What comes first: self-interest and altruism

Mon, 05 Oct 2015

I’ve never been too bothered by the chicken and egg question.  I’m happy knowing that we’re in a stable state where chickens lay eggs, and eggs hatch chickens, and as long as we don’t leave that stable state, we’ll continue to have chickens and eggs.

There’s a puzzle that I’ve been finding a lot more challenging: whether self-interest leads to altruism, or altruism leads to self-interest.  

You’ll definitely hear more people arguing the former, and it does make sense that ignoring other people’s interests is unlikely to be in your own best interest.  Other people can hurt you if they don’t like you.  You can forego opportunities to cooperate.  And there’s plenty of evidence that having others in your life with whom you empathise improves the quality of your own life.

But I’m not convinced that people are purely selfish, simply pretending to care about others to get a better deal.   For a start, I don’t think people could keep up the pretence as much as they do.  I believe much of the personal benefit of caring for others relies on it being genuine.  And we’d worry about the risk of being found out.

If people did genuinely care about others, how might that lead to self-interest?  Well, if I care about others, I’m not going to want them to be suffering - I’m going to want them to look after themselves, to maintain self-interest.  I know that others are much better at knowing what they want than I can, and that a world of door-mats is unlikely to make anyone genuinely happy.   

As I’ve thought about this puzzle, just as with the chicken and the egg, I don’t think there’s a single right answer.  I think it is a wonderful thing that so often, self-interest and altruism work hand in hand, each supporting the other, and it would be wrong to insist that one comes first.  
(Disclaimer: I’m not claiming that self-interest and altruism have to coincide - there are plenty of obvious cases when they conflict, and these are definitely worth pointing out and addressing. )