Altruism, Egoism and Rationality

Instructor: Christopher Young


Cell Phone: (917) 613-9341 (between 10am and 10pm)

Home Phone: (718) 871-4546 (between 10am and 10pm)

Office: Goldwin Smith, Room 216.

Available by appointment (just ask!)



Axelrod, Robert. The Evolution of Cooperation

Butler, Joseph. Five Sermons

Hobbes, Thomas. The Leviathan

Plato. Laches; and Charmides

These books will be available at the campus store. You will need to buy all of them, but they are relatively inexpensive.


Some readings will be posted on the web on Course Reserve. We will talk in class about how to access them. Also, a few of the readings will be handed out in class. Please print off the readings and bring them to class when we discuss them. Since we may not get to all the readings, you might save time and paper by waiting a bit to see if you will need to print them out.

Course Description

What reasons do we have for caring about people other than ourselves? Are human beings even capable of genuine altruism? It is often assumed that it is rational to pursue our own interests. But is there more than one way to think about self-interest? How do assumptions about altruism and self-interest influence our views about other matters? This course considers these and other questions about altruism, egoism and rationality.

The course is divided into five main sections: I. Introduction; II. Altruism and Evolution; III. Rational Egoism and the Justification of Morality; IV. Questioning Rational Egoism; V. Self-Interest and the National Interest.

I. Introduction.

We'll spend a class or two discussing what the course is about, what I expect from you, and the nature of the assignments. We'll also discuss writing in general, and how the course is intended to help you improve your writing.

II. Altruism and Evolution

A. Introductory Remarks

B. Sociobiology and Evolutionary Psychology

C. Doubts About Sociobiology and Evolutionary Psychology

We will begin by surveying some of the (alleged) implications of evolutionary theory for different views of altruism. We will see that among scholars who agree that humans are a product of evolution, there is still enormous disagreement about what this means for our understanding of human nature.

III. Rational Egoism and the Justification of Morality

A. Introductory Remarks

B. Varieties of Egoism

C. Prudence and Morality

D. Friends and Future Selves

We turn next to consider different ways of understanding the connection between rationality and morality. One very natural way to understand the question "Why be moral?" is to understand it in terms of a question about whether it is rational to be moral. And one very natural way to understand the question "Is it rational to be moral?" is to understand that question as a question about whether morality is in our self-interest. Obviously, strong intuitions about the connection between rationality and self-interest are playing an important role here behind the scenes, determining how we might understand the original question about morality, and so determining in part how we might go about answering it.

There is a venerable tradition in moral philosophy of asking the question "Why be moral?" in precisely this way. Within this tradition, there is quite a lot of dispute both about how to further understand this question, and also about how to answer it however it is understood. Nevertheless, philosophers who approach the question in this way are united at least in accepting a set of assumptions about rationality and self-interest that is sometimes called "rational egoism".

Rational egoism, as I will use the term, ascribes (at least) three crucial features to rationality:

i) Rationality is normative. That is, to call a course of action rational is to recommend carrying it out. If a course of action is rational, we have a decisive reason to do it.

ii) Rationality is connected to self-interest. A course of action is rational for an agent if and only if it advances that agent’s interests.

iii) Rationality is independent of morality. To ask whether it is rational to be moral, we need a conception of rationality which is itself independent of morality. It is this feature which helps to explain why rationality is a useful standard to use in assessing morality.

Obviously, a great deal more remains to be said about each of these features of rationality. Nevertheless, listing these assumptions about rationality explicitly should make it easier to see why philosophers who are inclined to accept them are also inclined to interpret the question, "Why be moral?" in the way that I suggested above, as a question about whether morality is in our self-interest. If we want to know why we should do something (in this case, be moral), the suggestion is, we should look to whether it is rational (i); we can give content to our conception of rationality by appealing to self-interest (ii); and this way of addressing the issue will not be question-begging because in rationality we have a standard that is independent of morality (iii).

In this part of the class, then, we will look at a few philosophers who accept the challenge to justify morality along the lines suggested by rational egoism.

IV. Questioning Rational Egoism

A. More on Friends and Future Selves

B. Conscience and Integrity

C. Skepticism about the Unity of Practical Reason

D. Rationality and the Unity of the Virtues

E. Varieties of Self-interest

Philosophy is not just about attempting to answer questions. It also involves reflecting critically on the questions that you've set yourself. The question "Why be moral?" asked in the way that rational egoism encourages is indeed an interesting one; and so are the various answers that have been given in response to it. Nevertheless, I have come to suspect that rational egoism is misconceived. In this section of the class we will explore a few considerations that might count against it.

