Social Question

escapadesofapoet's avatar

Altruism - Does it Really Exist?

Asked by escapadesofapoet (134points) October 5th, 2011

So I wanted other people’s ideas about this. I have always been of the belief that is does not exist.

As all altruistic actions are in someway beneficial to the person performing them, even if it is just the “feel good” factor they get when they do them. This is in my opinion, please let me know what you think and examples are always lovely and welcomed.

Observing members: 0 Composing members: 0

42 Answers

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

Sometimes people do things without knowing what they’re doing just that it’s right…just recently there was a guy who pulled that other guy from jumping in front of a train. That was split second thinking to prevent harm to another.

escapadesofapoet's avatar

@simone de beauvior – do u think conscience altruism can happen?

zenvelo's avatar

This is tough to answer because you have defined altruism in a manner that makes it impossible. But altruism is not restricted to actions that do not in any way shape or from benefit the performer of the action. The psychic/emotional benefit that occurs but is not sought does not diminish the act.

I know many people who are altruistic, who try their best at helping others without thought of reward. A friend has a regular group of homeless that she checks in on when she sees them. She is poor also, and shares when she can, but also talks to them about how hard things are. She does it from a place of empathy.

There is an Al-Anon piece that Dear Abby publishes once a year called Just For Today. One of the points is:

Just for today I will exercise my soul in three ways: I will do somebody a good turn, and not get found out; if anybody knows of it, it will not count. I will do at least two things I don’t want to do – just for exercise. I will not show anyone that my feelings are hurt; they may be hurt, but today I will not show it.

The thought behind this is that our self esteem/inner consciousness/spiritual connection needs us to practice altruism. Caring for others without gain or recognition is good for oneself.

marinelife's avatar

Altruism does exist. It may have some benefits for the person doing the altruistic act, but that is not their motive for doing the act.

GabrielsLamb's avatar

I find that people who with intent adhere to the theory of the tabula rasa, have more difficulty with it than others.

I absolutely believe in it and I also believe it is what is both necessary for, and missing from society in order for it to be a beneficial place for everyone collectively.

It doesn’t matter to me if it be inherent or learned, cultivated with intent to do so or self actuated for personal benefit… as long as it is done. That’s the important part as an ideal end result.

It’s better when it is genuine, but if it benefits someone that is the point. Better to be ingenuine with a purpose than it is to be a douche for no good reason I say. Just so long as it is understood and acknowledged.

There is a very selfish and self seeking intellect throughout the world lately as a current. I believe altruism is the cure and I say that completely aware of the fact that on a personal level it can at times be painful when not recriprocated.

escapadesofapoet's avatar

I’m enjoying reading the responses :) i think it is important to do things for others, not for your own good. :D

Coloma's avatar

Yes, I believe it does, but, for it to be healthy and truly an act of selflessness is rare.

I have had the experience of giving from a truly altruistic place with no motivation other than to make things a little easier for someone else and to spread some joy through random acts of kindness.

However, there are many, many, codependent “givers” whose underlying motives are all about propping up their self image as a generous and caring person, when, in reality their giving has ropes attached the size of a cruise ship. lol

I let go of a “friend” like this some months ago. Her false self image is all about how caring and giving she is, when in truth she is completely deluded that her acts of giving are anything but. They are designed to manipulate, create indebtedness of others, to control, and then “collect” on debts that others do not even know they owe!
Really fucked up! haha

One of my biggest pet peeves are people that “give”, say to a homeless person, but, with their own controlling strings attached. They refuse to hand over any cash that the person may choose to use for drugs or alcohol. They feel that somehow they are being “giving” when in actuality they are being controlling.

“Giving” is not about setting conditions on how the gift is used.

If I give someone cash I don’t care what they do with it. My part is only in the giving,and they can buy a sandwich or a pint of cheap booze…not my biz.

I feel it is insulting as hell to mandate how a homeless person chooses to spend a few bucks, talk about further diminishing someones already shakey dignity.

” Oh here’s $10 bucks, but, you BETTER spend it the way I think you SHOULD!”


While the act itself may not be diminished, if there is a hidden agenda, expectation, conditions attached, then don’t call it “giving” and get your ego all puffed up about how altruistic you are. lol

Linda_Owl's avatar

Yes, I think altruism exists, but only within people who have empathy for other people. Without empathy, an individual would not feel the urge to help another.

GabrielsLamb's avatar

I believe that the very best things as provisions, are not haughty, not showey, and benefit the giver as little as possible in the same sence of the giving it. Meaning that if I give someone attention, who I know, or assume due to their condition or station in life doesn’t normally get attention because of it, I shouldn’t feel it is right to do so to GET attention in exchange to support my own self image, or my own agenda.

