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3.3 Altruism: Everyone Else

Learning Objectives

  1. Define altruistic ethics.
  2. Show how altruism works in and with business.
  3. Consider advantages and drawbacks of altruism.

TOMS Shoes

There is no Tom at TOMS Shoes. The company’s name actually came from the title for its social cause: Shoes for Tomorrow. Tomorrow shoes—TOMS Shoes. The shoes are given away to needy children in Argentina at a one-to-one rate: for every pair bought in the United States, TOMS delivers a pair down there.

They’re needed in Argentina’s poverty-stricken regions to prevent the spread of an infectious disease, one that flourishes in the local soil and rises up through the feet. A pair of shoes is all that’s needed to block the problem.

The project started when young Texan entrepreneur Blake Mycoskie vacationed in Argentina. Not the type to luxuriate in the hotel pool, he got out and learned about the country, good and bad, the food, the sweeping geography, the poverty and diseases. The foot infection, he discovered, was so devastating yet so easy to block that, according to his company’s website, he decided he had to do something about it.TOMS Shoes, “One for One Movement,” accessed May 15, 2011, Initially, he contemplated a charitable fund to buy shoes for the needy children, but that left his project subject to the ebb and flow of others’ generosity. It’d be better and more reliable, he determined, to link the community-service project with private enterprise and use revenues from a company to fund the charity. Quickly, Mycoskie determined that he could make the whole machine work most efficiently by starting a shoe company. Simultaneously, he could produce shoes for donation and shoes for sale to finance the effort. So we have TOMS Shoes.

Next, a kind of shoe to produce and sell was required. Mycoskie found inspiration in Argentina’s traditional alpargata. This is a cheap, workingman’s shoe, a slip-on made from canvas with rope soles.TOMS Shoes, accessed May 15, 2011, For the American adaptation, Mycoskie strengthened the sole, styled and colored the canvas, and added a brand label. The price also got jacked up. The originals cost a few dollars in Argentina; the adaptations cost about forty dollars here.

They’re a splashy hit. You find TOMS Shoes at trendy footwear shops, at Whole Foods grocery stores, and all over the Internet. At last check, about half a million pairs have been sold and an equal number donated. Total sales in seven figures isn’t far off, and the company was recently featured on a CNBC segment as an American business success story. Notably, TOMS achieved recognition on national TV sooner after its inception than almost any other enterprise in the program’s history. It all happened in fewer than four years.

Question: how did it get so big so fast? How did some guy transform from a wandering tourist to a captain of the shoe industry in less time than it takes to get a college degree? Answer: celebrities.

Blake Mycoskie’s got a warm, round face and a perfect smile. He’s got money from his preshoe projects and he’s smart too. He’s also got that contemporary bohemian look down with his bead necklace and wavy, shoulder-length hair. There’s no letdown beneath the chin line either; he’s fit (he was a tennis pro until nineteen). You get the idea. He commands attention from even Hollywood women, and he ended up coupled with the midrange star Maggie Grace. He introduced her to his TOMS Shoes concept, gave her a few pairs to wear around and show friends, and the ball started rolling.sharon_b, December 14, 2008 (5:24 p.m.), “Blake Mycoskie—he’s handsome, rich and helps children in the Third World,” Gossip Rocks, accessed May 15, 2011,

A few parties later, Scarlett Johansson, Jessica Biel, Benicio Del Toro, Tobey Maguire, Sienna Miller, and Karl Lagerfeld were parading around in TOMS Shoes. There was no stopping it.Lesley M. M. Blume, “You Are What You Wear,” Huffington Post, July 30, 2008, accessed May 15, 2011,

Today, when Blake Mycoskie introduces himself, it’s not as the CEO of his company; he says he’s the Chief Shoe Giver at TOMS Shoes, reflecting the idea that charity drives the thriving business, not the other way around.

Is TOMS Shoes Altruistic?

An action is morally right according to the altruist, and to the ethical theory of altruismDefining an act as morally right if the action’s consequences increase net happiness (or decrease net unhappiness) when everything is taken into account except the actor’s increased or diminished happiness., if the action’s consequences are more beneficial than unfavorable for everyone except the person who acts. That means the actor’s interests aren’t considered: the altruist does whatever can be done so that others will be happier.

