Searching for Altruism

Altruistic actions are those in which a person selflessly helps others.

Social science research shows that none of us may be as altruistic as we think we are. Each of us, whether we recognize it are not, are constantly influenced by various alternative motives. For example, we may help others, in part, because it also makes us feel good about ourselves.

But each of us still have a choice whether or not to help others. And ultimately, if helping others makes us feel good too does that make it any less worthwhile?

Defining Altruism

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Altruism is a common way of describing actions or behaviors motivated by a desire help someone other than oneself for that person's sake. Altruism, by definition, is antithetical of self-centered or egoistic behavior which are acts motivated by a desire to benefit oneself.

Philosophers and scientists have long argued about whether or not altruism exits.

Those on one side say that people act selflessly to benefit others out of a natural, inherent quality of goodness; those on the other side say that behind every act of altruism is an ulterior motive, such as wanting to appear “good” in the eyes of the community, which is ultimately selfish. [1]

In this post we'll examine several sources to see if current science or philosophy can answer if there is such a thing as true altruism.

Psychological Egoism

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David Sloan Wilson, the author of "Does Altruism Exist," devotes an entire chapter to "psychological egoism." Egoism holds the position that all actions are ultimately taken in self interest.

Michael Ghiselin echoes this, saying, “Scratch an altruist and watch a hypocrite bleed,” because “on closer inspection, acts of apparent altruism are really selfishness in disguise.” [2]

If we're all self interested, can any of us be truly altruistic?

Let's examine why humans would have evolved with the capacity for altruism.

Biological Altruism

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Charles Darwin first formulated the theory of evolution by natural selection in his book "On the Origin of Species" in 1859. Natural selection, as Darwin defines it, "is the process by which organisms change over time as a result of changes in heritable physical or behavioral traits. Changes that allow an organism to better adapt to its environment will help it survive and have more offspring." [3]

“For any behavior to survive natural selection, it needs to help an animal or its genetic material,” writes author Sadie F. Dingfelder. [4]

Acting in such a way that we only care about the benefit to the receiver and not about the cost to ourselves flies in the face of evolutionary theory. If altruism is a product of natural selection then it must serve some unseen purpose that favors our survival. Here are some theories:

Kin Selection (Hamilton's Rule)

Kin selection occurs when an animal engages in self-sacrificial behaviour that benefits the genetic fitness of its relatives. [5]

We expect self-sacrificing actions to hinder personal reproduction. Selection will generally operate against incurring costs for others. Unless, according to kin selection, the benefit to a related other is greater than the cost to the self.

Especially in the animal kingdom, our blood relatives are typically the beneficiaries of our altruistic acts. So, in believing that altruism is kinship-based would mean that altruism exists to preserve the genetic lineage.

The Selfish Gene

Richard Dawkins writes in his book "The Selfish Gene" that humans are merely "vehicles" for a genetic line. Since we pass on half of our genes, when we risk ourselves to save blood relatives, altruistic actions are actually just protecting our genetic lineage.

Social Altruism

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French sociologist Emile Durkheim posited that altruism exists outside of the individual. To Durkheim, altruism is an external social force, "prescribed and demanded not for the benefit of any individual, but for the benefit of society -- simply to keep it intact." He goes on to say, "since people perceive the collective group to be more important than the individual, self-sacrificing behavioral concepts, like altruism, are required to keep the individual in line and subservient to the greater good." [6]

This theory would mean that as a society we've invented the idea of altruism and we've placed a high value on it. We motivate members of our group to act altruistically by praising altruism and calling selfless actions noble and admirable.

If Durkheim is correct, then we've tricked ourselves into believing altruism so deeply that our brains have evolved to deliver pleasure to us when we perform selfless acts.

Social Pressure

Do people really want to see others doing well, or do people simply feel obligated to help others?

Perhaps people feel that they are expected to treat others well, whether they want to or not. Perhaps such people believe that if they violate this rule, others will think less of them, and so they capitulate.

This observation by Matthew Lieberman is in line with Richard Dawkins’s counsel that we “try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.”

Reciprocal Altruism

Reciprocal altruism is when seemingly selfless acts are actually motivated by trying to influence others to cooperate with us later.

Perhaps the person who receives help will reciprocate directly. Or the person offering help will be seen in a more beneficial way in the eyes of others, allowing him or her to gain more later. [7]

If a person helps another with hope that the receiver will return the favor, it's not altruism because it is not primarily motivated by a desire to help others.

Group Altruism

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David Sloan Wilson is a pioneer in the development of the principle of multi-level group selection. "The essential idea is this: culturally organized groups tend to act as organisms in their own right. Within such a group, the selfish individuals tend to come out ahead (per Richard Dawkins’ selfish gene theory), but between groups, those composed of individuals who behave altruistically win." [8]

David Sloan Wilson argues that what drives altruism in society is not the intention of the person, but the altruistic act itself and its effect on the community. 

