Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Research Paper on Altruism

Altruism Research Paper

It is first important to define the term altruism. In his article ‘Egoism and Altruism’, B. Williams uses the word morality to also imply altruism and gives us a ‘minimal interpretation’ of it and refers to it as ‘ a general disposition to regard the interests of others’. He also introduces the ‘possibility of limiting one’s own projects’ as a further feature of altruism. What is meant to be rational? Williams defines it from what he calls a Kantian standpoint: the structure of practical reason. Economists hold that all decisions that are made are rational. Blackburn writes about the ‘economic man’ in ‘Looking Out for Yourself’ as a paradigm of self-interested rationality rather than a moral paradigm. Rationality seems to be equated with a form of egoism: a self-centered pursuit to fulfill your own interests. It does seem to be the argument that it is not rational to be altruistic, but just that it is more morally correct for a person to be of a more altruistic persuasion.


Williams states why it wouldn’t be rational for one to be egoistic, but not why it would be rational for one to be altruistic. In ‘The Amoralist’ he does not think that it is possible to argue someone into caring about something; only would this be possible if morality ‘can be got off the ground rationally’, but I don’t see how he does that in either of his articles. Williams does not see this as defeat for reason or rationality, but instead, a defeat for humanity. Sidgwick, quoted in Mackie (in ‘Sidgwick’s Pessimism’) states a similar point, that a person who takes his own happiness or pleasure as the ultimate end ‘there seems no opening for any line of reasoning to lead him to Universalistic Hedonism’ or concern for the happiness or welfare of others than himself. Williams take a rather extreme viewpoint throughout the entire essay ‘Egoism and Altruism’, and seems on intent proving that egoism is not morally right. He does this by presenting arguments that may change a person from an egoistic standpoint to more altruistic grounds. However Williams does little to show that is it rational to be altruistic; he instead states the need for an internal and external justification of altruism – does this equate to rationality? He argues that if it is possible to show that altruism is necessary for society, and society for human life, then this externally provides justification or altruism. The internal justification is the personal satisfaction that would result from behaving altruistically. Williams doesn’t provide explicit arguments for why we should be altruistic, and certainly not why it would be rational to be altruistic. He seems to imply in his conclusion that whilst it may not be possible to find rationalistic grounds for being altruistic, it is nevertheless right. He disagrees with Kant that it is possible to elicit altruism from certain structural conditions on rational practical thought. Williams favors the Humean claim that it is not such conditions, but rather a certain desire or sentiment from a person that constitutes the vital step in the direction of altruism.

Williams states that it is not possible by a ‘purely rational process’ to change the egoist from having ‘I-desires’ to a more altruistic standpoint that he favors and having ‘non-I desires’. He does say it would be irrational for one to be egoistic if they claimed that it was all right for them but not all right for others to behave in the same fashion. Williams uses the loaded word ‘desire’ on many occasions without providing a clear definition of what he means by it. It also seems to me as though what is left wanting is the need for a distinction between the term ‘desire’ and ‘need’. People do not only desire and want things; there are certain things that could be argued that are a necessity for the individual. Can these needs, such as hunger and a need for warmth be thought of in terms of ‘I desire’ and ‘non-I desire’? Perhaps not everything can be divided into two distinct categories between what you desire for yourself and what you desire for others. Williams does not make absolutely clear what he means by the terms ‘non-I desires’ and ‘I-desires’. Is he implying that these are two completely separate states of being? I think that the distinction between the two is not that clear and certain. It is possible to have desires that take into account the well being of yourself and others at the same time. In ordinary life, do people actually think in terms of self and others all the time? I think not. Decision-making in day-to-day life is not as rational as this and there are many factors affecting a decision, so perhaps it is not appropriate to think of altruism and morality in general in terms of solely being other or self-directed action. Williams recognizes this and states that all he wishes to claim is that both sorts of desires are possible and to challenge the notion that all human action is ultimately only self directed. Related to the problem of desire above, Blackburn makes an interesting point, that sometimes we act not so much in ways that we want to act, but in ways we feel we should act. Are we still fulfilling a desire to please others? Also, that the satisfaction of certain desires may be the release of tension rather than the onset of pleasure. Blackburn writes about our concerns, things that matter to us; that enter our reasoning and that we care about. So, there are things, other than our desires that motivate us.

Perhaps on an individual level it is not rational, nor is it possible to be rational and altruistic. I do not think that this prevents people from performing altruistic acts. Sometimes we may do things that are not in our interest, but we desire to do them, e.g. get even with someone – take revenge. Is this egoism? Is the fact that we desire to do something enough to make it an act of egoism? Taking revenge may not be in our self interest, in fact it may be harmful to our interests, so what can be considered as the rational, self-interested motivation behind such an action? This provides a further argument against the notion that human action is rational. A person wanting to help save the rainforest does not immediately seem to be acting on egoistic impulses. But on reflection, if it is considered to be his ‘desire’ to help save the rainforest, and he does do something positive to protect the rainforest, can he be said to have fulfilled a desire that was ultimately an ‘I desire’ and labelled an egoist? If we argue from these grounds, then every action can be reduced to an ‘I-desire’ and a need to do something for yourself. Broad classifies desires which have this kind of underlying cause as other-regarding but self-referential, that is, the doctrine that ‘each of us has specially strong obligations to benefit certain persons and groups of people who stand in special relations to himself’. The reason for desiring something is that is bears some relationship to myself. Whenever we do something, it results from the self in some form; otherwise we would not have the motivation to carry out the act, and self-referential altruism forms, and had always formed, says Mackie, a large part of common sense morality. As Blackburn says, our actions reveal what most concerns us, at that time. Blackburn notes an important distinction that Butler makes between the a) object of my particular desire (e.g. for food or for happiness of my neighbor) and b) the pleasure that will arise upon the satisfaction of this desire. Butler doesn’t think this alone is enough to say that the ‘principle’ of my action is ultimately self-love. Perhaps it is a question of the degree of the egoistic and altruistic elements present in a person’s character and subsequently, the degree of altruism or egoism present in their actions. But how could this possibly be quantified and measure?

In conclusion, I think that it is not rational to be altruistic on an individual level. This is because I don’t think we (on the whole) act or think rationally in our daily lives. I do believe that it is possible to behave altruistically, when altruism is defined as thinking about the interests of others. The welfare of those connected to us through ties of family or friendship is important to most people and I do think that we consciously make decisions and relate the outcomes of every action back to our own interests. However, I think it can be considered a possibility that we may, or can, be rationally altruistic on a societal level.

Certain people, such as governments certainly aim to show that they attempt to behave altruistically – but whether they actually do or not is questionable. In our society, individuation and competition are encouraged. People are also seen to have a duty and responsibility for the care of others. I don’t think that these two ideas have to be opposing or mutually exclusive. To have concern for the welfare or yourself and others seems to me to be inherent in human behavior.

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