Self-Interest Can Subsume and “Explain” Altruism


Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.    3-16

ABSTRACT:  With a deeper understanding of self-interest as the motivator of all behavior, we can understand altruism and appreciate it in a slightly different way.

KEY WORDS:  altruism, self-interest, egoism, selfishness, selflessness


There have been serious differences of opinion about whether altruism (behavior that benefits others and does not seem to have immediate benefit for the self) can be understood as stemming from self-interest.  Many would like to believe that we sometimes do things solely for the benefit of others, which can be referred to as“selflessness.”  An implication of the general praise of altruism would seem to be that the more selflessness, the better.  (Perhaps at one hundred percent selflessness, one becomes a saint!)   

A simple dictionary definition of altruism is “the principle or practice of unselfish concern for or devotion to the welfare of others (opposed to egoism).”  This definition implies that an action is either selfish or unselfish (with unselfishness being the key defining element in altruism), but this definition does not actually exclude the possibility that both selfish and unselfish motives can be involved in a single behavior.  Common usage, however, suggests that people see it as either one or the other—i.e., that a behavior is either selfless or self-interested, and this is the source of the ongoing controversy.  A more complex understanding of motivation, however, will show that the situation is not either-or.  The analysis presented here depends on two assumptions:  (1) that all behavior is motivated; and (2) that human beings reach behavior decisions (choices of behavior) by considering, consciously and unconsciously, all of the associations that the brain contains with regard to the circumstances in question.

Most of us wish to believe that human beings (ourselves included) can be “good” in the sense of doing things for others, but it is an open question whether we do things solely for others or whether when we do things for others, we are doing them at least partly for ourselves.  It is hard to imagine how any human being could do things one hundred percent for others, since he or she would have to do the things necessary to maintain life, even if that were solely necessary so that he or she could do more things for others.  (A few people view human beings as basically evil and therefore by definition incapable of doing things for others solely for the sake of those others.)   These days few psychologists would still offer a metaphysical explanation for altruism vs. egoism in terms of a split within our internal systems (like separate brain systems for self-interest and others-interest), although the notion of a soul could be involved in such an explanation, as could competing angels and devils within us.

There is no doubt that we are constructed to be self-interested.  We would not survive otherwise.   There is also no doubt that we are constructed to and instinctively do nurture, support, defend, and protect those close to us, even in the face of death.  Such behavior is probably genetically bred into us now, through natural selection.  From an evolutionary point of view, this can be seen as being in the interests of both self and others, since all would receive some reproductive benefit from surviving.

Probably we would all agree that almost all of us do at least some things in our own self-interest.  When we watch something we enjoy on TV or get ourselves a drink of water, it is mostly for ourselves, and most people do not keep themselves alive just for whatever benefit others might receive from that.  And, probably most of us would agree that we can in fact sometimes do things that benefit others without much immediate, visible benefit to ourselves.  We give up our seat on the bus for someone who is having difficulty standing and do not thereby benefit ourselves except for the “good feelings” that we might have.

Philosophers distinguish desires that are the end point of some chain of desires (“ultimate desires”) from desires that if satisfied make the satisfaction of other desires possible (“instrumental desires”).  I suggest, though, that every ultimate desire involves an instrumental behavior as well.  If we want to feel pleasure, we must create the situation that our being will respond to with the feeling of pleasure.  If we want God’s grace, we will try to make ourselves an appropriate vessel for that grace (even if the definition of grace does not require this).  Even if one enjoys thinking and therefore engages in thinking in order to feel pleasure, one has engaged in an instrumental behavior (thinking) in order to keep a certain amount of pleasure (the “ultimate desire”) in one’s life.  We may also think in order to reach some other goal, like the result of solving a problem, which then results in pleasure or satisfaction or more food on the table.  In the self-interest (“egoistic”) description of behaviors done at least partly to benefit others, one would be seen to engage in an instrumental behavior (helping another) in order to gratify some ultimate desire of the self (to feel good, to feel better, to be perceived as “good,” to receive gratefulness, etc.).  In the strict altruistic description of behaviors, one would be seen as doing something to benefit another without being motivated by a desire for our own gratification of any sort (even if the self also benefited without desiring it).

Some would argue that in order to be a moral person, one must sometimes do things solely for others.  This would require that one’s motives be “pure” and do not involve self-interest (although this is a higher standard than if we understood “being moral” as equivalent to “acting morally”).  We know that many people who seem to act morally (as far as we can see), do not have such “pure” motivation.  Perhaps we could call this “pure” morality “supermorality.”

