Varieties of Altruism

Kitcher Philip

in Preludes to Pragmatism

Published in print November 2012 | ISBN: 9780199899555
Published online January 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780199980154 | DOI:
Varieties of Altruism

Show Summary Details


This chapter begins with an attempt to specify the many forms of psychological altruism, with sufficient precision to enable social theory to move beyond the fiction that human beings belong to the species Homo economicus. It then considers two problems, descending from Smith and Rousseau, respectively. Smith recognized, correctly, that human beings sometimes sympathize with one another, but in the masterpiece for which he is best known, left any such dispositions out of account in his analyses: according to its most famous sentence, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” Effectively, Smith separated human life into two spheres, one in which sympathetic dispositions are engaged and one in which they are suppressed. The chapter explores why our altruistic propensities are overridden in the commercial sphere, considers the potential difficulties of this split in our lives, and investigates the possibility of a system of economic transactions among incompletely altruistic agents. The second problem focuses on Rousseau's version of the social contract. It suggests that some apparently puzzling features of what Rousseau has in mind can be better understood if we conceive the parties to the contract as limited altruists who hope to buttress and expand their altruistic tendencies.

Keywords: psychological altruism; social theory; Smith; Rousseau; human life; sympathy; social contact

Chapter.  13287 words. 

Subjects: Philosophy

Full text: subscription required

How to subscribe Recommend to my Librarian

Buy this work at Oxford University Press »

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Please, subscribe or login to access all content.