I was having a political discussion with roots in philosophy, where I was explaining an idea for a government program which would enforce equal opportunities for children who have poor / parentally uninvolved home environments, and I ran into a philosophical obstacle: The other person responded with "Not with my tax money. I don't have kids, don't plan to, and honestly don't care about helping those kids who I don't know."

I thought this might be a dismissible point of view, surely there aren't many with such views - but I then had the same discussion with another person and received a similar response: "I know it sounds bad, but honestly I care about helping people I care about, and that's it."

So, I grew up in a religious family and the only supportive reasoning I've been exposed to is religiously rooted. "God says so." - In society, one can't support arguments with religion - And I personally don't subscribe to this form of reasoning either. But I do feel inclined to argue in support of helping others.

How can one argue in support of helping others without citing religious dogma as supportive reasoning? How can I counter a "selfish" argument without religion?

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    That person who doesn't care about other people's children is nothing, absolutely nothing, without support of society.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Sep 18, 2015 at 21:06
  • The "other" is part of the self not only for religion but in a broader sense. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Altruism
    – John Am
    Commented Sep 20, 2015 at 15:20
  • From the athiestic Objectivist standpoint, helping others is justified to the degree that it furthers your values; for instance, you may want to live in a society with better education and less violence. There's also the virtue of fairness; you should treat people how they deserve, and accord them the same freedoms that you claim for yourself. However, it explicitly rejects the notion that others have a claim on your life or resources, or that you have a duty to sacrifice them. Charity and cooperation often make great sense, and should be done when it does... and avoided when it doesn't. Commented Sep 21, 2015 at 18:07
  • @kbelder so since pulling an old homeless deaf blind man out of the way of a bus doesn't in any way benefit me, assuming I don't subscribe to a religion which inclines me to help, and I don't particularly care to live in a world of more old homeless deaf blind people, I have no duty to risk my life to pull him from the street? Do you see the problem?
    – J.Todd
    Commented Sep 21, 2015 at 18:34
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    @JohnAm define "common sense rules" - It seems to me that one can't base arguments on what makes you "feel" good, as one could argue that chasing good feelings isn't a good way to motivate one's self.
    – J.Todd
    Commented Sep 21, 2015 at 20:51

9 Answers 9


It's in society's interest and consequently also in his interest to do so. There is a good book, Liars and Outliers: Enabling The Trust That Society Needs To Thrive by Bruce Schneier.

Society thrives when there is security, trust, and cooperation. These three depend upon moral, reputational, and institutional pressures in society. Religious reasons fall under the heading moral pressures. All societies have different degrees of all three. Schneier writes:

It's what we call "trust." Actually, it's what we call "civilization."

All complex ecosystems, whether they are biological ecosystems like the human body, natural ecosystems like a rain forest, social ecosystems like an open air market, or socio-technical ecosystems like the global financial system or the Internet, are deeply interlinked. Individual units within those ecosystems are interdependent, each doing its part and relying on on the other units to do their parts as well. This is neither rare nor difficult, and complex ecosystems abound...

Within complex systems, there is a fundamental tension between what I'm going to call defecting, or acting against the group interest and instead in one's own selfish interest. Political philosophers have recognized this antinomy since Plato. We might individually want each other's stuff, but we're collectively better off if everyone respects property rights and no one steals...Most of the time, we realize that it is our self-interest to act in the group interest.

Societal mammals, which you can include us in, have some sort of societal structure (elephants, chimpanzees are examples) that will take care of those members that are weak or ill. Equal opportunity programs are a way for us to help the weaker members of our society stronger, and thus society in general becomes stronger and thrive more. It's in our own selfish interests to see others thrive.

  • And then he states that his cooperation or failure to do so will not do such damage as you posit, and therefore, society can manage without him.
    – Mary
    Commented Dec 28, 2020 at 23:11

The objection isn't philosophical but simply a refusal to think through consequences; this is surprisingly common but happens because others have done this for them: prophets, poets, thinkers and legislators.

