Altruism, selfishness and purity

Saturday September 5, 2009

Open Palm

A couple of weeks ago, there was an article in the New Scientist that touched on the topic of altruism. In the article it was suggested that there is a correlation between levels of altruism and the presence of a particular variant of one particular gene (see here) which gives a nice hormonal buzz when its bearer performs some altruistic act.

Now, all of that may be so, but what I wondered about was the throwaway line at the end of the article, where the author Kate Douglas suggested that “some might argue that if random acts of kindness give us a mental buzz, then this is not pure altruism after all.”

This, it seems, is a common claim. We are, alas, terribly suspicious when it comes to acts of apparent altruism – not just suspicious of each other, but also suspicious of ourselves. “Was that a good act?” we find ourselves asking. “Really? But I’m feeling better now I have done it. So perhaps I’m just self-interested after all…” This kind of suspicion can run rampant, so that we can come to the conclusion that there really is nothing in altruism at all, that all is self-interest. And if this is the case, why bother going through the pantomime of altruism at all? Why no go all-out for self-interest?

It seems to me, however, that such a conclusion is not warranted. It is born out of the idea that, for altruism to mean anything, it must be somehow “pure”, that there must be one single motive, and no others. Not only that, but the view is often that there must only be benefit to the object of our altruistic attentions, and any benefit that we thereby accrue somehow diminishes the act (a kind of crude “if it don’t hurt, it ain’t moral” view). But the idea that altruism – or any other virtue – must be pure to be counted a virtue at all is something of a non-starter if we are interested in thinking about how we act in the world. If we reverse the picture, this becomes more apparent. Imagine that I am the recipient of an altruistic act. I fall off my bike, and a stranger stops and helps me back to my feet. From my point of view, this seems very like an act of altruism, and it hardly matters that – for example – they are pleased to stop so that they can be late for that boring meeting to which that they were hurrying. Although they may have accrued a little benefit in terms of shaving five minutes off the dreaded meeting, this does not, as the recipient of the kind act, diminish the act for me. Not only this, but I would really much rather that the person helping me actually derived some residual benefit by helping me. At the very least, I would rather that, in our brief encounter, we exchanged a few friendly words and they went away with a smile on their face, feeling a bit better about life, than I would that they helped me out of grim duty and gained not a single drop of pleasure or of any other benefit from so doing. The kinds of altruism worth having, in other words, are not the kinds that are ‘pure’ according to these exacting standards by virtue of which only one party benefits; and if we look for pure altruism, then we end up failing to see any altruism at all. This does us a disservice. The world that we inhabit is not a world of pure abstractions, but is irredeemably mixed, and any account of ethics worth its salt needs to start from this point, rather than from the position of some abstract idea of purity.

But here’s another thought. If all of the above is true, and if there is no such thing as a purely altruistic act, then it may be that there is no such thing as a purely selfish act, because this idea of pure selfishness makes as little sense – and is based upon the same premises – as the idea of pure altruism. This, however, may be rather harder to swallow. Nevertheless, if we do give up on the idea of pure altruism, and if we also give up the idea of pure selfishness, then perhaps we might be able to see things in a rather more subtle fashion, to see the virtues and the vices not as absolutes that stand outside the ebb and flow of our lives, but as tendencies and currents with this ebb and flow. And with this subtlety may come a rather more generous attitude by virtue of which we might be able to appreciate what altruism there is in the world, and thereby give this goodness a little more space to breathe and flourish.

Image: Thanks to himalayanart.org

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#1 · Jo Ind

7 September 2009

I know I keep saying this – but this is SO helpful. I really like your thinking and your writing. I get something from it every time.

#2 · Zaidi

9 September 2009

Very nicely put: “Not absolutes…but as tendencies and currents with this ebb and flow. And with this subtlety may come a rather more generous attitude.” One good deed inspires another…and another…and another…and so on. It’s called Humanism.

#3 · JohnFrost

11 September 2009

“Not only this, but I would really much rather that the person helping me actually derived some residual benefit by helping me. At the very least, I would rather that, in our brief encounter, we exchanged a few friendly words and they went away with a smile on their face, feeling a bit better about life, than I would that they helped me out of grim duty and gained not a single drop of pleasure or of any other benefit from so doing”

Very good point, and one that is often overlooked.

#4 · Robert Ellis

13 September 2009

I very much agree with this, and I think it fits with my thoughts on the subject, which you can see at www.moralobjectivity….
Robert
(apologies for double posting: please delete the previous one which has duff web link)

#5 · Will

13 September 2009

Thanks for the link, Robert – as you say, I think this is very much in tune of what I’m trying to say here. I like your point as well about not actually being able to act in everyone’s interests – in part because we can only identify with a few things at a time, and no doubt in part because we can’t assume that what is in the interests of A is also in the interests of B. But I’ll write more about this later.

#6 · Nagapriya

13 September 2009

The view that you challenge here is one I have certainly come across, even quite recently. It seems to me that to ‘debunk’ altruism in this way is the easy refuge of the cynic; not only this but it also means that he or she does not need to address their own limited responses to others. Seemingly,the compassionate person is just as selfish but rather than getting their kicks out of self-gratification they get them out of helping others.

To my mind, any fluttering of motivation to reach out in the direction of the needs of others is to be affirmed in the warmest terms. Going beyond self-obsession is difficult enough without someone telling us that our desire to help others is really further evidence of our selfishness.

I am interested too in your suggestion that there is no such thing as a purely selfish act. This merits further reflection.

#7 · Anittah

23 September 2009

I was having a similar discussion with my father the day after you posted this article, but am only now reading your thoughts.

Something else to consider is the role of the notion of the ‘self’ in constructs of altruism. These ideas of “self-interest” and “self-less” are all predicated on notions of a unique self distinct from others, distinct from the universe.

I must continuously work to remember that there is no self and no unique I. From this perspective, the “debate” about altruism disappears entirely; altruistic acts are not motivated by “self-desire” but rather are entity-nourishing. The entity, in this case, is the interconnected whole of the universe.

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