Children must be socialized to understand that the interests of others are important.  Children can grasp early in life that cooperation often gets them more than selfishness will, and children also have an innate capacity to appreciate empathically (at least rudimentarily) the feelings of others and to perceive how others are being affected by their behavior.  This capacity will be developed to some degree in most of us, though for a few, not at all.  Some (all?) societies link being “good” and “moral” with recognizing and sometimes responding to the needs and welfare of others.  These labels of “good” and “bad” are used socially to deal with the issue of balancing the interests of self and others, and they are also used as “sticks” to get children to act in ways that we want them to.  We praise children for being “good,” by which we mean taking others’ interests into account and/or obeying parents’ wishes.  Parents punish “selfish” behavior by disapproving and calling the child “bad,” so that we grow up thinking of self-interest and others-interest as separate and mutually exclusive issues.  One either gets what one wants or has to give up what one wants and let someone else have what he wants.  This leaves many people resentful, even as adults, of having to give up their own interests for the sake of others, since they first encountered it in this either-or way (e.g., being forced to let another child play with their toys). 

This early experience makes it feel like the two (their own interests vs. the interests of others) are mutually exclusive, which is not correct.  The current buzz word for purposely seeking to benefit both self and others by a given behavior is “win-win” behavior.  Developmentally, though, the fact that we need to work so hard to socialize children in this regard indicates that in early life we are almost totally self-interested and only gradually learn to voluntarily take the interests of others into account.

From a psychological point of view, this chasm between self-interest and others-interest is dealt with mostly through denial and lying to ourselves.  Whenever possible we pretend that when we do things for ourselves we are doing them for others (“This hurts me more than it does you,” “I’m not trying to talk you out of what you want but just reminding you of all of your options,” “I’m prosecuting all of these cases because it is in the public interest [and has nothing to do with my prejudice against gays]”).  We accuse others of selfishness (whether true or not) in order to force them (through guilt or shame) to reconsider and change a choice they have made.  We could all do better for ourselves and for others if we admitted more openly that it is a good thing to take good care of ourselves and a good thing to take others’ interests into account when we make all of our behavioral decisions.  How we balance our interests and others’ interests is a delicate matter, but every group has its unwritten rules for how the boundary is drawn.  By and large, it is OK to do things openly for ourselves if no one else is being harmed, but if someone else is being harmed then we have to work out for ourselves and between ourselves and others what is “harm” and what is “fair.”

Another fact worth noting is that doing things consistently only for others and against our best interest leads to resentment, anger, and ultimately to psychosis (of a functional nature).  If you want to test out doing things that are not in your best interest, take a driving route home after work every day for a month that takes you a half hour more than your usual route (and has no compensatory qualities, such as better views), and see how you feel about it.  You could also give up your share of your inheritance for your siblings, and see how that feels!  (You may of course purposely try to view these as good things because to feel OK about them would disprove my thesis, but this would only show that you were turning this into something that your own self-interest motivated you to do—to “win” or to prove me wrong.)

Using their neural systems, people are always evaluating how they will feel (their physical and emotional states) under predicted circumstances, and given these predictions will always choose the option that would make them “feel” the best or leave them in the best condition in an overall sense.  In doing this, the evaluation of each option involves, automatically, all of the associations that we have to that option.  The brain automatically activates all of these associations, and we somehow sum them up to result in a choice of the most highly preferred behavior.  How others will react to each option, given how it affects them, is included in these evaluations, although we know that people vary in how seriously they take their impact on others and how seriously they take others’ reactions to them.  Some people take into account not only how others will react to us but also how others will feel as a result of our actions.  People also vary a great deal in the accuracy of their predictions of how they will feel under available options.   This conception of decision-making or behavior choice does not recognize any separation of motive systems (physical or psychological) into a system that wants you to do “good” (be unselfish) and a system that wants you to do “bad” (be selfish), such as the two little angels that we see sitting on the opposite shoulders of cartoon characters.

It must be noted that what is best for us is not always what we would prefer to do in the current moment.  This is most evident in whether we take others’ interests into account in our decisions and whether we take future consequences of our actions into account in our decisions.  Failures in these respects often lead to trouble or calamity, as we alienate others or start a war through going for short-term gains without taking longer-term consequences into account.  Self-interest is paramount regardless, but in the one case others’ interests are also considered, while at the other extreme they are not.  Obviously, the prediction of one’s future state depends greatly on whether these two issues are prominent or ignored in one’s decisions.  People vary greatly in their belief in the value to themselves of taking others’ interests and long-term consequences into account.  Peoples’ beliefs in this regard are reflected in their associations during every given decision and in their projections of what they think will happen in the future as a result of their actions.  Again, we note that taking one’s own interests into account does not necessarily lead to “selfishness.”

