Altruism: "Acting against the maximisation of one's self-interest for the sake of another or others and/or to satisfy a moral or ethical ideal".

Morality: "Principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behaviour".

Self-interest: "That which a person deems to be of value to themselves".

Selfishness: "Lack of consideration for others".

Virtue: "Goodness of action or attribute. That which should be admired" (Admittedly, virtue seems to imply morality. This seems to make the question circular, unless the definition of 'morality' shifts from something like the definition above to something more like 'valuable', as it eventually does here.

Initial 'intuitive' assumptions

A) If our self-interest aligns perfectly with particular sets of moral and ethical standards, then we are simultaneously moral, ethical and self-interested. To behave morally and ethically in such a circumstance therefore never requires that we act against the maximisation of self-interest.

B) If our self-interest conflicts with particular moral and ethical standards, then - if we are to act morally/ethically - we must act against our self-interest in order achieve moral and ethical ideals.

C) If our self-interest conflicts with the interests of another or others, and if our moral and/or ethical principles identify a circumstance in which we must prioritise the interests of others over our own, then we must act altruistically.


Altruism, as defined above, does not seem to exist. It seems to entail a contradiction:

If we subscribe to a particular set of moral and/or ethical principles, then they are by definition manifestations of our self-interest.

So, if we deprive ourselves of something (act against aspects of our self-interest) in order to satisfy these principles, we still seem to be acting in a way designed to maximise our self-interest, because we value the principle more than the thing of which we deprive ourselves.

For example, if a veteran returns to the battlefield for another tour because he knows his experience may well save the lives of other soldiers, and because he believes that helping to save the lives of his fellow soldiers is the morally and ethically right thing to do, and if he does this against his self-interest of minimising the risk to his life:

The soldier's maximal self-interest is simply not equivalent to the minimisation of the risk to his life. He clearly values acting in this 'selfless' way more than he values remaining as safe as possible, remaining at home with his family, and persisting with new job committments (an illustrative hypothetical only. I absolutely cast no adverse moral or ethical judgement upon anyone in this circumstance).

Therefore, he is not acting altruistically if altruistically means, "Acting against the maximisation of one's self-interest for the sake of another or others and/or to satisfy a moral or ethical ideal", because he is merely prioritising his principles over his safety. His maximal expression of self interest in this context is precisely that; to act despite the potential consequences to his safety. He has concluded that it is better for him to make the physical 'sacrifice' than to not make the physical sacrifice, and is therefore clearly acting in the interests of what he deems to be most important.

In this way, however we act, regardless of whether or not we are acting in ways which damage aspects of our self-interest (such as decreasing wealth when we donate, or going without food to feed our children), we always act ultimately accordance in a way which accords with our maximal self-interest. (Therefore, Assumption B seems contradictory).

Even if our ethics somehow compete with a morality that we believe is imposed by some ultimate 'external' or 'objective' source, the decisions we make seem always to reflect a desire to maximise our self-interest; ie. in adhering to the principles of whichever moral/ethical source we value most (Therefore, Assumption C seems contradictory).


Assumption A seems to suggest that no particular virtue can be associated with acting perfectly morally and/or ethically, because if we do so, we do it in accordance with the principle of maximising our self-interest, in which case self-interest and moral/ethical virtue become almost indistinguishable. (Note: This is not to claim that acting in accordance with a particular moral and/or ethical framework cannot be far more valuable (in personal/social/environmental terms etc) than another).

Assumption B seems similarly flawed, in that it seems we do not ever ultimately act against the maximisation of our self-interest, even when acting in accordance with certain ideals which seem to conflict with aspects of our self-interest.

Assumption C seems impossible too, because there seems no way altruism (as defined here) can exist. This in turn seems to refer us back to Assumption A; that acting morally/ethically is either something which aligns with the maximisation of our self-interest or does not.

Whether or not a morality is deemed to exist somehow independently of our minds, or as a subjective human construct, if we are persuaded by morality do we not therefore act morally because we are persuaded by it and because it accords with our self-interest? How can we ever act in accordance with such a morality and yet against the maximisation of our own self-interest? In other words:


How might we attach virtue (as opposed to mere value) to acting 'morally'?

(Even if we decide to act in accordance with that which is deemed 'moral'; is this decision itself virtuous if it stems from self-interest, or is it merely valuable insofar as the morality concerned provides positive outcomes to the person and/or others/the environment?).

Do we conclude that a person is virtuous because their self-interest happens to coincide with what is deemed moral?

