Altruism is the selfless helping of others. However, biologists, philosophers, sociologists and psychologists have been telling us for some time that there is no such thing as altruism and imply that it is self-interest and not actually the benevolent helping of others. This page looks at the differing underlying selfish reasons why we help others.
Biologists, philosophers, psychologists and sociologists have all held that "altruism" is never what it seems. That all apparently selfless acts are self-centered is known in the sciences as 'universal egoism', which according to the prominent psychologist Richard Gross, "is the dominant ethos in social science including psychology. [...] Sociobiologists consider that acts of apparent altruism turn out to be acts of selfishness in disguise". There is such agreement amongst psychologists and specialists that it seems "altruism is an impossibility"1.
If altruism is an illusion, merely a label that covers peoples' confusion over why they behave in a good way, then what are the causes of behaviour that seems selfless? A few of the following are looked at in more detail below:
Social behaviour that benefits others is a feature of genetic programming in all social species, and its success as a evolutionary strategy has made it "a part of the behavioural repertoire of social animals, so it can be expected to develop much further in intelligent and intensely social animals, like our human ancestors"2. The neurological rewards are what you seek when you do seemingly "altruistic" things. Those who do good often are addicted to the drugs released in our brains; they do it for the rush even if they don't know it. This isn't a bad thing, of course, the only negative aspect is that they think they do it for the general good when in fact they do it for the neurological high that it brings. An ideal model of unthinking genetically inherited social behaviour is that of ants and bees and other worker insects. At this extreme we see that even the most selfless social behaviour can be genetically predetermined.
The cold facts of evolution, if true, would lead to selfless behaviour of a gene-protecting nature. Firstly, we would protect ourselves so that we can have children. Secondly, we would protect our children. Thirdly, we would protect close relatives including our children's children. Fourthly, we protect those of our kin, tribe and locality who are likely to share genes with us. This is exactly what we find in all social animals3.
Sociological research has found not only that we have genetic predispositions to help others, but also that this behaviour focuses on others in the way evolutionary biologists would predict: First on our children, our relatives, our perceived tribe, our ethnic group and lastly, complete strangers. "In the aftermath of natural disasters and other life-and-death situations, the order of who gets helped would not surprise an evolutionary psychologist: the young before the old, family members before friends, neighbours before strangers4.
The most important text on the subject of biological altruism is "The Selfish Gene" by Prof. Richard Dawkins (1976), which explains in great depth and accuracy the biological nature of selfishness, and argues strongly that biological nature is entirely concentrated on the protection of one's own genes (whether those genes are in oneself or in one's close relatives).
“This book is mainly intended to be interesting, but if you would extract a moral from it, read it as a warning. Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to.”
Concern for the common good is a feature of most societies because intellectually and morally it is logical that this course of behaviour is better than the more simplistic behaviours that evolution has endeared us with. Apart from the rational reasons for altruism, there are other biological factors that result in pseudoaltruism, and must be studied by sociobiologists. The psychologist Richard Gross describes some of the evolutionary forces that cause social species to evolve altruistic-seeming behaviours:
“The most general explanation of apparent altruism is Hamilton's theory of kin selection (1964). If we think of an individual as a set of genes rather than as a separate, 'bounded' organism, then it should be regarded as distributed across kin, i.e., it shares some proportion of its genes with relatives, according to how close the relationship is. It follows that it is possible for an individual to preserve its genes through its own self-sacrifice; if a mother dies in the course of saving her three offspring from a predator, she will have saved 1½ times her own genes (since each offspring inherits one half of its mother's genes). [...] (see The Selfish Gene by Dawkins, 1976). [...]
However, we are left with another difficulty - what should we make of cases of altruism on the part of animals which are not related? Clearly, kin selection cannot accommodate such cases. Trivers (1971) has proposed the principle of delayed reciprocal altruism, by which animals will 'return favours' to other animals which have done them a good turn or a good turn is worthwhile because it is likely to be returned. For example, male baboons who do not have a female partner sometimes form a temporary alliance with another solitary male baboon: while the latter attacks a male who is 'courting' a female and so distracts the male's attention, the former mates with the female. Those males who often give this kind of help seem to be more likely to receive help in return, so that reciprocation occurs (Packer, 1977) [and] it pays two pied wagtails to defend a winter feeding territory, even though they are not related, because in this way they can achieve a higher feeding rate.”