Social contract theory, utilitarianism, consequentialism, Kantian ethics are some options in arguing this in a secular context.

Given the religious context of your question, it's worth noting that In Kantian ethics, one imagines oneself as a legislator through the Categorical Imperative; and this according the SEP is a formalisation of the 'Golden Rule' in Christian ethics.


I would point you at this perspective https://philosophy.stackexchange.com/a/17541/9166.

For the reasons given there, I think compassion is more inborn than selfishness, and that we train folks up into selfishness in our society. It is The Big Lie of Capitalism that Utilitarianism is natural and Kantian motivation is contrived.

Through economics, people in general have been over-trained to assign responsibility in an unnaturally rigid way. They therefore think that these people should just take care of themselves and take responsibility for their own past decisions (and so their children). But deeper down, they also know we are more interchangeable than that. Empathy is not an option, or a trait, it is a fact of psychological life, genetically installed, and ignored at great peril.

If you dig into these people's reality, their genuine motivation will most likely emerge. They want someone to be around to take care of them if and when they fail. So they do want to be compassionate to those who are now failing. Their economics-and-rights-focussed mythology just won't let them admit it.

But (as Barbara Deming puts it) we are all part of one another. As Ken Wilbur points out, there really is no natural or sustainable boundary containing an individual's concerns.

If someone cares responsibly about themselves, they have to care for those upon whom they are dependent, or their support system will decay, and they will suffer. Then if they only care about 'their own', what about those about whom 'their own' care? Anyone suffers when those around them suffer because they care about more distant people. And if care is not extended to the more immediate supporter for this suffering, why should those people keep caring about them, instead of those more-distant others? Well, then, their personal investment is automatically being spent farther from home, and they should protect that investment of effort to some degree... Empathy therefore naturally extends outward, recursively, even if it decreases somewhat at each layer. Stopping it at some chosen point is just a pretense.

And even our society, one that defines success through individual rights and staged competition, does in fact consider excessively narrow compassion to be a disease -- Antisocial Personality Disorder.


Arne Naess wrote several essays on the topic of the "ecological self" which are applicable in such a situation. Paraphrasing his many arguments, his argument was that the very narrowest definition of self (often conveyed by touching one's body while saying something like "this is me") proves remarkably difficult to pin down. He suggests that there are multiple valid definitions for "self," which can coexist at any time, each of which can demonstrate behaviors we associate with a self. The "ecological self" was a large class he penned to be "that which the self relates to."

He made arguments along those lines that altruism could potentially be explained as selfish behavior for a larger self. He argued one could choose to view Mother Teresa not as an altruistic narrow individual, but as a selfish individual using a broad definition of self to encompass a great deal of humanity (he, of course, also argued against the negative connotation associated with selfishness, especially when that selfishness is towards a wide self).

  • An interesting perspective... Not the easiest idea to grasp, but interesting nonetheless.
    – J.Todd
    Commented Sep 23, 2015 at 16:48

One needn't believe in the divinity of Jesus to follow his his message of radical social hospitality. Your interlocutors may object to their taxes going toward food stamps, subsidized housing, Medicare, and social security, but your interlocutors are not legislators. Their objection is moot. They're free to object, they're also free to organize amendments to the collection of taxes and their allocation.

I believe you are asking, is a socially responsible morality possible without religiously commanded duty? Ironic, isn't it, that many self identified Christians object to taxes which support programs benefiting the neediest segments of society, when their God explicitly commanded them to care for the impoverished?

I find Immanuel Kant's answer most helpful. Morality is about autonomy and freedom, and the categorical imperative. The categorical imperative is a jargony way of saying, they should act in such a way that everyone else could do the same without infringing upon everyone else's freedom and rational autonomy. Now, if citizens object to and refuse to pay taxes for services they don't use, civil society would hardly be possible. States would collapse. They may never use a certain road in their town - is that a robust argument for not contributing taxes toward having it maintained and paved? They might very well need to use that road in the unforeseeable future. Or, suppose that when they are elderly, and their private resources and consequently private health insurance are no longer available, should they be refused (short and long term) care because they can't pay for treatment?

