Why should we care about others?
An action is often described as altruistic in two senses. It can be described as an act that benefits others, regardless of motivation. However, the more widely accepted definition, and the one tackled by many philosophers, is that altruistic actions are those that are motivated by a desire to benefit someone other than oneself. It is an act performed not for the purpose of self-fulfilment, but to help another person for their own sake. Altruism is contrasted with ideas of being self-interested, selfish, or egotistical – all words that are often used to describe humans as a whole. There are plenty of modern philosophers who perpetuate the idea of humans as selfish beings, however, there is perhaps still a reason (or more than one) to be altruistic.
Moral philosophy provides radically different justifications for why we should care about other people. Throughout history, there has been an infinite number of reasons to be altruistic, but two particularly popular ones stand out. One states that we should be altruistic because it is a component of our own well being, an ideology often attributed to ancient Greek and Roman philosophers i.e. Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and the Epicureans. The second is that moral thinking is impartial, and that reason can allow us to eliminate or set aside the emotional bias we normally have for our own well being or exclusively for our friends or community, a concept often represented by German philosopher Immanuel Kant and the utilitarians – Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Henry Sidgwick.
Eudaimonia – often translated as “happiness” but perhaps more accurately translated as “well-being” or “flourishing” – is the word in ordinary Ancient Greek that designates the highest good or the ultimate goal in life, often attributed to Aristotle’s philosophy. According to this philosophy, the moral thing to do is to strive towards eudaimonia. Aristotle does not state that one’s ultimate goal should be individual eudaimonia and no one else’s. Rather, he maintains that the good of the whole political community is more significant than the good or benefit to a single individual. However, many scholars of Ancient Philosophy follow the assumption that eudaimonia must be about one’s own well-being.
In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that friendship is an important ingredient to living a good life and that to be someone’s friend means that they cannot just be treated as a means to one’s own pleasure. He explicitly criticises those who treat others as a mere means to their ends by suggesting that each individual admires the other friend for the excellence of that person’s character (as opposed to what they can do for them), therefore the good of others has more value than helping people reach their own eudaimonia.
Aristotle argues that eudaimonia is achieved by using reason as well as virtues like justice, courage, and generosity. Reaching eudaimonia is the goal for every human life and something that every person should strive towards. Aristotle claims that because of this, altruism and self-interested motives can simultaneously exist, and that they should work alongside one another. He would suggest that actions in which people act justly and with generosity towards the larger community are motivated by the desire to benefit others for their own sake.
The good life is the moral and rational standard that every person should aim towards, the ultimate good that humanity should strive for. In order to do so, each person should commit altruistic actions because they ought to do so. People should not use others in order to further individual self-interest. For many Ancient philosophers, excellence in the arts, science, and sports are essential to living the good life. Excelling at the ethical or moral life, therefore, is also something to strive towards in order to fulfil human function. As such, according to eudaimonism, altruism is essential to reaching eudaimonia and achieving the highest good.
Perhaps taking advice from a man 384 BC is not the most convincing argument for altruism. A more modern approach can be seen from consequentialism, particularly Jeremy Bentham’s approach to morality. Many ethicists believe that in order for something to be moral, it must be impartial. According to utilitarianism (particularly that perpetrated by Bentham, Mill, and Sidgwick in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries), the moral thing to do is to maximise the greatest balance of pleasure over pain: pleasure is the most important aspect of well-being, and maximising pleasure for the greatest number of people is the ethical thing to do.
In this particular calculation, no one person’s individual good or pleasure is given more weight than any other person’s. Thus, an individual’s pleasure is not treated as greater than any other’s simply because it is their own. For example, if someone has a lot of money that they are able to spend on their own in order to provide themselves pleasure, but it would provide greater pleasure to a greater number of people if they were to donate it to charity, then (according to utilitarianism) it would be the moral thing to do to donate to charity. As such, utilitarianism dictates that all adults are equally responsible for everyone’s well-being.
While eudaimonism suggests that people should act for the sake of others in order to live the good life, utilitarianism claims that one should concern themselves with the well-being of others because everyone should be considered about everyone’s well-being. As utilitarianism is an egalitarian approach to morality, each individual’s well-being is just as valuable as the next. There is no reason for someone to provide themselves with a particular benefit rather than being altruistic and providing this benefit to someone else. If an altruistic action would cause a greater amount of pleasure for a greater number of people, then it is an action that ought to be done. Both utilitarianism and eudaimonism suggest that being altruistic, i.e. committing actions that have altruistic motives, are a vital part of each individual’s own well-being.
Overall, it seems unfair to character humans as cold, unfeeling creatures who would never help anyone other than themselves. There are plenty of examples of this in real life to show that this is not the case: people donating to charity, helping someone when they ask for directions, or even smiling at a stranger. But, if you were ever looking for a philosophical justification for altruism, look no further.
Written by: Isabella Boyne
Edited by: Chloe Lee