According to Wilson, Darwin was right all along when he suggested that human traits come down to natural selection. An individual trait can be passed along because it helps an individual to survive, or because it helps a group to outcompete another group, even if having the trait costs the individual. Altruism falls in this latter category, says Wilson.

Wilson points to other species whose altruistic acts have furthered their survival over time, such as bees and ants. Worker bees or worker ants don’t get to reproduce; but, because they work to help their group overall, often at great cost to themselves, the hive survives. In the same way, humans that act for the sake of their group will also tend to come out on top, even if individuals within the group may fare less well in the process. Altruistic intent, he contends, is not important. [9]

Intent, for many people, is an important part of altruism. To look at this deeper we'll examine altruism through the lens of religion.

Altruism and Religion

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Intuitively, from a religious perspective, it feels that it's not enough to just do a good thing, you must do it with the right mindset. For example, volunteering at a soup kitchen is good. Volunteering at a soup kitchen so that you can impress and get close to someone cute is bad. In this case, the motivation for the action determines its "rightness."

However, it's easy to think of a counter example. Many religions call for loving your enemy. If someone were to harm you, you should not respond with aggression. You should respond with peace, no matter how hard it may be to bite your tongue. If someone needs your help, you should do the right thing and help that person. You don't have to like it, but you have to do it. In these cases, it's the action, not the motivation, that determines its "rightness."

Let's take a deeper look at the differences between altruistic actions and altruistic feelings.

Altruistic Actions vs. Altruistic Feelings

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Altruistic Actions

If we define altruism simply as acts or behavior that benefit others, then clearly altruism exists.

Look no further than Liviu Librescu, a victim of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting. Librescu was a holocaust survivor who later became an aeronautics engineer and was one of Virginia Tech's most popular professors. On the day of the shooting he blocked his classroom door from the gunman so that his students may escape, giving his own life in the process. [10]

Or Wesley Autrey, a 50-year-old construction worker and Navy veteran who risked his own life to save a man on the New York subway. Autrey leaped on the subway tracks, just as the train was arriving, to save a man who had just fallen in after suffering a seizure. [11]

Or Welles Remy Crowther, "The Man in the Red Bandana," who organized a rescue effort from the 78th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center on September 11th. Crowther, 24, corralled the people in his vicinity and led them down the stairs to safety. When they were in a safer spot he turned around and went back to save more people. He is reported to have saved over a dozen people that day, staying in the building to help until the building ultimately collapsed. [12] President Obama, on the opening of the National September 11 Memorial Museum, took time to identify Crowther by name, a man “who gave his life, so others might live.” [13]

In all of these cases, and millions more, an individual helped another person and received no material reward in return. Clearly altruistic actions exist.

Finding altruism becomes trickier if we define it as actions or behaviors that benefit others and do not benefit the self in any way. To look at this further, we'll discuss "The Warm Glow Effect" of altruism.

Altruistic Feelings (The Warm Glow Effect)

In 2006, one study focused on anonymous charitable donations. This is a good example of a specific altruistic act because the giver receives no tangible reward. "The individual gives away hard-earned money to benefit a total stranger, and he or she cannot expect any thanks, since the donation is anonymous. It’s altruism at its purest." [14]

However, the MRI revealed that the subjects did receive some benefit: a good feeling, often called the "warm glow of altruism."

The "warm glow" effect says that the psychological mechanism that motivates us to selflessly help others may be the intrinsic pleasure that we experience when we do it. [7]

The above study gave participants the option to donate money to various charities or they could keep the money for themselves. The researchers found that giving money activated the same reward center in the brain that was activated when the participants received money. [14]

The message is clear: we get pleasure from helping people.

Where Do We Go From Here?

After looking at the biological altruism, social altruism, and the "Warm Glow" effect, the concept of true altruism isn't looking good.

  1. If evolutionists are correct, then we perform altruistic acts in order to ensure the survival of our genes.
  2. If subjectivists are correct, then we're altruistic merely because we conform to social standards. And,
  3. If the MRI evidence is correct, then we're rewarded neurochemically by our brains.

As far as we currently know, we are always rewarded in one way or another by performing an altruistic act.

But there's a silver lining.

Each of us still have the choice to perform selfless acts. And if helping others makes us feels good, does that make it any less worthwhile?

Helping Ourselves by Helping Others

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Acting in self interest is not necessarily selfish.

Often we can help ourselves by helping others. We'll look at three examples: business, relationships, and sports.


Adam Smith, one of the founders of modern economics, was astute when he wrote, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest.” [7]

They help put food on our table because by charging us, they are able to put food on their own.

