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Does True Altruism Exist?

Many psychologists and philosophers have argued that there is no such thing as true altruism. Read More

empirical question

Whether people act altruistically is an empirical question, so quoting a philosopher like Aristotle doesn't provide evidence one way or the other.

Dan Batson examined altruism in a program of psychological experiments, and amassed a large body of evidence suggesting that humans can and do behave altruistically. That is, humans sometimes help others purely out of concern for the other person, and not to relieve their own distress, to increase their own self-esteem or status, or for other egoistic reasons.

He found that people are most likely to behave altruistically when they feel compassion, warmth and tenderness toward the other person.

I take your point, but

surely there is no perfect experiment that can adequately measure and account for so many complex and often subconscious variables. Thanks for reading and for commenting.


Absolutely, there is never one perfect experiment. That's why Batson and his colleagues conducted multiple experiments over the last several decades--to address the numerous alternative explanations for altruistic helping.

Of course, you might not agree with his interpretation of these results. But if you're going to state that altruism doesn't exist, it seems only fair to refer to the data that's been collected on this issue, and explain why you're not convinced by it.

Altruism in Humans, by Daniel Batson

OK, but note...

...that I am not in fundamental disagreement with Batson. "[An] act can still be counted as altruistic if the ‘selfish’ element is accidental; or, if not accidental, then secondary; or, if neither accidental nor secondary, then undermining." Batson is also a theologian, and I have a lot of sympathy for his defence of altruism.

Isn't it necessary that the

Isn't it necessary that the 'self' be absolutely determined in defining an altruistic act?

For e.g., myself now, myself tommorow, myself in ten years - seem to be distinct if continuous concepts. They are either an extension of some unit that self-hood can be reduced to, or self-hood is the product of all of them.

Likewise; me, my family, my friends, my community - it seems obvious to reduce 'self' to the individual as the unit of self-hood, but i don't see reason to suppose that a biologically determined concept of 'self' would necessarily be that inflexible.

Steven Haidt argues that as a product of our physiology we perceive divinity whether or not God exists. Maybe similarly, we've come to a variable determination self-hood.

Very good point

I devote an entire chapter to the self in both 'The Art of Failure' and 'Hide and Seek'. Basically, I argue that the self is an illusion and that this illusion is constantly being constructed and maintained by our ego (self) defences. However, the self is a very convincing illusion; though it may extend beyond the 'I', it is still really the 'I' - especially in individualistic Western societies. This may mean that altruism is much more difficult in Western Societies! Thanks for reading and for commenting.

Disguised self-interest

Many thanks, Neel. I think that there's always an element of disguised self-interest in acts of altruism. Practising anonymous charity may help.


However - it speaks volumes that that is no easy thing.

If one helps another because

If one helps another because is makes one feel better, is the act altruistic or selfish?

That depends...

"The bottom line, I think, is this. There can be no such thing as an ‘altruistic’ act that does not involve some element of self-interest, no such thing, for example, as an altruistic act that does not lead to some degree, no matter how small, of pride or satisfaction. Therefore, an act should not be written off as selfish or self-motivated simply because it includes some inevitable element of self-interest. The act can still be counted as altruistic if the ‘selfish’ element is accidental; or, if not accidental, then secondary; or, if neither accidental nor secondary, then undetermining."

I completely agree except on

I completely agree except on one point. What if the situation is instantaneous, that is, there is no time to think about personal gains, it is just the heat of the moment. Say someone is in trouble, a woman's baby fell onto the tracks on a subway with a train coming in. If an able person both sees the incident and hears the screams, he won't sit there and think about his own personal interests. He is just going to go for that baby. Just think about this on evolutionary and biological points of view. Maybe my example is not the best--maybe a person in the WTC on 9/11 is better--but the point is that there are instantaneous moments where one's instincts just kick in and s/he is not thinking about what s/he can get out of the situation.

Again with that Evolutionary any biological points of view, think of the maternal instinct to protect the young from a sudden . Again, the point is the the instinct. (Granted, though, in hindsight, the daily heros are grateful they helped others to the point of feeling good, but at that moment, that was not the goal--feeling good.)

Instinct is still not altruism...

Well, if you're religious, then the fear of death may not be a strong de-motivator for you as one would otherwise believe. In that framework, a person may perform all sorts of actions that seem altruistic on the surface but are all part of a larger self-image and future goal.

If you're not religious, then you likely believe in the theory of Macro Evolution. In this framework, how would one describe the evolution of an instinctual response that actually causes increased risk to the individual? It seems a wide-spread suicidal tendency would naturally work itself out of the gene pool.

