Altruism has been and is an essential piece for modern philosophers in explaining morality. Although they may not all agree on one definition or range of meaning, they all agree on the importance altruism exhibits. Altruism is defined as the principle or practice of unselfish concern for or devotion to the welfare of others. To philosophers, altruism can be seen as a noble selfless act with no regard for self-interest. Egoism, as opposed to altruism, is also just as important to modern moral philosophy. Egoism is defined as the habit of valuing everything only in reference to one’s personal interest; selfishness. To philosophers, egoism is the view that morality ultimately rests on self-interest. The relationship between altruism and egoism has brought many problems and questions to morality. The scope of each definition also differs with each philosopher. Two philosophers who have defined the problems of altruism are Immanual Kant and David Hume. Kant and Hume have conflicting ways of illustrating altruism and morality which will lead readers to the question if it is possible for us to act altruistically and if we can act altruistically, how we would act in such a manner.
There are two ways to understand altruism. Through David Hume’s work, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, we see that he characterizes altruism through our sentiments and affections. Hume believes that all humans share a common moral sentiment. Hume believes that sympathy is a big influence in our moral sentiments. Sympathy is our capacity to be affected by the feelings of others; whether it is the feeling of happiness when another person succeeds or the feeling of distress when another person is suffering. Sympathy plays a big role in society and our morals. Sympathy is a feature for any human being. Hume explains the role of sympathy through benevolence; “Upon the whole, then, it seems undeniable, that nothing can bestow more merit on any human creature than the sentiment of benevolence in an eminent degree; and that a part, at least, of its merit arises from its tendency to promote the interests of our species, and bestow happiness on human society. (Hume, 20) Hume explains that the human being has an undeniable sentiment of benevolence, or the desire to good unto others. This benevolence promotes the happiness of society as a whole. Hume believes that the happiness of society is not only important, but beneficial to the individual. Hume describes this by saying, “We may observe that, in displaying the praises of any humane, beneficent man, there is one circumstance which never fails to be amply insisted on, namely, the happiness and satisfaction, derived to society from his intercourse and good offices.” (Hume, 18)
Hume’s definition of altruism can be traced back to the idea of sympathy and our individual sentiments and the society’s feeling as a whole. He believes that we have these natural connections with other people’s sentiments and this leads us to sympathy. Because of this sympathy and these connections with other people, we act accordingly. Thus we are not acting to help ourselves, but we are acting to help other people. Our moral decisions can be based on our sympathy. This idea is not necessarily defined as selfishness, but can be determined as self-serving according to fellow sympathy theorists Adam Smith and Frans De Waal.
Immanuel Kant gives a different explanation on how to define altruism. In Kant’s essay, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, he defines our actions and moral law as duties. Each person acts in accordance with duty. An action or will is good when it acts out of duty and not out of inclination. Acting out of inclination would mean to do something because you hope to reap the benefits of it or because it makes you feels good. When we act out of duty, we are acting out of respect for what Kant believes is the moral law. We know the moral law because of something Kant says is the categorical...
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