The object of this post is to introduce something called Kin Egoism. But first, lets discuss Egoism and Altruism. Egoism and Altruism are two important philosophical traditions that have guided the development of moral theory. At the risk of oversimplifying things, let’s define them as:
- Egoism: you should do what is good for yourself
- Altruism: you should do what is good for others
Both definitions depend on the meaning of the word good, but I am going to set that aside for now and assume we know what is good. The definition of Egoism further depends on the definition of self, while altruism depends on the definition of others.
Let’s start with the term self. At first it seems obvious what the self is, but philosophers such as David Hume and Derek Parfit have pointed out that it isn’t so simple. One of the biggest problems with the concept of self relates to the identification with our current self with a past self and a future self.
For example, if a Star Trek style teleporter destroys your body and recreates another exact version of you somewhere else, is it still you? What if it creates two of you? Are they still you? What about situations, such as that described in the movie Memento, where your memory is limited and/or manipulated?
I am going to leave these questions there, but point out that both society and your brain spend a lot of energy developing a sense of self in individuals that connects your present experience to future and past versions. The fact that it takes effort to construct the self hints that perhaps different concepts of self are possible.
For now, however, I am going to ignore the complications and start with a concept of self that identifies versions of your consciousness associated with the same physical body and is continuously psychologically connected, e.g., by memories.
The term others is also interesting. Does it include all other humans or just those that I know? Does it include other animals? Plants? All matter? Many philosophers, such as Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Peter Singer, have struggled with these questions.
Evolutionary psychologists argue that our sense of altruism (like our sense of self) has developed due to evolutionary pressure. There are at least two major theories of how this happens. The first, called kin altruism, is that since we share genes with our kin if those genes code for some level of altruism for family they can be more successful. The second, called reciprocal altruism, is that genes (or cultures) that code for some level of altruism enable higher levels of cooperation in society that makes those genes (and the societies) more successful.
Although there are many different arguments for how our sense of altruism should be limited, perhaps the most famous is:
- Utilitarianism: You should do what is good for all humanity
Of course, the this definition of others (i.e., all humanity) is still somewhat imprecise. For example, how many generations into the future should we consider? But while fascinating, these questions are not the focus of this essay.
Kin Egoism and Kin Altruism
With a little background on Egoism and Altruism behind us, let’s talk more specifically about:
- Kin Altruism: you should do what is good for others to the extent that you share genes or culture
- Kin Egoism: you should do what is good for yourself, which includes your family
Note that I am including culture in the definition of Kin Altruism. This is based on the view that our identity is a product of two levels of evolution: genetic and cultural. Our identity is heavily influenced by both.
At first glance, Kin Egoism looks a lot like Kin Altruism. And in fact they are very similar. Partially, the difference is just semantic. The main difference is the Kin Altruism is focused on limiting our regard for others (i.e., to kin), whereas Kin Egoism is focused on expanding our sense of self.
Before the birth of my first daughter, I was in a pretty troubled psychological state. Specifically, I was trouble by fear of my own death, and arguments about the nature of the self like those mentioned above. I wasn’t sure I could properly identify with my own future. I was okay moving along moment-to-moment, and my instincts still led me to take actions that served my future self. But on some level this narrative dissociation of the self led me to feel like a zombie.
However, when my child was born and I spent hours almost every night trying to comfort her so that she could sleep, I began to feel an inkling that my sense of self was expanding.
At the time, I was also working on a patent for a device for coupling fiber-optic cables. I saw a diagram that looked a bit like this:
What felt seemed somewhat analogous to the process (called adiabatic coupling) that occurs when two fiber-optic waveguides are placed in close proximity. Basically, it felt like my sense of self was being expanded (and transferred) to this little child.
But there is a difference between feeling something and adopting a meta-ethical narrative that causes you to cultivate some instincts and suppress others. Kin Egoism and Kin Altruism, as ethical theories, might both have a basis in the same feelings, but they are different narratives for how to cultivate those feelings.
In addition to being based in different ethical narratives, Kin Altruism and Kin Egoism may have slightly different implications. Perhaps the Kin Egoism model works better for introverts. You see, altruism can be tiring. If you see yourself as working for the good of others it can drain you, especially if those others don’t reciprocate (as children often don’t).
But being with my children and imagining them as the extension of my being, my eternal life, is energizing for me. It also helps assuage my fear of death. For me, personally, my narrative of self feels better if I try to expand it to include a few (but not too many) others that are closely related to me.
In some ways, Kin Egoism is also more demanding. Altruists understand on some level that they must limit their altruism or they will dissipate the self, and this can exacerbate the fear of self-annihilation. As a result, we develop a natural resistance to altruism that tempers our sense of sympathy. We always hold out something for our self.
But if we expand our sense of self, there is no holding anything back. Or rather, everything we hold back is shared with those we have adopted within the self. Their happiness is my happiness and their future is my future, so to the extent that I would work or save for my own future, it is now theirs, too.
In fact, I am motivated to work more and spend more in the present because the immediate needs of my family are so much more intense than my own. And on some level, I enjoy seeing their needs fulfilled more than I enjoy fulfilling the needs of the body I inhabit.