Psychology Sociology

Does Altruism Exist?

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“…human beings are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee” — Jonathan Haidt

Does altruism exist? Defined as the selfless concern for the happiness or well-being of others, skeptics point to the fact that there is no such thing as true selflessness. Acts of supposed altruism, they argue, is often selfishly motivated behaviors that happen to benefit both parties. An example of self-oriented behavior disguised as altruism could be volunteering for an organization for the purpose of networking and hopefully gaining employment. The question of “what’s in it for me” is all-pervasive and there are no shortage of examples like this. But does this mean altruism is an impossible ideal?

I believe altruism exists despite our commonly selfish orientation, but not in the way we normally think about altruism. Rather than thinking about altruism as behavior motivated by promoting the happiness of others, I argue that altruism promotes our own happiness and is motivated by the drive to become a part of something larger than ourselves. Like the honey-bee whose primary goal is the maintenance of the hive, humans are driven by collective-goals. But rather than getting our directions from biological instincts, our goals are defined by the values and beliefs entrenched in our social group. This moral reality gives us direction in life, allowing us to gain a sense of significance through contribution to a cause beyond ourselves.

The development of religion is an example of how this altruistic drive has been satisfied throughout human history. Besides the fact that religions have often been used for selfish purposes by those in power, throughout human history religion has primarily functioned as a set of collective beliefs and practices directed toward sacred things. These beliefs and practices functioned to promote group solidarity, maintaining the integrity of group-life before the development of the state. In modern times, one’s profession can also serve this function. The collective beliefs and practices entrenched in one’s professional occupation can provide a source of meaning and purpose by its ability to integrate the individual into collective life.

Although religion and professional occupations can provide socially constructed moral realities that allow individuals to gain a sense of meaning and purpose through collective goals, these institutions often miss the mark. Institutions that fail to fulfill this role become fertile ground for dog-eat-dog individualism. Failing to feel like one is part of something larger than oneself, individuals resort to tactics of domination to preserve their sense of significance. Moral symbolism is replaced by status symbolism. Interactions are pregnant with latent hostilities, secret alliances, and selfish behaviors disguised by the cloak of apparent good-will.

The failure of altruism is a failure of society. Rather than focusing on making ourselves more altruistic, we need to focus on promoting well-integrated social institutions. Although the question of “what’s in it for me” is deeply embedded in our motivations, altruistic social institutions take some of the attention away from ourselves, connecting us with something beyond ourselves. Altruistic behaviors are not based on promoting our own happiness; our own happiness is the by-product of altruistic behaviors.


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22 comments

  1. “Our own happiness is the by-product of altruistic behaviors.” This is very true. There is an unexplainable, unfathomable feeling of joy every time I extend myself and be of help to other people. But of course, there is one thing that’s need to be considered. I think it’s true what they say about sharing — that ‘one cannot share what one does not have.’ I enjoyed reading this post. Glad I came by.

  2. The Golden Rule is the best protection we have against selfishness. Sin is its own punishment, because it boomerangs back on the perpetrator. In the history of civilization, the problem enters when so-called “leaders” presume to know what’s best for the whole group. When they use force and deceit to create their own version of utopia, they merely set up passive-aggressive and passive-resistant reactions in the underdog.

    The underdog then works to undermine or sabotage the top-dog’s misguided methods. I see this happening in the United States now, as leaders have lost touch with the values the country was founded on. We have a growing group of social drop-outs who feel abandoned, disenfranchised, and exploited by the “power elite” in government and corporations.

  3. I wrote a blog entry on this recently as well. You take the higher ground here, but what is laughable to me is that the real goal of denying the existence of altruism is to validate selfish behaviors. It is to sneer “You’re no different than I am.” Your point is essential. We should retort: “I find joy in the wellness of others. What floats your boat?” More often than not, the answer is “nothing.”

  4. Great post – I think there are different levels of altruism. As I have got older I don’t think I am as altruistic as I used to be, but this is down to my own time constraints (so no more volunteering) and harder experiences that make trusting others slightly more difficult. Altruism exists in me through a small range of charities I am willing to support and for my close family. If I am being generous to people beyond that network it is probably subconsciously because I am expecting something in return.

  5. Insightful and double standards as you have pointed out. Perception is everything so there truly does exist altruism in our behaviors and I like to think that the purpose is or has an element that is selfish in our beings but those that attempt the altruistic in their behavior are to be admired for the good in their character which that possitivism is infectious

  6. Agree with Nicolite. People should be better off in a culture where collective contribution, empathy and honest critique raises the group. Perhaps joy in the journey to a better whole, rather than guilt in not helping. Does selfishness meet logic / contentment, since excess is weight, and ego is naught but a speck in the scheme? ; )

  7. I remember an argument brought forth in favor of university tuition in Germany in 2009: why should the cab driver pay for our education with his tax euros, when he isn’t benifiting from it? Our answer could have been (retrospextively): He does benefit, because tuition-free higher education is what makes Germany one of the most powerful and respected country of our time. Germany’s refinement and R&D heavily dependent economy rises and falls with its education, and EVERYONE benefits from putting extra taxes into our Universities. That is what I think of when it comes to altruism: you may or may not benefit directly from the altruistic act, but in the long run, everyone is better off

  8. Yes and no, depending on how you look at it, because in psych, some believed, that altruism comes from the thought of if you didn’t help out, then, you’d feel guilty, which was what drives you to help out, and, altruism does exist, because there are so many who put their own safety aside, to help someone else in need out.

  9. I was working at Peace Corps in the 80’s when the agency began to send volunteers to some of the former Soviet states. Many beneficiaries couldn’t understand the concepts of volunteerism or charity, which I think speaks to your point about social institutions. This is a thought-provoking piece. Thanks!

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