Is Altruism Real?

There’s been a discussion — okay, a tangent that Ive gotten sucked into — over at Daylight Atheism. It’s about whether altruism is real… and since I’ve had rather a lot to say about it over there, I thought I should come say it back here as well.

I’ve always been bugged by people who insist that there’s no such thing as altruism; that everyone is basically selfish, and only they themselves are honest enough to admit it. The core of the argument seems to be that even the most altruistic acts — running into a burning building to save people, devoting your entire life to medical research or social justice, driving to shithole towns twice a month to take care of prisoners with HIV, etc. — are done for reasons of one’s own. They’re done to make yourself feel good, to make people like you, etc. Therefore, the acts are selfish — and therefore, there is no difference between the selfishness of, say, an Albert Schweitzer and that of a Donald Trump.

So here’s my problem.

If you’re going to define the word “selfish” as any and all behavior that benefits you even in the slightest — even if that gain is only that you get a marginal increase in social status, or that you get to privately feel like a good person — then that makes the word “selfish” pretty much meaningless. It’s basically re-defining the word “selfish” as “voluntary.” (Tip o’ the hat to Tim Walters for this catchy phrasing.)

Let’s take a look at the definition of the word “selfish,” shall we? According to Merriam Webster Online, “selfish” means:

1: concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself: seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others

2: arising from concern with one’s own welfare or advantage in disregard of others (a selfish act)

Please note that the definition doesn’t say “concerned with oneself; seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure, or well-being; arising from concern with one’s own welfare or advantage.” Doing those things does not make you selfish. Doing those things makes you sane. The key words are “excessively or exclusively,” “without regard for others,” “in disregard of others.” That’s what defines “selfish.”

This is a useful word. It’s a useful idea, a useful distinction to make. And it draws a clear distinction between the “you’re just doing that to feel good about yourself” kind of selfishness, and the kind of selfishness that’s what most of people mean when they use the word. Between, if you will, Albert Schweitzer selfishness and Donald Trump selfishness. These are different concepts. They’re different experiences. The experience of, “It makes me feel ecstatic and connected to make a contribution to humanity” is significantly different from the experience of, “Screw you, Jack, I’ve got mine.” It’s absurd to try to call them by the same name.

But there are other issues here, and they’re more than just semantics.

I am troubled by the idea that human beings are “really” any one thing. Human feelings, human motives, human nature itself, are all a big, complex, self-contradictory mess, and I find it very troubling when people insist on denying one part of human nature simply because we have another part that contradicts it. In particular, I’m troubled by the idea that, because our motivations are often a mixture of selfishness and altruism, and because altruism has a selfish component to it, this somehow negates the altruism, and only the selfishness is real. (And I find it interesting that the people arguing this don’t consider the possibility that this conflict negates the selfishness, and only the altruism is real.)

And perhaps most importantly:

Arguing that altruism isn’t real isn’t just unethical. It’s also factually inaccurate.

There is, in fact, increasing evidence that altruism is an essential part of human nature. Literally. It seems to be hard-wired into us genetically. As it is in other social species. (As is selfishness, of course. Both qualities exist, in pretty much everyone.) Denying its existence is like denying the existence of social hierarchies or sexual desire.

I never cease to be amazed by people who insist that everyone else really experiences life exactly the way they do, if only they’d be honest and admit it. And in particular, I never cease to be amazed by selfish people who insist that everyone else is fundamentally selfish, too, and just won’t admit it. It’s so obviously self-serving that it’s laughable.

No, there’s probably no such thing as “pure altruism.” Any completely self-sacrificing tendency would have been selected out by evolution in a hurry. But the fact that it isn’t pure doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.

If people want to behave selfishly — i.e., concerned excessively or exclusively with themselves without regard for others — I doubt that I can argue them out of it. I just wish they’d stop fooling themselves into believing that everyone else is really just like them and simply won’t admit it. If you genuinely lack altruistic feelings… well, everyone else is not just like you. There are people in the world who care about other people, who have empathy for them, who want to make the world better for everyone and not just for themselves. And the world is a better place because of it.

Yes, the care for other people is mixed with self-care. But that doesn’t negate it. The fact that you are missing out on a fundamental human experience is no reason to deny that experience’s very existence.

Is Altruism Real?
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14 thoughts on “Is Altruism Real?