At the end of the day, a business is about reallocating money. A business owner wants your money. However, the store owner who overcharges her customers will find it bad for business in the long run. [15]

It is a common practice for businesses to compete by trying to offer the lowest price. 

It may the case that a store owner truly does want to save you money, but they are also trying to keep the business alive. A business with low prices is trying to entice you to spend your money at that store.

You get lower prices and the can keep their store alive. By helping you, they are also trying to help themselves. 


This section echoes many of the the points in the above section, group altruism.

Humans naturally organize ourselves into groups. These groups require that individuals act in a way that benefits the group first, even at the cost of the individual. In doing so, it strengthens the health of the group and therefore provides a stable and healthy home for the individual.


In many team sports, winning often comes down to the ability for the team members to work cohesively as one unit.

In basketball it is in the interest of the players to pass to a teammate with an open shot. 

An unselfish player who passes the ball when she sees a teammate who is placed for an easier shot may not get much glory, and may even be overlooked by her teammates; but a team with at least a player or two who passes unselfishly will easily defeat another team whose players never pass.

We might prefer a team in which every member is thinking of the good of the team with every action she takes; but what really matters is that she takes the action that’s in the best interest of the team, whether it’s passing, dribbling, or shooting. [15]

This is backed up by a study from the State University of New York.

A comparison of "assisted team points" and "unassisted team points" in relationship to win-loss record favored the former and strongly suggested that how a basketball team scores points is more important than the number of points it scores. [16]

The same sentiment is echoed in other team sports. If an individual wants to win a game they should do what is best for the team.

Philosophers and scientists are still divided on why humans have the capacity for altruism.

Determining whether or not altruism exists also depends on how altruism is defined and whether it is the action or the motivation that makes it altruistic.

However, it is possible to act in the best interest of others, that still benefits the self. If you act to help others, albeit with a secondary motive to feel good about yourself, does that make it a selfish act?

There is a sense that we could characterize these behaviors as selfish but, it is not the kind of selfishness that seems morally questionable.

As the Dalai Lama advises, “If you would like to be selfish, you should do it in a very intelligent way. The stupid way to be selfish is the way we always have worked, seeking happiness for ourselves alone and in the process becoming more and more miserable. The intelligent way to be selfish is to work for the welfare of others” because doing so is intrinsically pleasurable. [17]


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[1] Suttie, Jill. "Why Does Altruism Exist." Greater Good. University of California, Berkeley, 15 Apr. 2015. Web. 23 Mar.
[2] Ghiselin, Michael T. The Economy of Nature and the Evolution of Sex. N.p.: U of California Press, 1974. Electronic.
[3] Than, Ker. "What is Darwin's Theory of Evolution?" LiveScience. N.p., 13 May 2015. Web. 22 Mar. 2017.
[4] Dingfelder, Sadie F. "Altruism: an accident of nature?" Monitor on Psychology. American Psychological Association, Dec. 2006. Web. 11 Apr. 2017.
[5] Editor. "Kin Selection." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 26 Mar. 2009. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.
[6] "Durkheim's Altruism As The Source Of His Social Holism." Electronic Journal of Sociology (2001). CAAP, n.d. Web. 3 Apr. 2017.
[7] Lieberman, Matthew. Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect. New York: Crown Publishers, 2013. Print.
[8] "Does Altruism Exist?" N.p., 23 Apr. 2015. Web. 16 Apr. 2017.
[9] Tierney, John. "Taxes a Pleasure? Check the Brain Scan." The New York Times. The New York Times, 18 June 2007. Web. 26 Mar. 2017.
[10] "Liviu Librescu." We Remember | Virginia Tech. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Mar. 2017.
[11] Buckley, Cara. "Man Is Rescued by Stranger on Subway Tracks." The New York Times. The New York Times, 02 Jan. 2007. Web. 12 Apr. 2017.
[12] "Welles’ Story." Welles Remy Crowther Trust. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Apr. 2017.
[13] Roller, Emma, and Brian Resnick. "President Obama Dedicates the 9/11 Museum to the Man in the Red Bandanna." The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 15 May 2014. Web. 18 Mar. 2017.
[14] Moll, Jorge, Frank Krueger, Roland Zahn, Matteo Pardini, Ricardo De Oliveira-Souza, and Jordan Grafman. "Human fronto–mesolimbic networks guide decisions about charitable donation." Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience Unit. National Institutes of Health, 7 Sept. 2006. Web. 2 Mar. 2017.
[15] Irwin, William. "Does Altruism Exist? by David Sloan Wilson." Philosophy Now: a magazine of ideas. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Apr. 2017.
[16] Melnick, MJ. "Relationship between team assists and win-loss record in The National Basketball Association." Perceptual and motor skills. U.S. National Library of Medicine, Apr. 2001. Web. 13 Apr. 2017.
[17] 14th Dalai Lama. The Way to Freedom. N.p.: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 2014.