When I was a kid, I was taught by my Extremely Roman Catholic parents (and by my church) that being a good person was about altruism - putting others ahead of yourself. You work hard, follow the rules of the church, and be kind and generous to other people.
This never sat well with me. I was never particularly religious, and I saw that people that I knew within the church didn’t always live up to these standards.
No worries, after all: God forgives us. We’re not perfect. We make mistakes.
I agreed with that part of the doctrine, but it seemed hard to justify that in relation to what I saw going on in my life. It just seemed a bit hypocritical when I saw so many people claim to live by these ideas and then never really act in accordance with their stated values.
I started growing up. I became a teenager. I read a lot of books. I stopped going to church as often. I met people outside my faith, and people who had different opinions on how the world should work.
I read the works of Ayn Rand (I was a dumb teenager, after all) who claims instead that you should be an egotist - living only for yourself, putting your own goals above everyone else’s, and expecting others to do the same. This was a very attractive belief at the time - I was a kid who hadn’t known much else than Christian altruism. It seemed more realistic, more natural.
Rand's books portray characters who live their lives with complete disregard for what others think of them, and who are quite successful and happy for doing so. They're all scientific geniuses, titans of industry, artists, trendsetters. They're frequently quite condescending to others who don't share their opinions.
Of course, it wasn’t long before I started to see holes in this approach too. Rand’s novels portrayed larger-than-life characters who seemed completely immune to a variety of common, everyday issues. They never had to consider issues like privilege, societal inequality, politics, mental illness, global warming, discrimination, or modern concerns like whether or not people are engaging with your social media posts. (Like me on Facebook, thanks.) Their lack of concern for most of the emotional pressures of modern life painted a highly unrealistic picture of the way people actually... act.
Worse, I started to see right wing politicians use Rand’s beliefs as a justification for cruel and damaging policies that strengthened the power of the rich and actively harmed the lives of the poor. Meanwhile, income inequality in the United States is as high as it was in the 1930's - when the Great Depression was in full swing. The last time things were this bad, it took World War II to get out of it. On the plus side, unemployment is a lot lower, but on the minus side I'm betting that means we're also more complacent and less likely to fight that status quo.
In short, it seems clear that despite all of Rand’s claims to the contrary, acting in your own self interest does not magically help everyone else out too - it only works if everyone is on fair footing, and that’s rarely the case.
The more I thought about it, however, the more it became clear that neither altruism nor egotism are really descriptive of the way people should (or do) act.
Most people don’t act particularly strongly in one direction or the other. Sometimes they do good things for other people, and sometimes they care only about themselves. Sometimes they do things for other people only because they care about the benefits that they’ll get out of it, and sometimes people do things that they think are in their own interest but are actually much more beneficial for someone else.
There’s not really any clear distinction, in many cases, what constitutes an "altruist" or "egotist" action.
For example, if I vote for a president, I do so in my self interest. I want that president to pass laws which are favorable to me and in accordance with my values. But ultimately, I’m giving power to the person I vote for. I’m benefitting the other person as much or more than myself.
What if the person I vote for goes on to be elected, but then passes laws and does actions which I don’t agree with? It is unclear exactly how much this single vote is in my interest, and how much it’s in someone else’s interest. It exists in a grey area between egotism and altruism.
For another example, say that I go to a store to purchase my food and household needs. It’s the best option for me in my area, a good combination of cheap and nearby.
But the company which owns this store has a history of supporting legislation which is discriminatory towards people like me, or a history of supporting legislation which is actually oppressive towards its workers, or a history of dodging its fair share of government taxes. In this way I’m both acting for and against my own self interest (or at least against the self interest of others). Again, this exists in a grey area.
For one last example, say I just got out of a rough relationship. I was really attached to my ex, so the breakup was really painful. Maybe even the relationship was equal parts good and bad, so it’s painful to give up the good parts of the relationship in exchange for the personal benefit of giving up the bad parts of the relationship.
Now I’m very emotionally upset, so I start making poor, short-term decisions to maximize short-term happiness while compromising my long term healthiness and happiness. I drink a lot to numb the pain. I sleep around. I eat a lot of comfort foods. In this case, I’m again acting “in my self interest”, but I’m also doing more harm to myself than good in the long term - making it hard to judge how good or bad these actions are.
The reality is that most people don’t think in terms of egotism and altruism, and they're not even really relevant. They balance their rough short term feelings at the moment up against whatever problems they have, and impulsively act to fix them in the best ways that they know how. Maybe they don’t know how to solve their problems appropriately. Maybe they consider other peoples’ opinions in the matter, and maybe they don’t. But people aren’t perfect, and they don’t make perfect decisions.
Toward a new definition of flourishing
The ancient Greeks realized a long time ago that short term happiness isn’t necessarily the best indicator of a good life.
If I lived in a world where I could play video games 24/7, I might be perfectly happy - but I probably wouldn’t be well-respected, and sooner or later I’d either turn into a deadbeat who lives with their parents or I’d end up on the street because I’m not able to pay my own bills.
To solve this problem, the ancient Greek philosophers suggested a different definition of a good life - eudaemonia, or “flourishing”. The definition of flourishing is a bit more nebulous, but it’s intended to be all-encompassing.
You’re happy not just in the sense of short term happiness, but also comfortable with all aspects of your life: career progress, current living conditions, relationship goals, family life, level of respect among your friends, etc. This definition is a lot more useful, because it understands that we can be satisfied with certain aspects of our life but not with all of them. It’s not about maximizing any one variable in our lives (the way thinking "egotistically" or "altruistically" does), but finding an ideal balance between all of them (or at least all the ones that we find personally important).
If we were to take a similar approach to the problem of egotism vs altruism, we could say that what we want out of our actions is not necessarily an issue of acting for ourselves or acting for others, but in generally being happy about the results of our actions when all factors are taken into account, including a personal valuation of how good these results are both for ourselves and for others. Some of us may weigh other people’s opinions (or the opinions of specific other people that we value highly) more heavily, and some may weigh our own opinions more heavily, but we all take some combination of both into account.
If I were to give a single word towards “flourishing” in the sense of a combination of egotism and altruism, I would call it cooperation. This being a better definition of how humans interact, I don't think ethical egotism (or even strictly "ethical altruism") is really a possibility.
This is part 1 of a 2 part post. Part 2 can be found here.