At school we had a discussion about our motives to do certain things. The concrete example was Antigone. Antigone buries the corpse of her brother, which is against the law, and risks her own life by doing so. Finally she gets caught and is sentenced to death, but before that can happen, she kills herself. At first I thought this was the greatest love one can prove to another. But a classmate said everything we do has an egoistic motive. Antigone didn't bury her brother to give his soul rest, but to give herself a good feeling. My question is: What we experience as love, is it really caring about someone or just trying to feel better?

One way to answer your question about loving others vs. loving oneself is to ask another question: What do you mean by ‘self’?

There are at least two ways to think about how social life is organized.

(1) The atomistic picture of the self (imagine atoms or billiard balls colliding against one another) tells us that we are each self-contained units – that we are fundamentally separate from one another and are ideally guided by reason and self-interest. I think your friend is an atomist when is comes to selves. That’s why your classmate thinks Antigone is looking out for her own concerns even when she makes her sacrifice.

There is an alternative. (2) The relational picture of the self (imagine a tangle of knots on a string, with some knots overlapping) tells us that we are all connected – that we are fundamentally in relationships with others and our actions are ideally guided by social connectedness and inter-woven interests. I suspect you have a relational understanding of the self.

Myself, I think that you are right and the atomistic understanding of the self is dead wrong. If you want to follow up with a contemporary work of psychology that studies this topic you should check out In a Different Voice by Carol Gilligan. Good luck in class!

It is worth commenting further on that idea that "everything we do has an egoistic motive". We need to distinguish here a truism from a falsehood.

The truism is that, when I act, it is as a result of my desires, my intentions, my goals. After all, if my arm moves independently of my desires, e.g. because you want it to move and push it, then we'd hardly say that the movement was my action (it was something that happened to my body despite me).

But even if everything I genuinely do (as opposed to undergo) is as a result of my desires etc., it doesn't follow that everything I do has an egoistic motive. For to say that I do something for an egoistic motive is to say something about the content of my desires -- i.e. it is to say not just that the desires are mine but that the desires are about me or directed towards me or something like that. And it is just false that all my desires are like that. I can want to bring about states of affairs in which I just don't feature at all.

For example: I can want my grandchildren to have a tolerable world, and do what I can for global warming for their sakes. That is, to repeat the point, a desire of mine: but it isn't a desire for something for me (I won't be around long enough for things to get bad). It is a desire for something for them and for their contemporaries too. In no sense is that an egoistical desire. It doesn't have the right sort of content.

"Ah hah," says the cynic, "you don't get it, do you? When people think they are doing something for their grandchildren, that isn't really why they are doing it. They are actually doing it for some selfish reason -- they are doing it in order to feel good (or for some similar pay off for themselves)."

But there isn't the foggiest reason to suppose that that is true. Of course, since I want something badly for my grandchildren, I will be pleased with what tiny successes I might be involved in which might do something towards the fulfillment of my desires. And the occasional pleasurable feedback will no doubt help sustain my desire to fight the good fight. But what I want is the better world for my grandchildren, not the pleasurable feedback. (If an angel were to offer me the choice, modest real successes that I never knew about [so no feedback] vs. no real successes but occasional pleasurable illusions of success -- with my choice to be followed by instantly forgetting the angel's bargain -- I'd of course still choose the first. For it is the successes that I care about.)

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