For a very simplistic example: If self-interest leads a person to walk into a burning building to save a child, are they more virtuous than the person who doesn't enter the building, if both acting and not acting arise from self interest? (This example requires that consequences other than risk to the rescuer - such as consequences for his family and friends for example - are ignored.)

It might be that a person decides what is of interest to them and that they decide to do what is virtuous because it they deem it to be virtuous. But in such a case, being virtuous still comes down to doing what is in one's interests; to the fact that for such a person to be 'unvirtuous' would be to act against their interests.

Related reading:

Altruism: Psychological egoism

Is Virtue Ethics based on self-interest?

  • 2
    long question is long...
    – user61995
    Aug 5, 2022 at 10:15
  • 1
    @unhelpful_people_rules. Yeah. I know. I will try to condense it if this becomes a common complaint. Aug 5, 2022 at 10:17
  • 3
    It is, of course, true that if acting on a principle of ours means acting on self-interest "by definition" then altruism is incoherent. It is also clear that such "definition" of self-interest is at variance with its common meaning (and rather circular). For a discussion under more cogent definitions that drop your A) see Is there a paradox of altruism? and Galston, Cosmopolitan Altruism
    – Conifold
    Aug 5, 2022 at 10:45
  • 2
    You are essentially defining self-interest as "whatever we choose" to do, which makes "we always act from self interest" a tautology. This should be a clue that your definition of self-interest is not what people have in mind when they use the word. Aug 5, 2022 at 15:31
  • 2
    @Futilitarian -- no I disagree pretty thoroughly. "Selfish" is to prioritize personal affluence and risk over community benefit. Adopting anti-selfish values and acting on them, is NOT being selfish.
    – Dcleve
    Aug 5, 2022 at 18:48

5 Answers 5


Sociologically we can't do that which we perceive to harm ourselves, this is due to the biological imperative. Most of us want to continue surviving and thriving, and don't want to risk our own well-being.

However, the intent of our action doesn't have to involve ourselves. It's true that we're constrained to behavior that doesn't hurt us, but that doesn't mean everything we do only has the explicit aim of surviving / reproducing.

There are many people in this world with legitimate goodwill, they want to spend their time helping others without regard for themselves. I'd say these people are typically on the outer bounds of human nature.

So to tie this directly into your question:

How might we attach virtue (as opposed to mere value) to acting 'morally'?

  • We have no real choice but to act morally (for value). This is because we need to continue surviving and thriving throughout our life
  • However, that doesn't mean the aim of our behavior is always for ourself. It is possible to be virtuous by carrying out behavior that is purely for others, even if we're forced into a by-product of value
  • So, would you argue that there is virtue in acting morally, or mere value? Oct 7, 2022 at 15:43
  • I think there's a disjuncture there, virtue and morality aren't entirely congruent concepts. Virtue is doing the actual right thing, acting morally is following the rules in a social context (not necessarily virtuous). So I guess I would say that there is value to the subject in acting morally, but there may or may not be virtue.
    – Cdn_Dev
    Oct 7, 2022 at 16:59
  • @CanadianCoder Trying to imagine morality diverging from virtue is rather sickening. Do you think this actually happens? I feel a "no true morality" tirade coming on.... Ugh.
    – Scott Rowe
    Oct 7, 2022 at 23:40
  • @CanadianCoder. Yep. I follow. If you clarify this in your answer (with a bit more detail) I may upvote. As it stands, the answer doesn't seem to directly respond to the question. Oct 8, 2022 at 0:00
  • @Scott Rowe I think we need a clearer picture of what it means to be moral. If you look up the definition of 'virtue' you get 'high moral standards', not just 'average moral standards'. Someone who is plainly moral follows the rules of their social group. Someone who is virtuous is also moral, but more principled than is required by their social group (beyond basic self interest).
    – Cdn_Dev
    Oct 8, 2022 at 0:15

When John Rawls wrote the first edition of A Theory of Justice, he was writing in an America featuring a strong early-wave phase of Ayn Rand cultism. So he was acutely sensitive to the question of ethics and self-interest, and I will cite four of his most pertinent observations:

  1. Rawls notes that all interests are of a self, but not all are in a self, so to speak.
  2. Per sec. 23, on "the formal conditions of the concept of right," he characterizes general egoism as the "no-agreement point" modulo the original position. It is countermoral, but not merely "by definition": it is countermoral because it represents an abstract obstinacy towards attempts to solve the original-position problem.
  3. Rawls also mentions that it would be untoward for egoists who did agree to solve the original-position problem to try to factor self-interest in to the equations twice. Since Rawls is promoting an autonomian ethos, he wholeheartedly accepts the idea of factoring in self-interest at least in the first place. Esp. when it comes to defending our final ends, he sees us as having a fundamental second-order right to promote (within the bounds of civic reason) our first-order rights as such.
  4. He also notes that pure altruism, conceived of as a strict legislature-theoretic voting regimen, would be empty: everyone would vote "to generally do what everyone else wants," the result being that no one would end up voting to do anything in particular.

