December 4, 2008
The Fallacy of Altruism
I was born on a crisp Virginia Thanksgiving Day to hard working parents and a loving community. Both of her parents had a military background and were stationed at the Pentagon at the time of her birth. Wanting to get back to their southern roots, the Dennard family moved to Texas, where she was raised in a predominantly Christian, white, upper-middle class suburb of Houston. Under a parenting philosophy that influenced travel and service, Dennard was exposed to cultures and lifestyles very different from her own. This lead to her interest in solving the social injustices she observed while traveling and in her community. After graduating early from high school, she traveled to South Africa where she taught swimming and worked at a church foster home. Her interest in activism and heart for service continued through college, where she studied sociology, psychology, and dispute resolution. Although Dennard takes a realist perspective on altruism, she does not discount the importance and nobility of good deeds.
Driving through a tollbooth, a man pays for the person behind him, after work a woman buys dinner for a homeless child, and a busy college student spends one night a week playing cards in a retirement home. Although these good deeds might go unnoticed by the masses, they perpetuate the benevolent society we live in and contribute to the development of individuals who are willing to do something for someone else. On the surface, kind actions appear to be free of selfish motives, and could be considered altruistic. In 1851French philosopher Auguste Comte coined the term altruisme, as meaning, “self sacrifice for the benefit of others”. Two years later, it entered the English language as altruism. Merriam- Webster defines this debatably existent term as an “unselfish concern for the welfare of others; selflessness (2008)”. Many idealistic theorists argue that some actions can be described as altruistic, and others would say that no good deed is completely selfless.
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“The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”
This temptation is one that no human can resist. It is inevitable that people feel the need to profit, in some way, from every experience. Because of the human condition, every individual suffers at the hand of his or her own self-maximizing tendencies. It is for this reason that I ask, does true altruism exist? Through logic adopted from other theorists and examples, I argue that true altruism is impossible because people’s actions, no matter how selfless, are motivated by one of three latent intentions: to increase the chances of reciprocity, to improve one’s self-image, or to fulfill some since of duty.
Increase Chance of Reciprocity
You pay for a friend’s coffee one morning, and you tell them to not worry about reimbursing you. You say that this is an altruistic act because you expect nothing in return, but you would appreciate it if the same were done for you. Your logic is based on the “golden rule, do unto others as you would have done unto you”. Many adhere to this reasoning because it’s outcome produces positive, goodhearted relationships built on generosity, but it is not completely void of self-benefit. In essence, this is based on some expectation of reciprocity. Gained from scenarios such as this, is the unconscious hope and expectation that “what goes around comes around.”
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A scenario such as this, is unintentionally ingrained in the memory of the giver and is brought into thought when they are in need. This argument suggests that no action is done with complete selflessness because deep within one’s subconscious, an individual hopes that their kind deed will encourage a reciprocated action for themselves. This could mean as a direct exchange of action (like the previous example) or as a general belief in “karma”. George Caspar Homans’ “Social Exchange Theory” suggests that people choose to interact with one another based on their perception that the benefits will outweigh their costs. This theory would argue that “altruistic” actions are done with expectation that either a particular individual, or some greater moral hand will repay them in the long run. Thus, true selfless altruism, does not exist without some hope of reciprocity.
Giving is one of the greatest character building exercises on the planet. When you give of yourself without expectations you expand in your ability to love and a sense of abundance develops. Not only does the receiver benefit, but the giver does as well. The positive feeling one gets when from “altruistic” acts is explained through Charles Horton Cooley’s “looking-glass self”. This concept explains that an individual’s view of him or herself is formed through others’ perceptions of them. In other words, one’s identity, or self-perception, is formed by how you think society interprets your actions. If someone does a good deed for someone or something else, then they are convinced that their action is a reflection of their identity. If one continues to act generously, they will begin to see themselves as “altruistic” because they are convinced society sees them this way. This belief contributes to positive self-esteem, and a feeling of greater self-worth. Every time a selfless, charitable deed is done with no expectation of repayment, perception of oneself is elevated. Thus one can argue that kind acts are done to help individuals feel good about themselves.
Fulfill a Since of Duty
One could argue that the sacrifices made to benifit someone else could be considered altruistic. In their article, “Altruism: A review of recent theory and research”, Piliavin and Chang argue that acts such as organ donation and spending time with a dying person fall into the category of completely selfless acts (1990, 56).
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A counter argument is that there is some since of duty that compels people to act in this manner. Viewed as duty to family, humanity, religious beliefs, or one’s own personal morals, “altruistic “acts can be explained by an individual’s feeling of responsibility to respond to a circumstance. If this feeling is neglected, the individual is likely to feel guilt and remorse for not taking the actions he or she felt inclined to. An example of this would be a Christian who decides to volunteer in a Hospice center. While there appears to be no reward for their actions, the Christian might argue that God “called” them to serve in this way, therefore it was their religious duty to take action. Likewise, Jesus, although selfless in every way, had a duty to his Father. His “altruistic” actions can be explained through his understanding of what God expected of Him. In this way, an “altruistic” act is simply a fulfillment of one’s allegiance to something. Acting out a noble deed merely frees one from potential guilt.
An idealist perspective would argue that altruistic acts really do exist, that humans have the ability to do something completely selfless. After thorough contemplation and research on the subject, I argue that it is an impossible concept.
“altruism.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2008. Merriam-Webster Online.
3 December 2008 .
Charng, Hong-Wen, Piliavin, Jane Allyn. 1990. “Altruism: A Review of Recent Theory
and Research”. Annual Review of Sociology. 16:27-65.
Eliot, T.S. “The last temptation is the gre…” The Columbia World of Quotations. Ed.
Robert Andrews, Mary Biggs, and Michael Seidel. Columbia University Press,
2006. eNotes.com. 2006. 3 Dec, 2008 .
Upton, Robbin PhD. (2000).
“What is Altruism?” Helping Others: Altruists International. http://www.altruists.org/about/altruism/.