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Of Self-interest and Pity

March 12, 2011

You see them everyday, in every city, including Ann Arbor. They line the streets, day or night, rain or shine. They are the homeless, and each time you walk past them you probably feel sorry for their situation.

In class we have talked about various political thinkers and their thoughts on people’s state of nature. Hobbes believed that in the state of nature people only act in their own self-interest. They are content with success while the people around them suffer through unfortunate situations, such as homelessness. Hobbes believed that people always want wealth and power, saying that people have “a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.” (Hobbes, 149) He added that there is constant competition between human beings to get this power and wealth. “Competition of riches, honor, command, or other power, inclineth to contention, enmity, and war.” (Hobbes, 149) Man wants to “[preserve] his life against his enemies,” and only looks out for himself so that he can be the most successful. (Hobbes, 160)

On the other hand, Rousseau believed that people have a genuine human kindness or compassion for their fellow man. Rousseau equated compassion with pity, and he believed that people did not relish the problems of less fortunate people, but desired to help them. While Hobbes believed in human selfishness and self-interest, Rousseau believed in a different kind of human self-preservation. In his opinion, people did not look out for individual success all the time, but wanted the human race to be successful. Rousseau says that Hobbes was wrong to think that people act only in self-interest in the state of nature, because people feel pity and will help people in need. He says, pity is “a virtue all the more universal and all the more useful to man in that it precedes in him any kind of reflection, and so natural that even animals sometimes show noticeable signs of it.” (Rousseau, 391) Rousseau adds that without pity, “men would…[be] monsters,” and goes further to say that “generosity, mercy, and humanity” are “pity applied to the weak….” (Rousseau, 391) If people only acted in self-interest, they would be monsters, but since they do not it shows that they are compassionate and invested in the continuation of the human race.

You see them each day when you walk down the street. “Sir, ma’m, can you spare some change for food?” They wear tattered clothes and despondent expressions, and you feel pity for them. You want to help them, you really do, but you have classes to attend and friends to meet up with later in the day. You want to help them, but you walk right past. You might feel pity, but so what? If you feel pity but do nothing, are you really acting in self-interest?

Works Cited

Hobbes, Thomas. “Leviathan.” Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche. Ed. David Wootton. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2008.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. “Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men.” Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche. Ed. David Wootton. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2008.




  1. Nick Majie permalink
    March 13, 2011 3:45 PM

    I believe that Rousseau takes a much more emotional approach to pity. He immediately defines pity as “…and the other inspires in us a natural repugnance to seeing any sentient being, especially our fellow man, perish or suffer” (Rousseau 378). In this sense, Rousseau believes that pity is obviously an internal reaction to someone or something. Pity would be similar to “pathos” because it appeals to a person’s emotions in the state of nature. “Benevolence and even friendship are, properly understood, the products of a constant pity fixed upon a particular object; for is desiring that someone not suffer anything but desiring he be happy?” (Rousseau 391) Pity does not need to be externally shown; it first needs to be felt. It is simply a natural sentiment of man in the state of nature.

    Rousseau takes his argument surrounding pity even deeper by stating that: “Pity is what carries us without reflection to the aid of those we see suffering” (Rousseau 392). The emotions associated with pity are what lead us to helping and aiding others. Pity is a feeling and the results of pity are what lead us to act from our emotional state. Rousseau does not believe that it is necessary or vital for someone to delineate his pity in an external fashion. Certain things such as friendship can be a result of pity, but they are not purely driven by pity. For example, just because you are not friends with someone, it does not imply that you are solely self-interested and do not pity them. There are many instances when you feel pity but do not carry through with an action such as when you pity someone and do not form a friendship with them. If we do not choose to follow through on our actions in the physical realm that does not imply we are self-interested or no longer pitiful.

    In this instance you have brought up regarding homeless people, our instinct to feel pity implies we are not self-interested. When we do not give money to the homeless person, it does not take away the fact that we feel or experience pity. Being self-interested like you have suggested would imply that we do not have any desire to help the person because we are only focused on our own well-being and self preservation. When commiserating with a homeless person, we are ultimately less self-interested and more apathetic. The balance between self-preservation and pity in the state of nature is more focused toward pity in these occasions. Similar to the friendship comparison I made earlier, not supplying money to the homeless person does not negate our pity or ever make us self-interested; the donation of money is simply a consequence of our pity.

  2. alexqhe permalink
    March 14, 2011 12:16 AM

    I think that a topic like this really comes into its own in light of recent events internationally – including the devastation that is currently plaguing Japan as well as the various revolts that have been rocking the nations of the Middle East.

    Throughout campus and even on social networking sites, I see people starting organizations and raising funds for Japan in an effort to help them through the latest crisis and aftermath that is currently devastating their country. What interests me about this in comparison to other disasters in the past (e.g. Haiti, Indonesia, etc.) is that Japan is a country much less in need of financial and disaster support than other countries usually struck by such events. Their per capita GDP is higher than the United States, for starters. I suppose this could be interpreted to further illustrate Rousseau’s point about pity as a defining characteristic of human nature.

    However, I also think it’s worth considering that pity may not be entirely independent of self-interest. Just something to think about, even if it’s a more cynical take on the matter.

  3. lapinsk12 permalink
    March 14, 2011 3:42 PM

    I believe both Hobbes and Rousseau capture a certain part of human nature. Rousseau is right in that humans do genuinely want to help out their fellow man. At least in my experience this is true because every time I go to a Detroit Tigers game I walk past at least 10 homeless people and every time I feel the urge to give each of them 10 dollars but I don’t because first of all I’m not carrying that much and secondly I also need the money for my life and I can’t help but think that they must have done something to be put in this situation so I end up not helping them. This is were Hobbes’ theory comes in. I am acting out of self-interest and not thinking of the benefits of the homeless along the streets of Detroit. But I do have the urge to help these people and I do feel pity for them but I can’t seem to find the will to give them the money. So to answer your question I think that even though I feel pity for these people I don’t help them for selfish reasons so “Yes” you are acting out of self interest when you think about helping them but don’t.

  4. Shelby Cashman permalink
    March 14, 2011 5:28 PM

    I think that while Rousseau and Hobbes both make valid points and touch on two very different aspects of human nature, the above post brings up a question that people have been asking for centuries. Does every action that we take have some sort of selfish benefit to it? If we act on our feelings of pity and give the homeless person on the street money, it automatically makes us feel better and makes us believe that we did a good deed for society. Thus, it is often argued that every choice we make benefit us in someway. Is there such a thing as a completely selfless act? I found this humorous clip from Friends addressing this question and the debate posed in this post, that I think sums up the argument very well


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