Sunday, February 26, 2012

Does Altruism Exist?

"Why do good for others," many have asked, "when it results in a cost to you?" It is a fair question raised throughout the years. Does doing good for others, at your own expense, have positive gains in the long run? Surely it does, I don't really think that there is an argument there. What I'd like to dive into, is the notion of whether these benefits, render altruism itself, non-existent.

Altruism is generally defined as the "principle or practice of unselfish concern for or devotion to the welfare of others (opposed to egoism)" or more simply "a concern for the welfare of others." So altruism is caring for others and doing helpful deeds to them. But does it matter where those altruistic motives come from? If you are only helping someone, because you seek to gain something immediate in return, is this still altruism? For example, if I offer to help you fix your car only because I know that you will drive me to places I want to go, am I then really just acting out of my own selfish best interests? Can all thinkable acts of altruism be found to have motivations in one's own self interests? Would acting ultimately out of one's own self interest, cancel the notion of altruism itself?

When I think of altruism, one of the best examples I can think of is giving your seat up for a stranger on a bus or subway, or helping a stranger carry a large package they are having difficulty with. The stranger in this case is of no relation to me, and in a large city, there is little chance that I will see them again and that my altruism will ever be reciprocated. Altruism cannot be motivated out of one's duty or obligation. So a firefighter who saves a child from a burning building is not performing an act of altruism because they have a sworn duty to do so that their job commands of them, and they will face punishment if they fail to do so. Altruism must be voluntary with no commandments involved. It is true to note however, that many police, firefighters and doctors are motivated my altruism to get into their career fields in the first place.

Reciprocal Altruism

There are two general kinds of altruism, reciprocal and non-reciprocal. Reciprocal altruism is easy enough: you scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours. In other words, there is an expectation that your generosity will be reciprocated in some reasonable amount of time. The was obviously beneficial to our ancestors living in small tribal societies, and this type of altruism is seen all over the animal kingdom in social species such as baboons and chimpanzees.

But does the expectation of reciprocation cancel out altruism? Some say that it is not altruism, because in this case, one is selfishly motivated. I'd say that there is a fine line between what is and is not altruism with regards to reciprocation. If the motivation rests in the notion that if the tables were reversed, one would expect the other to help in a similar manner, then this is still considered altruism. But if one is motivated only by selfish interests of their direct gain, than it is not altruism.

For example, a Machiavellian type who is only motivated my their self interests and selfish advancement, who pretends an altruistic act that is carefully calculated to reap them rewards, is not in my book altruistic. Suppose you learn your friend has just won the lottery, and now they have millions. You then start offering your help and services to them with the hope that they will share their millions in return. This is not altruism because you are motivated entirely by your own selfish gain and not by a genuine concern for others. With reciprocal altruism, motives play a key role in determining whether the act is altruistic or not.

Now suppose your friend gives you some money because you are having some tough financial times, and they hope that if they were in your situation, you would do the same provided you had the money. This is an act of reciprocal altruism, because one expects the other to do the same if the situation was reversed and that is the primary motive. For in order to be truly altruistic there cannot be any primary motivation of a selfish gain; the concern for the other must trump the hope for reciprocation. The problem is that we cannot always discern what are the true motivations behind a supposed "altruistic" act when it is reciprocal, but non-reciprocal altruism does exist in certain contexts.

Non-Reciprocal Altruism

Non-reciprocal altruism involves a recipient that is not expected to reciprocate at all: the stranger on the bus who could use a seat, the old lady who needs help carrying bags, etc. You are seeing a person in distress and sacrifice a bit of your time and energy to help them, when they will not likely ever pay back. Even though that person perhaps cannot reciprocate, you are helping to foster a culture in which strangers help one another with no expectation of return. So one day you may be in distress, and another stranger might offer their seat or assistance with no expectation of return. You are benefiting indirectly by your act of non-reciprocal altruism. Does this non-direct reciprocation cancel the notion of altruism? Some say it does because ultimately you are motivated by a reciprocation of the act, not by the person. I say that it doesn't cancel altruism because the selfless act itself is altruistic. Any unselfish concern or act is altruism. What I am trying to discover, are how important one's underlying motives are when determining true altruism.

Does altruism making us feel good act as a selfish motive? In other words, if I help a stranger with no expectation of return and I am motivated by the good feeling I get in knowing I helped someone else, would this cancel altruism? I say no. First, since altruism is beneficial to us as a species, just as procreating is, of course nature is going to result in it making us feel good, as is the orgasm we experience when we copulate. Seeking this positive feeling in altruism is a side affect of the act and in and of itself is not a forfeiture of altruism, just like how seeking an orgasm would not forfeit the act of sex that resulted in it. But unlike sex, where I may achieve an orgasm and the other may not, altruism does not have an expectation that involved parties benefit equally, in fact there is the expectation that one benefits more than the other.

Finally, since I am an atheist I must not forget to mention that many of the religious have argued that altruism is a sign of the soul that god has placed in humans, and that there is no Darwinian explanation for it. But, evolutionary biology has shown that altruism must have evolved from a sort of tit for tat, or reciprocal altruism in social animal species. This carried on into the primates from which we evolved and into our small relatively isolated tribes in which we lived for so many generations. As our societies grew and we were confronted more and more by those we didn't know, a culture or non reciprocal altruism emerged because even if you do not get a direct reciprocation, if fosters a culture of strangers doing good for strangers and you can ultimately benefit from it. The great struggle of humanity has been to think outside the tribe, and incorporate the "other" in the whole of humanity. Evolution perfectly explains altruism.

Altruism is a fascinating topic that deserves much more attention than I can dare to give it in a single post, indeed volumes can be written about it. This is perhaps an initial post where more will follow in the months to come.

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