But if you get love back for it in return… that’s a good thing ♥ following right action as a kind of currency in exchange that improves the world.

A good example of this is to intentionally love someone that you KNOW doesn’t like you very much with the intent of changing not their opinion, but instead their heart. It seems like a lesson in futility and on the outside looking in, it even appears to be ignorant but the greater purpose shines through if the event can be maintained as a selfless act with no benefit to the self.

That is the part in altruism that is difficult. Even Mother Theresa became famous. I’m certain that wasn’t her intent, but that doesn’t stop people from saying it might have been so it’s tricky.

Mariah's avatar

I’ve heard this one often.

Yes, I think there is always some benefit to the person who commits an “altruistic” act, even if it’s just “it made me feel good about myself.” However, I think sometimes the sacrifice so greatly outweighs the benefit that we can consider that benefit negligible. When somebody risks her life for another, yeah, she may feel pride for doing so, but who cares? What she did was so big and could have gone so wrong for her, it was essentially selfless. See here.

Not that extreme situations are the only true examples of altruism, either. I also agree with what @marinelife said.

thorninmud's avatar

I think the “there is no true altruism because all ‘altruism’ is fundamentally self-serving” argument is based on a misunderstanding of what compassion is. For all practical purposes, altruism is compassion put to action.

Compassion is a breakdown of the demarcation between “me” and “that other guy”. In other words, it’s experiencing that other guy as yourself on a non-conceptual level. Yes, you know that’s not you, but compassion doesn’t operate on that cognitive level where you know this. It’s a visceral understanding that your suffering is my suffering. On that level there is no “me” as opposed to “you”. There’s just this larger, multi-headed me.

It’s from this larger sense of “me” that true altruism springs. When looked at this way, then the question of whether altruism is self-serving becomes rather nonsensical because “self” no longer has the same meaning.

Coloma's avatar


Right! Well put. Altruism is in identifying as one human to another, the ” there but for the grace of god go I ” mantra. There is no giver and there is no receiver, there is only a moment of shared humanity. :-)

GabrielsLamb's avatar

@thorninmud What about people who do charity work completely anonymous? There are many you know… *Well, actually you wouldn’t know, because they don’t advertise it for person gratification or attention.

It’s a kind of catch-22 and it is exactly why sometimes it is necessary for it to be an exchange with intent. Like when you hire a celebrity to host a charity event that might draw ticket sales and thereby raise the money earned for the charity.

It is only altruistic is that celebrity in turn turns around an anonymously re-donates their showing fee back to the charity or doesn’t accept a fee at all. Most people don’t see that part and that is true altrusim and I do believe in it.

Not someone like Bono who is very vocal with his environmental causes who then turns around and makes a public specticle of having to FLY to retrieve a “Lucky hat” that he needed to perform a concert for charity… is hypocritical and bullshit… Even if there was some benefit somehow and even though some people will look in and judge him, and others will still say “Oh, big deal, what a great guy.”

Like I say, human intent can’t be proven… It is a silent condition dependent upon honesty which is also dependent upon a personal sense of right and wrong, which is also unknown in part, and that therefore obscures much of the SEEMINGLY known (believed) factors concerning these things. Everybody knows what word is smack dab in the middle of beLIEve… right?

Blackberry's avatar

Of course it exists. I would feel bad for anyone who hasn’t seen it or doesn’t believe people are capable of it. Even without going into the sociological aspect of it, some people really do have genuine motives.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@Blackberry What’s wrong with looking at things in a sociological way? ~ :)

Coloma's avatar


Not necessarily. One of the traits of a conscienceless type, is to use “giving” manipulatively.
As others have said, it is impossible to know the motives of anyone other than ourselves.

Giving to get, is a trick of a lot of con artist personalities.

Blackberry's avatar

@Simone Nothing at all, I’m just not prepared to give a detailed answer.

wundayatta's avatar

I think that many altruistic acts do benefit the actor. Primarily, the acts enhance the reputation of the altruistic person. However it is possible to do altruistic things without letting anyone know you have done those acts. Then, if people appreciate those acts, you can get a bit of an internal glow for making someone happy or feel better.

I think altruists get some positive feedback in knowing they have done something that will help others and perhaps even help all of society. I know I have spent most of my life “doing good,” albeit without much success. But my work had to do with keeping energy prices affordable, getting equal rights for women, preventing nuclear war and the danger of nuclear accidents, clean water, clean air, universal health care, health care for documented immigrants, helping voters understand what their congressional representatives are doing for them, helping the elderly get prescription drug coverage, designing a solid waste program for Palestine and on and on.

I did get a paycheck, so I never really felt like I was being very altruistic, but I was only interested in work that would help people on a societal level. In theory I could have earned more money if I went into the private sector, but I was theoretically sacrificing personal remuneration for social good. In the process, I was also sacrificing income for my family.

