Day 7: Self-Interest and Altruism

Suppose someone says that they like to do good things, even good things for others, because it makes them feel good. There are people who would try to twist that into self-interest and destroy the very concept of altruism. They would say that it is actually selfish to draw enjoyment from giving others pleasure, and that true altruism is to give without any benefit, including enjoyment.

This argument seems right superficially, so it took me many years to discover that it’s totally wrong. The key was in the challenge to turn the argument upside down: that self-interested altruism is the best way to be. Here’s the support for this simple counter-argument. What do you call someone who does not empathise with the sufferings of others? I believe this is one of the tell-tale symptoms of sociopathy. And what about someone who feels nothing for the happiness of others? Also a sociopath. It seems that a person who cannot feel through the experiences of others is socially, mentally, or emotionally abnormal, if not something worse. To expect someone to do “good deeds” without sharing in the joy is quite deranged.

So there you have it. Helping others and feeling joy in the act is not only OK, it’s the best possible state of interaction with humanity.

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