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.