But this is all theoretical. Did I ever do anything helpful? Could I have actually earned more in the private sector?

I am disappointed that my efforts pretty much amounted to nothing. When depressed, I see my life as a waste. That, taken together with my more venal motivations (desire for change, salary) make me thing that I was certainly not very altruistic.

There are people who have made a difference, though. I always think of Mother Theresa. Plus there are many political leaders who have sacrificed themselves for their causes. I would never do that. My willingness to sacrifice has its limits. I’ll do a little good here and there. I’ll be a good samaritan when it’s easy. But my days of demonstrating and staying up all night for weeks on end for a cause are over. My children will have to be my contribution to the world these days. Other than that, I’m selfish now.

I think altruism—or what can functionally be construed as altruism—exists. But I think it’s kind of complex, too.

Blackberry's avatar

@Simone Yeah I know : )

philosopher's avatar

I remain positive despite that I struggle daily to help my autistic son. I have helped other parents because I feel they deserve my help. Some people have helped me because they care. I have been helped by Professionals that care.
I do believe that some people are Altruistic. There are many greedy people. There are also decent people.

DominicX's avatar

I agree with @marinelife and @Mariah on this one. Altruism and selfless acts do exist because what matters is the motivation for the act. It doesn’t matter if donating to charity makes you “feel good”; if you did it for no other reason than to help someone else, then it was altruistic, regardless of the effect it may have on you.

boxer3's avatar

This takes me back to analyzing “The Fountain Head”.....
um. I would like to believe it does. I think potentially in small
instances but on the large scale of things I think generally it’s more kill two birds with
stone type thing, I’m happy you’re happy yay for us.

I do think on occassion though, that a person can make an altruistic act-
though I dont think anyone can FULLY be altruistic, which I think is ok.
If you don’t look outfor yourself now and again why would or should anyone else. I think you’ve gotta find a balance.

El_Cadejo's avatar

@Simone_De_Beauvoir you’re first post reminds me of a few New Years ago. My girlfriend and I had seen a concert in Philly, had an amazing time and were headed back to the train station to go home for the night. When we got to the station there was someone around our age (early twenties) just breaking down in the station asking others for help, asking to use a phone and everyone was ignoring him so I went up to him to offer help. He ended up telling me his story and how depressed he was. After a few phone calls with no answer he said thanks and walked off. Then his pace sped up and we both realized he was going right for the tracks. I ended up stopping him and then my girlfriend and I spent pretty much the rest of the night talking to this kid, helping him get shit straight and got him to help he needed. Neither of us actually gained anything from this encounter, honestly we’d probably both have preferred just tripping the rest of the night having a good time, but helping him was the right thing to do so we did. It was especially depressing to both of us though just seeing how every other person in that station could care less and just went on with their lives. I really do fear he would have died that night if we weren’t there.

Mariah's avatar

@uberbatman That is an awesome story and I think you did an incredible thing that night. I personally believe that such acts are altrustic.

But just to play devil’s advocate, one with the viewpoint of the OP might argue that the desire to avoid the guilt you would have felt if you had let him die could have motivated your actions.

I think you can always find some kind of benefit for the person who commits an act of kindness if you search hard enough, but the idea that no act is truly altrustic makes some very cynical projections about people’s “real” motives for doing things which certainly are not necessarily true.

El_Cadejo's avatar

@Mariah I agree but at the same time I could have ignored him asking for a phone and been on the train in 5 min and that would have been that. Would never have known he was actually depressed or that he would have killed himself. The only real “benefit” I gained is a nice story to tell but eh lol

snowberry's avatar

Every once in a while I meet someone that if I were in their shoes, I’d want someone to help me. If nobody’s helping them, I help them. I don’t expect any sort of recognition, or good feelings, I just do it because it needs to be done and nobody else is doing it.

Coloma's avatar


Great story! :-D

I am known for bringing home vagabond hippie kids in my tourist community, for nothing more than a chance to make room at the inn, share the joy of a traveling fellow soul and, in-joy a breif moment in time communing with other free spirited types.

Hibernate's avatar

Yes. One of my friends taught it to me when he was always thinking of me before him. I was surprised but I liked it.

everephebe's avatar

Yes, it does.
And I’ll never be cynical enough to believe otherwise.

escapadesofapoet's avatar

I’m not saying I don’t do good things for others. And I don’t think that people can’t do good things. I’m asking is it altruistic. I have on many occasions brought breakfast for some homeless people and sat and chatted to them for a while. There was one guy in particular who used to sit on the bridge near Guy’s Hospital in London. He is always saying poems in a Jamaican poem form (I don’t know what the style is called) I bought him breakfast and we chatted about this and that. I think it is important to do things for others but is the sense of well-being we received lodged in the back of our brain. If we do x then i will have a sense of well-being?