It’s common to imagine the altruist as poverty stricken and self-sacrificing. When you live for everyone else as the altruist does, it’s no surprise that you can end up in pretty bad shape. You might get lucky and run into another altruist like yourself, but if you don’t, there’s not going to be anyone particularly dedicated to your well-being. On the positive side there’s nobility to the idea of dedicating everything to everyone else, but the plain truth is not many of us would choose to live like Gandhi or Mother Teresa.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though. A suffering life may be an effect of altruism, but it’s not a requirement. Living for others doesn’t mean you live poorly, only that there’s no guarantee you’ll live well. You might, however, live well. Blake Mycoskie demonstrates this critical element at the heart of altruism: it’s not about suffering or sacrificing; it’s about making clear-eyed decisions about the best way to make as many others as happy as possible. If you happen to live the good life along the way—partying with Maggie Grace, Sienna Miller, and friends because that’s the fastest route to publicize the TOMS Shoes enterprise—that doesn’t count against the project. It doesn’t count in favor either. All that matters, all that gets tallied up when the question gets asked about whether the altruist did good, is how things ended up for everyone else.

In the case of TOMS Shoes, the tallying is easy. The relatively wealthy shoe buyers in the United States come off well; they get cool, politically correct footwear to show friends along with a psychological lift from knowing they’re helping the less fortunate. On the other side, the rural Argentines obviously benefit also.

Some Rules of Altruism

Altruism is a consequentialist ethics. Like utilitarianism, no specific acts are prohibited or required; only outcomes matter. That explains why there aren’t lifestyle requirements for the altruist. Some live stoically like Gandhi while others like Mycoskie get the high life, but they’re both altruists as long as the goal of their lives and the reason for their actions is bringing happiness to others. Similarly, the altruist might be a criminal (Robin Hood) or a liar (see Socrates’s noble lie).

Like the utilitarian, most of the hard questions altruists face concern happiness. They include:

  • The happiness definition. Exactly what counts as happiness? In the case of TOMS donating shoes to rural Argentines, the critical benefit is alleviation of disease and the suffering coming with it. Happiness, in other words, is defined here as a release from real, physical pain. On the other hand, with respect to the shoes sold in the States, the happiness is completely different; it’s a vague, good feeling that purchasers receive knowing their shopping is serving a social cause. How do we define happiness in a way that ropes in both these distinct experiences?
  • Once happiness has been at least loosely defined, another question altruists face is the happiness measure: how do we know which is worth more, the alleviation of suffering from a disease or the warm happiness of serving a good cause? And even if the answer to that question is clear, how great is the difference, how can it be measured?
  • Another altruism difficulty is happiness foresight. Even if donating shoes helps in the short term, are the recipients’ lives really going to be happier overall? Conditions are hard in the abandoned regions of the third world, and alleviation of one problem may just clear the way for another. So TOMS Shoes saves poverty-stricken Argentines from suffering a debilitating foot disease, but how much good are you really doing if you save people only so that they’re free to suffer aching hunger, miserable sickness in places lacking antibiotics, and hard manual labor because there’s no other work?

Altruism is a variety of selflessnessActing without regard for one’s own well-being. This does not necessarily imply acting in favor of the well-being of others., but it’s not the same thing; people may deny themselves or they may sacrifice themselves for all kinds of other reasons. For example, a soldier may die in combat, but that’s not altruism; that’s loyalty: it’s not sacrificing for everyone else but for a particular nation. The same may go for the political protestor who ends up jailed and forgotten forever. That’s self-sacrifice, but she did it for the cause and not for all the others. The fireman may lose his life rescuing a victim, but this is because he’s doing his job, not because he’s decided to live for the sake of others. All altruists, finally, are selfless, but not all those who sacrifice themselves are altruists.

PersonalPracticing an altruistic ethics without regard for what others are doing or should do. versus impersonal altruismThe belief that everyone should practice an altruistic ethics. distinguishes two kinds of altruists: those who practice altruism on their own and leave everyone else alone, and those who believe that everyone should act only to benefit others and without regard to their own well-being.

