Egoism & Altruism

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  • 0:03 Definition of Egoism
  • 1:09 Varying Perspectives on Egoism
  • 2:47 Definition of Altruism
  • 4:11 Prosocial Behavior
  • 5:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David White
Egoism and altruism each occupy a side of the spectrum of social behavior and engagement. Through this lesson, you will learn what defines these concepts and explore some examples of how they operate in society.

Definition of Egoism

Think about how you relate to other people in your community. Are you friendly and helpful? Maybe you volunteer at an organization to help others less fortunate than yourself? Perhaps you're less invested in others and you focus on your own self-interest and needs? These are two very different approaches to social interaction, but they're actually a lot more intertwined than you might think. In reality, these two approaches to society are opposite ends of a spectrum. On one side there is total self-interest, while on the other side there is absolute collective interest without regard for the individual.

Let's start by looking at the self-interest side of the spectrum. This is known as egoism, which is best described as putting yourself and your own interests before anything or anyone else. This description probably sounds rather selfish, but it's actually a very logical and generally normal philosophy. When you take into consideration that a human being's fundamental objective is to stay alive and procreate, putting your own welfare before the needs of others is just about the best possible way to achieve that objective.

Varying Perspectives on Egoism

Egoism can be hard to identify with clarity because there are different types and different theories about those types. For example, psychological egoism asserts that a person will always act in their own self-interest, even when it appears as though they aren't. Imagine that someone tells you that they volunteer at a soup kitchen once a month because they want to help the homeless. From the perspective of psychological egoism, the person is actually volunteering because it makes them feel better about themselves, which makes their motivation primarily one of self-interest even though someone else is benefiting from their actions.

Ethical egoism, which is the opposite of psychological egoism, is the argument that working in one's own self-interest is the right thing to do. The keyword in this description is 'ethical,' which is generally understood as acting with honesty and good intentions. Given that, an ethical egoist would argue that, because humans are motivated by self-interest, the only way to live with honesty and integrity is to work in service of your own interest because to do anything else would be dishonest.

In the case of psychological egoism, the individual is attempting, consciously or unconsciously, to hide the fact that their behavior is still motivated by their own self-interest. Conversely, ethical egoism makes no attempt to hide one's motivation, but instead argues that this is the only way to live ethically and honestly. These are two very different approaches to egoism, but the consistent aspect is that the person is acting to meet their own interests before the interests of others. The only thing that has really changed is how one perceives their own behavior in a social context.

Definition of Altruism

On the other end of the socio-behavioral spectrum is what's referred to as altruism, which is broadly defined as a desire to help others without regard for your own interests or well-being. Donating your organs to science or for transplant waitlists are common examples of altruism. For example, imagine that you saw a child chase a ball into a busy street. You have two options: First, you could run into the street and pull the child to safety, risking your own life in the process; second, you could stay safely on the curb because you know that running into a busy street would put your own safety at risk. In this case, the first option could be considered altruistic because you showed no regard for your own safety or well-being and were only concerned with ensuring the safety of someone else.

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