Exegesis on Altruism
Noah Dove - Jan. 20th 2011

Homer and his friend Eusebius go for a walk in the park.

Eusebius: It very much seems to me, at least, that all actions a person ever does are motivated by self-interest. All of this talk of altruism is merely idle chatter.

Homer: Is that so?

E: Very much.

H: I must ask, of course, does self-interest require purpose? Does it require intention of action?

E: Yes.

H: Of course, otherwise the result of any action that one took that benefited one's self would be little more than on the account of luck or some other fortunate windfall.

E: Naturally, interest requires intent.

H: Would you be so bold to assume that life and the universe has any sort of intrinsic meaning to it?

E: I would not dare divert onto such a lengthy tangent merely to arrive at its inevitable conclusion.

H: Exactly. Thus, if life itself has no intrinsic meaning itself, it goes to say that there is therefore no intrinsic intent. All actions would be random, or in other ways lacking in value.

E: Yes, except for the value we assign to it, of course.

H: Naturally. Of course, if we fabricate meaning in our lives, then naturally any actions with intentions based off such meanings must also be fabricated.

E: Of course.

H: And so, we must conclude that there IS no such thing as self-interest, but that there are things which appear to be congruent with something we CALL self-interest, said interest being based on values and meanings which are ultimately creations of our own design.

E: We must. Of course, if self-interest is actions motivated by things which we have created and named self interest, rather than what is actually in our self-interest, so true must be all interest.

H: Naturally.

E: Then altruism, being other-interest, must be just as much of a fantasy as self-interest.

H: Truly, one could rightly say that there is no altruism "out there", waiting to be discovered with the faculties of the mind in any way. However, you must indulge me an a fantastic effort to try.

E: Very well.

H: Take, for example, the act of reproduction. The creation and successful rearing of offspring, barring any particular stroke of fortune with which the child cares to share in the spoils with his parents, is never a positive return on the investment. It always takes more time, effort, energy, and resources into a child, than the parent ever receives in return.

E: Yes, but one might say that it is in one's self-interest to reproduce.

H: But to what end? In a world of pure self-interest, the parent would ALWAYS place their own interests before that of the child. As children are a net drain on the parent, parents would never have children. Indeed, the instances of infanticide amongst all animals, much less our own, would show this fact clearly, without even the need for fanciful thought experiments. It goes to show, then, that there is some force that causes us to act in ways which are not in our self-interest.

E: Not so. The existence of reproduction does not defy the sole supremacy of self-interest.

H: Perhaps you will enlighten me, then, as to how self-interest can motivate an individual to take actions which are against his own self-interest.

E: Indeed, perhaps a person INTENDED to behave according to self-interest. They may have thought that they were engaging in self-interest while they were, indeed, acting to the counter. A suicide bomber may believe that what they are doing is in their self-interest when, biologically speaking, it is not.

H: You have no need to provide an example of the folly of mankind. Clearly what you say is self-evident. However, you are not proving the existence of self-interest, you are proving the existence of the ILLUSION of self-interest. A person motivated solely by self-interest who understands what said self-interest is would never behave in a way contrary to self-interest, such as the creation of life.

E: Very well. I still assert, then, that altruism needn't exist in a world ruled strictly by the illusion of self-interest.

H: Ah. As such, all I would need to do is to prove the existence of the illusion of altruism.

E: Indeed.

H: Very well. I must begin by asking if we can ever know the intentions behind a person's actions when they commit them.

E: Of course not. No one can read minds.

H: Indeed, one could accept, on faith, what a person says their intentions were, but they may well be lying.

E: Or have actually convinced themselves that their intentions were other than what they actually were.

H: Exactly. It goes to say, then, that if we can not positively determine intentions, we can not positively identify if one was behaving according to what they thought was self-interest.

E: Indeed.

H: As such, we can not say for certain that all actions are based on self-interest, as we have no factual knowledge that a person has committed any action based on self-interest even once, much less every time, as we are unable to factually determine interest.

