Altruism is dead

Yes OK, the title is a little dramatic. Altruism isn’t really dead. But that’s only because, like the ether, it’s a myth that never existed to begin with. Now before you start accusing me of cynicism, nihilism, or any other ‘ism’, let me explain these opening remarks.

What do we mean by Altruism? I’m talking 100%, full-throttle pure altruistic intention. A dictionary definition to get us started:

Altruism can most easily be understood as the opposite to egoism, where egoism explains pretty much everything in terms of self-interest. I’m not talking about the anti-social behaviour of never doing anything for other people like holding the door for someone, that’s just impolite. Nor do I mean having to be bribed before you do someone a ‘favour’, like only visiting your Gran because you know she’ll give you twenty quid, that’s just mean (which is totally different from visiting you Gran, despite the fact you know she’ll give you the twenty, you know the difference). Let’s move on from the obvious stereotypical understanding of egoism, self-interest and altruism; what do these terms mean, philosophically? To act in (or to believe in acting in) a self-interested manner means that one’s actions ultimately benefit oneself. Egoism is the belief that all actions are ultimately self-interested. So egoism is a belief that all actions are self-beneficial. What about sacrifice? Not ‘give me your last piece of chocolate’ sacrifice, what about, say, working 18-hour days in a job you dislike in order to send your kids to a better quality school and give them a better chance in life? Surely this is a selfless act that good people do for other people, right?

But is it selfless, really? There are a number of arguments to say otherwise. Firstly; the retirement plan. You send your kids to a better school, to give them better chances, to enable them to achieve their potential and in doing so earn more money, which you can live off in your old age. That’s hardly selfless. Secondly; the genetic advantage. You know that money and health/prosperity/success/opportunity are all closely linked. Money can’t buy you love, but a better standard of living will give you better health prospects, and money can buy you experiences and opportunities that might otherwise be out of your grasp. By exposing your child to what you consider to be a better standard of education, and the social networks that go along with it, you are protecting your genetic inheritance; trying to ensure the survival of your DNA.

I feel the need to make a few disclaimers at this point. I’m not for one minute saying that private education is necessarily better or even preferable to State education. Nor am I saying that the social exposure and experience a child gains by going to a State school is worthless; on the contrary I think these life experiences are extremely valuable. Finally I’m also not saying that you are only a success if you are wealthy, and that money brings you happiness. The point is that if you choose to send your child to a private school and these are reasons behind your actions (and anecdotally I can say that parents who I’ve spoken to with kids in private schools often cite one or more of these reasons, in various guises), then it is fair to say that your actions are not altruistic, because your reasoning betrays an advantage you believe you are giving to your genetic offspring, and so are doing your best to preserve your genetic inheritance. This act is not altruistic because you are maintaining your genetic lineage, and that – as argued by Richard Dawkins – is something we are programmed to do.

There is a third and fundamental reason your actions are not altruistic. Even if you reject the retirement plan argument on the grounds that you’d be happy even if your kids chose a life of poverty, and you reject the genetic advantage argument because you think that humans are capable of over-riding these genetic predispositions, then you are still faced with the issue of gratification. Let’s say you work your 18-hour days, and you would genuinely be more than happy if your kids were poor struggling artists, but loved their work, removing the retirement plan argument. In addition, you don’t mind if they never have grandchildren, or would be equally happy if they adopt, taking away the genetic inheritance argument. Nonetheless, you still get to feel good about what you are doing, because you are helping someone else. This gratification you receive, even if you never vocalise it and never expect any external acknowledgement of it whatsoever, is something that you get from your actions. The act is fundamentally not selfless, because you receive some benefit from the act.

The final thing I want to say here is that this does not mean we shouldn’t do nice things for other people because we’re all ultimately selfish. Nice actions done for others are just that: nice. And we should continue to do them. If anything, you could say that after all this, we should do more nice things than we used to, precisely because we receive some benefit from the action. I think that to argue that nice actions are only good/nice/worth doing because of their altruistic element is to demean the action (in fact, I’d argue that people who think this only confirms my argument: they want a good action to be altruistic because, paradoxically, it makes them feel better to perform that action). Actions are good/bad in and of themselves, not for their consequences (and the issue of unintended consequences is a whole other article!). Therefore a good action is good because it is good (this too is a whole other article :-) ). Its goodness is not lessened by the fact that the actor receives benefit from the action. And there’s nothing wrong with receiving some benefit from an action you perform for someone else. Doesn’t that just make a good action even better?

Discuss. :-)

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