The foremost evolutionary biologist, Prof. Richard Dawkins, says that all factors that lead to the evolving of instincts that favour altruistic behaviour can be summarized into four main types, adding two more to those we have discussed above:
“We now have four good Darwinian reasons for individuals to be altruistic, generous or 'moral' towards each other. First, there is the special case of genetic kinship. Second, there is reciprocation: the repayment of favours given, and the giving of favours in 'anticipation' of payback. Following on from this there is, third, the Darwinian benefit of acquiring a reputation for generosity and kindness. And fourth, if Zahavi is right, there is the particular additional benefit of conspicuous generosity as a way of buying unfakeably authentic advertising.
Through most of our prehistory, humans lived under conditions that would have strongly favoured the evolution of all four kinds of altruism. We lived in villages, or earlier in discrete roving bands like baboons, partially isolated from neighbouring bands or villages. Most of your fellow band members would have been kin, more closely related to you than members of other bands - plenty of opportunities for kin altruism to evolve. And, whether kin or not, you would tend to meet the same individuals again and again throughout your life - ideal conditions for the evolution of reciprocal altruism. Those are also the ideal conditions for building a reputation for altruism, and the very same ideal conditions for advertising conspicuous generosity. By any or all of the four routes, genetic tendencies towards altruism would have been favoured in early humans.”
We help others for personal, internal reasons. These reasons have been studied by sociologists. David Myers reports in "Social Psychology" that noticing others' anguish causes ourselves to become distressed. One way to relieve it is to help the person. "Indeed, Dennis Krebs (1975) found that Harvard University men whose physiological responses and self-reports revealed the most distress in response to another's distress also gave the most help to the person"8.
We help others to relieve our own physiological distress upon witnessing their predicament.
We help others to give ourselves self-esteem: We feel useful and good when we help others.
The reason that these biological impulses can be satisfied by helping someone is that we are programmed genetically to respond in that way, in common with other social species. "Nearly all blood donors in Jane Piliavin's research agreed that giving blood 'makes you feel good about yourself' and 'gives you a feeling of self-satisfaction'"8.
Guilt is one of the more persistent emotions. Most cultures have developed ritualistic and proscribed methods of publicly dealing with guilt, and it certainly remains one of the biggest motives for doing good acts: We feel less guilty after doing something good, even if the deed isn't related to the original misdeed. In this way, many good deeds go towards building up a 'karma' against our guilt. Studies have shown that people who have recently done something wrong devote more time, more readily, to helping others9. This personal balancing of guilt and good deeds can easily be subconscious, influencing us without us realizing.
“Abraham Lincoln illustrated the philosophical issue in a conversation with another passenger in a horse-drawn coach. After Lincoln argued that selfishness prompts all good deeds, he noticed a sow making a terrible noise. Her piglets had gotten into a pond and were in danger of drowning. Lincoln called the coach to a halt, jumped out, ran back, and lifted the little pigs to safety. Upon his return, his companion remarked, "Now, Abe, where does selfishness come in on this little episode?" "Why, bless your soul, Ed, that was the very essence of selfishness. I should have no peace of mind all day had I gone and left that suffering old sow worrying over those pigs.”
Consciously or unconsciously, people tend to behave in a way that boosts their own social position. Not everyone is good at this, but it is a major part of all Human psychology. Part of our social self-esteem often includes the desire to be seen as socially good: In other words, people adopt a "good-guy badge", to use the phrase coined by Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan.
“[People] are not in touch with their own emotions or psychology. To question their own motives is impossible. They don't know why they seek acceptance from others, why they are doing what they are doing in life, or where they're going. But they want to be seen as a good. Every culture develops "good" symbols, and every group of people come to chose common "symbols of good" in order to feel good about themselves upon seeing that others, outside their group, do not display those symbols. This is social psychology in action, and it is shallow, pretentious and hollow, serving to boost the egos of those who do not have genuine skills.”
“If social approval motivates helping, then in experiments we should find that when approval follows helping, helping increases. And it does (Staub, 1978).”
People do it unconsciously because they don't have the self-reflection to understand their own social behaviour. Sociological investigation uncovers reasons for peoples' good behaviour that they themselves do not know. Because of this, so-called altruism is a "socially complex" behaviour. Sometimes people knowingly do good deeds for the benefit of themselves, but most of the time the underlying selfish motivation is a mystery to the benefactor.
Higher species come to "swap" good deeds early in their evolution. Sociobiologists call it "delayed reciprocal altruism", whereby one good act is an investment for a potential return favour at a later date6. Friendship, loyalty, morals and good social behaviour are all selfish investments in the future: In fact, the more daringly selfless the act, the greater these potential rewards appear to be to the subconscious.