Here, my suspicion that rational egoism is misconceived is exactly that: a suspicion. I am still working on these issues, and I’m very interested to hear what students will have to say about them.

V. Self-interest and the National Interest

Finally, we will briefly explore how assumptions and arguments about self-interest play out in a quite different context, at the level of states. When people offer and reject arguments about national interest, their arguments have quite a lot in common with the kinds of arguments that people offer and reject about self-interest. And if anything, these assumptions seem to have been even more deeply influential in thinking about international affairs than they have been in the history of ethics. In this final part of the course we will see how these assumptions about rationality and self-interest fare in this new context.

Grading and Assignments

No grade is assigned for attendance, but the course is designed so that the lectures and class work are essential.

You are expected to come to class having read the assigned material thoroughly. It is not enough to read the material once, even if you read it very carefully. You will find that many of an author's arguments are only clear on a second or third reading. You may also find it helpful to write a (very) brief summary of the reading to assure yourself that you've grasped its main points.

Course work consists of:

I. a Term Paper, including a proposal and two major drafts (35% of your final grade);

II. 5 Short Assignments (50% of your final grade);

III. Peer-Review Reports (15% of your final grade).



I. The Term Paper

Term Paper deadlines are as follows:

–First appointment with me to settle on a topic: Before Sept 19th.

–Proposal: Due October 1st.

–First draft: Due November 5th.

–Second draft: December 5th.

Your paper must not be late. Late papers (without a valid medical excuse) will be penalized. It is better to have handed in something imperfect than never to have handed in anything at all!

Your Term Paper Proposal should be about 4 pages. In it, you should outline your proposed project and indicate where you think the main work needs to be done.

We should meet at least 3 times in the semester: once to help you choose a topic, and then after I've seen the proposal and first draft. Of course, I am also available to meet other times.

In your term paper you should focus on developing your own views, expressing them clearly, and responding to possible objections to your view. This is not a research essay. I do not expect you to do huge amounts of reading. I would prefer, in fact, that you really struggle with the subject on your own, especially for the first draft. After that, I may recommend one or two short pieces to read and think about, but I want to avoid burdening you with too much reading before you've had the chance to think about your subject on your own.

There is no strict length requirement for your term paper. Obviously it needs to be long enough to reflect a lot of hard work and thought about your subject, but it needn’t be a massive magnum opus that I have trouble carrying home. If you feel more comfortable with clear guidelines, aim for something around 15 pages.

Choice of a topic is (almost) entirely up to the student. There are, of course, a few constraints:

a) The topic should be relevant to the subject matter of the class, and will hopefully complement it in some way. If things go well, you will be able to use at least some of the readings for the class in your essay.

b) Although I would be happy to see you explore topics in your (likely, or possible) majors, I hope you will avoid too much overlap with other classes. Illumination from other classes is fine–recycling is not. We can discuss this further in our meetings.

c) I need to be able to help you fairly intensively with your assignment. So this puts some limit on what we can do.

I will hand out some suggestions about possible term paper topics, in case anyone is having trouble coming up with one.

II. Short Assignments

Students must choose at least 5 of the Short Assignments over the course of the term from the options available on the syllabus. Short Assignments MUST be handed in at the beginning of the class on the day on which they are due. They CANNOT be handed in late. In many cases, essays will be read aloud for the class, to provide the basis for a discussion.

The Short Assignments will either require you to explain an author’s argument or to develop an argument of your own.

A few tips on writing the Short Assignments:

i) Remember, these are short assignments. You are not expected to cover a subject exhaustively. You should focus carefully on the question you have been asked to answer; a good deal of the thinking involved in the assignment comes in figuring out what you don’t really need to say.

ii) The Short Assignments should be literate and carefully proof-read before you get to class. The Short Assignments in this class are not like rough diary entries in which you free associate about a topic.

iii) If you’re trying to explicate an author, avoid quotation at all cost. I want to see you try to express ideas in your own words. In general, when students rely on quotations to explain an author’s position, instructors marking their papers assume that they don’t understand the author’s position.

iv) Please don’t bother with cover pages for your Short Assignments. You also don’t need to provide full bibliographical information, since it will be obvious what you’re citing. You should, however, try to cite liberally when you’re paraphrasing an author.

IMPORTANT: Although you have considerable freedom to choose which Short Assignments you would like to do, there are a few requirements:

–You must pick at least two Short Assignments in September.