In terms of schools, a society without an educated citizenry is vulnerable to mass manipulation. It is economically and technologically impotent. It's economically unsustainable, in the long run. Who's to say that the cure of cancer or any number of technological innovations aren't locked in the mind of a someone whose public education has failed them, or who can't afford higher education? If your interlocutors are comfortable living in a society characterized by mediocrity, uncritical herd-mentality, and rampant indifference to poverty, than their position makes sense. But it does not follow, that even though they may be indifferent to poverty, that everyone else should be as well. When it comes down to it those tax dollars are paying for the only meal some kids get a day.

  • I also think your question is about humanism, or a general respect for humanity. There are secular sources of this, communism and socialism being two secular political moralities or belief systems.
    – Kyle
    Commented Sep 19, 2015 at 3:20
  • I particularly find the argument of potential innovation and inventions being locked away to be helpful, except it leaves a problem in the fact that such an argument doesn't incline me to help someone who isn't of use to society (but still deserves an opportunity to life right?)
    – J.Todd
    Commented Sep 21, 2015 at 18:38
  • The question was how to persuade them, not whether their views are moot, especially since you admit they can then work to prevent the things they object making them not moot. Also, that it's easy to reverse all your hypotheticals and come up with horror stories exactly from the welfare state. Who's to say that the cure for cancer is not locked in the skull of someone who had to drop out of college because his parents could not afford to pay both the tuition and their taxes?
    – Mary
    Commented Dec 29, 2020 at 1:46
  • @Mary We don’t benefit from being surrounded by the ignorant and uneducated. And the same is true regarding heath and wellness. Clearly scientific illiteracy is an impediment to public health, for reasons which should be obvious to anyone who’s been paying attention this year.
    – Kyle
    Commented Dec 29, 2020 at 1:59
  • @J.Todd We all might not be able to contribute in the same way; we might have certain intellectual or physical limits but we can still contribute, even though those contributions might not have the widest impact.
    – Kyle
    Commented Dec 29, 2020 at 2:04

Common sense is often overlooked when dealing in matters of altruism. How do you feel when you help another person? How do you feel when you harm another person? If you're looking at this without religion, then we can assume that this is the only life we have a chance to live. What is a good way to spend your limited time here?

Here's the logic flow:

  1. You have limited time to live
  2. Because [1], the way you experience this time is of utmost importance
  3. When your emotions are functioning within "normal" parameters, you feel good when helping others.
  4. Assuming same conditions for [3], harming others will make you feel bad.
  5. Because [2], you are best spending time by avoiding [4] and seeking out [3]
  • Welcome to Phil.SE; actually Kant made the same point (ie common sense) when he said that, on the whole, peoples moral intuition is generally pretty good. Commented Sep 21, 2015 at 17:59
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    Thanks for the welcome. I suppose my thoughts are similar to a dead man's Commented Sep 21, 2015 at 18:18
  • My point is to make someone who claims to not see this moral intuition, see the sense in helping others.
    – J.Todd
    Commented Sep 21, 2015 at 18:40
  • If they are being obstinate, you can say, "You aren't listening to your heart." Shake your head, and walk away. A person can deny the existence of a waterballoon, but that doesn't mean they'll stay dry when you throw one at them. Commented Sep 22, 2015 at 15:46
  • Except that a lot of people feel good after doing horrible things.
    – Mary
    Commented Dec 29, 2020 at 15:07

I would tell him:

  1. A BEAUTIFUL parable: Do you think that by planting a seed, what you would get in return would be another single seed? Have you ever planted a single seed? And from that single seed a forest has grown? You helping others is like planting seeds that could later through time create more and more tree/seeds, so don't think that everything is linear, things could also be exponentially!
  2. Put yourself in the other person's shoes, imagine if you were born in a very poor or uneducated family, wouldn't you want others to be helping you? Would't others helping you create loyalty? Wouldn't loyalty create great results?!
  3. Have you ever benefited from people who don't know you at all? Do you think they always did it for money or they did it because it was the right thing to do and so that later they would return the favor to others!

