Acting Out of Care: Why Self-Interest and Caring for Others are Not Incompatible

by Michael F. Mascolo, Ph.D.

Becoming a moral person doesn’t have to mean we have to sacrifice ourselves. When we come to identify our life projects around contributing to the good of others, doing the right thing becomes a source of self-satisfaction.

We often think of morality in the negative. We tend to imagine a big finger shaking at us, saying “don’t do this” or “do that”. We tend to think of moral rules as restrictive – as something that constrains our freedom. So, “don’t do that” means “don’t do the thing that you want to because it is bad”; “Do that” means “do this thing that you don’t want to do, but which is good.” Yes, moral rules are sometimes like this. To do the right thing often requires that we do something other than what we might otherwise want to do.

However, if this were so, most of the time, it would be very difficult for us to do the right thing. Happily, we do not ordinarily have to sacrifice ourselves in order to act in the service of others. In fact, more often than not, our moral actions arise not by inhibiting who we are, but instead by acting in accordance with who we are.

We can think of our actions as arising from two different types of motives. Autonomy motives are those that advance our personal agendas. We may be motivated to have a career, accrue wealth, seek fame or what have you for the personal pleasure or satisfaction that they bring us. Communal goals are those that advance the interests of others. We act on communal goals when we act out of concern for others – when we help a friend; take care of our children; work together for the benefit of the group.

It is easy to think that humans are primarily selfish beings – more concerned with our autonomy, self-related goals than with our communal, other-oriented goals. It is true that we often do act on the basis of self-focused goals, and that some people are more selffocused than others. However, this does not mean that we are by nature selfish beings. Children begin to show empathy for others who are in physical distress in infancy, by as early as 8 months of age. By 12 months of age, infants will yield an object to someone who requests it. Soon thereafter, toddlers spontaneously begin to offer help to others who are in need in some way. An infant who can see the object that an adult is searching for might show the adult the object’s location. Humans act both out of self-interest and out of genuine care for others.

Living Life with Moral Purpose

People who live purposive moral lives are individuals who are able to bring together their autonomy goals – the self-related goals that bring them personal satisfaction – with communal goals, that is, with the desire to care for others. The key to understanding how to live a life of moral purpose is to realize that communal goals are not necessarily in conflict with personal goals. Indeed, people who live a life of moral purpose gain personal satisfaction from acts that contribute to the well being of others. This does not mean that one must always act in the service of others; it merely means that performing acts of care becomes part of what brings a person a sense of satisfaction and wholeness. That we do this all the time shows that self-interest and care for others are not incompatible.

How can we cultivate a life of moral purpose? One way to do this is to think of your life as a series of projects. What is a project? A project is a kind of creative activity that we perform in order to achieve a particular goal. It doesn’t matter what the size of the project is – cleaning the garage, performing a presentation for a class, painting a portrait, designing a new product or fashioning a career. When we complete a project – or the many steps along the way – we experience a sense of satisfaction. We are even able to look back on it and savor the outcome of our work.

The successful completion of a project brings personal satisfaction. This is true for any project or goal in which we invest ourselves. A project becomes a moral one when its goal is to advance the well-being of others. It follows that the key to living a satisfying, morally purposive life is to populate one’s life with projects whose aims are to advance the well-being of others in specific and concrete ways. This can be done in many ways. Parents do this every day when they care for their children. They identify their own interests with the interests of their children. Teachers do this when they act out of a desire to improve the life of a young person. The most meaningful forms of work are those that make us feel as if we are contributing to the greater good.

To live a happy and moral life, find ways to identify your personal interests with advancing the well-being of others.