Egoism and altruism can’t explain everything. What about Nostruism?

The debate about egoism and altruism has been going on for a while already. Egoists act for their own benefit, altruists act for others' well-being. But maybe it is not as easy as it seems. Analysing my daily tea procedure and the habits of taking food as a guest in India, I started to brood about the motivation of people's acts and behaviour. Because some things simply do not fit in the two categories.

Egoism and Altruis. Are they Even antagonists?

Egoism and altruism are often treated as complements. The pessimist philosophers like Hobbes or Locke assume that a peaceful coexistence between humans is just the result of gains and self-preservation, while optimists assume that peaceful coexistence is at least possible on the foundation of nothing more than charity. I do not think that these two ideas exclude each other. But in this case, I am also a part-time pessimist and like to assume that altruistic behaviour always supports our mental well-being and thus also carries egoist features. Especially when we talk about charity.

I am thinking about a prophet, who told us about the love of the neighbor and explained its use, who died for our sins and emphasized that acting good (=charity), will be rewarded after death. And maybe also in the present by creating a better mortal world. In his book The Economy of Good and Evil, the economist Tomáš Sedláček analyses that human action is not driven by means of benefit, but simply by assumptions about what is "good". I like this culture-theoretical approach, but yet it just opes up new chapters. Why do we act for the "good"? How do we decide, what is good? Do rapists and warloards simply have a different understanding about good and bad? Is their understanding about good simply a more egoist one? Good is what is good for me? Somehow, it all culminates in another tautology.

Therefore, I want to look at egoism and altruism not as a cause of human action, but as practice. It is not relevant, what really is going on inside of a human being, because it is not accessible for us. Relevant is, how human justifies his or her action and how it is received. That also includes that humans can act altruistic for egoist motives. So what? The world is not black and white. And maybe, there are even more categories.

Let's assume that egoism and altruism are constructs, which result from our construction of the world. These categories have been invented by humans after all. Humans who thought about what is good or bad action. Part of these thoughts has also been the clear distinction between you and me. You are you and I am I and this is why you cannot be me. Maybe it physically is like this (even though, I tend to argue against it, but that should not be part of this discussion). Anthropologically, this assumption is not as indisputable as it seems. Eventually, we will find some more personal pronouns, like "we".

It all starts with the question of our own identity. There are two (again this stupid dichotomy) ways of perception to distinguish. The collective and the individual. These terms are also just some extreme ideas to simplify a complex world. Even the typical Western businessman will often act not only from an individual point of view, but certainly also with collective aims, like the improvement of his family's status. And my Indian friends will certainly also not only act from their family's point of view, but also take a toffee out of the box for themselves.

Example: My daily tea and food service in India

What I find very fascinating is that I am often confronted with behaviour, which does neither serve me, nor the others. I think that in the category of "we", you and I are less important. I have already mentioned in other blogposts, that I value my sleep a lot. Since I am an individualized white man, I like to manage my routine on my own, independent from others. But since I live in a less individualized area and also with a (wonderful) Indian family, my need for individualism often collides with the expectations of the people.

I live here with my friend Vimal, we share a room below our host-family and are looked after as good as possible. That also means that we get tea every morning, which is served by one of the children right into our room. As a passionate tea-lover it is like paradise for me. Vimal however, goes to bed far later than me and usually is not awake by the time of the first serving. But that's no problem. The children will just wake him up. Not as carefully as a mother would wake her six-year old child, but by forcfully knocking on the door and by yelling "Chay Bhaya! Wake up, drink tea." I am shocked, open the door and request silence. But instead of following this request, the boy with the tea will just enter and yell again to ensure Vimal will wake up and drink his tea.

This is awkward for me. But even more awkward is that Vimal, without signalizing any hint of irritation, wakes up and drinks his tea. That raises a few questions in my head. Even I am slightly pissed, that he has to get up, just because someone assumes that he is doing something beneficial. Vimal however, stays cool. It is normal. Even though he would have liked to continue sleeping. What is good is not his decision, but others'. But how to explain it then? Egoism? Altruism? The family does not act for their own direct benefits. They did, if they waited with the serving until Vimal woke up and if they hoped to get some reciprocal benefits of this gift in the future. Or if the simply saved money, time and energy by not making tea. Altruistic would be, if they make tea, when Vimal requests or needs it. In this case without expactations of reciprocal behaviour. In boths scenarios however, Vimal would not get any tea, while he is asleep. But he gets it.

I think the reason for this is we. A guest deserves tea. It is not a matter of request or wishes, but of the relation to each other. Vimal gets tea, because he is a guest and he reacts friendly because he is a guest. It has to be like that and is ranked above the individual benefits of sleeping or not making tea. Because it is good like that. In the sense of the rules of togetherness. I like if my host just fulfills my needs when I agree to it. At my house, people get tea, if I asked before or if I can assume that they will enjoy. In no way would I serve it, if I assume that they want to continue sleeping. The individual is what counts.

And then there is this issue with food. Indian food has by far been the best food that I came across. But it is also dangerous for my body-shape, as the girls at home do in fact care, if I have a potbelly or not. I also explained this to the family, with a lot of laughter. Still, without asking or even if I refuse, people will always add more food on my plate. Sometimes even when I am really, really full. Of course, grandmas in Germany also tend to do this. "Take some more, you look quite unhealthy." But this is what grandmas do, because its a grandmas' thing. The Indian families and the German grannies forcefeed us, because it emphasizes the realation to the "victim". We care for you. It does not matter, if you want it or not. There will be care. Not for egoism, not for altruism, but for nostruism.

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Beautifully written brother. Compartmentalization and the division of reality and identities certainly are a rather stupid modern creation in my opinion. Nevertheless I detest the opinion of pessimistic individualist philosophers of the European renaissance who have rather put it under the garb of modern liberal values. Tocqueville’s critique of the democratic man in this context is to be appreciated. The conception of good is different and fluid but even the most individualized western man who takes pride in his possession of individualism will credit it (or maybe not) to his society/parenting/ peers and ultimately the social and cultural forces under… Read more »


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