Start from the other side. Why would a Christian for example support other people's children? The two possible reasons are fear of punishment in the afterlife (which I find a rather pathetic reason), or the wish to be a decent person, a decent human being, and not an animal.

Why would someone who is not at all religious support other people's children? The first reason fails. The second reason is just as strong: The wish to be a decent person, a decent human being, and not an animal.

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    And when the person refutes that argument with"and who is to decide the definition of a decent person?" Christians draw their idealism from the example set by religious figures, such as Jesus / God. How can we intellectually support the definitions of right and wrong to begin with, outside of the religious origin of these (now-widely-accepted) ideals? One thought that crossed my mind was to say "most people will follow good ideals, so I can dismiss your selfish ones" - but this only works as long as society maintains those good and evil definitions created by religion.
    – J.Todd
    Commented Sep 18, 2015 at 21:53
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    The dichotomy you suggest in the first place seems like a terrible over simplification on both horns. There may be positive reasons for Christians to do that stem from their Christianity other than fears related to afterlife, and there may be positive reasons for anyone other "the wish to be a decent person". Off the top of my head just for the second horn, people might help others for emotional reasons (e.g., Mencius's root), profit reasons (Kant's shopkeeper), personal advantage (child molesters want access to kids), direct ethical reasons (it's the right thing to do) ...
    – virmaior
    Commented Sep 19, 2015 at 3:21
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    According to your description Christians behave well because 'of fear of punishment in the after-life'; this is seems like a caricature of Christian thought - I might as well say that when I drive a car in the urban streets of a city, what stops me from running over men, women and children crossing the road or just walking the streets as though I'm in a video game like Grand a Theft Auto is the fear of legal punishment. Commented Sep 19, 2015 at 4:18

There's no difference. Religion doesn't provide a rationale for why any acts are intrinsically good or bad, it just baldly asserts that certain acts are good or bad, and appeals to consequences (e.g., do this or you won't be saved by God). The same is done in real-life: do this because it benefits you in this way, or do this because it hurts you in this way. Your only other recourse is an appeal to emotion, evoke a visceral response not based on reason but compelling nonetheless.

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    As a religious person I'll say that while I have heard this approach, this is not the common way that one argues for certain behavior in a religious context, both in philosophical writings but also in the basic Sunday sermon. As an example: Augustine would be much shorter if what you say were the case (it would simply be "Don't do X or you will be damned" over and over). Instead, arguments often also appeal to other things - reason, experience, intuition, etc. Commented Sep 23, 2015 at 19:24
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    I'm not sure what religion engages in the sort of bald assertion you're claiming. Maybe you're speaking from personal experience, but there's no necessary feature of any major world religion that requires it to only argue on the basis of bald assertions and appeals to consequences. I think most of them try to offer a coherent metaphysic that could relate to conduct in this world without merely appealing to damnation. / Conversely, you're also limiting non-religious reasons to pain/pleasure which would cross out Plato and Aristotle as ethicists.
    – virmaior
    Commented Sep 24, 2015 at 6:21
  • @JamesKingsbery: that's precisely the point: what is valuable in religious writings is the non-religious part. What Augustine can argue through reason, experience and intuition, he needn't religion to argue it. What religious content Augustine can't argue through reason, he found in scriptures or teachings, and that is the part that is "just baldly asserted" and provides no rationale. If we can firmly deduce "thou shalt not kill" through our own reason, we dont need the commandment.
    – armand
    Commented Dec 29, 2020 at 1:26

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