Mr. Lincoln once remarked to a fellow- passenger on the old-time mud-wagon coach, on the corduroy road which antedated railroads, that all men were prompted by selfishness in doing good or evil. His fellow-passenger was antagonizing his position when they were passing over a corduroy bridge that spanned a slough. As they crossed this bridge, and the mud-wagon was shaking like a sucker with chills, they espied an old, razor-back sow on the bank of the slough, making a terrible noise because her pigs had got into the slough and were unable to get out and in danger of drowning. As the old coach began
to climb the hillside Mr. Lincoln called out: “Driver, can’t you stop just a moment?’ The driver replied, “If the other feller don’t object.” The “other feller”—who was no less a personage than, at that time, “Col.” E. D. Baker, the gallant general who gave his life in defense of old glory at Ball’s Bluff—did not “object,” when Mr. Lincoln jumped out, ran back to the slough and began to lift the little pigs out of the mud and water and place them on the bank. When he returned Col. Baker remarked: “Now, Abe, where does selfishness come in in this little episode?” “Why, bless your soul, Ed, that was the very essence of selfishness. I would have had no peace of mind all day had I gone on and left that suffering old sow worrying over those pigs. I did it to get peace of mind don’t you see?” (Best Lincoln Stories Tersely Told by J. E. Gallaher, Pub. in 1898)
I read this story for the first time when I was a law student. Just recently I had to think of Abe’s story, because I have been asking myself a question that keeps lingering my mind. Am I a vegan to get peace of mind? If I would consume an animal product I would feel guilty, therefore I consume only plantbased products. Am I a vegan out of egoism or altruism?
According to Psychological Egoism an altruistic action produces a sense of self-satisfaction. People feel good about themselves when they act unselfishly. People sometimes act altruistically, but when we look closer we will find that there is an underlying motive. And then you will find that the unselfish behavior was to benefit the person who did it.
Reading Lincoln’s story it might be true that he saved the pigs for his own peace of mind, but this doesn’t mean there were no benevolent motives as well. The benevolent motives may have been greater and this is where I draw the comparison with the altruistic nature of veganism. If I see an abandoned baby near the dumpster, my desire to help the baby will be even greater than the desire to avoid a guilty concience. I might even poke myself accidently on a dirty needle while trying to rescue the baby. In this situation I don’t even have self interrested motives, because I also can get hurt.
To say vegans are vegans to only feel better about themselves is a hardheaded deflationary attitude towards human pretentions. Deep down, humans do have the desire to act altruistically, the good feelings are just a by-product.