To test this concept, think of a decision you need to make and identify the various options.  You will automatically think of your overall state in the event of each of the options being carried out, and the option that promises you the best overall outcome (leaving you in the best condition or state, when all of the positive and negative consequences over time are added up) is the option that you will prefer.  These evaluative predictions are usually not organized and crystal clear in the mind of the evaluator, although some of the associations are available to consciousness.  For most people, this process is a good example of the many neural operations that are largely unconscious (out of our conscious awareness), even if we think they are conscious because we are aware of some primary considerations while actually we are quite unconscious of all of the other minor factors being considered without our awareness.

Let’s say that you make this evaluation and identify your preferred option, and then you realize that that option will have the consequence of harming someone else and that you would feel bad about that.  Adding in that consequence, you may well change your preferred option, but you will be doing so because given this new information, another option promises a better overall outcome.  Even if for some reasons you are reluctant to give up your initially preferred option, you will do so for the sake of an overall better option.  This means that we don’t need to have a conscience or the concept of a separate conscience in order to “do right,” because whatever a conscience would do is done by your evaluation of the various options.  ”Conscience,” then, is a word that refers to one’s understanding of the social appropriateness of various behaviors, one’s self-rewards and punishments for acting socially appropriately or inappropriately, the rewards and punishments that one anticipates from others for acting socially appropriately or inappropriately, how much one takes seriously the consequences for others of one’s behavior, and how much one cares about one’s impact on others.

This way of conceptualizing decision making views all behavior as self-interested, even when it also has others-interested motives and outcomes.  Whether or not a given option is “moral” or will feel moral to the evaluator is included in the associations to that option.   Taking others into account, which leads in some cases to behavior choices that benefit those others, is something that takes place automatically in your decision processes, to the extent that you are inclined to do so, whether that process is almost instant or involves considerable cogitation or struggle.

Decisions that seem self-abnegating and solely others-benefiting are not that at all.  A person who spends every day serving the poor and lives in poor circumstances in order to do so (a life that almost everyone would find intolerable) is doing so because she (Mother Teresa?) feels better living this life than she thinks she would feel living other lives that she can imagine.  She receives internal benefits from this chosen life, such as gratification at seeing others happier than they would be without her work, fulfillment of the hopes and expectations of authority figures for her, believing that God is pleased with her, believing that she is furthering the long-term interests of God or the church, anticipating a nice reward in heaven when life is over, having positive relationships with those she helps, etc., and these internal gratifications seem great enough justify undergoing the negatives of her lifestyle and work.  We should note that the “good feeling” that we feel when we do something that benefits others stems from our assessment that we have conformed to our treasured beliefs for how to behave, our assessment that we have conformed to what our parents or God expect of us, our empathic enjoyment of the recipient’s pleasure stemming from our behavior, or other conscious or unconscious senses of other more specific benefits to ourselves .

The “pure altruism” view would require that we have no positive feelings in response to our behavior that helps someone else (though we could have negative feelings).  As a psychologist, I believe that we always have emotional responses to our own behaviors, and I would submit that if those responses to doing something for someone else included nothing positive, we would stop helping others, because to continue would lead, as suggested above, to resentment, anger, and ultimately psychosis.  Some will contend that they know within themselves and in their observations of others that it is possible for people to do things for others that produce no positive outcomes for the self, but I would argue that they are not paying sufficient attention to all the feelings involved. 

Your sense of right and wrong (morality) is a combination of your experiences and observations of the outcomes of various behaviors, together with principles that you have learned from others or abstracted yourself from your multitudinous experiences of the results of various behaviors.  If you say that theft is wrong (and really believe it), that is the conclusions that you have reached from all of your experiences of thieving or of knowing the outcomes for thieves and for their victims, plus all of the input you have received from others about how thieving is “wrong,” will be punished, and may lead to self-punishment through guilt.  For some people, this information about real life experiences includes realizing empathically how others feel when robbed, though for others this is not important.  Those who feel empathically for others are generally less likely to harm others by their behaviors, when this empathic information is added to all of their other experiences and input from others.

