We are here on earth to do good for others. What the others are here for, I don’t know.
—W.H. Auden (The Week, November 16, 2002)
The most popular of ethical viewpoints clearly seems to be altruism. What does altruism amount to? As philosopher W. G. Maclagan put it in an article in The Philosophical Quarterly several years ago, “‘Altruism’ [is] assuming a duty to relieve the distress and promote the happiness of our fellows. . . . Altruism is to . . . maintain quite simply that a man may and should discount altogether his own pleasure or happiness as such when he is deciding what course of action to pursue.” Altruism means selflessness, unselfishness, and self-sacrifice.
In most novels, movies, sermons, and political speeches, altruism is treated as virtually equivalent to morality or ethics. For many who talk about ethics or depict ethical people, being ethical is identical to being altruistic.
On the other hand, people are rarely altruistic in their daily lives. Sure, off and on they lend a hand to others, even to total strangers. This is usually in some emergency, when others are in dire straits or just could use a leg up. But in their normal doings, most people concern themselves with getting ahead in their lives, with trying to benefit themselves and their intimates in their careers, family affairs, neighborhoods, and so forth. To all appearances, most people act like moderate egoists, focused on what will further their own best interests. As they carry on at work, on the road, in the grocery store, and in the broader economy, most of them are not altruistic at all. Does this mean there is hypocrisy afoot? Not necessarily. When most of us think about how other people should act, most of us quite naturally praise them when what they do helps us. We want others to be altruistic, since this promotes their care for us, or so it may appear.
Of course, most of us do not want others to meddle in our lives, even as we praise their intent to help us. Knowing that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, we generally insist that people take care of themselves and help others only when special needs arise.
What seems to mislead us into thinking that altruism is the dominant, even correct, ethical position is that most discussions of how people should act concern what they do in their interactions with others. And in these interactions, what seems to matter most to those who discuss ethics is what people do for other people.
Yet, as the late W.D. Falk, a philosopher from the University of North Carolina, pointed out in several of his writings, by focusing on how people talk about ethics, we are misled about what really concerns them and guides their conduct.* Falk shows that while most of us voice altruistic views, we actually act much more egoistically, focusing principally on how best to live our lives and to succeed as the people we are. Altruism is, so to speak, the more noisily championed moral stance. It is given great lip service, because of what most commentators focus on when discussing ethics in public forums: namely, how others should act. But in their private and even their social lives, most people are not altruists at all.
So there is a decisive and perhaps understandable disconnect between the ethics most people practice and the ethics they propound. As in most cases, such a disconnect between practice and theory is unhealthy. Unfortunately, those who discuss morality and ethics professionally, namely, most philosophers and theologians, are fully complicit in perpetuating the disconnect. They promote altruism without making it clear that this could very well be a mistake, that a proper ethics for human beings does not require self-sacrifice, selflessness, and so forth but rather a sensible focus on one’s own success in life as a human being.
* W.D. Falk, “Morality, Self, and Others,” in Hector Neri Castaneda and George Nakhnikian, eds., Morality and the Language of Conduct (Detroit: Wayne State University, 1963).