E: I must most reluctantly agree.

H: Therefore, a person may be at any time acting in any number of fanciful interests, as we can not say for certain what their interests are at the time. Indeed, for you to claim that another was acting purely in self-interest would be as utterly false as me claiming that they committed said action purely in the interest of consuming a steak sandwich later, whether they were successful or not.

E: True.

H: As such, one can not assert that because one gained as a result of their actions, that the actions were committed for the purpose of gain. Indeed, we just now asserted that people act in ways which are incongruous with results due to illusions. Thus, there is no way to prove even the illusion of self-interest, and any assertions thereto are the illusions of illusions of self-interest. Surely one could not place one's trust in something which is so far removed from reality.

E: Very well. If we can not determine intent from the actions a person commits, how then are we to determine interest? What if a person commits acts that have no interest at all, but are merely random, or appear the right thing to do for no cognitive reason? Moreover, I must inquire, if there is no way to prove interest, as you say, then how do you suppose to prove the existence of altruism? Surely, you do not believe in altruism because you believe in the belief in altruism.

H: Certainly not, good friend. It is true that if we can't establish purpose, we can't establish interest, and if we can't establish intentions, we can't establish illusion of interest.

E: So how, then, are we to find truth in this all?

H: As has been mentioned, one can not judge intent from outcome. As this is true, one could say that it is entirely possible for a person to base their actions entirely upon self-interest, but, indeed, also benefit others. An instrumentalist may play for no reason but to perfect their art, but this does not prevent passers by from enjoying the music.

E: Correct.

H: Furthermore, is it not also entirely conceivable for an action, intended for nothing but self interest to ultimately benefit the actor to no extent?

E: Certainly even some of my endeavors have yielded poor results in my days.

H: As have mine. It could also be said that in such failures, one could also benefit others. I may have utterly burned my dinner to my taste, for example, but it is the best meal my dog has had all week.

E: Certainly, just as it would be true that a person who committed an action based purely on other-interest may not in any way actually help others despite his best efforts, and may also certainly come upon unexpected gain as a result of his actions.

H: Exactly, my friend. As such, it would be foolish to say that because one gained from their own actions, that it necessarily came from intent to gain from their actions. That is, merely because the results benefited the actor does not mean that the actor must have taken the action out of self-interest.

E: True. After all, man is fallible, and intentions are unknowable.

H: So let us take an example, then of an action that helps another. Certainly it is in all our self-interests to acquire property of one type or another, is it not?

E: Most certainly so.

H: Why, then, do you not voraciously steal from your neighbors at every possible instance?

E: Because if I lived in a world where no one respected the law, or the rights to property of another, there would be no guarantee that my neighbors would not voraciously steal my possessions. I assure you, refusing to engage in theft is an action which benefits my neighbors to the exclusion of my self interest on the surface. That said, I still very much stand to gain from a peaceful and ordered society.

H: Most certainly you do. However, did we not just conclude that simply because you gain from something does not imply that it was motivated by self-interest?

E: We did.

H: Then we have a conundrum, it appears. On the one hand, were you acting entirely in self-interest, you would engage in no end of theft. On the other hand, you choose not to steal anything at all, despite that you clearly know it is against your self-interest to refrain. You choose something which is against your plain self-interest.

E: Yes, but I gain, regardless. After all, why can it not be said that I refrain from stealing purely out of self-interest? Perhaps I am more interested in retaining my own possessions than taking them from others?

H: Yes, but keeping your own possessions and acquiring others from your neighbor are BOTH in your self-interest. In the act of retaining your possessions, you practice self interest, but in refusing to steal, you do not. After all, is it not entirely possible to both guard your own possessions and take those away from your neighbor?

E: Most certainly, but my actions are ultimately bound by reality. Were I to take my neighbor's possessions, it would be entirely possible for them to combine among themselves, motivated by self-interest, to band together to take their things back, and mine as well, to say nothing of other means, such as recourse by the rule of law. But this is only for this example. Certainly you would agree that there are times when self-interest conflicts due to the simple fact of circumstances.