–You must pick at least one Short Assignment in October.

Please bring copies of your Short Assignment for the entire class, so that we can read along when you present it.

There is a strict limit on the length of the Short Assignments. They should never exceed 2 pages (12 point font, double spaced, with regular margins).

You should rewrite all your Short Assignments. Your grade for the Short Assignment will be based on consideration of both the original and the re-write. You may hand the re-writes in at any point during the term. Please hand in the original with your re-write.

III. Peer-Review Reports

You will be asked to mark the work of other students as part of your grade. We'll discuss details in class.

A Few Statements Regarding University Policies

A Statement on University policies and regulations: "This instructor respects and upholds University policies and regulations pertaining to the observation of religious holidays; assistance available to the physically handicapped, visually and/or hearing impaired student; plagiarism; sexual harassment; and racial or ethnic discrimination. All students are advised to become familiar with the respective University regulations and are encouraged to bring any questions or concerns to the attention of the instructor."

A Statement about Plagiarism: Plagiarism is the misrepresentation -intentional or not — of someone else’s work as one’s own. Students will be held responsible for plagiarism, including both deliberate plagiarism and the sort that results from sloppy work habits. Students should also be aware (and should warn fellow students considering plagiarism) that plagiarism is surprisingly easy to detect. Punishments vary but typically include failure in the course and a permanent mark in a student’s record.

I am always available to discuss your concerns about plagiarism. For more on plagiarism, see the sections in Cornell’s Policy Notebook on the ‘Code of Academic Integrity’ and ‘Acknowledging the Work of Others.’ The Code of Academic Integrity is available on the Web at:

There is a general ban in this class on all internet research (beyond, of course, using Course Reserve and the Library Web Site).


Tentative Schedule of Assignments for the First Part of the Course

Please note that the short assignments listed below are NOT all compulsory! See 'Grading and Assignments' above for details.

September 5th

SHORT ASSIGNMENT: Is it rational to be moral? Forget what I said in class. Just work out a position that strikes you as plausible and argue for it. In the course of your argument you should try to be clear about how you understand the terms "rational" and "moral". If you’re at a loss about what to write, you might proceed as follow: Indicate in the first part of your assignment how you understand the term "rational" and "moral", and then, on that basis attempt to answer the question. Finally, try to think of a good counter-argument to your position, and explain why the counter-argument doesn’t succeed.

No reading for this assignment.

September 10th

READING: E.O. Wilson. 'Altruism.' To be handed out in class.

SHORT ASSIGNMENT: Wilson distinguishes between "pure, hard-core" and "soft-core" altruism. What are the main differences between these forms of altruism, according to Wilson? Why does Wilson call his estimate of the "relative proportions of hard-core and soft-core altruism in human behavior" (p. 157) optimistic? What makes hard-core altruism seem so dangerous to Wilson?

September 12th

READING: Sober, Elliott. 'Evolutionary Altruism, Psychological Egoism, and Morality: Disentangling the Phenotypes.' On Course Reserve.

SHORT ASSIGNMENT: Write on one of the following:

a) Sober distinguishes between two different kinds of altruism, psychological and evolutionary. What are the differences between these two kinds of altruism?

b) Sober thinks that morality should not be confused with altruism, whether psychological or evolutionary. Why?

September 17th

No Readings or assignments today. Start reading ahead for Hobbes, though.

September 19th

READING: Hobbes. p. 27 to p. 41; p. 50 to p. 63.

NOTE ON THE READING: pages 27 to 41 are only background here (though please take careful note of Hobbes’ definition of what he calls "vain-glory" on p. 32). We will mostly be discussing pages 50 to 63.

SHORT ASSIGNMENT: According to Hobbes, what are the chief characteristics of men which ensure that the lives of men in a state of nature will be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short"? Explain why Hobbes thinks that these characteristics, taken together with other features of a state of nature, would produce such an intolerable result.

DEADLINE: This is the deadline for your first appointment with me regarding a term paper topic

September 24th

READING: Hobbes. p. 74 to p. 100

SHORT ASSIGNMENT: "Justice, therefore, that is to say, keeping of covenant, is a rule of reason by which we are forbidden to do anything destructive to our life, and consequently a law of nature" (Hobbes, p. 92). Explain.

September 26th

READING: Butler. Sermon I.

SHORT ASSIGNMENT: Butler thinks that the alleged conflict between self-interest and morality is often exaggerated. Why does he think this? What do you think? Why?

