Schopenhauer: Altruism

Does Schopenhauer Show How Altruism Is Possible?

No. But why should he? He does attempt to, and succeeds to an extent, but only by adjusting the meaning in a radical fashion. I will show how Schopenhauer does this and how it matches with his overall system. The accommodation means that believers in altruism will not recognise the version supported by Schopenhauer. I will also examine why Schopenhauer might have been motivated to pursue such an argument at variance with the spirit of his philosophy.

Let us first examine the definition.

“al·tru·ism n.

1. Unselfish concern for the welfare of others; selflessness.

2. Zoology Instinctive behaviour that is detrimental to the individual but favours the survival or spread of that individual’s genes, as by benefiting its relatives.”

Examples of definition one are not observed. Occasionally one comes across apparently altruistic behaviours; this is merely indicative of a lack of information in respect of motivation.

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All behaviour benefits the individual or may be expected to. Wealthy people pay for expensive equipment in hospitals in order to gain the approbation of society and fast track admittance for friends and family. Undergraduates attend demonstrations in order to indicate their political commitment and enhance their opportunities to engage with ‘like-minded’ and attractive others: in fact, “fitness enhancing group effects may become common in sexual populations”. Busy workers buy The Big Issue in order that they may carry it around the office all day to illustrate their fine conscience. Religious people perform charitable duties as the price of eternal admission to paradise. Even in the case of an anonymous donation, the individual may expect to benefit by way of an improvement in self-perception.

This is borne out by definition two, which appears to be in tension with definition one in a crucial way. Definition two admits that there is an expected reward, but shifts the benefit in an interesting way. From an evolutionary perspective, we would expect exactly this: that behaviours are observed which benefit primarily oneself but also to a reduced but significant extent those carrying the same genes. In fact, what is observed is that this cooperation is finely modulated to the extent of the consanguinity. So if we extend the sense of ‘individual’ to mean those (partially) sharing a particular genotype, we arrive at a good match with definition one.

All of this appears explicable and indeed unavoidable on Schopenhauer’s system. After all, Auguste Comte coined the very word altruism relatively recently, probably by way of opposition to egoism. This latter term is one that Schopenhauer sees as a central motivating factor: a man “is ready to annihilate the world, in order to maintain his own self […] This disposition is egoism, which is essential to everything in nature”.

Nevertheless, Schopenhauer also sees room for a variant of compassion. The word ‘altruism’ does not appear in The World as Will and Representation. “Mitleid” does, and may be translated literally as ‘with-pain’ or more idiomatically as compassion or perhaps pity. We may therefore investigate this compassion as a surrogate for altruism, since Schopenhauer’s definition is as follows: “Compassion; which desires the weal of others, and may rise to nobleness and magnanimity”. This has the additional benefit that we will be investigation a phenomenon that does exist as opposed to one which does not.

The way in which the scope shift in the second part of the dictionary entry harmonised the two parts suggests how he will account for compassion. If we write the opposed pair egoism and altruism in plain English, we have really ‘self-ism’ and ‘other-ism’. Schopenhauer’s radical approach will be to derive from his metaphysics a different and unusual delineation of what is self and what is other.

“But it is precisely through egoism that the will’s inner conflict with itself attains to such fearful revelation, for this egoism has its continuance and being in that opposition of the microcosm and macrocosm, or in the fact that the objectification of the will has for its form the principium individuationis, and thus the will manifests itself in innumerable individuals in the same way”.

Schopenhauer’s largely Kantian metaphysics involves transcendental idealism; we have the division between the phenomenal world we can perceive and the noumenal world we cannot. We apply time and space in the former realm, and since those are the only qualities that can provide separation, the noumenal realm has unity. This noumenal realm for Schopenhauer is the will, and it is our failure to perceive the oneness of the will and the illusory nature of individuality that leads to egoism and indeed makes it possible.