El_Cadejo's avatar

@escapadesofapoet I personally dont think so. I don’t do nice things because I know I’ll feel nice about it later. I do nice things because I believe its the right thing to do.

escapadesofapoet's avatar

@uberbatman but by doing something you think is right is giving you the feeling you are doing something good and in turn would make you feel some satisfaction in performing something that needs to be done or should be done. Or am i not making sense :S

I’m saying maybe there is an unconscious motive. I’m not saying it makes the act any less great or of importance.

GabrielsLamb's avatar

@uberbatman It was altruism… until the minute you told us. Now, it’s just a good deed.


I’m kidding… I think you’re pretty freaking amazing actually and you and your GF have some good stuff coming to you in life! ♥ That story rocks!

GabrielsLamb's avatar

@snowberry Jelly, you’re awesome!

jerv's avatar

It does, but modern American culture considers it a weakness.

escapadesofapoet's avatar

@jerv I’m not american, I’m British..does that mean it isn’t considered a weakness in Britain just America? o.O

Hacksawhawk's avatar

The first argument is Hume’s, the second I got from a class I took (maybe it’s Hume’s as well).

1. The “feel good effect” from altruism is simply a side effect. When I help an old lady cross the street it’s because I want to, and the feeling I get from it is only a side effect. What matters is whether you want to do it or not.

2. The argument against altruism often goes: “Ultimately, nobody is truly altruistic; we can always find a motive when we look close enough, that reveals that the person in question is actually acting selfish.”
Counterargument: True, if I look close enough, everybody is acting selfish. But by the same reasoning everybody is ugly as well. If you look at somebody from a minimal distance, that person is always going to appear ugly; if I look so close that I see all the pores and blemishes and what not, that person will appear repulsive to me. Yet don’t we talk of beauty? Don’t I call that girl from the bakery pretty? I can find somebody beautiful, even though rationally I know that she isn’t beautiful if I start examining her thoroughly.

This also counts for ethics: on close inspection we can call everybody selfish; but it doesn’t work like that. I call a person helping that elderly woman cross the street selfless. If I start questioning that person whether he/she really was acting selfless, maybe then I’d find a selfish motive, yet I still call that person selfless.

Conclusion: Disbelief in altruism is really pessimistic.

Mariah's avatar

@Hacksawhawk Very interesting points. Welcome to Fluther.

MrRedwood's avatar

I was googling around trying to remind myself which philosopher had a similar story told about him. I thought it was Nietzsche, but it was apparently Hobbes, if Etzioni had it correct (viz). Hobbes famously denied the possibility of altruism, and when caught giving alms to a beggar, claimed he was doing it for his own benefit, because it hurt him to see a man so hungry.

Hobbes’ refutation is semantics: he has effectively defined altruism to mean an act by which the giver receives no benefit at all — not even the warm fuzzies of thinking oneself a better person. But that definition pretty much eliminates the possibility. If altruism is an intentional act (e.g., one can’t be altruistic accidentally), then there must be some sense, however abstract, in which one wants it, thus providing some utility to oneself.

A more useful definition has evolved for altruism is an act that benefits and has a cost to the giver. As long as the giver and receiver are related in some way, that’s pretty easy, since kin selection (and, perhaps, group selection) theories tell us that a sacrifice for someone that carries genes very similar to one’s own can still be self-centered from an evolutionary point of view (or is a member of one’s own cultural group, in group selection).

It gets tougher when giver and receiver are strictly unrelated, but even then there is still evidence, and some theory about how it came about.

When I donate blood (and I do to the extent of twelve gallons over the past three decades), my act comes at a cost to me — small, of course, unless something goes wrong. The benefit accrues in way I have no control over — the recipient could be someone I despise and would prefer to see dead, and I will never know. Since almost no one of my acquaintance knows when I give blood, this can’t be said to be enhancing my reproductive chances, so why would I do such a thing?

The current theory is that it is a cultural expansion of evolved tendencies. As a species we acquired kin selection altruism when we were a the social level of our ape relatives. Once cultural continuity help with our survival (e.g., when the number of tools and techniques our clan depended on surpassed what one family could pass on to its children), then the need for survival of non-kin pushed altruism (and related cognates such as patriotism) beyond kin circles, for to tribes, then to entire societies. Since those latter concepts are fairly flexible, it doesn’t take too much for a cosmopolitan to extend altruism to strangers.

But, yes, Hobbes was right. We do it, in the end, because it makes us feel good to help other people.

Answer this question




to answer.
Your answer will be saved while you login or join.

Have a question? Ask Fluther!

What do you know more about?
Knowledge Networking @ Fluther