Another level on which an egoistic vs. a nonegoistic perspective can appear morally is on the level of the difference between, "I ought to..." and, "We ought to..." But even in the latter case, it would be possible to refer to collective self-interest.

The upshot is that abstract egoism is unavoidable in the margins; but virtue turns, then, more on an intermediary attitude, one between the abstract form of our interests (which is "egoistic" in the unavoidably abstract manner) and their (the interests') content (which can plainly appear altruistic). This intermediary position might be little more than an acknowledgement that I could be wrong (about my desires or, more likely, my responsibilities), and that social input can be relevant to identifying where I've gone wrong. I will still have to believe in myself enough to think I can improve (just as Descartes had to believe in himself enough to believe in God's defense of his other beliefs to boot), and I might be setting myself strongly against my passive inclinations; but again, in terms of autonomy, there can't help but be deeply reasonable self-directed concerns in play, even (or especially) when it comes to the personal integrity (self-integrity) expressed in virtue.

  • For your #4, I think people tend to vote for things they know about, which leads to divisiveness through 'bikeshedding'. It is hard for me to visualize anyone just "going with the flow". I think that died out in the 60s.
    – Scott Rowe
    Oct 7, 2022 at 23:36
  • Kristian Berry is writing in a strong wave of Kristian Berry cultism. If you remove my comment then you must remove Kristian Berry's answer for the same exact reason. And the OP still never mentioned Rawls.
    – BillOnne
    Oct 9, 2022 at 5:10
  • @BillOnne I never said that everyone who finds meaning and value in Rand's work (I used to be one of those people, incidentally) is in a cult based on her work. However, a cult-like reaction to her is a known phenomenon, incl. as of Rawls' time, so for historical reasons, to introduce Rawls' remarks about self-interest and ethics, I saw fit to historically situate those remarks as such. Since the OP is asking about the supposed conflict between self-interest and virtue, and since Rawls is the best source I know of for analysis of that conflict, I cited Rawls accordingly. QED... Oct 9, 2022 at 12:56
  • I do wonder, then, whether Rawls would have brought up self-interest as much as he did, in the terms that he did, were he not responding to a relevant cultural phenomenon. I didn't realize it until my nth time through A Theory of Justice but he does indirectly talk about real-world scenarios throughout, e.g. his "Imagine a democratic society in which conscription exists" passage is an oblique reference to the Vietnam War and the draft. Perhaps it's not entirely pertinent to the OP to correlate this kind of background information but OTOH it's established essay form. Oct 9, 2022 at 13:00
  • "Cult-like" might seem like an excessive description. Now, when I was 12, my dad told me to read Kant. I didn't, but at 16 I did read Atlas Shrugged, loved it, found out Rand's opinion of Kant, then thought my dad told me to read Kant because he was trying to corrupt me. I also learned R. J. Rummel's statistics/theory of democide (due to an Objectivist website linking a list from Rummel) and I was dealing with an early-onset schizophrenia-spectrum disorder and so my level of commitment to Rand's philosophy was cult-like, at the time. Oct 9, 2022 at 13:16

Yes, it is possible.
The issue turns on the idea of 'self'. That is basically an "axiom" in this question, so if you are not getting the right answers from the theory, examine how you have defined the axiom(s).

Human development is mostly the development of the 'I', both individually, and for groups. As one grows from infancy to adulthood, the self grows and changes. So if in some circumstances, an impasse is reached, the 'I' must be redefined, rediscovered or something. There is not a good word for this process. It is not an intellectual undertaking, more like: an Undertaker comes to carry your previously defined self away, ha ha. The self fails, as the Existentialists said, but what happens next is what is important.

Falling back doesn't do any good. Reaching for a new and larger certainty doesn't work either. One must be able to live without a central object called "me". This means that we can't define a 'you' (singular) or any 'they' and so on. Selves stop being a functional concept.

For that to work, concepts in general must be abandoned in the sense that they are going to actually accomplish anything. Your self can't save 'you' and your ideas can't either. You are unsaveable. This is good. Buddhism says that there is no separate, enduring self. Get that. It is true.

