Why Absolute Selfless Altruism Does Not Exist

I have often had conversations with people who maintain that charitable or altruistic acts sometimes are committed in the strictest sense of selflessness – without any gain to the charitable person. I like to disagree. After discussions every now and then with family, friends, and teacher’s I’ve developed some reasoning to back-up the statement: absolute selfless altruism does not exist. I’m going to be referring to utility in the economic sense, so if you are unfamiliar with it, this is a good starting point to learn more.

I’m going to stay away from biological evolutionary altruism for the time being and focus on the everyday ethical notion of altruism. So, here goes – selfless altruism doesn’t exist because of the very existence of a motivation for the altruistic act. The person helping concludes that his/her help will make someone better off than before. And it is this knowledge which makes absolute selflessness (change in utility < 0) impossible, because this knowledge is in itself a utility gain to the helper. I’m basically arguing that from an economic standpoint, the person helping is always gaining something – it may be a concrete sense of goodwill, or just the simple knowledge that they have helped someone (this knowledge implies (at the very least, some) satisfaction, and hence I consider it to be a utility gain). Therefore, I contend that all acts of generosity have some degree of self-interest attached.

A counter-example I was given to this reasoning was the story of a boy who lost his life saving his younger brother in a flood (the younger brother survived). But how could the boy have been acting with self-interest if he risked his own life you ask? I responded that this example too fits in within my reasoning that selfless altruism does not exist. But how could the boy have been acting with self-interest if he risked his own life you ask? (Please note now, that I highly admire the courage of the boy, and in no way mean to disrespect his efforts in saving his younger brother) My answer is the following – it’s not the question of what the boy gains from death that’s important, but the notion of  absence of gains from living, i.e. the boy subconsciously concluded that surviving and losing his brother would be much, much worse for him, then death and the knowledge of the survival of his brother (or the possibility of both of them surviving somehow).

At the heart of this argument is idea that economic self-interest reigns supreme in all decisions. And by no means do I want to discredit any acts of generosity as purely selfish (they’re obviously not). What I do want to discredit though is the negative connotation which often arises when someone mentions self-interested altruism. Humans are self-interested as well as social animals. This is not a dichotomy, nor a paradox. Humans can help others while being self-interested and vice versa. In fact, I’d love to see an economic theory one day which is not based around maximizing personal utility, but based around maximizing a mixture of personal and group utility. I believe that there is nothing wrong with helping someone to feel good. From a utilitarian perspective, such acts of generosity are extremely efficient and effective. And even from a moral one, I don’t think there’s anything immoral in this. In fact, under some schools of philosophy, this is completely moral.

Continuing with a connection to a previous blog post in I mentioned Ayn Rand and individualism – although Rand considered herself the ultimate individualist, I don’t consider her to be such at all, because the ultimate individualist should appreciate the self-interest present in altruism. Rand abhorred philanthropists and in The Fountainhead, on numerous occasions mocked them for being charitable only to feel good. What Rand ironically missed is the individualism being displayed by the philanthropists. In fact, the feel-good-factor itself undermines Rand’s distaste for the altruistic.

I sincerely hope that I have convinced those initially disagreeing with me that ‘selfless’ in the everyday sense is actually meaningless, and that there is nothing wrong with the idea of self-interested altruism. I encourage people to be as charitable/generous/philanthropic as they can, because they will be maximizing not only the additional utility they can give to someone else, but also to themselves.

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4 thoughts on “Why Absolute Selfless Altruism Does Not Exist

  1. You make some good points, I think. But we pretty much covered most of this in our conversation anyways, so I couldn’t think of what to add. Just to be annoying/interesting I’ll still play the devil’s advocate, and I’ll look into the matter a bit more. BTW you need to fix your internal links, they don’t work.

  2. This nicely captures the difference between selfish (self-directed) actions and self-interested (based on what I want, which may include other-directed considerations).

    It always seemed to me that the important point when it comes to altruism wasn’t whether the agent gets any utility (then the only ‘altruistic’ people could be those that didn’t care about others and helped them anyway. Utility is the kind of the that comes with action, but isn’t necessarily the goal of the action. If the goal of the action is good/primarily about other-directed benefit, isn’t that what we want people to do?

    A quick analogy: every time I drive to the beach, I burn a lot of gas. But in the analysis of the act, the fact that i’ll necessarily burn gas is more of side effect of my trip, not why I’m doing it.

    • The point you make about the agent not getting any utility is interesting. In economics, at least, utility represents the satisfaction gained by the agent, so if an agent receives any sort of satisfaction from engaging in an charitable or ‘altruistic’ act, then they are gaining utility. And since altruism is defined as helping others without gain to oneself, there’s clearly a contradiction with whole idea of deriving satisfaction from ‘altruistic’ acts. So, actually perhaps as you mentioned, the only people who really are ‘altruistic’ are those who don’t care about others but help them anyways.

      I’m getting this feeling, that I’m arguing on the very pedantic notion of the traditional way in which altruism is defined as helping others without gain to oneself. In my opinion, the concept of altruism needs to be modified to represent helping others with minimum an opportunity cost to oneself. And were this the case, then I wholeheartedly believe altruism is prevalent across the globe.

      Also, we certainly want people to do good. But won’t it be more powerful if people appreciate and value (both morally and economically) doing good, and thus have more incentive to do social good?

  3. A few random thoughts (when I should be grading… ARG):

    Main thought: the real problem here may be using an intuitively plausible common sense definition of altruism and then getting confused when ‘benefit’ now has a very technical definition in our new context. Part of what I’m suggesting is that the ‘economic notion of benefit’ does a bad job capturing the ‘without benefit to yourself’ in the intuitive definition. The same word used in two different ways. At least maybe.

    Another weird thing to note (that kind of goes back to the gas example). Whether or not someone benefits has to do with the outcome of the action, not the motivation. I decide to volunteer to tutor kids in west philly because I think it’ll make me feel really good about myself. Stipulate – I don’t even care about their development, I just think that if I volunteer, I’ll feel really good about being the kind of guy who volunteers. I do it. I help the kids (since I’m a gifted teacher). I find out I just don’t give a crap. — I didn’t benefit, the kind benefited, I didn’t care about the kid’s benefit and the kid’s benefit alone never would have convinced me to volunteer. Obviously not altruism.

    That why altruism has to be ‘being motivated to benefit others without being motivated to benefit yourself’ or something. If you give me that, and the motivation isn’t my utility TADA altruism.

    Side note: was that a false dilemma on my end?
    Other side note: Look at P2 and P3 and see how I have it ingrained? Reason, example, tacit response to a counterargument, concluding the significance of my example in a way that transitions to my next point presented in the first sentence of my next paragraph!

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