Egoism, Altruism, and Oxygen Masks

A friend asked me recently if I think that self-improvement is selfish. My short answer was that building up your character is a matter of cultivating your higher self rather than gratifying your lower self, so this activity might exist beyond the dichotomy of egoism vs. altruism.

Here’s an analogy that’s fresh in my mind because I travelled on a commercial airline flight recently: in the unlikely event of a loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will be released from the panel above your head and if you need to assist another passenger make sure to put on your own mask first!

You can’t truly and lastingly benefit those you care about unless you’re living well yourself: seeking wisdom, paying attention, thinking carefully, communicating clearly, listening closely, empathizing generously, avoiding anger and contempt and other negative emotions, maintaining mature coping skills, staying serene, investing in your relationships, and so on. I suppose that improving your practices in all of these areas is selfish in one sense because you’re creating a better self, but it’s also the greatest gift you can give to the people you love because you’re bringing a better self to all of your interactions.

Merely theoretical philosophers love to argue and debate about false alternatives like egoism vs. altruism, whereas practical philosophers relish jumping into the manifest complexities of actively achieving a better self and applying those better practices in the real world. The pursuit of wisdom is not a spectator sport!

6 thoughts on “Egoism, Altruism, and Oxygen Masks

  1. Clearly we must take care of ourselves, otherwise someone else would have to. How can I be of any value to anyone if I need to be looked after? This is a no-brainer that is obvious to anyone except perhaps an academic/theoretical philosopher.

    The tacit assumption that “selfish is bad” is ubiquitous in our culture. Even looking after myself in order to be useful has an element of “self-cultivation for the sake of others” built into it.

    But what if I choose self-cultivation for no other reason than personal happiness? Does that make me a bad person? To the majority, I bet the answer is yes.

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    1. Hi Eric, thanks for sharing your thoughts. What I mean by “beyond egoism and altruism”, and I think what Aristotle meant by discussing similar topics in his analysis of philia (love and friendship), is that you don’t act solely for the sake of yourself nor do you act solely for the sake of the one you love, because there occurs a merging of interests: your personal happiness is bound up with the happiness of the one you love. This is a common enough phenomenon (e.g., “happy wife, happy life”), but one that theoretical philosophers sometimes ignore because it’s so much more fun for them to debate about black-and-white isms than to celebrate the vibrant reality of human relationships.

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      1. Thanks, Peter. Indeed it appears that there is a symbiosis involved in happiness between individuals who care for each other. I certainly experience it with family and friends. My objection is the accusation disguised as a question, “Isn’t self-improvement selfish?”, as if that is the ultimate, unquestioning moral failure.

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      2. Ah yes, I see your point. We could benefit from more accurate terminology in this area – for instance, I like the terms “self-absorbed” and even “narcissistic” because it’s pretty clear to me that they don’t apply to the long-term project of becoming a better human being.

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      3. Very good distinctions, thanks. I don’t want to get too far from your original idea of the value of self-cultivation. That we twist ourselves into philosophical knots trying to stay away from the word “selfish” is fascinating. Seems simpler to just embrace it and get on with self-improvement.

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