This brief essay aims to provide some sociological, psychological and philosophical insights on why altruism is overrated, and on why egoism should be rediscovered as the main source of individual self-fulfilment and self-expression.
While altruism is widely considered to be a virtue, egoism is generally pictured as a vice: can this paradigm be overturned?
In this article, we will illustrate the main limitations and pitfalls of an altruistic approach to life, and how egoistic needs can hide behind altruistic behaviours. Finally, we will explore how an egoistic approach to life can be a major drive for individual happiness.
The moral value of mercy as a fundamental aspect of the modern conception of altruism
Western cultures have often depicted egoism as a regrettable vice.
Such a negative reputation is a cultural consequence of the immense power that the concept of altruism has acquired over time.
In most Western countries, altruism is grounded in Christian doctrine, which is based on the moral value of mercy. Mercy can be described as compassion for the misery of others, especially in social and economic terms. It is the feeling that pushes individuals to help people in need. In Christian ethics, charitable actions have been traditionally collected into the so-called “works of mercy”, divided into corporal and spiritual ones. While corporal works of mercy, such as “feed the hungry” or “clothe the naked”, regard the physical needs of others, spiritual works of mercy, such as “instruct the ignorant” or “comfort the sorrowful”, regard the inner needs of others. Starting in the Middle Ages, this ideology developed a great cultural influence in Europe and was represented in churches and cathedrals. Subsequently, between the 15th and the 16th century, the works of mercy became popular iconographical subjects and were diffusely depicted by many influential painters, including for example the Italian Caravaggio. Considering the vast diffusion and success of this morality, we can assume that it significantly contributed to shaping the modern conception of altruism.
Indeed, this cultural trait has been convincing individuals for centuries that others should come first. Through the idea that helping others would make you a better human being, it was assumed that you would be happier too. Emblematic of this conception is a famous exclamation by the character Lucia in the novel The Betrothed (1), written by the Italian poet and novelist Alessandro Manzoni. When kidnapped by the so-called “The Unnamed”, Lucia fears for her life. In an agitated conversation she tries to convince her abductor to set her free pronouncing a specific formula, which could be paraphrased as follows: “God forgives a lot of things in light of a work of mercy.” If the Unnamed helped her, he would metaphysically set himself free of his sins too. From this assumption, we conclude that being altruistic is the way to inner peace and thereby to a happier life.
Nevertheless, Lucia’s exclamation already carries an evident contradiction: would The Unnamed’s decision to release her be a genuine act of altruism or a masked act of egoism?
The trigger for his change is the desire to be forgiven, not to help someone selflessly.
Therefore, an act of mercy can be easily exploited, losing its original pure altruistic significance. It can be used to hide more egoistic intentions.
Let us think about it for a second: anytime we offer some money to a homeless person, do we genuinely intend to help them? Why do we not bring them home and let them have a shower in our bathtub? Also: if our act is so genuinely altruistic, why do we not help every single homeless person anytime we happen to meet one? Perhaps, most of the time we are just trying to expiate our own guilt. The truth is: we have no interest in helping homeless people and we perceive this lack of altruism as a sin. Therefore, like the Unnamed, we need to find a way to excuse ourselves: we donate a few coins, once in a while.
In this new light, is this act of mercy still constructive, still anchored in a lifestyle we would like to retain? We should start to consider these sporadic and unnatural merciful moments as symptoms. If we want to better comprehend why in most cases we do not spontaneously feel altruistic, we should try to carefully dig under the surface.
Perhaps individuals are not meant to be altruistic.
Altruism as satisfaction of the expectations of others
Let us now assume that some of our merciful moments are indeed authentic.
Can helping others – per se – be considered an act of altruism?
Altruism is a value attributed to an individual by others. Anytime you describe yourself, you would make a mistake in saying “I am an altruistic person”. You should rather always say “They think I am an altruistic person.” Being altruistic is part of how the community perceives you. An individual can always try to be attentive and generous, but this behaviour will only increase the odds that they are perceived as altruistic. Altruism doesn’t really exist as an intrinsic value of the subject. Altruism is just how your behaviour – which is selfish by definition – is read by others.
As a consequence, anybody who feels the urgent need to help others will be considered altruistic. But if you feel the urgent need to help someone, you are – at the same time – trying to satisfy your spontaneous egoistic will.
A so-called “egoistic person” is an egoistic person who is perceived as non–altruistic by others.
A so-called “altruistic person” is an egoistic person who is perceived as altruistic by others.
Altruism is not an attribute of the individual, but it is a judgement.
To break down this concept, it is crucial to explore the psychoanalytic model of the human mind. Schematically, it is structured into three psychological components, two of which are in conflict and a third which attempts to resolve this conflict. The two conflicting components are the Superego and the Id: while the Superego represents the socio-cultural notions that the individual internalizes – such as customs and traditions, what is good and evil, right and wrong – the Id constitutes the individual’s instinctive drives. The Ego, which regulates the individual’s consciousness and its relationship with the world, always tries to resize or eliminate the Id’s activities, in order to minimize the anxiety that breaks in anytime the Id’s desires are frustrated (2, 3).
Let us take an example from every-day experience. One morning you wake up, and you don’t feel like going to work (the Id’s desire). You could say “Well, why should I go to work? I could take the first train and go somewhere else.” But you don’t do that, right? You don’t, because your psyche immediately thinks that this behaviour would be unethical, even though it doesn’t exactly grasp why (the Superego’s notions). What now? Your mind (your Ego) consciously looks for logical reasons why you should forget about the train, and go to work.
Now: is altruism a feature of the Id or the Superego?