The Altruist in Business and the Business That Is Altruistic

TOMS Shoes shows that a business can be mounted to serve the welfare of others. A company aiming to serve an altruistic purpose doesn’t have to be organized altruistically, however. An individual truly dedicated to everyone else could start a more traditional company (a real estate firm, for example), work like a dog, turn massive profits, and in the end, donate everything to charity. It may even be that during the profit-making phase the altruist CEO is ruthless, exploiting workers and consumers to the maximum. All that’s fine as long as the general welfare is served in the end when all the suffering is toted up on one side and the happiness on the other. A business operation that isn’t at all altruistic, in other words, can be bent in that direction by an altruistic owner.

Going the other way, the business operation itself may be altruistic. For example, this comes from the College Board’s website, the About Us page: The College Board is a not-for-profit membership association whose mission is to connect students to college success and opportunity.“About Us,” College Board, accessed May 15, 2011,

That sounds like a good cause. The company doesn’t exist to make money but to implement testing that matches students with their best-fit colleges. It is, in other words, an altruistic enterprise, and the world, the argument could be made, is a better place because the College Board exists. But—and this is the important distinction—that doesn’t mean everyone who works at the College Board is selfless. Far from it, the CEO takes home $830,000 a year. That money would buy a lot of shoes for the poverty-stricken in Argentina. So, there can be altruistic business organizations driven by workers who aren’t altruists.

A church is also a business organization with cash flows, budgets, and red and black ink. The same goes for Goodwill. Here’s their mission statement: “Goodwill Industries International enhances the dignity and quality of life of individuals, families and communities by eliminating barriers to opportunity and helping people in need reach their fullest potential through the power of work.”“Our Mission,” Goodwill Industries International, Inc., accessed May 15, 2011, So, the Salvation Army fits into the group of altruistic enterprises, of organizations that exist, like the College Board, to do public good. It’s distinct from the College Board, however, in that a very healthy percentage of those working inside the organization are themselves altruists—they’re working for the cause, not their own welfare. Think of the Salvation Army red kettle bell ringers around Christmas time.

Conclusion. Altruism connects with business in three basic ways. There are altruists who use normal, profit-driven business operations to do good. There are altruistic companies that do good by employing nonaltruistic workers. And there are altruistic organizations composed of altruistic individuals.

Advocating and Challenging Ethical Altruism

The arguments for and against an altruistic ethics overlap to a considerable extent with those listed under utilitarianism. The advantages include:

  • Clarity and simplicity. People may disagree about exactly how much good a company like TOMS Shoes is really doing, but the overall idea that the founder is working so that others can be happier is easy to grasp.
  • Acceptability. The idea of working for others grants an ethical sheen. No matter what you might think of someone as a person, it’s very difficult to criticize them in ethical terms if they really are dedicating themselves to the well-being of everyone else.
  • Flexibility. Altruists have many ways of executing their beliefs.

The disadvantages of altruism include:

  • Uncertainty about the happiness of others. Even if individuals decide to sacrifice their own welfare for the good of others, how do they know for sure what makes others happy?
  • Shortchanging yourself. Even though altruism doesn’t require that the altruist live a miserable life, there doesn’t seem to be any clear reason why the altruist shouldn’t get an at least equal claim to happiness as everyone else (as in a utilitarian approach). Also, some critics suspect that altruism can be a way of escaping your own life: if you spend all your time volunteering, could it be that deep down you’re not a good soul so much as just afraid of going out into the competitive world and trying to win a good place for yourself?

Key Takeaways

  • Altruism defines ethically good as any act that ends up increasing net happiness (or decreasing net unhappiness) when everything is taken into account except the actor’s increased or diminished happiness.
  • Altruism doesn’t require living a miserable life.
  • Altruism intersects with the business world in various ways.

Review Questions

  1. Theoretically, could the most devoted altruist in a society also be its richest and happiest member? How?
  2. Does Blake Mycoskie have to be an altruist for TOMS Shoes to be considered an altruistic enterprise?
  3. Does TOMS Shoes have to be an altruistic enterprise for Mycoskie to be considered an altruist?
  4. What are some other motives that may lead someone to live the life of an altruist?