In referring to the conflict of the will with itself, Schopenhauer means the way apparently different individuals fight each other for all kinds of resources including at the very basic level material ones necessary to be embodied and continued. This happens at all grades of the will’s objectification including that of inanimate objects. This points to a difficulty with both Schopenhauer’s proposed route to salvation, the denial of the will, and also with his explanation of compassion.

For the former project appears to involve the will being in conflict with itself within an individual, to the extent that I am advised to will to cease willing. Perhaps Schopenhauer can respond by saying that this tension is just another feature of the illusory nature of individuals. We must also deny the will that seeks only the continuance of the individual to assist others; yet who are these others if there are no individuals? And “A theory of morals which does act as a motive can do so only by working on self-love”. If this is so, then does not weakening the idea of the self also decrease the effectiveness of the prescription? The answer is that “such virtue must spring from that intuitive knowledge which recognises in the individuality of others the same nature as in our own”.

How is this argued for? Schopenhauer first notes that virtue cannot be taught or communicated in words, because otherwise the many ethical theories produced since Aristotle would have changed the character of people. And knowledge or persuasion could not work, because reason and the intellect are subordinate to the will and merely its instruments. Moral slogans may act only as rationalisations of virtuous behaviour. And yet, “The principium individuationis, the form of the phenomenon, no longer holds him so tightly in its grasp, but the suffering which he sees in others touches him almost as closely as his own.”

This can now be motivated by suggesting that compassion is possible because it is beneficial: “through the diminished interest in our own self, the anxious care for the self is attacked at its very root and limited”. Thus we see compassion as a form of insurance contract, necessitated by the unavoidable shocks and dangers to which individuals are exposed, and rationally purchased by those expecting a continuation of the hostility of the world as it is. Once we have expanded the scope of the self to include multiple manifestations, then while one of them may suffer and indeed die, other manifestations may continue.

Whether this is true or false does not alter the fact that it is not altruism. It is risk sharing. It does have the explanatory benefit that it accounts for apparent examples of altruistic behaviour. Yet this is a double-edged sword. If “the same inner human nature ultimately bears all of the pain and all of the guilt” , then why may I not indulge myself in an enjoyable orgy of destruction and pleasure at the expense of others, since I am only borrowing money from myself, as it were, and further I will pay the price in terms of guilt and perhaps retribution in any case. And I will not worry about retribution; in fact I will welcome it as an opportunity to mortify my own will.

The previous mention of retribution leads us to the question of Schopenhauer’s difficult to understand motivation for constructing this argument and this will draw out a central paradox. The World as Will and Representation must be one of the most religious books ever written by an atheist. Retribution for wealthy unmarried philosophers is to be expected only from divine sources, surely, providing they avoid pushing noisy cleaning women downstairs. In the absence of such divine authority, Schopenhauer must have felt the need to found good behaviour on a stronger platform.

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It remains strange to see encouragement to negate the will because the person who does “is certain of all virtue and blessedness, and is on the direct road to salvation”. Although we should note that the Payne translation has ‘bliss’ for ‘blessedness’, these are all strongly religious terms. Who will give us this bliss and by whom will we be blessed or saved? Schopenhauer has been admirably outspoken as an atheist writing at times when this was still severely frowned upon and worse: “Cayetano Ripoll, a school teacher put to death in 1826 at Valencia, is the last person in Spanish history to be executed on charges of heresy.” Nevertheless, perhaps he lacked the full courage of his convictions. The solitude, suffering and futility that he saw clearly in all directions need some amelioration.

The lives of saints are held up for admiration; but not for the religious observance that is clearly pointless in the absence of a deity (or indeed either way). But this happens in the most extraordinary fashion: “Fanatics, martyrs, saints of every faith and name, have voluntarily and gladly endured every torture, because in them the will to live had suppressed itself.” These are the people we should emulate. In every case, their reasons for their action were false, but Schopenhauer nevertheless believes they were taking the right path.

