Altruism and Selfishness

All the things you intentionally do are self-motivated. Even when one thinks they are being forced into a situation, there is a fundamental internal factor at play: It is our internal drive to be accepted or not be bullied that makes us conform to certain social norms; it is preservation of self-image that encourages us to be seen doing certain things; and some time it is just our love of an idea that compels us to behave how we do. I hope nothing so far has been taken facetiously, because understanding that may help us to have important social and ethical discussions about the nature of coercion (perhaps the only pertinent point to be taken from this post).

However, I don’t want to talk about coercion (yet). Instead, I want to talk about what the realisation that all our intentions are internal means to us, when it comes to being selfish or altruistic. The accusation of being selfish is one that tends to be powerful, and wishing to avoid such a criticism may be a motivating factor in behaving in a way that is altruistic on its face. And that underpins our problem: all altruistic actions can be reduced to reveal them as selfish actions. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines altruism as “unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others”. It doesn’t take much cynicism to reveal that such behaviour simply doesn’t exist. To motivate a person to action, there must be a selfish reason; else, why are they acting?

As an example, take what may be the most obviously altruistic action one can perform: donating money to a charity in a foreign country. Something like well building in Africa or protecting the Orangutans in Asia. The donor is unlikely to ever directly benefit from this work: they already have a supply of water and they are completely anonymous to the beneficiaries, so the beneficiary cannot shower the donor with gratitude and gifts at some later date. There doesn’t seem to be anything selfish about this, but to see where the selfishness lies one simply just needs to ask this: “what did they donate any money?”

Immediately one can think of noble sounding answers: the donor cannot abide the thought of people being without water, the donor feels guilty for corroborating in the destruction of Orangutan habitats through their consumer choices, the donor feels “white guilt”. These examples, respectively, mean the donor was acting to alleviate their own horror or absolve their own guilt. Although these actions do not necessarily conform to the Merriam-Webster definition of selfishness (“lacking consideration for other people; concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure”) they do violate the “selfless” dimension of altruism. True altruism, then, does not exist.

My brother challenged me on this. He cited a fictional example of a person who helped a person they did not like. The recipient had moved to another country, and the donor made a large donation anonymously (through a PayPal account, or something). The donation was large enough to noticeably affect the donor. Because this is fictional, we cannot simply ask the donor why they did this. We simply have to speculate. I speculated that their poor relationship may be something the donor feels guilty about and so wanted to square it themselves. My brother denied this, and so I speculated again: perhaps it is simply a part of this person’s self-identity that they are a good person and this helped them continue that self-image. My brother denied this, too. I pondered the possibility the donor felt bad for his enemy’s situation, and wanted to alleviate that sense of discomfort. My brother denied this, as well. My brother also denied all discussion of empathy. It became apparent by brother was not just discussing a fictional case, but a fantasy one: to challenge my point, he denied every possible motivation. The thought experiment was void because it discussed decision-making in nonsensical terms.

However, people can tell the difference between a person who donates to charity and a person who pushes in at a queue; a person who helps an elderly person cross the road and a person who barges others into the road to get by; a person who will hold an elevator door and a person who will punch another in the face. There seems to be an identifiable difference between what we call altruism and selfishness, even though I just argued they are the same thing. I used to put this confusion down to the directness of the personal motivator and the actual action. When the motivator and the action are directly linked (“I want that sandwich” > “I take that sandwich”) we call it altruism when the motivator and the action are indirectly related (“I feel bad that those people are hungry” > “I don’t want to feel bad” > “I don’t want them to be hungry” > “I buy them a sandwich”). But I have recently came up with a new definition for altruism that removes the cynical view of altruism as another side of the coin of selfishness: altruism is the quality of being able to derive personal satisfaction from the safeguarding or improvement in the wellbeing of others. This definition fully acknowledges the paradox of altruism being selfisness, but differentiates it is from selfishness by being about the improved wellbeing of others.


7 thoughts on “Altruism and Selfishness”

    1. But they are different somehow; we can tell the difference — even though they’re nearly the same. As a social species, identifying the difference is important.

        1. I suppose it’s just philosophical, isn’t it? Delving deep enough to see that altruism and selfishness might be the same ignores the fact there’s a difference between someone who will steal your wallet and someone who will return it.

        2. Ah, I see. Interestingly, the thief, then, would be acting counter-intuitively. By stealing he/she is, in fact, working against their best interests. The more selfish action would be to not steal.

          Good Lawd, man, I think you’re about to open up an entirely new realm of social sciences!

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