Altruism…is it real?

Concerning altruism, there are many perspectives on whether or not we can be purely altruistic. There are many stances we could take, and many lenses we could look through. Let’s see what they are, what they signify, and why they are misleading.

An evolutionary lens, for example, would suggest that our genes encourage altruism so that we get things in return, so that we reproduce. In other words, organisms can be, while the roots of it, in our genes, are selfish. That is the view of Dr. Richard Dawkins, hence the book title The Selfish Gene. Dawkin’s argument is fairly satisfying in the scientific community.

We could also take a more philosophical lens, in that to treat others selflessly we’d have to be happy doing it, right? Should someone want to save another person’s life, and attempts to do so, they satisfied their desire, thus being selfish in the end.  This at first may seem to be irrefutable, it did to me at least for a number of years. But there are counter arguments: someone may not think about the fact that they want to be altruistic. After all, impulsiveness is a given in the human condition. However, if we are altruistic impulsively, would that still be considered altruism? That is another question that is debated.

What we know from egoism is that we are only altruistic to get altruism back. This is similar to the evolutionary view, except on the scope of organisms along with individual genes. This, perhaps, is too pessimistic. Certainly, could holding the door open for a stranger be an act of kindness done solely in the hopes that one day the stranger will see you, and will open the door for you? It simply doesn’t make sense. Additionally, such a thinking process wouldn’t be all that logical, considering someone who thought this way would probably have to be. Statistically, not everyone could possibly have a net “gain” in altruism, there would always be winners and losers, if you will. And certainly, the nice people don’t always win.

Perhaps a more psychological approach, one less dealing with evolution. Studies, such as one I found in The Atlantic Monthly, show that newborns begin life with some sense of selflessness. It is interesting to support arguments like these with evidence from the psychology of newborns, I’ll write soon on the lack of self awareness in babies and it’s significance in the study of artificial intelligence. The fact that newborns are surprised by the lack of sharing in a movie, and that most do willingly share is astonishing, and it does support half of the evolutionary perspective.

I think that much of the debate comes from the lack of a proper definition of altruism. Philosophers, psychologists, and economists alike (yes, economists play a role) only spend time on studying how altruism works, without actually defining the word. Perhaps we can see it’s dictionary definition, and then dissect it:

Merriam Webster defines altruism as “unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others.”

Unselfish is defined as: “having or showing more concern for other people than for yourself.”

Concern, in the context, means: “a feeling of being interested in and caring about a person or thing.”

In other words, altruism is being more interested and devoted to the welfare of others than to yourself. But that still isn’t very clear, and that’s where philosophers, psychologists, and economists need to step up. Should we take the philosophical view that altruism is only impulsive, we must decide if it can still be altruistic. After all, “it’s possible that babies are more likely to be altruistic than older people, because they think less about it” (from The Atlantic Monthly article). However, this could be like saying I did a good deed even though I didn’t know it was a good deed.

Should we take the egoist perspective, as economists unfortunately do, we must assume that humans act “altruistically” out of self interest. Although the traditional arguments of egoism don’t stand, one might say that people act for the welfare of others solely to satisfy some sort of “sense duty” they have,  according to this literary magazine. Alternatively, one might also argue people act benevolently to satisfy some sort of deity or obey inherent natural laws (heaven or hell, karma, etc). That is another possibility. But once again, could one still be altruistic while maintaining a shed of selfishness, as long as that selfishness is the very thing leading to the altruism?  And if we all act out of this inherent self-interest, maybe there is no such thing as self-interest at all.

These are serious issues with debating altruism, and we can’t move forward in this debate until we agree on the questions I posed. Otherwise, we’re simply beating around the bush and arguing over different things without realizing it.