October 1st

READING: Butler. Preface p. 18, paragraph 35 to p. 23; Sermon IV.

SHORT ASSIGNMENT: "That all particular appetites and passions are toward external things themselves, distinct from the pleasure arising from them, is manifested from hence–that there could not be this pleasure were it not for that prior suitableness between the object and the passion; there could be no enjoyment or delight from one thing more than another, from eating food more than from swallowing a stone, if there were not an affection or appetite to one thing more than another" (p. 47). Explain.

DEADLINE: Term paper proposal due today.

NOTE: The Axelrod reading for next class is relatively lengthy (but also relatively easy). You might want to get a jump start on it.


October 3rd

READING: Axelrod. The Evolution of Cooperation, p. 3 to p. 69.

SHORT ASSIGNMENT: Summarize Axelrod's tournament and its most important results. If you were redesigning the tournament to make it more realistic, what features would you add or change?

Future Assignments (due dates to be announced closer to the time)

Friends and Future Selves

READING: Brink. 'Rational Egoism, Self and Others' (esp. 339-349) (On Course Reserve)

SHORT ASSIGNMENT: What is "strategic egoism," as Brink understands it? Brink offers several arguments against strategic egoism. Pick one or two arguments; explain and assess them.


READING: Brink. 'Rational Egoism, Self and Others' (esp. 349 to the end)

SHORT ASSIGNMENT: Answer one of the following:

a) What does it mean to say that X's good is a part of Y's (where X and Y are either temporal parts of the same person or different people), according to Brink? (See especially 349-351 and 369) How does Brink use the metaphor of parthood to defend his version of neo-Aristotelian rational egoism? Do you find his line of argument convincing? (Note: Brink’s argument is long and complicated. I’m only looking for the main idea here, not the details.)

b) Brink contrasts a "subjective egoist justification of morality" with an "objective egoist justification". What is the main difference between subjective and objective versions of egoism? Why does Brink drop the subjective version in favor of the objective version?


READING: Brink. 'Rational Egoism, Self and Others' (esp. 349 to the end)

SHORT ASSIGNMENT: In Section 7, Brink establishes his "base case" for extending egoist concern for others. In subsequent sections (Sections 8, 9, 10), he extends his account to an expanding circle of other selves. Outline Brink’s strategy for expanding this concern beyond his "base case" through these various stages. (Note: Again, Brink’s argument is complicated, and some of the details are quite difficult. You don’t need to go into all these details. I’m mainly interested in seeing that you’ve got the general drift of the argument.)


READING: Brink. 'Rational Egoism, Self and Others' (esp. sections 11, 12, 13)

SHORT ASSIGNMENT: In Sections 11, 12, and 13 of his paper, Brink responds to a few objections to his neo-Aristotelian rational egoism. Pick one, and explain the objection along with Brink’s response.

More on Friends and Future Selves

READING: Whiting. 'Impersonal Friends'(esp. Section 4) (On Course Reserve)

SHORT ASSIGNMENT: In Section 4 (pages 9 and 10) of her paper, Whiting criticizes Brink's way of understanding the notion that X's good can be a "part" of Y's good. What is her criticism of Brink? (Note: This is a difficult assignment, but also a very rewarding one.)


READING: Whiting. 'Impersonal Friends'

SHORT ASSIGNMENT: On p. 12, Whiting quotes Vlastos' claim that Plato fails to account for the fact that we have concern for individuals qua individuals [i.e. in so far as they are individuals], rather than simply qua virtuous. Vlastos thinks Aristotle's account of friendship suffers from the same flaw. Whiting thinks that Vlastos is "essentially right" about the substance of Aristotle's view, but she disagrees with Vlastos about whether Aristotle's view is mistaken. What is her reason for resisting Vlastos' assessment of Aristotle's position?


READING: Whiting. 'Impersonal Friends'

SHORT ASSIGNMENT: Write on one of the following:

a) Whiting quotes Ramsey on p. 16 on the relationship between self-love and judgements of value. Why does Whiting think that Ramsey is mistaken?

b) " . . . for differential concern may be pragmatically justified without being intrinsically justified" (p. 23). What contrast is Whiting getting at here? What problem is she trying to address? How does the distinction help her address it?

Conscience and Integrity

READING: Butler. Preface, p. 13, paragraph 12 to p. 18, paragraph 29, Sermon II, Sermon III.