According to our definition, altruism – in most cases – is a social expectation, which the Superego gladly conforms with. Anytime the Ego indulges the Superego’s will, individuals are unconsciously resizing their desire for self-realization. In Freudian terms, this behaviour – if prolonged – can significantly coincide with the development of neurosis, a broad mental disorder that not only comprises somatisation, the communication of psychological distress through somatic symptoms, but also depression and anxiety (4, 5).
Let us return to our practical example. Most of the time you simply go to work. Your mind suppresses your spontaneous (egoistic) will and decides to behave in a “pure”, unnatural and altruistic manner.
Obligations are just a drop in the ocean. If we consider any time we behave like that, we will realize that we often tacitly contribute to our unhappiness.
Pathological altruism: a case of hidden egoism
Altruism can also result in pathological conditions. Pathological altruism is defined as the behavioural tendency caused by the desire to help others, which leads to negative impacts on them, or eventually on the self (6).
In one of its manifestations, pathological altruism is simply caused by the unconscious need of satisfying personal desires. The pathological altruist behaves as a sincere, altruistic person and does not realize what hides behind their actions. One intriguing example of this condition is offered by the reinterpretation of the figure of Don Quixote as a pathological altruist (3). In Cervantes’ masterpiece (7), Alonso Quijano – a fanatic of knightly novels – is so deeply involved in the stories he reads, that he eventually becomes convinced of being a knight-errant, who has the ultimate scope of helping others and metaphorically saving the world. Despite his intentions, Alonso – who in his fantasy becomes “Don Quixote” – repeatedly fails to accomplish his chivalrous quests, being laughed at and mocked. However, his hilarious behaviour does not prevent him from continuing to power his altruistic ambitions. According to Sanxing Sun’s analysis, the true hidden, unconscious reason for Don Quixote’s pathological altruism is in fact egoistic: Alonso desperately desires to be recognized as an exceptional man who everybody marvels at, and so he gets trapped in these delusions of grandeur that ultimately lead to the obsessed invention of “The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha”.
In the fiction of Don Quixote, altruism is a superficial symptom of a deeper self-serving motivation that the individual’s Ego has tried to burden.
Egoism as a new moral duty to pursue individual happiness
We have shown that individual happiness seems to be mainly guided by egoistic reasons. But what if egoism was also an essential feature for the progress of civilization?
What would happen if the so-called “prime movers” suddenly stopped doing their job, vanishing into thin air?
In her colossal novel Atlas Shrugged (8), the Russian-American philosopher and writer Ayn Rand imagines a future scenario in which the creative minds that move the society forward, the so-called “prime movers”, collectively decide to riot – the main characters are a railroad executive, a steel magnate, an owner of a copper company and a talented inventor. As a protest against laws and regulations intended to consolidate a centralized, state control over individuals, the mysterious figure of John Galt persuades business leaders to permanently abandon their companies.
Besides Rand’s evident criticism towards a socialist society and any other form of totalitarianism, in Atlas Shrugged individualism seems to be guided by a revolutionary form of egoism: why should I share my cleverness, my creativity and therefore my concrete impact on national productivity, if you don’t let me express myself at my full potential? In Rand’s vision, this is the strongest argument for capitalism: in order to express individuals’ full potential, societies should aim at a free market system, in which the government does not intervene or apply any regulation, and the value of each party is intrinsically established by the forces of supply and demand. In simple terms, if your product – your talent – is worth it, people will buy – will value – it. And both parties will be equally satisfied.
Therefore, Rand explores a new wave of ethical egoism, based on which it is an individual’s moral duty to express their highest talent (9): only if you do not accept any compromise, only if you do not belittle yourself, your work will be valuable and admired by others. Egoism is upgraded to the rank of inescapable obligation, being the only way to pursue individual happiness.
As a consequence of this consideration, a question may arise: how can people interact with each other, if their unique goal is to pursue their own benefits?
We should come back to the opening definition of altruism, one grounded in the sentiment of mercy. In a merciful relationship, there is always someone who is in need, and someone else who has the power to provide the help. The interaction is unbalanced, as it is based on this disproportion.
However, in a scenario in which it is a moral obligation to pursue our own greatness – in an egoistic relationship – my majesty withstands yours. We are gladly on the same line, and we can only accept to deal with the highest expression of ourselves and the other.
Societies are in first place made by individuals, with their own freedom of being creative, of making projects and excelling. Societies should not be pictured as indistinguishable crowds in which there are no differences among individuals, and where you are expected to resize your happiness for others. Otherwise, people can be excused from trying their best to contribute to the progress of civilization, and then complaining about their misery.
We must revalue individual happiness: perhaps this is the main way to improve the collective one.
- Manzoni, A., “The Betrothed”, 1827.
- Cooper, S.H., “Recent contributions to the theory of defense mechanisms: A comparative view.”, Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 1989.
- Sun, S., “From defensive altruism to pathological altruism”, SAGE open, 2018.
- Radford, P., “A neurotic conflict”, Journal of Child Psychotherapy, 1968.
- Chaturvedia, S.K., & Bhugrab, D., “The concept of neurosis in a cross-cultural perspective”, Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 2007.
- Oakley, B., Knafo, A., & McGrath, M., “Pathological Altruism – An introduction” in the book Pathological Altruism, 2011.
- de Cervantes, M., “Don Quixote”, 1605-15.
- Rand, A., “Atlas Shrugged”, 1957.
- Sharaf, R., & Ardakani, S.H.E.A., “Ayn Rand’s Egoism: Theory and Analysis”, Religious Inquiries, 2015.