The Puzzle of Altruism


The question of why human beings are sometimes prepared to risk their own lives to save others has puzzled philosophers and scientists for centuries.

From an evolutionary point of view, altruism doesn’t seem to make any sense. According to the modern Neo-Darwinian view, human beings are basically selfish. After all, we are only really ‘carriers’ of thousands of genes, whose only aim is to survive and replicate themselves. We shouldn’t be interested in sacrificing ourselves for others, or even in helping others.

It’s true that, in genetic terms, it’s not necessarily self-defeating for us to help people close to us, our relatives or distant cousins—they carry many of the same genes as us, and so helping them may help our genes to survive. But what about when we help people who have no relation to us, or even animals?

No Such Thing: According to some psychologists, there is no such thing as ‘pure’ altruism. When we help strangers (or animals), there must always be some benefit to us, even if we’re not aware of it. Altruism makes us feel good about ourselves, it makes other people respect us more, or it might (so far as we believe) increase our chances of getting into heaven.

You Scratch My Back, I Scratch Yours: Or perhaps altruism is an investment strategy – we do good deeds to others in the hope that they will return the favour some day, when we are in need (known as reciprocal altruism).

Keeping Up Appearances: According to evolutionary psychologists, it could even be a way of demonstrating our resources, showing how wealthy or able we are, so that we become more attractive to the opposite sex, and have enhanced reproductive possibilities.

My Mistake: Finally, evolutionary psychologists have also suggested that altruism towards strangers may be a kind of mistake, a ‘leftover’ trait from when human beings lived in small groups with people we were genetically closely related to. Of course, we felt an instinct to help other members of our group, because our own survival depended on the safety of the group as a whole, and because, more indirectly, this would support the survival of our genes. We don’t live in small tribes of extended family any more, but we habitually behave as if we are, helping the people around us as if we are related to them.

What all these explanations have in common is that they are really attempts to explain away altruism. They’re attempts to make excuses for altruism: ‘Please excuse my kindness, but I was really just trying to look good in the eyes of other people.’ ‘Sorry for helping you, but it’s a trait I picked up from my ancestors thousands of years ago, and I just can’t seem to get rid of it.’

Many acts of kindness may be primarily —or just partly—motivated by self-interest. But is it naive to suggest that ‘pure’ altruism can exist as well? An act of ‘pure’ altruism may make you feel better about yourself afterwards, and it may increase other people’s respect for you, or increase your chances of being helped in return at a later point. But it’s possible that, at the very moment when the act takes place, your only motivation is an impulsive unselfish desire to alleviate suffering?

“Yesterday, I was about to have a shower, and saw a spider near the plug hole of our bath. I got out of the shower, found a piece of paper, gently encouraged the spider on to it, and scooped it out of danger. Why did I do this? Perhaps in the hope that a spider would do the same for me in the future? Or that the spider would tell his friends what a great person I am? Or, more seriously, perhaps it was the result of moral conditioning, a respect for living things and an impulse to ‘do good’ which was ingrained in me by my parents? (Although come to think of it, my parents didn’t teach me those things…)

No, I think this simple act was motivated by empathy. I empathized with the spider as another conscious creature, another living being, who was entitled to stay alive just as I was. And I believe that empathy is the root of all pure altruism.” – Dr. Steve Taylor, senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University, United Kingdom

Sometimes empathy is described as a cognitive ability to see the world through another person’s eyes, but I think it’s actually much more than that. In my view, the capacity for empathy shows that, in essence, all human beings – and in fact all living beings – are interconnected. At some deep level, all living beings are expressions of the same consciousness, after all, we have no ethical obligations towards rocks.

It’s this fundamental oneness which makes it possible for us to identify with other people, to sense their suffering and respond to it with altruistic acts. We can sense their suffering because, in a sense, we are them. And because of this common identity, we feel the urge to alleviate other people’s suffering – and to protect and promote their well-being – just as we would our own.

“What I’m asking you to entertain is that there is nothing we need to believe on insufficient evidence in order to have deeply ethical and spiritual lives.” – Dr. Sam Harris

In the words of the 19th century German philosopher Schopenhauer, ‘My own true inner being actually exists in every living creature, as truly and immediately known as my own consciousness in myself…This is the ground of compassion upon which all true, that is to say unselfish, virtue rests, and whose expression is in every good deed.’

In other words, there is no need to make excuses for altruism. Instead, we should celebrate it as a transcendence of seeming separateness. Rather than being unnatural, altruism is an expression of our most fundamental nature—that of connectedness.

– Based on: Taylor, S. (18-10-2013) Why Do Human Beings Do Good Things?

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5 thoughts on “The Puzzle of Altruism

  1. RE: “We don’t live in small tribes of extended family any more” – not by way of disagreement, more by way of elaboration, Robert Ardrey, in his book, The Territorial Imperative, wrote that humankind arose in small, familial groups of 20 to 30 people, and suggested that if most of us today would count our friends and close associates – whether in the family, across town, or (in the day of the internet), around the globe – we would find that they number about 20 to 30 people. We haven’t changed that much, it would seem.

    To a great extent, I share that life connection you mention with other species, who quite likely, do not feel they share it with me, except that I cannot abide a housefly or a cockroach, and will take no measures to ferry them to safety under any circumstances – across the River Styx, now that’s an entirely different matter —

  2. There is a myriad of magic and wonder in the universe that we just don’t understand. It is so typical, so predictable, for human beings to try and explain away altruism, to try and nearly apologize for it.

    Altruism doesn’t puzzle me nearly as much as people’s attempts to deny or explain it away, to try and gain some control over it, like one might file something away in the proper cabinet. Anytime people discover something that might indicate humans have these higher selves, we tend to want to push it away, because if we have higher selves that means there may be something higher then ourselves. The lengths we will go to avoid facing this reality can be pretty astounding. As a species, I’d have to say we invest a huge percent of our time and into resisting the idea.

  3. there may be something higher then ourselves.” – “higher“? I don’t see that. “Different,” maybe, but why higher? “Higher” implies a “Lower” – what do you see as lower? As much as I dislike them, I don’t even see a cockroach as “lower,” just different.

  4. That’s why Baskin-Robbins makes 31 flavors (or, “flavours,” depending upon which side of the pond you learned your English – again, no lower or higher, only different).

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