, protocol, and civility can be maintained.

Xunzi offers many rebuttals to several reasonings given by Mencius, “The reason man is ready to learn is that his nature is originally good”(464). Xunzi proclaims that this idea is due to the misunderstanding of something natural and something acquired (464). When Mencius states, “The original nature of man is good; but because men all ruin it and lose it, it becomes evil” (465), Xunzi declares that it cannot be true. He goes on to say that if it was true, then it would be possible to become “beautiful” and “beneficial” without leaving one’s original state. (465). He declares a human’s need to eat when hungry, seek warmth when cold, and crave rest when restless as “man’s natural disposition” (465). However, when they surrender a desire to someone who needs it more, it is because they were taught to do so, not because it is their natural instinct to do so. For an individual to succumb to their natural desires means for them to show no consideration because it is described that the basic moral of an individual is self-centered. Xunzi answers a probable question “if man’s original nature is evil, whence do the rules of decorum and righteousness arise?” (466) by responding that the rules of decorum and righteousness arise from gained integrity of a philosopher rather than something that is gained naturally. He believes the role of a philosopher to be to “gather many ideas and thoughts and become well versed in human affairs, in order to bring forth the rules of decorum and righteousness and establish laws and institutions.” (466).

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