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Comment Thomas Nagel While the most conspicuous departures from self-interest in economic transactions are no doubt caused by folly rather than by altruism, some form of consideration for the welfare of others certainly plays a significant role in economic life. I shall discuss three kinds of cases: (1) The contribution of support to an institution or practice from which the contributor benefits, even though his benefit is not contingent on his contribution; (2) the attempt to pursue and avoid certain causal relations between one's own welfare and that of others; (3) the inclusion of altruistic motives within the scope of a service offered for sale. I shall close (4) with some remarks about the generality of altruism and the factors that restrict its operation. (1) When a person donates money to his old college, or gives blood, or gets at the end of the line to buy subway tokens, or cleans up a campsite after he has used it, he may explain such behavior by saying that he has benefited or may in the future benefit from similar behavior by others. This has the look of a straight exchange, but it is not: he benefits from like actions by others, but neither those actions nor the benefit are contingent on what he himself is doing now. And if you point out that his likelihood of receiving blood in the future if he should need it is not significantly increased by his giving today, that will rightly be dismissed as irrelevant. He is not under the illusion that he is engaged in a trade. What is the correct account of the motive for such behavior? It is not simple self-interest, nor simple altruism either, for the explanation does 63 64 • ALTRUISM, MORALITY, AND ECONOMIC THEORY refer to benefits received. The person is making a contribution to a practice or institution in the knowledge that it benefits him and is dependent for survival on contributions from people like him. He is not willing to be a free rider because it would be unfair. Now while the sense of fairness may be in a moral category by itself, having to do with the betrayal of mutual understanding in cooperative arrangements,1 I believe it is also partly explained as a special case of general altruism. When someone benefits from a practice to which others contribute, he is aware not only of his benefit but of its relation to their prior actions, and to the general prevalence of the practice. He is in a particularly good position to realize how their failure to beh~ve in this way would have affected him, and to be grateful for their participation in the practice. When he finds himself in a position to make a similar contribution, he can understand in terms of his own case how a failure to contribute would affect others, and can apply to himself the resentment or gratitude he would feel if the tables were turned. This capacity to put oneself in another person's shoes is behind most altruistic behavior. It is because they encourage that capacity and assist the imaginative process that practices of the kind mentioned give rise to such behavior. They give the false appearance of an exchange of services, but really they work by making vivid to each participant what it is like for the others who depend on him. If he is able to refer to his direct experience of dependence on them when the situations are reversed, he will have no difficulty in following the argument: "How would you like it if someone did that to you?" This question, which underlies much of ethics, is not a threat or a suggestion for an exchange, but an appeal to the imagination. It is intended to evoke the judgment that one person's interests can in themselves provide reasons for another to act? It succeeds because in your own case, when you need blood or arrive at a garbage-strewn campsite, you become quickly aware of your view about these matters. And the interchangeability of roles in certain situations facilitates the generalization of the judgment to cover your own behavior. If you yourself have actually benefited or hope to benefit from cooperative behavior of a similar kind by others, it is particularly difficult to resist the force of the generalization. 1 See John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), p. 112: "The main idea is that when a number of...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9781610446792
Related ISBN
9780871546593
MARC Record
OCLC
908573169
Pages
242
Launched on MUSE
2016-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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