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.

Ultimate Egoism Is Not Ultimately Good For The World

I have recently finished reading The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand’s epic of a novel heralding human egoism as the ultimate virtue. One of my high school teacher’s noted Rand’s seductive abilities, and I have to admit that I was indeed to quite an extent seduced by the book and its underlying values. The whole notion of individuals steadfastly holding to their ideals, not answering to anyone else, and only doing things in their rational self interest at first glance appealed to me a lot.

However, with more reflection, I also noticed why ultimate egoism of the Randian variety is an unreachable, and unfavorable ideal. Humans are inherently social. Yes, self-interest determines much of our lives, especially economically, but not to the extent that we completely disregard others. We have emotions, we have empathy, we have sympathy, succinctly put – we care for others too. The main problem with Rand’s view of human nature is that the ultimate egotist would fail to see the consequences of his/her actions on the extended environment, thus leading to a long-term net loss of utility and welfare for the entire environment in which the individual egotist exists. As a global society, we have already seen the great devastation caused by largely individual disregard for negative externalities during the financial crisis of 2007-2010.

This brings me to Schroedinger. In one of his 1956 lectures at Cambridge University on Mind and Matter, Erwin Schroedinger defined consciousness as providing “the mechanism for adapting to a changing surrounding”. He ventured further to even postulate that “evolution falls in the realm of consciousness” as evolution is a biological response to changes in environment. While Schroedinger acknowledged that evolution takes place through mutations of genes in individuals, he also asserted that it is the net result of evolution in a multitude of individuals which is biologically significant. He also mentioned that “for a solitary animal egoism is a virtue that tends to preserve and improve the species; in any kind of community it becomes a destructive vice”. He then gave the example of bees, ants, and termites in their primary communities “having given up egoism completely”. Unfortunately, a slightly disturbing anecdote about “worker bees that go astray to the wrong hive and being murdered” concluded the example on a morbid note, and paralleled somewhat to current human society.

As humans have become increasingly interconnected and interdependent, in our immediate communities (and sometimes even larger extended ones), we have consciously evolved towards a greater altruistic identity as we realize that the well-being of others has a profound impact on our well-being. Examples of this include family members often sacrificing their self-interest for the well-being of their kin (in the form of working jobs they don’t enjoy, feeding others before themselves etc) and soldiers risking their lives for the protection of their country and its ideals. However, a widespread ‘global altruism’ is still lacking. Luckily enough, evolution (both biological and social) is a continuing process and we can individually consciously contribute towards a broader outlook towards the well-being of all things living.

To me it seems that Ayn Rand got human nature only half-right. Without doubt, as individuals humans are self-interested, but in communities rational egotism makes way for irrational egotism and rational group-interest. Ayn Rand was a staunch critic of altruism, saying that people were only ‘trying to be altruistic’ so that they could be championed in society. If I could have met her, my question to her would be “but why is that so bad”? While she had a point that true altruism is exceedingly hard to find, I don’t think it should be looked down upon at all. In fact this ‘trying to be altruistic’ aspect of human nature should be inherently good for communities. It represents a compromise between the self and the community. ‘Trying to be altruistic’, humans will work for the greater good of their communities while at the same time quenching personal desires of seeking recognition and ‘feeling good about themselves’. Perhaps this is the best philosophy for humans to follow.