In (biological) evolutionary theory, there are various theories about how altruism evolved via the 'selfish' behaviour of genes.

There are analogical ideas on the economic & ethical spheres. Where altruism is derived as a consequence of selfish drives (Hobbes).

Are there philosophers who've tried an opposite tack, where selfish behaviour has been derived from altruism?

2 Answers 2


Not exactly an answer to your inquiry but more a direction where I would look: beliefs in all manner of golden ages, when everything and everyone were better than later. If someone had maintained that belief, they might have come up with the mechanism of how selfishness could have arisen in a community of ideal human beings - e.g. through corruption by some evil forces.

Maybe you could look among philosophers that idealize man's "state of nature" as opposed to the alleged corruption through civilization. (Not that I've found anyone on linked wikipedia pages, it's just the hypothesis of where such sentiment could have arisen).

  • "philosophers that idealize man's "state of nature" as opposed to the alleged corruption through civilization": That would be Rousseau, for example. I think you can find more about that in the Discourse on Inequality than in the Social Contract.
    – iphigenie
    Dec 3, 2012 at 12:24

"I am more altruistic than you, so that which benefits me should go to me instead of you; if I let you have it, that would be less altruistic."

I'm not aware of anyone having done this, but probably only because it's not very interesting. It's really easy to get selfishness.

  • I think it were airplane safety experts: "If traveling with children, or the elderly, put on your [oxigen] mask first, then help with theirs" (i.e. be selfish so you can be altruistic)
    – artm
    Dec 3, 2012 at 16:26
  • @artm - That was going to be my point #2 if I needed another.
    – Rex Kerr
    Dec 3, 2012 at 17:23
  • I'm really talking at a more fundamental level than this. Political theorists are using selfish behaviour to understand/model/govern all human polities; evolutionists using 'selfish genes' to model all biological life. I'm not talking about small-scale behaviour. Dec 4, 2012 at 21:35
  • I'm reading Platos republic at the moment, and I think he might have something to say about it. But its going to take a couple of rereadings. Dec 4, 2012 at 21:36
  • @Kerr:I don't follow your argument, it doesn't make sense, or is at best sophistry; at least artm does. Dec 4, 2012 at 21:45

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