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Can we achieve "pure" altruism?

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Anja M
Anja M Oct 25, 2020
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What do we mean when we ask if “pure” altruism is possible? Can we really check whether people are intrinsically altruistic, or egoistic, meaning: whether it is in our nature? It seems that no matter how many heroic and selfless acts we witness, there always remains someplace for still doubting the motives for such behavior, thus inserting a never-ending line of suspicion of what we can safely label as altruism. But is this sort of reasoning really productive for determining whether there is something like “true” altruistic behavior and can it lead us to an indubitable answer?

Personally, I hold that ultimately there is nothing substantial to discover about our benevolent and altruistic actions if the main road of inquiry sticks only to the biological level. I will offer a more developed view in the contribution section.

Let me know your thoughts and arguments.
Creative contributions

Existence of sociopathy - argument against altruism being in our nature

Povilas S
Povilas S Oct 26, 2020
I was always prone to believe that humans are inherently good and yes, maybe exception only confirms the rule, but for some people this simply seems to be not the case.

When it comes to psychology, two main factors form the individual - nature, and nurture. It's not clear how important is nurture in terms of altruism. Altruism seems to be very important when it comes to survival and community living, therefore it played a key role in human upbringing for a very long time. It might arguably even be the factor that made humans the dominant species on Earth. Humans are known as an especially social species, but this might only be obvious after all the basic survival requirements are met, in rather convenient and comfortable environments. In hard times egoism is arguably predominant and acts of goodness are often seen as a more rare exception. The topic of human nature not being so altruistic is explored in a literature classic "Lord of the flies", although real-life situations involving similar circumstances have proven quite the opposite tendencies [1],[2]. Cultivating altruism as a habit or a "community rule" is a good strategy for survival - even (or especially) in hard times there are much bigger chances to survive as a group than spilt into small units or even individuals, though "natural tendency" in those circumstances might often be to save yourself.
But on the other hand, can altruism really be cultivated simply as a habit? You have to truly see and accept it as value, otherwise, you will only be playing social game of pretending and sooner or later will either get tired of it yourself or your true intentions will become clear to others. So maybe there is a vital potential for altruism in the nature of most humans, but it requires certain conditions to be realized, when some small percentage of humans don't even have that natural potential, therefore there's no way they can develop it, they can only pretend.

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Anja M
Anja M4 years ago
Well, nurture with altruism is as with basically any other value: exposition to it, especially in the formative, but in any age really, is essential to its encouragement and embedding as a value we recognize through the spectre of other virtues, like selflessness, thoughtfullness, and general empathy. Of course, heroic acts are still heroic acts and although a cream of altruistic deeds, I am not prone to putting them on an indisputable piedestal of the average altruism measure, because they are not an average deed, although they certainly can stand for a proof of the existence of altruism.

Sociopathy and psychopaty on the other hand, are also something to be take into consideration, but these are also not the norms we take as examples. The usual examples for any behaviour are just that: "the usual/average" examples of people. So, while these cases should be taken into consideration for exploration of their roots, they cannot be taken as the conclusive contra-argument to inspecting whether altruism is inherited or not. At least it is a stalemate: "there are above average altruistic people" - "there are people with no empathy at all", so you can figure why we would quickly get stuck with this.

Also, as you pointed out well, it cannot be just cultivated as a habit. It is something "more". But there goes the debate: how much is nature, and how much nurture.

My additional and primary premise with this session was to try to show that although we already have some well-known nature theses, ultimately, as we get to the finer and more practical analyses, they yield us little results useful for both theory and everyday life. Especially so because they are also not proven to a substantial level, but also just theories. (See points 2. and 3. of my contribution. EDIT: Ok, maybe the whole contribution, now when I think about it. :D )
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Altruism is an advanced form of natural selection among the same species

Nitish Nov 02, 2020
Genetically we all are the same and, the concept of altruism is not a special characteristic attributed to humans only. We should not judge this phenomenon as a human virtue. Every species on the planet behaves more or less altruistic at a point in time or we can say according to conditions. However, kin selection is a big factor but in some cases, it also seems to be irrelevant, especially, when cannibals came into the argument.
Thousand may be the determinants but in the case of altruism, nurture overtakes nature for sure. We behave more altruistically in societies than in isolated places, and this is true for many species not only for humans .