An intermediate view, between self-interest and altruism, might be that we are mostly self-interested but sometimes are motivated to do things that are also in others’ best interest.  There is quite a wide range of how much of the time each of us takes others into account and an even wider range of how much of the time we put others’ interests ahead of our own. 

Doing things for others on occasion might involve suspending our self-interest for a while, or it might mean that we have a mix of motives in those circumstances in which we are aware of the needs and best interests of ourselves and also of the needs and best interests of others.  The argument here, though, is that doing what is good for others is only done if it also brings benefit to the self—enough benefit to the self to be sufficient to motivate a behavior.  Theoretically we could assign relative values to the outcomes of a behavior as judged by an external observer (e.g., 70% self-interest/30% others-interest), but this split does not represent a split of motive power, since things that benefit others are only done if they benefit the self. 

Keep in mind that the visible, immediate benefit to others may be judged by outsiders to be greater than the benefits to the self (both internal and external), but the behavior would not occur unless the overall consequences for the self were greater than the overall consequences for the self of each of the other possible behaviors in that circumstance.  A behavior that was 10% self-interest/90% others-interest could then be called largely altruistic, and in certain circumstances this 10/90 balance would be possible.  We have little evidence of having separate neural motivational systems for self-interest and others-interest, and it seems unlikely that we can “turn off” our self-interest.  Even if we turned it off, we would have to ask what motivated us to do that, since doing so would have resulted from the same general motivational system that we operate from all of the time.

To be fair in our terminology, “others-interest” should be further divided into “others-interest outcomes,” referring to how an external observer would judge the benefit to others, and “others-interest motivation,” which should be reserved only for instances in which empathic appreciation of the outcomes for another generated a desire on the part of the self for self-benefit (such as to avoid guilt or to feel good for helping, etc.).  Behavior that benefits others and that resulted solely from desire for self-gain (like gaining the approbation of others for the benefit caused for others) and did not involve concern for or appreciation of the feelings of others is solely self-interested since it does not involve concern or caring for others at all.

It is not necessary that the anticipated positive consequences of a behavior for the self must be greater than the negative consequences, since we seek only to maximize the total consequences when a contemplated behavior is compared with the outcomes of all other possible behaviors.  In some situations, the net consequences of each possible behavior will be negative (e.g., choosing one’s behaviors when under constraints, such as in a concentration camp).  In all circumstances, we “do the best we can.”  Freely chosen behavior (behavior not involving external constraint) would require that the net consequences for the self be positive, but this almost never happens, because almost all behavior is constrained in some way (our physical limitations, environmental limitations, “the rules,” the law, our fears of the reactions of others, etc.).  (“Freely chosen” usually means (though it is unstated) “assuming certain “normal” external constraints, such as one’s physical limitations, the limitations of the immediate environment, and the negative reactions of others to the contemplated behavior,” so when we say “freely chosen,” we don’t actually mean completely freely chosen.)   It is not necessary for the self to care about the outcomes for the other person who benefits from the self’s behavior.  The behavior that benefits another will occur if it is the behavior that benefits the self most, compared to all other possible behaviors.

Human psychological functions are complex enough that there is another way in which self-interest can subsume others-interest, and that is when a person’s identity includes, partly or wholly, another’s identity.  In such cases the person will be seen by external observers as being totally dedicated to the welfare of the other, but since psychologically the person has included the other person within his own identity, doing things to benefit the other automatically benefits the self!

Let us look further at the person on a bus who gives up his seat to an elderly or infirm person.    The negative consequence of giving up her seat would be simply having to stand (or move to another seat).  There are several possible positive consequences.  She may feel virtuous and enjoy that view of herself.  She may empathically enjoy the relief or pleasure of the other person from being able to sit down.  She may think in terms of karma—that she is building up “positive points” with the universe which could mean that when she is older or infirm, someone else will be more likely to give her a seat.  She may think of an older relative who would be pleased to be helped in this way and feel good about it in a displacement sense.  She may view doing this to conform to the law or to avoid dirty looks from others on the bus as important positive consequences.  Any or all of these positive consequences would seem a sufficient self-interested explanation of her behavior (assuming that they are anticipated in her conscious or subconscious mind as positive consequences before she gives up the seat, due to previous experience and conditioning).  There would seem to be no great need to choose between self-interest or others-interest (altruism?) here, since everyone “wins,” since the person sees the helpful option as leading to the best overall feeling state for self when compared to all other options in that circumstance.  (The only reason to preserve the concept of choosing between self-interest and others-interests (one or the other but not both) would be to preserve the notion of altruism as saintly.)

