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PhilosophyPart of Humanities

Are We Selfish? - Altruistic desires

Hume is sometimes thought to have held the view that all behavior is motivated by desire, but who nonetheless allowed that such desires – and so the behavior they generate – could be altruistic.


Against such a view, we might worry that it is not genuine altruism to help another if you do so only because you want to. Isn’t doing what you want precisely the opposite of altruism? Defenders of this view respond that this objection misunderstands altruism – altruism is a matter of being motivated by the right desires (e.g. desires for others’ wellbeing), not a matter of not being motivated by desires at all.

For more on this topic, you might read Chapter 5 of Rachels’ The Elements of Moral Philosophy. At Southampton, we run various modules that address these and similar issues: Ethics, Political Philosophy, Moral Philosophy, Happiness and Wellbeing, and Action, Reason, and Ethics. Many of our staff undertake research in this area, such as Dr. Alex Gregory, Prof. Chris Janaway, Dr. Sasha Mudd, and Dr. Jonathan Way

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