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Anja M
Anja M4 years ago
Thank you for your comment!
It is indeed true that it is a combination on nature+nurture and there is basis to contend this is not solely a human trait. However, due to the inconvenience arising when tackling the problem solely for humans, I wouldn' try to go too deep with animals, since we would perhaps not be able to examine them in enough detail. :)
Perhaps we should try and focus more on nurture and different examples of (the lack of) it, as you already suggested in a way.
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Feinberg's egoist vs. psychological egoism

Anja M
Anja M Dec 01, 2020
Joel Feinberg suggested a curious and illustrative thought experiment. Let's suppose there is person who has no desire whatsoever in gaining any kind of knowledge for the sake of it, so this one is really indifferent to any wonders of science, philosophy, art, etc. Additionally, no simple natural beauty like sunsets, leaf-colours, symmetry found in nature, nothing of the sort, fascinates her. Paintings, music, literature, everything is one large field of bore. With sports it's the same. Sexual drive of any sort is an unknown and presents no area of any interest. Morally problematic issues are a remote world for this person, social issues like poverty, hunger, political turbulences, ecology, etc. are also just a scam and not worthy of any try. Religion is as good as superstition. In the end, really nothing of the vast pool of human experiences is of interest to this individual, however peculiar it may be. Yet, the only thing that really concerns the person is her own happines. Will she be able to be happy in these circumstances? Feinberg's attempt behind the experiment is to show that psychological egoism is unsustainable. This theory claims that we are always and exclusively motivated by our own interest, and one's own interest highlighted this way is the most explicit (no matter how theoretical) scenario that could shade light on focusong one's desires solely on oneself. Speaking narrowly for a moment, although psychologically based, this problem is of interest for philosophers, since if it turns out to be true, then it would mean all our moral theories on how we shoud behave are futile. Virtue ethics, utilitarism, etc. are worth nothing, or little or nothing then.

So, Feinberg's stance is that psychological egoism is impossible when faced with empirical proof, although psychologically it seems completely plausible. The usual reasons in support of this theory are:

(a) “Every action of mine is prompted by motives or desires or impulses which are my motives and not somebody else’s.”
(b) When a person gets what s/he wants, s/he feels pleasure.
(c) We often deceive ourselves about our selfish motives.
(d) Moralists often appeal to pleasure and pain to instill morality (to educate).

Feinberg's principal counter-argument for all these variations of psychological egoism is summed down to the point that understanding motives and desires as mine does not explain nothing more about their purpose. Therefore, the claim is that such an egoist as the experiment shows won't be able to achieve his/her ultimate goal of own happiness without achieving tons of different goals that will parallelly produce one's own feeling of happiness, as well. Finally and most explicitely coming out from this is: people can be happy only when they wish for something that is not their own happiness. The importance of this argument is in delination between purely psychological conceptions and empirical evidence. On this ground many hypotheses that seem completely credible purely theoretically can prove miles apart on the scales of relevance and importance when faced with some real data. This sometime happens in e.g. topics when waging pro/contra vaccination. Measuring "lesser evils" of sorts, etc.

[1]Joel Feinberg. "Psychological Egoism." in "Reason and Responsibility: Readings in Some Basic Problems of Philosophy" 3rd ed. Joel Feinberg, ed. Enciono, CA: Dickenson, 1975. 501-512.505.

[2] Duncan-Jones, Austin. Butler's Moral Philosophy. London: Penguin, 1952.,p.96

[3]Feinberg, Joel. "Psychological Egoism." In Reason & Responsibility: Readings in Some Basic Problems of Philosophy, edited by Joel Feinberg and Russ Shafer-Landau, 520-532. California: Thomson Wadsworth, 2008., p.521

[4]Garvin, Lucius F. C. A Modern Introduction to Ethics. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1953.,p.512f

[5]Ibid, ref.3, p.522

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Shubhankar Kulkarni
Shubhankar Kulkarni3 years ago
Anja MAfter reading your suggestion, I think I agree with Feinberg's stance. I have a general question, not a comment to this particular suggestion - when you talk about pure altruism, is it about one altruistic deed or being altruistic for life? If what you mean is pure altruism as a virtue, I think that is next to impossible. On the other hand, smaller altruistic deeds may be possible in a non-biological sense. I also think quantifying altruism, in a way that answers my question, might help simplify, if not solve, this debate.
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Judith Lichtenberg and “the possibility of pure altruism”

Anja M
Anja M Oct 25, 2020
  1. In this short article, J.L. offers a very summarized and convincing view of the problem of temporary discussions that focus on evolutionary explanations. The most famous stances there are:
  • Reciprocal altruism – thesis that evolution favours those sacrificing their good for others to earn a favour in return
Weak point: It is obvious this is not altruism
  • Kin selection – a.k.a the “selfish gene” theory, that altruism occurs toward others sharing the gene and that this maximizes the chances of reproducing that gene
Weak point: The theory is more encompassing than the previous, but still fails to explain why altruism frequently also occurs towards the individuals not sharing the genes
Generally, whichever evolutionary theory we adopt, it remains that none of them explains fully our common understanding of altruism. This is because when we ask whether human beings are altruistic, we ask of their motives and intentions. And this is precisely why we remain unsatisfied with biological/evolutionary theses, always making our step towards finding egoistic explanations that undermine defining altruism.

