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A Case for Altruism

January 6, 2014

We’ve talked about determinism, and have many types of determinism can’t be falsified – a rather important aspect to being able to ‘prove’ a theory true, to go beyond mere conjecture and establish something as ‘fact’. I also said that we’d talk about altruism in this post .

Altruism (or selflessness) can be defined simply as the principle or practice of concern for the welfare of others. Pure altruism consists of sacrificing something for somebody other than yourself with no expectation of any compensation or benefits, either direct or indirect, such as being applauded for being altruistic.

Altruism is a very complex thing – I’m barely going to scratch the surface of it in this post – yet I’m sure we can all agree it’s a wondrous thing. Giving alms to others, helping those in need. We’re talking about a kindness and companionship that is fundamental to social wellbeing. We’re talking about a noble principle that many of our role models hold dear and stay true to.

Altruism is worth protecting and and fighting for.

So, when people assault altruism I disagree with them. One argument that many people bring up is that ‘true’ altruism doesn’t exist. Their idea is that when we help others many benefits occur, so it’s not altruism. There are arguments that altruism has an evolutionary purpose and we benefit from being altruistic – your reputation may improve, people may be reciprocally altruistic (you help them, they help you), your altruism is guided towards your kin etc. There’s another idea that you may have internal gratification from altruism – you feel good – and that these ’intrinsic rewards’ constitute benefits… so it’s not altruism. Even people who don’t realise these rewards and benefits are still subconsciously feeling them, driving their action, so it’s never altruistic. Altruism doesn’t exist, so we might as well grow up and recognise we’re all selfish, and maybe go learn some stuff about game theory so we can’t maximise our gains in dealing with other people.

Heaven forfend we endorse such a terrible view. Having the ideal of altruism, even if it doesn’t exist, is one way to improve our actions. Even if we are acting out of selfishness to help others, I’d rather we help them than not. Having altruism as part of our thoughts, even as an illusion, is good for our society. Some ignorance is bliss.

But I think it’s quite possible to assault the case against altruism, and I’d like to bring back the idea of ‘theories that can’t be falsified’ being rubbish.

I said above “Even people who don’t realise these rewards and benefits are still subconsciously feeling them, driving their action, so it’s never altruistic”. How do we know that’s true for every single person? We don’t. The method of explanation is inductive. We’re saying that because it holds true for some cases that it applies for all others. That’s a weak form of proof for starters, but it often works in many scientific endeavours – ‘this law has been proved 10000 times, so we’ll use it to predict…’ – but they have evidence, rigorous evidence! This case against altruism is mere conjecture. I can just as easily say something like ‘even people who realise rewards consciously are acting on subconscious thoughts of sacrifice inculcated into them by the practice of child rearing where parents devote thousands of hours to their children.’ Do you believe that last sentence? No! But note, I provided an explanation – child rearing – whereas the case for altruism’s nonexistence did not!

So-called ‘altruistic’ actions may not always be altruistic. That’s obvious, but… that doesn’t mean you can just infer that there are no altruistic actions whatsoever!

Now, the extent to which ‘altruistic’ actions are altruistic in practice is a debateable issue. A lot of it depends on whether ‘intrinsic rewards’ count as disqualifying actions as altruistic. It does… to an extent. As for our tendency to be altruistic towards kin and friends over strangers, there’s an aspect of reciprocal altruism as work. Still, that doesn’t explain every action. Some actions aren’t reciprocated – though that is an ideal state to live in – and we certainly don’t expect a reciprocal return on all our actions. As for reputation, yes, altruism may help our reputation – our giving away of resources shows we have resources, but it might make us look meek, gullible etc. to others. And I don’t like delving down the path of reputation too much. If every action develops our reputation somehow then they cynic’s reply is easily ‘Ah! But he wanted that type of reputation [even if bad…] at a subconscious level…’ Again, overarching theories that encompass all possible occurrences and can’t be falsified ought to be examined very, very critically.

This is not to say that people don’t have hidden motives for their actions. They do. Also, distinguishing altruism from loyalty, sacrifice and such is a difficult challenge. But it is a challenge we must meet, for we must preserve altruism.

I wish to end by encouraging you to read the wonderful, wonderful Christmas Eve editorial l by the Sydney Morning Herald. It is beautifully written, and it shows why we must focus on others as opposed to ourselves, and be altruistic. Please, I implore you, read it.To quote – though the italics are my own – and finish:

“…what Christmas does ask of us is to investigate the quality of our relationships and open ourselves to the importance of our mutual dependence. Peace on earth and goodwill towards others are not given to us as divine gifts but rather as standards by which we should judge our attitude towards family, friends, neighbours – and strangers.

The reason is quite straightforward: there is no “me” without the “we” because no one person can self-generate the love, companionship and respect that make life truly worth living. It follows that the more people to whom we show love, to whom we extend genuine companionship, and to whom we accord respect, the richer our individual and collective lives will become.”

A case for altruism, my friends.

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