WHAT is altruism and what conditions would need to be in place for it to be possible? These are the central questions that the American philosopher Thomas Nagel attempts to answer in The Possibility of Altruism.
I have to concede that this is a book that and I have read and re-read many times since I bought it in the 1970s. It’s 145 pages of densely packed arguments are difficult and there are some passages that are so opaque that I still don’t fully understand them. Nevertheless, it has had a major impact on the way that I view the world, so, having tussled with again recently, I thought I would share it with you.
It should be said that Nagel does not rely on the argument of some evolutionists – Richard Dawkins included – that altruism forms part of our genetic make-up. Rather, he uses pure reasoning.
So, what is altruism? Well, I take it to mean that an act is altruistic if, and only if, it is a disinterested act intended to benefit another or others. Note that this a weak form of altruism in that it doesn’t require one to help others at the expense of oneself, only that one does not expect to benefit from the act. But even if this is a weak form, it is still significant because it is distinct from altruism’s arch nemesis – egoism. Nagel argues that we have a ‘direct reason to promote the interests of others – a reason which does not depend on intermediate factors such as one’s own interests or one’s antecedent sentiments of sympathy and benevolence’.
Nagel relies heavily on his two viewpoints, the personal and impersonal – the ability to see oneself as merely one among many. Put simply, he argues that if from a personal – or subjective – viewpoint one has a reason to do something, like relieve a pain in one’s neck or reduce one’s poverty, then from the impersonal – or objective – viewpoint one has a prima facie reason to relieve a pain in someone else’s neck or reduce their poverty. “At least sometimes objectification will demand that everyone pursues an uncomplicated end which we acknowledge a subjective reason to pursue… If this is the case, then we have a prima facie reason to secure those ends for others as well as for ourselves.”
It’s important to note that Nagel is not saying that everyone will act altruistically if they have a reason to do so, or that that there are not various situations that ‘may complicate the result when there is a conflict between reasons to help others and reasons to help oneself’. But he adds ‘even if we allow for these possibilities, the acknowledgement of prima facie reasons to help others is a significant result’. Indeed it is! For it destroys the egoistic position that everything one does is in one’s own interests. And this is just as well because earlier in this remarkable little book Nagel demonstrates how ‘peculiar egoism would be in practice; it would have to show itself not only in the lack of a direct concern for others but also an inability to regard one’s own concerns as being of interest to anyone else, except instrumentally or contingently upon the operation of some sentiment’. He provides a lively example the absurdity of the egoist’s position: “The pain which gives him a reason to remove his gouty toes from another person’s heel does not in itself give the other any reason to remove the heel, since it is not his pain.”
If Nagel’s arguments carry any weight – as I believe they do – then they are an important antidote to the self-interested individualism that runs through the neoliberal project. As such the neglected The Possibility of Altruism and its equally neglected companion book The View from Nowhere, also by Nagel (published by Princeton University Press and Oxford University Press respectively) deserve to be revived.