2. So, what exactly attracts us to egoism that much? Lichtenberg sums it up to two reasons:
  • Psychological
We doubt the purity of our own motives, in the first place. However, if we advance this thesis/sentiment too much, we may end up just finding excuses for our various selfish behaviours.
  • Logical
No matter how much or how hard we argue pro altruism and contra egoism, it seems either is impossible to conclusively prove or disprove. This is a particular problem that the basic philosophy of science teaches us about. The impossibility to tackle the theory anyhow can only make it seem quite strong, but that actually shows its crucial weakness, because being prone to tackling means being eligible for testing.

3. Desire & desire satisfaction
Another reason we lapse into relying on egoism so much can be traced to something an 18th-century thinker, Joseph Butler, offered: there is a blurred line between the concepts of “desire” and “desire satisfaction”. So, people can act wanting to help others because that help is satisfactory in itself. If one would object that even feeling good because we helped someone without expecting anything in return makes us selfish, it would present only a quasi-argument. It is just the contrary, as another thinker, Frans de Waal, suggested: if we didn’t wish for somebody else’s good in the first place, we wouldn’t be actually feeling good, so our feeling is not the cause, but the effect.

“The correlation between doing good and feeling good is not inevitable – inevitability lands us again with that empty, unfalsifiable egoism – but it is more than incidental.” – Neera Badhwar
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The debate can only survive if we consider an individual to be separate from the whole

Povilas S
Povilas S Dec 02, 2020

I think the flaw of this debate is that it sets the role model of "pure" altruism at the beginning and this intuitively opposes every other form of it as being more or less egoistic. If we think about what this role model means, - it tries to imply the existence of a situation in which a separate being does something motivated purely by a desire to help or do something for the benefit of another separate being and not in any way for him/herself. Now an important question to ask here is where does one being end and another begin? If I'm doing something for my friend or a family member - how much of an influence that person had/has on the makeup of my own identity? If those people didn't exist in my life, would I be the same? Every relationship influences your own identity. You feel like that person is a part of you and you are a part of him/her. That's what relationships are about, aren't they? So if one already sees him/herself as being a part of the "other" and the other being a part of him/herself, the role model can not be valid. But it can't be valid not because we came to the conclusion that "pure" altruism can't exist (that would only perpetuate the debate because then one could find arguments why it can) but because you can't make a clear distinction between one being and another in the first place, which is required to set the scene for the debate.

Now let's take a seemingly more complicated example of a person doing something altruistic for a total stranger. In its essence, this is not much different from the first example. You'll still relate to that person one way or another, whether it's a positive relation or a negative one, negative attitudes reflect your own personality and identity just as (or even more) strongly as positive ones. It's just that this kind of relation(ship) will be shorter and it will mostly reflect your past relation(ship)s with other humans, at the same time bringing some novelty to the whole thing. From the moment you see or in any other way know something about a person, you start having a relationship with him/her. You start projecting/classifying/recognizing, you name it. And this is not only true for humans. If it's a human, you'll instantly classify the situation that way - "we're both parts of the same race, the same humanity, we have something in common". Being a human is an essential part of our identity, so any other human will seem as belonging to the same part of your identity consciously or unconsciously, willingly or unwillingly. If it's an animal, then you'll classify it as a sentient being, a life form, just like yourself, etc.

Even if you take inanimate elements of your surroundings, non-living things, or just the general feel of the ambient around you, you'll still have a relationship with that, you'll feel a certain way towards your surroundings, you may like it or dislike it, you may be indifferent towards it, etc. Is it you feeling a certain way towards the surroundings or is it that the surroundings are influencing the way you feel? In some cultures the end of one's body is considered to be where the vision field ends, in other words - whatever you see around you is a part of you. I can certainly see the reason behind that attitude.

