X is man who devotes his entire life to helping others. However, he lives a miserable life, and he hates it. X is not empathetic: he doesn't suffer because of other's suffering. Moreover, he is absolutely certain that, if he quits his life to lead a more normal one, he will be much, much happier. He won't feel any sort of regret or compassion for the people he wouldn't help anymore. Yet, X continues to spend his life altruistically.

What could be a possible rational reason for X's decision?
Is there some other reason why, besides personal utility, one should choose to act in a certain way?

In ethics expressions like "you must", "you have the duty to", "you are morally obliged to" are used often, but why "must" someone do something if it doesn't help in reaching personal happiness?

  • 2
    Is there any chance you could share a little more about the context and motivations of the question? What have you been reading that might have made this an important or interesting question in your study of philosophy?
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Jun 11, 2015 at 0:50
  • In your last bit, you seem to be equating eudaimonia with "personal happiness", but that seems to be a reduction of what eudaimonia is to utility.
    – virmaior
    Commented Jun 11, 2015 at 1:20
  • As far as I know, eudaimonia means happiness. I think that when Aristotle says that the goal of our action is eudaimonia he means the happiness of the person who acts. If my interpretation of Aristotle is wrong, I'll change the question accordingly.
    – Adrian
    Commented Jun 11, 2015 at 1:26
  • Are you suggesting (stating?) that there has actually been a person in X's position, or is this a thought experiment (perhaps based on real events taken to an extreme for the sake of clarifying the issues at hand)?
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Jun 11, 2015 at 1:51

3 Answers 3


This sort of thought experiment boils down to an empirical matter: whether all choices made by people are motivated by the same reward system that delivers feelings of happiness and/or regret, and whether there are any rational actions aside from going along (on some time scale) with whatever this reward system decides is right.

Looking at it this way, there are two obvious ways that an X could act as you've described.

(1) X is not motivated entirely by that reward system. Thus, depending on the weighting between that system and whatever other motivational state he has, it could be "rational" to go along with the other motivation.

Note that this is not entirely implausible given the relative commonality of extraordinary actions like self-sacrifice for offspring, both among humans and other animals.

(2) X has reason to believe (maybe he's read Hume) that just because said reward system is pulling his strings, it doesn't follow that he should blindly go along with it. Instead, he reasons that for whatever reason his emotional state is not aligned with what is rational, and somehow manages to opt for the latter. (You may need touches of (1) for this to even be possible.)

This is also not entirely implausible: one might understand that murder is wrong and even when losing one's sanity and feeling desires to murder (with no sense that you'd feel remorse) nonetheless reason that it is rational to resist these urges.

  • I've a few doubts about (1). I think that the what you call reward system is responsible for self-sacrifice for offspring: if e.g. a mother sacrifices herself to save the life of his children, or to protect them from suffering, it's because she's aware that, no matter what she'll face, the pain she'd feel for losing them or seeing them suffer terribly will always be greater.
    – Adrian
    Commented Jun 11, 2015 at 17:52
  • 1
    @Nicol - Possibly, but these are very often split-second decisions. I wouldn't be too sure that the reasoning you give isn't actually a rationalization after the fact. In any case, I only want to establish some degree of plausibility; I don't think it's a settled matter, even if the "singular reward" hypothesis seems somewhat better supported.
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Jun 11, 2015 at 18:08
  • We agree on this basically totally, except that I have my standard psychodynamic bias. But I still think you need another entry for sheer intransigence and attachment. The 'reason to believe' in (2) is more often, in my experience, lack of any reason or lack of a vision for any possible alternative. Someone chooses a life path, descends into obsession or depression, and then feels powerless to change it, even given evidence that they should.
    – user9166
    Commented Jun 12, 2015 at 18:55
  • @jobermark - I was lumping that in under (1), motivational systems, and since the action had to be "rational" and these sorts of habits often are not, I didn't think it worth spending the time to discuss it. But I agree that if you see someone engaging in seemingly irrational behavior, you're very likely to find something like you describe as a major contributing factor.
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Jun 13, 2015 at 1:00
  • You are right, I somehow mixed up mere cause and rationale.
    – user9166
    Commented Jun 13, 2015 at 1:25

In what way is egoism rational? I would point you at this answer of mine to a different question: https://philosophy.stackexchange.com/a/17541/9166

From that perspective compassion is a deep, often unconscious, genetic force, which we actively fight against when we are focussed on ourselves. (To me, this is an inherent flaw in the concept of economics, and especially male gender roles.) So I am discarding this aspect of the question.

The imperatives that come to us genetically do not always make us happy when we serve them or unhappy when we don't. To a large degree, I think this has a lot to do with biases we lay on our emotions. https://philosophy.stackexchange.com/a/18324/9166

From that perspective sometimes we are driven by positive forces that we have colored negatively. Our built-in reactions are just misaligned with our psychological labeling of them. We are happy in some abstract sense, but just not in a way that we are 'happy with'.

Attachment is also an issue. Driving forces become habitual, to a degree where they sometimes just pervade our thinking inescapably and we lack choice.

Say I am a happy 'geek', my energy (consciously or otherwise) comes from being competent. When I try to do something ungeeky, like fall in love, I am still driven to display my competence at the cost of admiring subtler things, and I make things hard for myself. At the other extreme, If all my happiness unconsciously comes from empathy, and I choose the wrong kind of husband, I may choose to try to understand someone who cannot understand me, instead of protecting myself from his violence.

Attachment can also become obsessionality: the fear of challenging attachments, or the fear of change outright can have more power than the pursuit of happiness. Attachment is a positive force, in a lot of situations, but it can prevent movement forward that would sacrifice what we currently have, even if we honestly and logically do not value what we have very much.


A good "reason" is aesthetic pleasure. There doesn't exist any kind of human action that doesn't creates some kind of emotion, altruism or egotism both rely on some emotion, maybe more a priori or more a posteriori.

Any kind of categorical imperative, of any kind, being more or less "rational" lies on emotions. Indeed every human act lies on emotions more directly or indirectly.

So any action of any living being in the last point of the chain is motivated by feelings. The way we rationalize or understand them is a different thing, but there do not exist unmotivated (un-e-motion) acts.

Empathy is a kind of animal-mechanic emotion but it has, in some degree, some aesthetic emotion that is more complex and not as rigid as an old animal-mechanic.

So one way to rationalize any conduct when we can't appreciate any animal-mechanic behind is some kind of aesthetic emotion. The genealogy of this aesthetic emotion may change from one case or other... there is a lot of room here to philosophy (indeed aesthetic in a very complex and broad theme).

  • This is an interesting claim, but you're going to have to do a lot of work to defend the idea that "Indeed every human act [re]lies on emotions more directly or indirectly." As written, you're merely disagreeing with Kant emphatically and then asserting certain things about how humans function.
    – virmaior
    Commented Jun 11, 2015 at 23:34
  • I dont need to defend anything here @virmaior, because is a scientist statement
    – Masacroso
    Commented Jun 11, 2015 at 23:59
  • It is a presumption behind both Behaviorism and all modern versions of psychoanalysis. But there are psychologists would differ, so I would not consider this an unbiased 'scientific statement'. However, that base should be broad enough to have it pass. You have to accept odd things like 'having clarity' or 'thinking you are right' as feelings.
    – user9166
    Commented Jun 12, 2015 at 19:04
  • Still the OP's heavy-handed description of the perceived pointlessness of this person's existence seems to rule this out as an answer. By most interpretations, if he got genuine aesthetic pleasure out of helping, it would contradict the OP's description of his current state.
    – user9166
    Commented Jun 12, 2015 at 19:08

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