Maybe It’s Better to be a Little Selfish in Doing Good

…Well, maybe not exactly selfish. But at least motivated by personal pleasure and pain. Let me explain.

I was recently reading an ethics textbook (don’t laugh) when I ran across the following story:

“Mr. Lincoln once remarked to a fellow-passenger on an old-time mud-catch that all men were prompted by selfishness in doing good. His fellow-passenger was antagonizing this position when they were passing over a corduroy bridge that spanned a slough. As they crossed this bridge they espied an old razorbacked sow on the bank making a terrible noise because her pigs had got into the slough and were in danger of drowning. As the old coach began to climb the hill, Mr. Lincoln called out, “Driver, can’t you stop just a moment?” Then Mr. Lincoln jumped out, ran back and lifted the little pigs out of the mud and water and placed them on the bank. When he returned, his companion remarked: “Now Abe, where does selfishness come in on this little episode?” “Why bless your soul, Ed, that was the very essence of selfishness. I should have had no peace of mind all day had I gone on and left that suffering old sow worrying over those pigs. I did it to get peace of mind, don’t you see?” [1]

Image for post
Image for post
Lincoln saves a pig . From

When I read this, I was floored. Abraham Lincoln is one of my idols. In part, it is because I consider him one of the kindest public figures ever to live (see here and here and here). Additionally, I think his intellect was second to none. Yet I had always considered those who didn’t believe in altruism to be rather unintelligent and most likely looking for an excuse to be unkind. How could I reconcile those things — how could Lincoln believe that we are all essentially selfish?

My ethics textbook solved the problem by concluding that Lincoln was wrong. Yet as I read the authors’ arguments against “psychological egoism” (the theory that we’re all essentially selfish), I was surprisingly unconvinced. In the end, the book admitted that we could never really know if people were acting for selfish motives deep down, but nevertheless declared that this was a reason to reject psychological egoism. I’m skeptical of this conclusion — just because we can’t prove that people aren’t (or are) acting selfishly doesn’t mean we should reject the idea.

This reminded me of several college philosophy classes, where stubborn kids argued that — deep down — everyone was just selfish. I remember being offended at their dismal view of human nature and thinking that altruism must be possible since those kids were acting like jerks. But I also remember being troubled by their arguments, because I really couldn’t think of any way to prove them wrong. My deep respect for Mr. Lincoln has made me revisit those arguments, so I decided to think how those stubborn college students might actually be correct.

When I did so, my mind was drawn to the work of Emmanuel Levinas, a Lithuanian-Jewish-French philosopher who captured as a prisoner of war by the Nazis during World War II and later taught in several prestigious schools in France. The core of Levinas’ philosophy is focused on “descriptions of the encounter with another person” — the moral call that another person’s face, or voice, or presence, makes on us. “See me,” it says. “Honor me. Honor my personhood as co-equal with your own. Do not harm me. Love me.” And it is the duty of every human being to learn to hear that call and to make the choice to honor it.

Image for post
Image for post
Emmanuel Levinas. From

What Levinas encourages here, for me, is an ethics in which emotion takes a primary role: We should serve others not because it is our rational duty but because we feel compassion for them.

That, I think, is the key to Lincoln’s story. Sure, pigs are not people. But they are animals who can feel pain, and when Lincoln saw the pain of that mother pig, he felt compassion for it. [2] At that point, not helping would have been less comfortable than helping because he felt so sorry for the poor animals. Lincoln minimized his own pain by helping.

Such feelings can help us to act in a kind way, despite being a little selfish. And I would go further. As the title of this article suggests, I think such feelings might be the best motivation for kind behavior. Maybe it’s possible for us to act kindly, morally, without any compassion, despite what Lincoln said. Most moral systems make no reference to feelings; for example, the famous philosopher Immanuel Kant made moral behavior a virtual exercise in logic when he stated his primary rule of morality: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” [3] But in my experience, righteous action stripped of compassionate feeling is a recipe for unhappiness.