Saints have a place because it is asceticism that is Schopenhauer’s final destination. The looked-for amelioration is to come via noting that the will is the source of all disquiet. It can never be satisfied. The lives of the great majority of people are filled with struggle to maintain the barest existence; this is as true today globally as when Schopenhauer was writing. For the fortunate and small minority who can escape hunger or drudgery, the terrible punishment of boredom beckons. “Solitary confinement and idleness” are the most terrible punishments imaginable.

We can escape this wheel of Ixion only by quieting the will and embracing asceticism. Schopenhauer knows he cannot persuade us to do this unless he first persuades us of the lack of significance of the individual. This brings out another major difficulty at the heart of Schopenhauer’s reasoning. He has two central ethical doctrines, and they are incompatible. The first, as we have seen, is that morality is based on compassion. Secondly, as we have seen, we are to renounce the will.

But Schopenhauer is a hard determinist like Kant. On that basis, how is any ethics possible? How should we understand his praise for certain actions and condemnation of others? But most importantly, how are we to renounce the will? And how are we to exercise compassion? There are no choices at all open to us, and so, a fortiori, none of these are choices that are open to us. Note how in the previous quotation the will was to suppress itself. Some of us will no doubt be fortunate enough to be the individual manifestations in which it chooses to do this.

Schopenhauer uses the same escape route as Kant here, placing the necessity of determinism in the phenomenal world and the freedom of the will in the noumenal world. Yet since the noumenal is untouched by the principium individuationis, how is my will free? Why am I to be praised or blamed for my actions, if it is not my will but everyone’s, and why counselled in any direction? In short, given Schopenhauer’s worldview, why does anything at all we do in the world matter? Of the man who has renounced the will, Schopenhauer writes “nothing can trouble him more, nothing can move him, for he has cut all the thousand cords of will”. In which case, what scope is there for the existence of compassion or even stirring oneself sufficiently to notice the suffering of others?

And what does compassion mean, should I somehow manage to embrace it? If I observe a family alternately starving or suffering from boredom while I am in possession of adequate means to supply plentiful bread and circuses, what should I do? Surely my best course of action is to assist them in renouncing their wills by taking no action. I will be helping them to welcome suffering by giving them practice.

Schopenhauer’s desire to lead us to asceticism misleads him. This is why he attempts to explain compassion when it would have been simpler and more in accord with his system to deny it. After all, a biographer will conceal the misfortunes that make up a life since “he knows that others can seldom feel sympathy or compassion, but almost always satisfaction at the sight of the woes from which they are themselves for the moment exempt”.

Likewise, compassion remains deeply mysterious yet fundamental for him, as he admits: “the sense of Compassion, however much its origin is shrouded in mystery, is the one and sole cause whereby the suffering I see in another, of itself, and as such, becomes directly my motive”.

Nietzsche is impatient with this entire analysis, which he considers mistaken historically and psychologically. He points out that not only are there other possible motives for apparently compassionate actions, but that we could not even be certain when we had pure motives, because we do not have sufficient insight into our own subconscious. “For all we know, Nietzsche suggests, it might be that honour, fear, self-defence, or revenge moved us to help the sufferer even though we believe that some desire solely for the other’s well-being moved us to help.” Nietzsche will also suggest plausibly that disrespect is a component of compassionate actions; this would disqualify it from playing the role Schopenhauer casts it in, and be much more consistent with Schopenhauer’s pessimistic outlook. Why should the endless suffering of the world not be compounded by Sartre’s hell that is other people in this way?

Schopenhauer has not shown how altruism is possible, he should not try because it does not happen, and in any case, he could not produce such a demonstration within his system.

See Also:

Are Sense Data The Primary Objects Of Perceptual Awareness?

Nietzsche’s Account Of Truth

Are There Useful Errors?

What Is “Theory Of Mind?”


The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, Copyright © 2009 by Houghton Mifflin Company
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