One might argue that a person could be suppressing the experience of these more subtle benefits to himself and therefore still be acting out of only concern about the impact of the behavior on the other person, but it seems unlikely.  We have developed ways of suppressing or being unaware of feelings and thoughts that are painful or that we see as socially unacceptable, but there would seem to be no evolutionary reason to deny ourselves access to the more subtle, internal pleasures (unless one would feel another negative feeling, like guilt, upon realizing that one was benefiting from the partially others-interested action, but this would lead to a chain of self-deception that even human beings probably could not conduct, given the size of our brains).

Next let us consider the classic example—the person who runs in front of a truck (and is either injured or would likely be injured) in order to save a child in the path of the truck.  It’s obviously desirable, from an emotional and an evolutionary point of view, to save the child, but if the adult is killed or seriously injured in saving the child, then saving the child is not so obviously a good thing, even if we lionize such sacrifices.  It is possible that the instant response of trying to save the child is simply instinctive, but that leaves it out of the realm of the moral or altruistic entirely.  We are interested here in behavior that seems consciously or purposely selfless.  (Most people would agree that a person deserves “moral credit” for an action only if it is the product of choice, though a person can receive “social credit” for an action even if it is simply instinctive.)

The possible internal benefits for saving the child are several.  The savior can feel good for saving a life, which is generally a good thing, even if it is an unrelated child.  He can feel good about the mere fact that he could physically accomplish the save.  He can avoid feeling bad about being a coward and not saving the child, as well as any recriminations of bystanders about his lack of attempt (even though they themselves did not try).  If it is his own child, the life of the child may be almost as important as (or even more important to him than) his own life, so that he would rather die trying than live without the child.

One might wonder if anticipating these various consequences can take place at all, if one must “instantly” either try or not try to save the child.  Clearly these will not all be conscious thoughts and will not be weighed and considered consciously before a decision is made.  In fact, because of this time constraint, it is not credible to argue that the person attempts the rescue consciously in order to save the child, because there is not even time for altruistic motives to be conscious in the brain (so it is not a decision as much as it is an impulse).  I would suggest, though, that as posited above, since our neural synapses are very fast, the brain draws on all of its associations to such situations (associations to danger, a life in danger, a child in danger, this particular child in danger, a family in danger, a crisis, what it feels like to think of oneself as a coward, what it feels like when others think of one as a coward, what it feels like to have responded to dangers to others, the caretaking elicited by children, what it would be like to lose the child, etc.).  It “instantly” (as fast as our brains can do this, which is very fast) adds up all of these associations (including death and injury to self), and if the net result is positive enough (which varies from person to person), then a rescue is attempted.  If there is greater total negative than total positive or if there simply are substantial (to us) negatives involved, then we hesitate, and the opportunity to rescue disappears.  Consistent with the observation that most decisions are not completely organized and clear in consciousness, people who have rescued others impulsively are hard pressed afterward to describe confidently their decision-making process regarding the rescue.  The fact that some people do hesitate and do not attempt the rescue suggests that at least negative consequences such as danger to self do play a part in acting or not acting, whether or not the person is consciously aware of this or is aware of thinking at all.

Whether you find this neural hypothesis plausible or not, the time constraint in such situations makes it clear that we don’t make decisions about them in the way we usually think of decisions, and so altruism, in such cases, is not operating as a conscious value, although one could argue that it could be a biasing predisposition (that altruism as a predisposition could bias the various positive associations above to be evaluated more positively than is rational).  In such circumstances, the ego (the conscious person) does not deserve moral credit for being altruistic, although the organism as a whole could be considered to have an altruistic bent.

The suggestion in this essay is that all behavior is chosen to maximize the state or condition of the organism, and that people vary in the degree to which they are aware of how their behavior affects others and the degree to which they care about that, so that for most people, the welfare of others is one factor among many which contributes to their decisions.  Altruism is therefore simply an aspect of each person’s decision-making system, rather than a separate motivational and decision-making system.  Neither would it be part of a “heroic” system of decision making.  I prefer therefore to call this others-interest motivation or others-interest considerations, rather than altruism, so as not to muddy the on-a-pedestal definition of altruism.

The fact that acting to some extent in the interests of others results from our calculations of overall self-benefit does not require that it should be downgraded in value from the current high value placed on it as “altruism.”  Even if we do not do things solely for others-interest, doing things for others-interest is still prosocial and laudable, even if it is no longer viewed as so extraordinary or heroic.  Of course we will still socialize our children to take others’ interests into account as much as is feasible and fair, because this is important for organized and peaceable societies.