One example. In my travels, two people stand out whose lives were models of rational altruism yet whose feelings about the recipients of their kindness seemed rather lukewarm. No need to identify them here — likely, I’m not perceiving the whole picture anyway. They had certainly made great sacrifices to leave well-paid careers and work with others who were less fortunate than they. But from what I could tell, their feelings toward those who they strove to help were… stern. They seemed to feel that their condescension to assist was so great, and the recipients’ worthiness of their help so slight, that strict limits had to be put on the recipients to prevent them from taking advantage of the situation. Rules abounded, and they were firm.

Yet it seemed to me that the work these people did was greatly limited by the way they did it. Those they served respected and feared them, which seemed to be what they wanted. But poverty and hardship are not just physical challenges — they are emotional as well. Kindness, and mercy, and love — they are just as important to someone who is suffering as food or shelter or clothing. And I saw that these sacrificing individuals were not incapable of feeling such feelings, for I observed them demonstrate such emotions toward family members or friends. But those feelings did not seem to enter into their altruistic work.

In Charles Dickens’ novel Bleak House, Dickens reflects bemusedly on such people. One character, Mrs. Pardiggle, regularly visits the poor and preaches Christianity to them. She is entirely unsympathetic about the dirt which surrounds them, their lack of food, or their lack of education, which she considers to result from their unwillingness to become active Christians. But she dutifully visits month after month to preach to the poor creatures and convince them of their wicked ways. Dickens is exaggerating the case, of course, but not so greatly — altruism without feeling doesn’t look much better, in my experience.

Image for post
Image for post
Mrs. Pardiggle. From

Now, I don’t know if such people should stop helping altogether. There is a great deal of misery in the world, and it is better that a suffering person be fed than that they starve, even if the food comes from the devil himself. But if those serving are not moved to compassion by the pain in the eyes of the sufferers, if they are not driven to mercy — even at the expense of justice — when appealed to by tears or pain, I am not sure how much good they are really doing. [4]

I have to admit, sorrowfully, my own guilt on this topic. I have done “good” because it was my duty, not because I cared, countless times. I often exercise justice when I should exercise mercy and vice versa. I fail to recognize and compassionately respond to the humanity embodied in my fellow human beings many times each day. I am trying to be better — to be more like Mr. Lincoln and less like Mrs. Pardiggle. I think sometimes that means that I don’t help — if I can’t empathize with the pain of the people I’m serving, sometimes it is better to stay at home than serve with a feeling of self-satisfied condescension. But hopefully, more often, I commit myself to serve and in the process discover the compassion I lack in the faces of the people I am trying to help.


[1] Quoted from the Springfield Monitor, by F. C. Sharp in his Ethics (Appleton-Century, 1928), p. 28, and from there by Louis P. Polman in his Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong (Wadsworth, 1999).

[2] In a very different context, like the Good Samaritan who “had compassion on” the fallen traveler in Luke 10:30–37. A priest and a Levite passed the fallen traveler and refused to help, likely fearing of the impurity of a corpse or the approach of more robbers. The Samaritan, on the other hand, looked at the fallen traveler’s face, felt the moral call of his presence, and acted accordingly. Jesus seems to make the Samaritan’s ability to feel a central motivation for his righteous action.

[3] What Kant means here is subject to some debate, but the foundation is largely agreed upon: If you want to do something, think whether you would want everyone else to do the same thing before you do it. For example, a bank robber cannot wish that everyone else would rob banks because then banks would become useless and a robber would have no more banks to rob. Therefore, bank robbery is not permissible according to the categorical imperative.

[4] In Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), she argues that such impersonal justice in European colonies contributed to the rise of bureaucratic terror and expansionism in colonialist Europe. “Aloofness became the new attitude of all members of the British services; it was a more dangerous form of governing than despotism and arbitrariness because it did not even tolerate that last link between the despot and his sub­jects, which is formed by bribery and gifts. The very integrity of the British administration made despotic government more inhuman and inaccessible to its subjects than Asiatic rulers or reckless conquerors had ever been” (p. 212 in Harvest Book edition, 1979).

“I do not understand one thing in this world. Not one.” — Marilynne Robinson, ‘Gilead’

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store