We could take this argumentation even further and ask if there's, for example, a significant difference between seeing your arm or feeling a sensation in your arm (any perception that tells you that it is a part of you) and seeing an object in the distance or hearing a sound. Essentially all of those experiences are perceptions that you are aware of just as you are aware of your thoughts and emotions. All of those experiences are happening in the same field of awareness. The more you dissect this and try to find where you end and the "other" or the surroundings begin the more you see there's no clear distinction. Therefore the question about doing something for yourself or for the other(s) considered from this perspective becomes trivial.
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Most probably multifactorial; there can be no 'pure altruism'

Subash Chapagain
Subash Chapagain Nov 03, 2020
To unequivocally posit that altruism, both as intent and a behavioural pattern is a human virtue would sound a bit naive and wayward to me, even more so with my lifelong training in biological sciences. Consider a case where altruism (or rather a seemingly altruistic behaviour) becomes pathological, in the context of economic games: when you are required to shift strategies, individuals who have traits of pathological altruism fail to switch to less altruistic play when bein repeatedly stabbed in the back by the other player, despite being able to verbalize and hence comprehend the other player's strategy. In this case, what counts as 'pure' altruism?
Like any other positive human attributes, altruism can be traced back- a neuroscientist and a psychologist will agree- to the evolutionary cues and the upbringing of the individual. Can we separate doing good from reciprocity, public acclaim, self-esteem, or the promise of paradise post-life? There have been some cases of apparently pure altruism as noted in this New Yorker piece where people donate organs not to family members or close friends but to strangers. However, this draws scepticism to a lot of professionals in the industry. A followed up scrutiny reveals that though these acts were profoundly selfless, they were never beyond the grasp of that 'oh, it feels good to be (seen as) good' dopamine reward that we house inside our cranial bones.

Pure selflessness is somehow queer, thought about from the evolutionary sense: the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) of our brain evolved to observe and learn from others' pain for our own benefit. On the flip side, the self-oriented rewards of acting compassionately are endless. However, if we are to think of humans as a species with the potential to transcend the biological cocoon that we call the self, we have to think like the twelfth-century philosopher Moses Maimonides who was of the position that the truest form of charity, the most stripped of self-interest, is when both the giver and the receiver are anonymous. On all other kinds of settings, altruism is nothing but one way or the other of activating our dopamine reward systems.
Is the element of self-interest absent when one practices altruism?

In one study published in Science, the researchers precisely wanted to answer this question. Subjects in the brain scanners were given varying amounts of money, unexpectedly. Then, some of them were 'taxed' (by being told that a certain portion of the money would be forcibly given for a food bank), whereas some of them were given the chance to donate some amount voluntarily. The difference between the two cases was that in the former group, there was an 'enforced' civic duty, whereas in the latter the donation was deemed purely charitable. Note that the end result- the public good- would come out to be the same in each case. Hence, if it was the case that altruism is purely self-less and others-oriented, both the cases would have been psychologically the same . Some interesting observations were drawn from this study. A larger dopaminergic activation while being taxed correlated with being more voluntarily charitable. On the other hand, there was more dopaminergic activation (and more self-reported satisfaction) when people offered the money voluntarily than when taxed. If we see from the perspective of the end, this shatters the notion of people being purely altruists. What matters, in my point of view is not that if altruism is 'pure' or not. It is an ongoing debate and will go forever. Rather, the attempt of the enlightened world shall be to bring altruistic acts to the mainstream, to try and relieve the other from immediate as well as future sufferings. We might have evolved selfish, but we have in us the taints of selflessness- despite being evolutionarily cunning- that we can put to better use to try and make this world a better place than when we came here to be.


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Anja M
Anja M4 years ago
Well, thank you for your thorough reply! :)

Reading your article, I came to think this is one of those very good opportunities to face two "lifelong educations", one in biological, and the other in human-sciences, and get something prolific from them.
Basically, we can always turn to different neuro- and generally bio- explanations. However, the problem is this is never actually fully manage to answer the altruism/egoism debate, or any similar debates. That is why contemporary theories, although acceptive of biological grounds do not hold them as exhaustive. And that is what I wanted to point out in my contribution. Take a look at point 1. I made there: "Generally, whichever evolutionary theory we adopt, it remains that none of them explains fully our common understanding of altruism. This is because when we ask whether human beings are altruistic, we ask of their motives and intentions. And this is precisely why we remain unsatisfied with biological/evolutionary theses, always making our step towards finding egoistic explanations that undermine defining altruism."
-Also the difference between desire & desire satisfaction made in point 3.

However, we definitely agree on one important point: it is futile to strive for something as "pure" altruism, because not only we would probably not be able to achieve it, but also we cannot even begin to set the criteria by which something would be considered as such, due to the slipping reasons mentioned. At the same time, it is fallacious to assume this opens space for assuming intrinsically egoistic behaviour, as this would also mean a leap in concluding, and that is where we reach this error of psychological egoism understanding. I will write another contribution on it shortly. :)

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