  1. 1

    People of this persuasion sometimes attempt to defend their position by creating a false dichotomy: pure selfishness and pure altrusim, and nothing in between. And, wouldn’t you know it? Everything in between gets rounded down to selfishness.
    Whenever I hear this viewpoint expressed, I answer: “Well, of course ‘pure altrusim’ doesn’t exist: it’s just pure idiocy!”

  2. 2

    Very well put!
    Digressing into general morality: I recently read an article about Steven Pinker’s views on morality in the NYT magazine. He boils the themes down to five: authority, fairness, harm, community, and purity.
    My comment on the idea was that “one of these things is not like the others” — “purity” in particular seems to be associated with some of the most dire crazyness, and especially the binary thinking you descry. Unfortunately, it *also* has obvious applications in dealing with physical filth, contagion, and perhaps “honorable conduct”.
    So, what’s *your* take on Pinker?

  3. 3

    Emmanuel Kant and Ayn Rand deserve most of the blame for the dichotomy between absolute selfishness and absolute altruism. Rand specifically reasons contra Kant that it’s illogical to do something that does not fulfill one’s self-interest at all, therefore it’s illogical to do something that fulfills anything but one’s immediate, material self-interest.

  4. 4

    Very nice post, Greta Christina. I’ve seen the same arguments too and it’s always disheartening when people decide to not be altruistic because it’s perceived as doing nothing special or nothing more than being “selfish”.

  5. 5

    If you find this topic worth discussing (which, obviously, you do), you should read _The Selfish Gene_ by Dawkins, if you haven’t already. It’s really a genetics book, but one of the main themes is apparent altruism and altruism and whether it exists.
    I’d love to hear your comments on the book.

  6. 6

    I think for most people, altruism FEELS GOOD. It feels good to buy presents for my niece, or drive my grandma around, or let somebody merge in front of me on the freeway. But for others, altruism is just a way of building up “brownie points” to cash in on later – they expect some sort of quid pro quo return for their efforts. THAT is selfish; acting altruistically because it simply feels good is not selfish.

  7. 7

    Yeah. Generally when I use the term I **mean** the sort of action that John mentions. Trying to win brownie point. It doesn’t matter if what they do helps, what they do they **think** helps, etc. Even if such people do harm, with full awareness of the arguments for why what they are doing will hurt people in the long run, they do so anyway, because its not about altruism for them, its about winning brownie points for having done what they think will please someone more important than the poor fool they “helped”. These kinds of people irritate the hell out of me, and some of the more egregious examples are priests/parishioners who go to funerals, not to console the grieving, but to preach about how much better you would all feel if you found God (taking both the person being mourned *and* the mourners entirely out of the picture, or the assholes that show up at disasters like the tsunami, then get caught running away with all the “help” they came with, because the locals told them to piss off and stop trying to convert them.
    Its harder to come up with examples of secular action like that, but there probably are some. The point, after all, is to win points for yourself in your group, community, congregation, organization, etc., by pretending like you wouldn’t be sitting on a couch some place eating potato chips instead, if you didn’t think your *group*, or *god* wasn’t watching and it would advance your social status or odds of winning a prize.
    And, just to be clear, I personally think that, among religious people, being taught that striving for such selfish brownie points is a) a better goal them just helping people, and b) supposed to make them feel better, even if they don’t really give a frack about the people they are helping. And usually it does, because there is a whole support system their to *praise* them for being an unmitigated ass and helping people in ways that, maybe, they wouldn’t have wanted, if they knew the price tag on accepting in the first place.
    So, forgive me if I continue to use the term selfish to describe the acts of such people. I tend to suspect I am right **far** more often than I am wrong.

  8. 8

    But, Kagehi, I think the people who do what you describe are quite easy to pick out. They usually say explicitly that those are the reasons why they’re doing what they’re doing, even if they cloak their actions in a superficial facade of empathy.
    I’ve also observed the trend Greta notes, of selfish people insisting that everyone else is really selfish just like them. I wonder if this doesn’t point to some deep-rooted insecurity in your own self-conception. After all, if you really were truly selfish, why would you care whether others were altruistic or not? Shouldn’t you be eager, in fact, for others to act that way? Shouldn’t you be insisting that people are altruistic, and that they should act that way more often? (Saying so would just be creating more suckers for selfish you to take advantage of.)
    But most people, even the selfish ones, don’t take this position. Instead, they insist that everyone is “really” selfish like them, even if they don’t admit it or even realize it. I wonder if, at some level, this isn’t an attempt at justifying their own behavior by trying to persuade themselves that “everyone else does it too”.