SHORT ASSIGNMENT: "Appetites, passions, affections, and the principle of reflection, considered merely as the several parts of our inward nature, do not at all give us an idea of the system or constitution of this nature, because the constitution is formed by somewhat not yet taken into consideration, namely, by the relations which these several parts have to each other; the chief of which is the authority of reflection or conscience" (Butler, p. 14). Explain what Butler means. Be sure to consider how Butler develops and defends this point in the readings.

Skepticism about the Unity of Practical Reason

READING: Copp. 'The Ring of Gyges.' (On Course Reserve)

SHORT ASSIGNMENT: What does Copp mean by the "unity of practical reason"? Why is he skeptical about the unity of practical reason?

Rationality and the Unity of the Virtues

READING: Hume. Selection. (On Course Reserve)

SHORT ASSIGNMENT: "Since morals, therefore, have an influence on the actions and affections, it follows, that they cannot be deriv'd from reason; and that because reason alone, as we have already prov'd, can never have any such influence. Morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions. Reason of itself is utterly impotent in this particular. The rules of morality, therefore, are not conclusions of our reason" (Hume, Selection, p. 457). What does Hume mean here? How does he defend his position?


READING: Quinn. 'Rationality and the Human Good.'

SHORT ASSIGNMENT: Write on one of the following:

a) What is the neo-Humean conception of rationality (as Quinn uses the term)? Why does Quinn reject it?

b) Compare Quinn's position with Copp's skepticism about the unity of practical reason. Does Quinn have an convincing reply to Copp?


READING: Plato. Laches.

SHORT ASSIGNMENT: Shortly after September 11th, Susan Sontag (writing in the New Yorker ) and Bill Maher (speaking on his show, Politically Incorrect), averred that whatever else the terrorists were, they were at least courageous. What might Socrates and Nicias say to Sontag and Mawr? What do you think?


READING: Plato. Laches.

SHORT ASSIGNMENT: Socrates seems to think that courage has some special relationship with the other virtues, especially wisdom (as Nicias reminds him at 194d). This connection seems to place some important restrictions on what is to count as courageous behavior. Quinn thinks that rationality is "the authoritative perfection of man qua agent". And this seems to place some important restrictions on any plausible account of practical rationality. Compare the two positions.

Varieties of Self-interest

READING: Kagan. 'The Limits of Well-Being' (On Course Reserve)

SHORT ASSIGNMENT: Kagan is interested in a dispute about the limits of well-being. He gives a rough overview of the debate as follows: "first there is an attempt to push the limits of well-being outward, moving from a narrow to a broader conception; then comes the claim that the resulting notion is too broad, and so we must retreat to a narrower conception after all" (p. 169). Trace this dialect as Kagan develops it. What are the main considerations pushing in either direction?


READING: Rawls. Selection. (On Course Reserve)

SHORT ASSIGNMENT: What are Rawls’ principles of justice? How does he derive them?


READING: Rawls. Selection. (On Course Reserve)

SHORT ASSIGNMENT: Rawls distinguishes between a) a derivation of the principles of justice and b) an account of why people would have an interest in these principles. What roles do self-interest and rationality play in a) and b)? (Hint: For (a), look especially at Rawls' "analytic construction" starting on p. 283.)

Self-interest and the National Interest

READING: Kennan. 'Morality and Foreign Policy' (On Course Reserve)

SHORT ASSIGNMENT: Kennan takes a fairly strong line against a robust role for moral considerations in American foreign policy deliberations. Choose one of the following to write on:

a) Kennan argues early on in his paper that "the functions, commitments, and moral obligations of governments are not the same as those of the individual" (p. 270). What reasons does Kennan give to support his position? How good are his reasons?

b) Kennan says at one point: "Interventions on moral principle can be formally defensible only if the practices against which they are directed are seriously injurious to our interests, rather than just our sensibilities" (p. 273). What is the difference between interests and sensibilities, according to Kennan? What are his reasons for sharply distinguishing them? If we have deeply felt moral convictions, why can't these count as interests?

c) Later in his essay Kennon does allow some moral considerations some relevance in foreign policy decision making (see p. 276). But "some of the strongest imperatives of moral conduct should be of a negative rather than a positive nature." (p. 276). What is the difference between "negative" and "positive" here? Kennan's further remarks on p. 278 seem to impose some moral restrictions on foreign policy. Are Kennan's remarks consistent with the rest of his position?


READING: Power. Selection. (To be handed out in class)

SHORT ASSIGNMENT: How might Power respond to Kennan about the relevance of moral considerations to American foreign policy? After reading both Kennan and Power, what is your own view about the relevance of moral considerations to American foreign policy?