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Kindness in the Cold

Tony Skillen has an attack of altruism.

A lot of people think that we can never do anything except out of some sort of self-interest. We always act ultimately for our own sake, they say – for material gain, for prestige, to gain power over others, to avoid suffering some kind of pain. While we may like to think differently, to think we are capable of acting unselfishly or out of a disinterested sense of justice, we are really egoists. That is human nature.

If you press these theoretical egoists with apparent counter-examples, a subtle shift of ground often occurs. At first they seemed to be postulating substantial goals, such as power, comfort or admiration that we are always supposed to be after. Now, pressed with behaviour or motives that don’t look like that, they say things like “but at the end of the day it is always you who most wanted to do that. It’s your desire and you who feel the satisfaction of achieving its fulfilment”.

But notice what has happened here. At first, at least as I have related it, we were being told what we supposedly seek. Now it turns out that, even if we were absolute angels, whatever we could conceivably seek, just because it was what we seek, just because it was our goal (want, desire), would be “nothing but our own interests”. As it is our desire, its satisfaction is our satisfaction – and what could our desire be for but our satisfaction?

At first we seemed to know what it was to act from self-interest. We had an idea of these more or less familiar motives and also of the subtle ways in which they could be masked as selflessness. (Harold in Neighbours is always doing this). But now we seem to lack any notion of what it might be like not to act selfishly. For how could we act from a desire which did not seek to be satisfied?

But instead of proving the necessity of egoism, this difficulty helps show that the doctrine that we can act only from self-interest is a mess. There is a tautological sense in which, like our thoughts, our desires are ours and their satisfaction too. This is true whatever our desires might be. Indeed, we couldn’t satisfy a desire, say, to do justice, if doing justice wasn’t what we desired. That satisfaction presupposes that desire. So the necessary truth that your desires and your satisfactions are yours tells us nothing about what you desire. But the idea that we pursue only our own interests purports to be an idea about what it is that we desire. On the contrary, it is no truth about what we desire that our desires are our desires.

The theoretical egoist tends to collapse all human action into a single model. Though the doctrine, in pursuit of universality, collapses into vacuity, it retains the aura of a substantial cynicism, of unmasking hypocrisy and exposing altruism – as if that were something like acting to remove a bad smell from our vicinity. But if the very idea of an unselfish desire amounts to the contradictory notion of a desire that you do not want to satisfy, if in other words, so-called unselfish desires, being ours, are essentially no less ‘selfish’ than so-called selfish ones, the very idea of disguising the selfish as the unselfish seems ridiculous.

The theoretical egoist tends to paralyse our capacity to discern the many possibilities and varieties of human egoism and, for that matter, altruism. As a loosening up exercise, then, I offer the following sample of skeleton descriptions. The reader is invited to elaborate, complicate and augment it – to your own satisfaction.

It is snowing and you are on your way to work. You see a car ahead skid off the road. The driver gets out .....

1) It’s your boss! This is a useful chance to make a good impression and to have her owe you a favour into the bargain. (So) you stop to help.

2) She (he) is pretty! This will be a pleasure and who knows where it might lead to? You stop to help.

3) Drama! Makes a change from the usual grey routine. You stop to help.

4) Something to tell about. This will go down well over morning tea! You stop to help.

5) It’s that new neighbour! And she’s recognised you! No escape. Imagine the image she’d be painting of you if you went straight past. You stop to help.

6. What a wheelie! Brrr! You’re glad you’re not out there. You drive on.

7. Nasty! He’s going to be late for work. You’re glad you won’t, as long as you’re careful. You drive on.

8. Idiot! Some people can’t handle icy conditions. Serves them right. You drive on.

9. Whoops! She looks a right old grump. Not much fun there. You drive on.

10. Ouch! But you’re already late for work. And there are plenty of people behind you. Some one will stop. You drive on.

11. Whoa! Poor bastard! You imagine how upset you’d be if you were in his shoes – and how cold it must be out there. You appreciate the certainty and comfort of your own situation. You drive on.

12. Bad one! You drive past. Suddenly you think of what your workmates, not to mention your preachy daughter would think. Not too impressive! Somewhat sheepishly you stop and go back to help.

13. … Suddenly you think about what your workmates and your preachy daughter would think. Not too impressive! Still, what they don’t know won’t hurt you. You drive on.

14. He looks distraught! You drive past. That miserable pleading face! You press in your cassette and sing loudly along with Ray Charles, – “Your Cheatin’ Heart”…

15. …That miserable pleading face! You shouldn’t have looked, you soft sucker! You turn around and go back to help.

16. Someone in need! Your chance to help! Damn! That Volvo has beaten you to it. Nothing for it but to drive on.

17. Sorry! You’re already likely to be late to meet your daughter’s flight. With an apologetic gesture you drive on, hoping the next person will stop.

18. Sorry! You’re already likely to be late to meet your daughter’s flight. You pull up and, half getting out, offer explanations and apologies before driving on.

19. Sorry! You’re already likely to be late to meet your daughter’s flight. You stop to explain and apologise but the bloke seems so pathetic you cannot bear to abandon him, even though it turns out to look like an awkward towing job…. Jenny will be in tears at the airport…..

20. That looks bad. You start to pull over to help. But three big men get out of the car. They’ll be all right. You drive on.

21. Trouble. You’d better do the decent thing. So you stop.

22. Bad luck! You drive on but a glance catches the man’s facial expression. Brought to realise what it must be like, you stop and go back to help.

23. Nasty! So you stop to help.

© Tony Skillen 1991

Tony Skillen is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Kent.

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