  9. 9

    I think it’s often as Ebonmuse describes. Selfish people project their own selfishness onto others. Therefore altruistic people act not out of altruism, but out of selfishness–they wish to achieve something for themselves rather than to do something good for others. This helps the selfish people feel better about themselves as the altruistic people are “just as bad as they are”.

  10. 10

    I don’t have a problem with selfishness. I see it in much the same way as I see free will. In determinism I have no free will because I cannot make decisions outside of my own genetic makeup and my own experiences but I can make decisions within these parameters. With altruism I can’t be purely unselfish (to blur the definition slightly) but I can perform acts of relative unselfishness.
    So while I feel pride at giving blood and get a cup of tea and a biscuit I also get to be altruistic in helping to preserve a stranger’s life with my donation. If someone wants to call me selfish for doing a good deed then they’re really missing the point of altruism.
    Altruism (and selfishness for that matter) isn’t about intent or thought but about action. It is our deeds that are selfish or selfless even if our thoughts or feelings belie that.

  11. 11

    I think altruism has to exist because empathy does, and these two seem to almost be married to one another. Empathy is hard-wired into us, so I think the same of altruism, since altruism stems from empathy. Don’t you think?
    But I think we get into a semantic framelock when we define altruism like “selfless concern for the welfare of others.” If I see a family member drowning, say, my brother, I don’t care what other kind of danger may be in those waters (unless it’s immediate)–I’d die to try to save him. I’d throw just about all caution to the wind on that one. But, if I saw someone, say, Person A, who I don’t know so well, I’d be more inclined to assess the situation, which could possibly hurt Person A, and I wouldn’t react as quickly as I would if it was my brother out there. Could this my Monkeysphere in action? Maybe. Or what if Person A was Osama Bin Laden? Do I have to have the expected objectivity of a doctor at this point to save Person A, regardless of whether it’s my brother or Bin Laden out there? Just how far does altruism extend before it becomes unethical? Would saving Bin Laden be altruistic since it could potentially put other people’s lives at risk?
    My point is that altruism can border on stupidity or insanity if the (crazy, totally out there) circumstances are present.
    But, too, I don’t think we can ever be completely “unselfish” or “selfless” because in most cases, survival supersedes everything else.
    Sorry to ramble.

  12. 12

    Rather nice post
    I agree that there is no dichotomy when it comes to selfishness and altruism. Humans are far to complex to be reduced down that much.
    I think one of the prime issues with this argument is the word ‘selfish’ itself. It has been used for this purpose for so long that it seems to be the word that fits best. However this is an illusionary fit.
    The English language does not offer a word that fits the situation so people are forced to use a preexisting word or create a new one. Since most created words die quickly, the preexisting word dominates. What we need is a new word that describes some benefit gained from an action, but is not the entire, or even the overwhelming, cause of the action.
    I also agree with Ebon, many of the people who argue that humans are entirely selfish are trying to justify their own selfish actions. It is similar to when any other person is unable to see a trait in humans that they themselves do not posses (such as when theists argue that there can not be such a thing as an atheist).
    Kelly, I believe you have hit on an important point. The people we have strong emotional connections to are the people we are most likely to perform positive actions for.
    Your example of a family member drowning is a rather accurate one of the more extreme version of this. These are people we share a genetic link (family) or emotional link (friends) to. Both of these are useful for our continued health, both physical and emotional. The loss of one of these individuals would have serious consequences for you. By risking our lives, we are hoping to prevent such suffering from occurring.
    This self gain, however, does not out way the truly altruistic act of risking your life for another, it is only the genetic reason we perform such actions. Not the sole reason for all actions, the ‘selfish’ cause rarely, if ever, stands alone in our reasoning.

  13. 13

    I experience the opposite amazement. There are people who view the world through such deeply tinted emerald-green glasses that I really wonder how they can function outside the land of Oz. It really amazes me that some of these people can function in the same universe that I inhabit.

  14. 14

    Greta, you make an extremely compelling argument. But is working a 9-5 altruistic? You could be helping people and getting money in return. So that defines it as altruistic. But it’s not altruistic.

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