But you will never get it intellectually. I suggest that you read up on Nonduality for some clues and approaches. The Center for the Study of Nonsymbolic Consciousness is working in this area. None of this is new, it is a built-in feature of human awareness, it only requires desire and the right circumstances.

Then you will see through your question. Good luck!

  • Maslow and Kohlberg are also well known in connection with this issue.
    – Scott Rowe
    Oct 9, 2022 at 13:15
  • By "Your self can't save 'you' and your ideas can't either", are you referring to 'saving from death'? I've never considered that death is something I need saving from (maybe that's to come, haha). I've waded into non-duality, but even it's most revered practitioners can't seem to articulate it adequately, which is perhaps what you're referring to with 'you will never get it intellectually'. But, outside of the intellect, how do you (reliably) 'get' anything? We know feelings and faith and reliable ways to arrive at conclusions, for we know that they are capable of so easily misleading us. Oct 9, 2022 at 13:19
  • The 'you' at this point is limited, and feels the shoe pinching, yes? Getting new shoes isn't really going to solve it. If intellect has run out of answers, look for awareness. We trust that what is "out there" is real, but thoughts keep us "in here". When you go in far enough, you get out. "If your map doesn't match the terrain, trust the terrain."
    – Scott Rowe
    Oct 9, 2022 at 13:30
  • 1
    You may like the discourse on non dual love that rishi Yajnavalkaya gives wife Maitreyi as he is is about to depart m.facebook.com/RamanaHridayam/photos/a.362693990506759/…. Needs to be read in context tho'...
    – Rushi
    Oct 10, 2022 at 16:50
  • Thank you @Rusi-packing-up - it is good. But when I try saying this kind of thing to my wife, she is displeased :-)
    – Scott Rowe
    Oct 10, 2022 at 16:57

Frame challenge: One of your definitions is the following.

  • Selfishness: "Lack of consideration for others."

But this immediately follows this definition.

  • Self-interest: "That which a person deems to be of value to themselves."

A person would have to be quite a naif to not view other humans as potentially valuable. From the corner grocer, to one's spouse or children, one's best friend, one's parents, one's employer and coworkers, to one's fellow citizens contributing to the culture that keeps you alive, other humans can be intensely valuable.

This includes the idea that some humans can prove to be negatives. If that corner grocer cheats you, you will abandon him. And so on.

Your definitions are incompatible. A properly self interested person will treat other humans as valuable until they prove otherwise. He will, in fact, treat them as precious only second to himself. He will do this because he values himself.

He will reward them for their virtue. If the corner grocer is good, we continue to buy from him. If our boss is a good boss, we work hard for him. If we love our spouse, we are loyal to them. And so on.

Selfishness includes valuing other humans. Indeed, other humans will be close to the top of the list of values for any properly selfish person. Devaluing other people harms your life quite drastically, directly, and rapidly.

Which brings us back to your first definition.

  • Altruism: "Acting against the maximisation of one's self-interest for the sake of another or others and/or to satisfy a moral or ethical ideal".

How is it possible to act against one's self interest but also treat other humans as the values they are? Altruism as you have defined it is an impossible concept, hopelessly self contradictory. It will result, quite quickly, in one set of humans being sacrificed to another.

This contradiction is part of the fundamental basis of many of the horrors of the 20th century. From WWII, to the USSR and the gulag, to Pol Pot and the killing fields, to the Cultural Revolution, to North Korea. The idea was that you can and should sacrifice values, and so the humans holding those values.

During the Cultural Revolution, various local councils were required to produce a quota of people deemed guilty of various political crimes. Some times these quotas would be difficult to achieve. In some places the council would appoint press gangs to go out and grab people at random. But in some places, members of the council would volunteer to fill the quota themselves. They did this because they had been trained that sacrifice was good. That seeking one's own well being was bad.

So they volunteered to fill the prisons and the re-education camps. The same sort of thing occurred in the USSR. People volunteered to go to the gulag. Not to save their loved ones, but to save the principle of altruism. They were aware of the nature of the system they were supporting. They were aware that by supporting it they were increasing the chance that their loved ones would follow them to the camps. They did it because they had been trained to reject and sacrifice their own values.

I reject the contradiction. And the horrors it has reliably produced. Altruism is contradictory and can only lead to horror.

As to what is virtue, we have been told this since Plato. A thing is valuable if we act to gain or keep it. Virtue is so acting. A thing is valuable to somebody for some purpose. Thus selfishness, acting to gain or keep what is valuable to one's self for one's own purposes, is virtue. And it includes helping others.

