Hayes: True altruism may not exist, which is perfectly fine


Bob Hayes, Columnist

As Northwestern students, faculty and alumni register for the annual campus-wide service day, NU Gives Back, it is a particularly intriguing time to ponder the ideas of service and altruism. Even for those who lack the time or desire to participate in NU Gives Back or have never participated in a large-scale service program, selflessly assisting and serving others is a largely unavoidable part of our everyday lives. With each of us acting selflessly and receiving the gains of others’ selfless actions, I wonder what human characteristic or feeling truly causes us to act altruistically.

It is certainly fulfilling and convenient to consider service projects or everyday benevolent actions as driven by an internal desire to help others, but I question the absence of selfish means within these ostensibly selfless actions. By most accounts, altruism is by definition unselfish, which would make “selfish altruism” an oxymoron. So, our question really becomes whether true altruism exists.

Commonly, an act of service or giving comes with the hope of future reciprocation — either consciously or subconsciously. One could reasonably argue that he or she does not act with this desire for reciprocation or that this motive does not apply to a number of altruistic actions, such as serving food to homeless citizens. However, reputable psychological theorists point out that we fail to realize even our own motives for certain actions. Reciprocation aside, even a nice, warm feeling of fulfillment counts as a selfish motive and one that virtually everyone enjoys as a byproduct of altruism.

This selfish basis of action generally describes egoism, which closely relates to economic models of utility maximization — that every decision is the product of maximizing personal gain while minimizing cost. Georgetown University philosophy Prof. Judith Lichtenberg explored the possible contribution of egoism to altruism in a 2010 New York Times opinion column in which she says, “Even when we appear to act unselfishly, other reasons for our behavior often rear their heads: the prospect of a future favor, the boost to reputation, or simply the good feeling that comes from appearing to act unselfishly. As Kant and Freud observed, people’s true motives may be hidden, even (or perhaps especially) from themselves.”

Regardless of the level of truth of egoism, it is more relevant for us to consider whether the selfishness of our motivations for altruism even matter.

Suppose egoism entirely guides altruism, meaning we devote our time to service for conscious or subconscious gain. For the receiving party, the motivation does not matter, only the product of the altruistic action does. A Habitat for Humanity beneficiary will ultimately end up just as well off regardless of the levels of selfishness of the builders’ motivations.

For the giver, psychologists have found numerous benefits to altruism. Dr. Neel Burton wrote in Psychology Today, “In the short term, an altruistic act leaves us with an euphoric feeling, so-called ‘helpers’ high’. In the longer term, altruism is associated with better mental and physical health and greater longevity. Kinder people are happier, and happier people are kinder, setting up a virtuous circle of altruism.”

These findings get complicated with regard to whether these associations are causal, but it is fair to consider whether these associations mean selfishness might actually be a positive element of giving and service. True selflessness by definition provides no benefit to the actor at some level of cost. Thus, if the same action leads to the same benefit for the receiving party but at a greater benefit to the giver, maximizing selfish gain through “altruism” leads to the socially optimal level of net benefit. Selfish motivations make a one-sided altruistic transaction mutually beneficial.

With regard to this complicated causal matrix, like most social science models, it is impossible to draw concrete conclusions. I think we can reasonably say true altruism may not exist, because actions — even those that are ostensibly selfless — have selfish motivations, both conscious and subconscious. And regardless of how selfish our actions are, selfishness in giving may logically benefit the giver while not harming the benefit to the receiver. Our altruism is, to some extent, selfish, but in the end, the product matters far more than the motivation.

Bob Hayes is a Weinberg junior. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.