H: Yes, I would say that there will come times when one can not have two things which are of self-interest at once.

E: As such, I have to take whatever options I have before me and choose the one which is MOST in my self-interest at any given time.

H: Your actions, then, are committed to give you the best value of self-interest?

E: Precisely.

H: Well, then, why do you look for the best value?

E: Because, by intelligently applying my self-interest, I can gain the most I am able from any given set of circumstances.

H: Yes, but gain to what end?

E: I don't follow you, my friend.

H: Well, certainly you don't pursue self-interest for the purpose of gaining things, and the reason you pursue gain is because it is in your best interest. At best, this is circular reasoning, and will get you nowhere. At worst, you would be a member of a religious-like devotion to self-interest, as if it were your god.

E: Well it certainly isn't that.

H: Indeed, because if it were, what would be the point of worshiping the god of self-interest? Certainly not because it's in your self-interest. Oh, what a maddening journey we would go on then.

E: Certainly.

H: As such, either we are to accept that self-interest is something we should do for its own sake, or we should presume that one should accept self-interest for something other than for the sake of self-interest.

E: Indeed, we must.

H: To the former, that we should accept self-interest for its own sake, this would mean that we are doing self-interest for the sake of something that is not self-interest. This is the meaning of altruism, is it not?

E: How humorous! To believe that all things are done by self-interest because self-interest is, itself, the goal is to turn the ultimate of greedy misers into the ultimate of altruists.

H: Indeed. The amateur, even the amateur of selfishness, is ultimately the proof of selflessness.

E: So what of the latter, then? What of practicing self-interest for the sake of something else?

H: Well, what other things are there? What is another reason to do something for self interest?

E: Well, I would presume I engage in self-interest so as to gain things which increase my happiness.

H: And what is the purpose to happiness?

E: Well, obviously, happiness is in my best interest. No, wait, I know where you're going with that. I can clearly see that self-interest for the sake of happiness for the sake of self-interest puts me in a loop once again.

H: Indeed, and this gets me to my very point. For whatever reason you choose to engage in actions for self-gain, the end result is that you do it either for self-interest's sake, or you do it for the sake of something else that isn't your self-interest. In either case, when you do things for the purpose of self-interest, you are, in fact doing it for the purpose different from self-interest. If you are doing something for the sake of something other than self-interest and self-gain, then you are committing an act of altruism - committing an act for an other.

E: I see.

H: And I will even take it one step further, if you care, now that my point is demonstrated.

E: Certainly, continue.

H: As it was stated at the beginning, if nothing has intrinsic meaning, then any meaning must be fabricated.

E: Yes.

H: This means that the reason we do things for is for fabricated reasons, whether it be self-interest, happiness, or any number of other things.

E: Indeed.

H: Then while altruism may also be a fabrication, the fact that we fabricate these things at all means that we are creating an other, for which we then do these things.

E: So where does this lead us?

H: Whatever we do, we do for a reason of other, not self. And even when we do things for self, we do things for other, which means all is done altruistically. Not only does the existence of the illusion of self-interest prove the existence of altruism, but that we can conceive of altruism at all means that we have created an other. The mere act of the mind conceiving is, itself, an act of altruism, as it is the creation of other for the sake of other.

E: Novel idea, friend. It seems, to conclude, that the existence of altruism is proof for the existence of altruism.

H: Indeed it does. That or our concept of anything we can conceptualize is a terrible and unintelligible mistake. That I've been able to talk to you this whole time with words that you understand seems to make this unlikely.

E: I suppose that would mean anybody who would observe our conversation and understand it would also have to construct an idea of the other, or our words would mean nothing. That would imply that whoever is listening to us now must therefore be altruistic.

H: They think, therefore altruism is. Descartes couldn't have put it better, my friend.