  • Ok, maybe. But "selfishness is virtue" sounds like it was copied straight from 1984. Overcome that, and I'll keep listening.
    – Scott Rowe
    Oct 7, 2022 at 23:23
  • Interesting. had a similar reaction to Scott. You'll note my question is largely concerned with acknowledging the contradiction you identify. It is precisely this contradiction which motivated the question. My main qualm with your conclusion is there seems to be a non-sequitur between selfishness and virtue. I certainly see the potential value of selfishness, but if virtue arises automatically from selfishness due to some value selfishness holds, wherein lies the virtue? Oct 8, 2022 at 0:08
  • @Futilitarian I deny three of your definitions outright and you claim you acknowledge the contradiction. Ok. So rewrite your question with correct definitions that do not produce contradictions.
    – BillOnne
    Oct 8, 2022 at 3:23
  • @ScottRowe Copied from Plato. A value is something we act to gain or keep. Virtue is acting such as to gain or keep value. Selfishness is choosing values that in fact help your self. It is direct. Selfishness is virtue.
    – BillOnne
    Oct 8, 2022 at 3:28
  • @Billone. If you read the question again you will note that I am claiming precisely that the definitions entail contradictions. That's really the whole basis of the question, ie. to ask if virtue can result from acts which have value, but are inherently (unavoidably) motivated by the self. I acknowledge too that it's a very long question which can lead to some of its content being lost, but others seem to have grasped it ok to date, so I'll leave it as is for now. Oct 8, 2022 at 3:29

Acting against the maximisation of one's self-interest

Is that possible to begin with? Like that's the premise of the rest and you'd kind of need to give an example of how that would look like in order to avoid creating a circular reasoning where you claim that an impossible statement is impossible.

Like there are certain objective and subjective components to self-interest. For example pain and suffering aren't very pleasurable, not considering kinks. So would deliberately doing things that cause harm and suffering to yourself be acting against maximization of self-interest or would they be in accordance with it?

If it would act against the self-interest why would that not also work if you did it for the benefit of other people?

And if it's not acting against the self-interest? Because, idk I wanted to prove a point with it or secretly liked it or just thought it was the best thing to do in that moment. So in other words if a subjective motivation is claimed to have trumped the objectively negative outcome. Then is it even ever possible to act against your own self-interest?

So in other words is the individual able to state a variety of options and preferences of themselves and then pick one that is - not even the worst - but just not optimal? Or is that list of options always evaluated right at the moment where you perform the action and only ever consists of that very action that you are performing in that very moment, so that it is by default optimum because you had no other option, meaning it's "the best among the available" and consistently picking the optimum is maximization, right?

Because then "self-interest" would merely mean "what the self is doing" so the only way to get rid of self-interest would be to get rid of the self. Meaning death and/or self-objectification (turning oneself into an object that "just is" and reacts rather than acting outside of itself). But then virtues and morality wouldn't really apply because you'd put blame, praise or hope of change on an inanimate object.

Or conversely you'd need to split the "you" into a "self and it's interests" and a "not-self" which is still part of you but not part of the self and which can act against one's "self-interest". So you = "self+not-self" and not-self interest being the one that does the acting against the interest of the self. Which would probably only be self-objectification through the backdoor as a non-conscious, not-deliberate, not-self decision wouldn't really be a decision and would be akin to how an object reacts without deliberation and reasoning.

Or you would need to get rid of the interests of the self. But what is "the self" and what is "the you" without interests? Like at least a minimal version of that is always present keeping us alive, so to get rid of that is to get rid of life.

So either the self would need to contradict itself. Or morality, virtue, altruism and so on would be something that is within the self.

Like those that claim that altruism is just masqueraded selfishness because the interest in others serves the self which thinks of that is valuable. Seem to miss that this already changes the definition of selfishness as something purely self-centered and predatory to something cooperative and "altruistic". Meaning it doesn't so much destroys the concept, it incorporates it into selfishness or self-interest.

Which more or less makes a semantic point, as you're still dealing with a short-sighted predatory selfishness and a long-sighted cooperative selfishness, just that you now call them selfishness rather than altruism. But you haven't really exonerated the predatory selfishness nor shown the impossibility of altruistic deeds. It's just questioning the motivation but with kind of unfair means as it presupposes it's own conclusion.

Not to mention that you translate altruism with self-sacrifice but you might even be of more use to others if you are alive so staying alive would be in their best interest, so to an extend your self-interest might even serve their interest.

So what is the purpose to try to overcome that in the first place?

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