Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Are People Really Good?

In my second year at university, all philosophy majors were required to take the general course on ethics. One of the first topics we discussed was whether or not people can be morally good.

There are some complex issues to get into on this topic, but some people hold a very simplistic and cynical view. Nobody, they say, really does anything for genuinely altruistic reasons. All reasons for action are essentially self-interested, and we are unable to act for the interests of others. This view is known as psychological egoism.

At one time, this view had some plausibility for me. I never believed it myself, but I could see why others did. Now, it seems to me the cynical view is really rather naive and deeply implausible.

WBUR had an article today that got me thinking about the subject. They tell the story of a woman who goes skydiving for the first time with a teacher, and this teacher risks his life to save hers when the parachute malfunctions. Essentially, he used his body to cushion her landing, and ended up paralyzed.

It's a riveting story, and quite a powerful indication that people really can do good. As the teacher in this scenario, he took it to be his job to protect his student, and fulfilled his duty in some of the most desperate circumstances one can imagine.

He thought he was almost definitely going to die saving her life, so it's hard to give an egoistic explanation of these actions. The best case and egoist can make with these sorts of examples is to suppose that had the teacher survived and not done his best to save his student's life, he would have been so racked with guilt that death was preferable. (There are questions here of whether the invocation of guilt nullifies this as an example of egoism, but for the purposes of rhetorical charity I won't assume this.)

This explanation won't do, however. Aside from it being implausible on its face, it seems the rational thing to do in such a scenario would be to save yourself, then see if you could handle the guilt after the fact, and kill yourself if you weren't able to do it. So the teacher's actions would appear to be a case of true altruism.

This example is an extreme one, but there are countless other, more pedestrian examples. I know dozens of people who have made it their lives' work to help others and make the world a better place, at significant cost. I know people who give large percentages of their money to charity, and people who tirelessly advocate for animal rights.

One of the most common egoistic explanations of why people behave morally is for the positive attention these people receive for doing so. But many of the people I know who do the best things are not socially rewarded for there actions, and sometimes even find that the opposite is true. There might be other explanations you could try to give to explain the apparent altruism as subversively egoist, but it's really hard to find such accounts plausible.

None of which denies the great evil that humans are capable of. I know plenty of people who, even by their own admission, do far less than what they think can reasonably be expected of them. Gary Francione has argued that people are inherently predisposed to be violent, and I find it hard to disagree. But there are clearly cases in which we put the interests of others above our own. And that is an important fact.


  1. Yes, love and altruism do exist!
    I have a friend who got mixed up in some bad "moral objectivism"(i.e. Ayn Rand stuff) a while back. It led to some depressing conversations. Completely irrational junk.

  2. I'm not sure what you mean by love here, or what people mean by it generally. Certainly strong feelings between individuals exist--but that isn't controversial. Altruism as I understand it is the acting for reasons regarding the (legitimate) interests of others, which is controversial, but I've defended it above.

    Rand's use of the term "objectivism" seem to me silly and misleadingly unhelpful, give other uses of the term. But I confess I am no expert on her views, as few philosophers took her work very seriously. Defending an ethical egoist or psychological egoist position is very difficult given the powerful attacks that have been launched against such views.