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Is Altruism Ever Pure?

Not really. But does it really matter?

When I told friends and family I was working on a book about the science of heroism and altruism, some sounded skeptical. “There’s no such thing as true altruism,” they would say. “Don’t people usually have a selfish reason for doing something nice?”

In short, yes. Altruism makes a lot of sense from an evolutionary perspective: We do nice things for people we’re related to—especially our closest family members—in part because they're our flesh and blood. By helping them out, we indirectly improve our genes' chances of getting passed along.

It's also true that even the most selfless-appearing acts often have some degree of selfish motivation behind them. Mother Teresa, who received the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to help the poor in Calcutta and elsewhere, undoubtedly cared about those less fortunate, but her work also filled her with a deep sense of contentment. “The miracle is not that we do this work,” she said, “but that we are happy to do it.” Many of the Holocaust rescuer heroes honored on Yad Vashem’s Avenue of the Righteous acted for complex reasons as well. They wanted to help Jews escape persecution and death, but they also may have felt joyful at the prospect of bucking the Nazi regime, and they probably got great personal satisfaction from forging identities as virtuous rescuers. As the English psychiatrist and philosopher Neel Burton puts it, “Altruistic acts are self-interested, if not because they relieve anxiety, then perhaps because they lead to pleasant feelings of pride and satisfaction; the expectation of honor or reciprocation; or the greater likelihood of a place in heaven.”

Completely selfless acts belong in the same category as conflict-free relationships—ideals so far removed from actual human experience as to make them largely irrelevant. But that's not necessarily a problem. Getting personal benefit out of an altruistic act is often a good thing, in fact. The better we feel when helping someone else, the more we're going to want to do it again. Helping-related pleasure, a documented phenomenon called the “helper's high,” drives much long-term volunteer activity. What's more, selfish motives for helping frequently give rise to less selfish ones over time. You might start volunteering in a mentoring program because you hope to meet new friends and continue because you've truly come to care about the well-being of the students you're working with.

Is altruism ever “pure”? Does it really matter? Given the extent of the need in the world, perhaps it's best if we simply get on with the business of helping rather than endlessly dissecting our motives. “The kind of altruism we ought to encourage,” Georgetown philosopher Judith Lichtenberg writes, “and probably the only kind with staying power, is satisfying to those who practice it.”

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