Altruism: Fact or Myth?

Altruism: Fact or Myth? Image by Tim Mossholder via Unsplash

Do-gooders. Good samaritans. Philanthropists. 

Those who help the elderly cross the street. Those who spend the weekends volunteering at their nearest homeless shelter. Those who fund the eradication of polio. 

If we gain a confidence boost, if we feel uplifted by our pledge of generosity, are we truly being selfless? Does altruism actually exist? That is the question. 

Altruism: “when we act to promote someone else’s welfare, even at a risk or cost to ourselves.” 

While we all know that altruistic acts exist, are they fully ‘based on altruistic motives’? If there is some level of self-interest – whether this be the guarantee of eternal salvation or simply a sense of self-approbation – can we truly claim that we’re acting completely for someone else? 

Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe we shouldn’t be focusing on whether or not altruism itself exists. Maybe we should push aside all debate about whether intent is more important than action. 

New York Times columnist David Brooks argues that the first thing we need to do is change the current trajectory: society functions on the premise that humans are “fundamentally selfish” beings.

It comes down to positive reinforcement (don’t be fooled by the word positive). We start a vicious cycle: by calling ourselves selfish, we condition ourselves to think we are selfish, in turn, inducing selfish behaviour. “If you expect people to be selfish, you can actually crush their tendency to be good.” We need to change the idea that our selfishness is instinctual. It’s not. It is absolutely a choice. It is only when we recognise this, that we’ll be able to change the way we operate. 

Image by mylifethroughalens via Unsplash

In fact, helping others is in our nature. David Sloan Wilson, author of the book ‘Does Altruism Exist?claims that “we are a social species (because)… mutual aid is required to accomplish together what cannot be accomplished alone” (9). His belief in altruism stems from group-selection theory: the less common notion that natural selection occurs at a group, rather than individual level. What at least partially determines ‘selected’ groups is their level of cooperation. 

The main thing we need to do is get rid of the flawed mindset that service makes you a saviour. We often do service on the assumption that we’re the ones doing all the giving; even the terms “volunteer” and “beneficiary” imply a deeply imbalanced power dynamic. 

The premise of service should be that both parties have the mutual capacity to help each other. The biological definition of altruism states that helping others makes the altruist feel better. Like a symbiotic relationship, altruism also brings comfort to the one being helped. Just because the self-worth, purpose and outlook you gain from volunteering cannot be monetized, doesn’t denote a lack of intrinsic value. 

Even in giving advice, you get something in return. Psychologist Adam Grant states that “When you talk other people through their problems, you come up with wiser perspectives and solutions for yourself.” 

Building a world based on generosity and civic-mindedness isn’t as impossible as it may seem. Because what we’re asking for isn’t selflessness, it’s reciprocity: you get what you give. And we’ll know we’ve got to this point when helping someone out is no longer worthy of praise – it’ll have become the norm.

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