In either case, just because someone's core instincts and motivations do not make sense to us, it does not automatically mean they are altruistic. As has been pointed out, the consequences of inaction can be devastating to someone that is a self-identified empath or even just a "good" person.

Therapy couches are filled with people expressing regret over choices they've made. Sometimes those choices were to act, sometimes they were to not act. When someone holds a self-image strongly enough - for instance that they are a "good person" - making a decision that detracts or directly contradicts that image can be devastating . . . even leading to suicide.

Instincts are developed. A two-year old child may walk into oncoming traffic for no reason at all. Why does an adult doing so to save a total stranger suddenly become "altruistic"? Is it because we are applying our own decision-making metrics to their choices? Why cannot an empathic person develop an instinct to act immediately within their personality framework? Do you drive your car with a series of decisions or do you simply get in and drive? Is using your turn signal altruistic if you don't even realize you are doing so?

Altruistic giving is dead.

As a preface, I work in a nonprofit theatre and we were discussion the nature of donor behavior and altruistic. The following is a rough of what the discussion led me to believe. Please feel free to let me know if you have any additions or opinions.

Altruistic giving is dead. Well, technically it never existed in the first place. As a fundraising professional, the premise of altruistic giving is one that has been cited, referenced, and planned for by every charitable and philanthropic group: that individuals in a community will act against their own best interest and contribute to the betterment of a community or organization with absolutely no benefit of their own. The idea people will come to the aid of your organization and give charitably of their own volition is what gives fundraisers hope. Yet, Steven Levitt, co-author of Freakonomics, says people function on the basis of incentives: from a gold star for good behavior in a kindergarten class to a promotion at work or even the satisfaction someone receives from working in a soup kitchen. These actions are always somehow connected to a motivating force.

With regard to nonprofits, a lack of altruistic giving should have no bearing on philanthropic endeavors or even donor relations. It is important to understand many donors have an expectation to be recognized for their commitment and service to an organization. This commitment and service is what drives the organization, funds activities and projects, and gives a nonprofit means to execute its purpose. Andrew Carnegie held a rather famous opinion if charitable giving. “Surplus wealth is a sacred trust which its possessor is bound to administer in his lifetime for the good of the community.” While donors may never be able to give with 100% selflessness, it is possible to promote a culture of community, compassion, and understanding. It is though these efforts that fundraisers can enact the change necessary to fund their organizations.

Frankly, this is stupid

I would really like to point out the ridiculousness of stating 'true altruism' doesn't exist, and that altruism is based in self-interest. - Not that this is particularly wrong so much as this is simply an argument over the very definition of altruism and self-interest.

If a person derives pleasure from being charitable does that make them selfish? Do we expect psychopaths to volunteer at homeless shelters?

Altruism has never been defined by motivation, making this all a moot point.

Selfless Love

A man and a women meet and fall in love. Later the man develops an incurable form terminal cancer, so the man ends the relationship with the women not telling her he has cancer so she doesn't have to go through the suffering of watching him die. Later he dies alone without her to take care of him. How is that not true altruism?

Your answer is in what you

Your answer is in what you posted, “she doesn't have to go through the suffering”. Why did he not want her to suffer? I emphasize he because there is an outcome that he wants for her, beyond which we can only speculate. Maybe he wanted her to have a healthy remembrance of him, who knows, you would have to ask him, but he’s dead. Any human behavior is directed by the self, consciously or unconsciously. If behavior is not directed by the self for the self, then name the external agent that initiates behavior.
Selfishness is not negative; we have just been conditioned to think that it is.

What u see in others is the reflection of yourself

Every "self" understands perfectly that the moment the self dies, you cannot derive ANY benefits whether it's material, emotional satisfying, or whatever. Death brings the END of the "self" (at least) in this world.

For the minds similar to the author's, they are incapable of understanding true altruism. So they make up all kinds of motivations for the altruistic agent.

In John 15:13 Jesus said, "Greater love has no man than this, that he lay his life down for his friend." Isn't that the purest form of altruism?

See the two examples listed in this link for the greatest love:

Why would anybody risk everything just to "feel satisfied" for a few minutes for his own altruistic actions, and/or be recognized posthumously? What will the genes or the self get?

An interesting . . . and self-defeating statement.

When one brings religious beliefs into the picture, it actually provides a greater argument AGAINST altruism. After all, why would one be taking life advice from Jesus (or the Bible) if one thought it was all nonsense? Therefore, for one to believe that giving their life to save a friend is a highly-desired characteristic, the realization of that ideal is a reward and that reward comes in the afterlife. So, larger reward and no consequence . . . not really very altruistic...

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Neel Burton, M.D., is a psychiatrist, philosopher, and writer who lives and teaches in Oxford, England.


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