The ultimate practical and social philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote extensively and insightfully on Human psychology. Lee Spinks summarizes Nietzsche's theory on altruism:
“The morality of pity is not selfless but rather embodies a weak and reactive will to power [...]. For the feeling of pity always involves a degree of contempt for the person pitied; and this pleasurable experience of superiority enabled the 'altruistic' individual to believe itself more powerful than before. Post-colonial critics, for example, have argued that the western circulation of pitiable images of Third-World suffering - such as pictures of starving African children - does not fulfil a humanitarian impulse; the point of these images of helpless victimhood is to demonstrate that 'we' can help those unable to help themselves and constitute ourselves as ethical and powerful in the process.”
Nietzsche is famous for classifications of strength and weakness. He rightly points out that those who need cheap psychological tricks to boost their own sense of power are of the weak kind, whereas the strong know full well that altruistic behaviour is not what it seems. The weak help others in order to feel powerful and to have a sense of control over others. The strong, or the 'noble', do not delude themselves in this way.
Evolutionists have realised that animals and humans both use giving as a form of exertion of power. Dominant animals who give most are also saying they are the most powerful and can afford to give (time, food, etc) to others. The dominant will tend to refuse aid given to them from anyone inferior to them.7
“The essence of Zahavi's idea is that advertisements of superiority are authenticated by their cost. Only a genuinely superior individual can afford to advertise the fact by means of a costly gift. Individuals buy success, for examples in attracting mates, through costly demonstrations of superiority, including ostentatious generosity and public-spirit risk-taking.”
Despite the facts of determinism, a doctrine called 'compatibilism' is useful. Compatibilism is the acceptance of the use of the word "altruism", despite its hollowness, because it is nonetheless a useful English word. So, I talk of "altruism" and mean it to refer to the acts that seem selfless. It is a way of still getting use out of the word as a piece of paradoxical English rather than a scientific or philosophical truth. So, many people who actually argue that there really is a thing called "altruism", if they insist despite the facts, are normally arguing from a semantic or use-of-language point of view1. So, we can still work to increase 'altruistic' behaviour and we can still praise it, despite the fact that we know it is a purely caused behaviour. In fact, because it is a caused behaviour, we know that our praising of selfless acts and our moralizing is effective. If altruism was not derived from deterministic factors, it would be useless to teach children to be nice because our teachings wouldn't go on to cause good behaviour.
I also view the debate over the reality of altruism to have two levels, and most disagreements are between those who hold one definition of altruism, and those who hold another. The two definitions are:
Those who use altruism in the first sense will give instances of observed altruism in order to prove their point, those who use the second definition will seek for underlying causes of behaviour in order to dispel examples. This cycle can continue forever. Most debates are really semantic differences in the definition of the word rather than genuine disagreements.
Biologists, sociologists, philosophers and above all, psychologists, have held to the "universal egoism" theory; that all apparent altruism is really selfishness in disguise. Most arguments for altruism are based on ignorance of the underlying reasons for behaving good towards others or are purely semantic in nature, not logical.
People behave altruistically for a number of selfish reasons. We are programmed genetically to behave in a way conducive to the sociability of the species: This unconscious species-instinct is the closest thing we have to true selfless altruism. In nearly every other conscious sense, altruism is an illusion. We behave well because social good behaviour fires off pleasant neurochemicals in our brains (the pleasure reward), because consciously or unconsciously we want others to see us as a good person (the social reward) or to feel good about ourselves (for pride and self-esteem). Altruism is image and illusion.
Richard Dawkins, the great evolutionary biologist, argues that we should educate people about the true nature of altruism. He is the author of "The Selfish Gene", and says that when we understand our motives better, we are better equipped to behave well, and overcome the ethnically-biased altruism that we are born with.
Dawkins, Prof. Richard
The Selfish Gene (1976). 30th Anniversary 2006 edition, published by the Oxford University Press, UK.
The God Delusion (2006). Hardback. Published by Bantam Press, Transworld Publishers, Uxbridge Road, London, UK.
Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behaviour (1996). 3rd edition. Published by Hodder & Stoughton, London UK.
(1964) The genetical evolution of social behaviour, I and II. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 7, 1-16, 17-52. Via Gross (1996).
Leakey, Richard & Lewin, Roger
Origins Reconsidered: In Search of What Makes Us Human (1992). Published by Little, Brown and Company, London, UK.
Social Psychology (1999). 6th 'international' edition. First edition 1983. Published by McGraw Hill.
(1977) Reciprocal altruism in Papio anubis. Nature, 265, 441-2. Via Gross (1996).
(1971) The evolution of reciprocal altruism. Quarterly Review of Biology, 46, 35-57. Via Gross (1996).