Whether or not you find merit in understanding altruism as part of our usual decision-making processes or prefer to view it as having a discrete locus or place of origin in the brain or elsewhere, the discussion above suggests some questions that believers in a separate and discrete locus or place of origin in the brain and believers in a non-physical explanation might consider for purposes of clarification.

1. Is altruism (behavior that benefits others and does not have immediate benefit for the self) a part of the physical processes of the neural system (as thought and emotion are), or does it have a non-physical origin?

2. Does altruism have an origin outside the person?

3. Are behaviors starkly either self-interested or altruistic, or are these motivating factors intermixed in every decision?

4. Can one person be both self-interested and altruistic?  How?

5. Can any one behavior be both self-interested and altruistic?  How?

6. Is altruism sacred in any sense?

7. If altruism is so “good,” is it desirable that we be altruistic all the time?  If not, then when and how much would be a desirable level of altruism?

8. Is altruism something to praise or extol?  Why?

9. If altruism is sporadic in us, what “turns it on” when it does occur?

10. Is altruism “ours” or is it injected into us in some sense from outside?

11. If altruism is not a part of self-interest, then from whence does it originate?

If you have doubts about the analysis of choosing behaviors presented here, take the time to analyze and reconstruct some of your own decisions, which I would assert can only be understood accurately by identifying all of the various consequences that you anticipate will flow from that decision—these consequences being based on your prior related experience and on your beliefs.  If you sometimes act in ways that don’t “make sense,” it may be that those decisions are based partly on associations that you do not wish to acknowledge and/or associations that are so automatic for you that you no longer are aware that you use them.


If you wish to make your behavior more others-oriented, you can (1) improve your empathy and appreciation for others’ subjective experiences of life, (2) realize how much your others-oriented behavior will benefit you, and (3) clarify how to balance your interests with those of others.

The most common stumbling blocks with regard to empathy are (1) feeling resentful and as if others have better lives than you, through no fault of your own (and therefore not wanting to give a higher priority to their interests) and (2) being fearful of feeling others’ feelings, even in miniature, as a part of empathy.  To deal with (1), you may need to forgive others or take more responsibility for your own situation.  Focus on making your own life better by your own efforts rather than hoping that others will make things up to you.  To deal with (2), you can desensitize yourself to a fear of emotions by determining why you are afraid (fear of feeling worse, fear of being engulfed) and then purposely putting yourself gradually in situations where emotions are present and learning that you can survive satisfactorily.  (See my essay on empathy on for more, as well as my essay on Managing Emotions.)

To address realizing how much your others-oriented behavior benefits you, think seriously about whether you see the world in an either-or way—that any behavior benefits you or someone else but never both of you.  Start to look at the benefits of every behavior for both yourself and others.  Look at and accept how people who are helpful to others benefit from helping others, in terms of the enjoyment of helping and the good will and future benefit that accrue.  Decide that you want to benefit more in life by acting for others-benefit when it will also benefit you.  Practice being positive and helpful to others (approaching others with a positive attitude, being open to others’ concerns, searching for behavioral possibilities for helping both others and yourself at the same time, being willing to benefit others without immediate payoff for yourself while hoping for future payoff for yourself).  (See my essay on The Answer To All Human Interactional Problems on for more.)

To reach a healthy balance between your interests and those of others, come to see and accept that you benefit yourself at all times, even when you seem to benefit others without visible benefit for yourself.  View yourself and others as basic equals, so that you can see their interests as being just as important to them as yours are to you.  Work toward equality of benefit when possible (behaviors that benefit yourself and others more or less equally), and in all situations, consider whether you will benefit sufficiently from taking others’ interests into account in order to do so in that situation.  Do not fall prey to emotional blackmail, where others try to get you to benefit them through expressing neediness, sadness, pain, or desperation.  Never benefit others when it would lead you to feel that you are losing out.  (See the chapter on Love in my book How To Feel Good About Yourself:  12 Steps to Positive Self-Esteem for more on this balancing act.)


Taking others’ welfare into account when we make behavioral choices is useful and adaptive, because it leads to fewer conflicts and to better cooperation and more positive “fellow feeling” between ourselves and others.  The absence of taking others into account is a state of much criminal and other harmful behaviors.  An excess of selflessness is not good for human beings, though, because we must take some care for our own welfare in order to continue to survive.  Perhaps an appropriate balance of self-benefit and others-benefit is the ideal to strive toward!