Simon - I, too have altruistic tendencies, but there are those who say there is no such thing as an unselfish act. In your comment above, allow me to point out at least two examples that they might use to prove their point:
"I will happily risk my own safety to help a stranger, specifically, a damsel in distress."
Why a damsel in distress - why not an ugly, 300-pound man who wipes his nose on his shirt-sleeve? Because you enjoy expressions of gratitude from damsels, in which case, that is your reward and incentive.
And in the second instance: "if I did nothing and just sat back and let the badness take place, I would feel terrible." - the motivating factor would be your desire not to feel terrible.
But don't let any of that dissuade you - keep doing good things. It really doesn't matter why you do them. We're a world-wide family, and family sticks together. Except at Thanksgiving --
Truly altruistic acts are hard to find. The stranger who bounds into the surf to save a drowning child. Even more to the point, the soldier who throws himself on a live grenade. One may argue that such things have a payoff in terms of improving how one is seen in the eyes of others, but it's hard to appreciate that payoff if one is dead.
RE: "but it's hard to appreciate that payoff if one is dead"
Not really, the imagination is am amazing thing. I'd be willing to bet - but for obvious reasons, confirmation is a bit difficult to come by - that a high percentage of suicides are based on imagining how a significant other will suffer once the suicidee is gone.
Back in the '80's, there was an eminent psychologist, Eric Berne, responsible for the concept of Transactional Analysis, and presented to the public in the form of Harris' book, I'm OK, You're OK. Berne also wrote a book, in which he tried to bring psychology to the masses by simplifying it, the book was Games People Play. In this book were such games as "Now I've Got You, You Sonuvabitch!" in which one person waits for another to commit an offense, then holds it against him/her indefinitely. Another game was called, "Ain't it Awful," in which two people sit around and commiserate about how terrible things are today, compared to how they used to be.
This prompted me to envision a game, based on the nursery rhyme, Little Jack Horner, that I call, "What A Good Boy Am I," in which a person, normally with low self esteem, performs good acts for the sake of proving to himself that contrary to what he may have been told as a child, he really IS a good person. The person who throws himself onto a grenade could well fall into that category.
I remember reading that book. The game that stayed with me is one you see played all the time. It's called "How about? Yeah, but." You'll have one person pose a problem, seemingly wanting help, but what they really want is engagement, not a solution, so the game wastes time.
"I have a problem."
"What is it?"
"How about (proposed solution)."
"Yeah but, that won't work because (reason)."
Because no solution is actually wanted, it becomes a dead end fencing match where one party proposes solutions and the other person does his best to fend them off.
BTW, one thing men need to learn about women is that they will often lament something and their male interlocutor will try to solve their problem for them when what women usually really want is sympathy or empathy.
Close, but no stogie - it was called, "Why Don't You...? Yes, But...."
The good thing about Berne's book, was that he also gave an antithesis to the various games. In the case of the above, when the problem is stated, the listener can end the game by responding, "That IS a problem, how do you intend solving it?"
Worth a read, despite it's age.
Yes, men are traditionally "fixers," but sometimes women really don't want anything fixed, they just want to vent.
I've never yet known a girl to come home from a date, complaining that all she did was talk about herself.
You're right. The "victim" has a way out. More than one, actually. He can just say "Screw this. I'm going to rearrange my sock drawer."
All my comments are intended to do Simon, are to generate thought, to play devil's advocate to the idea that all of our altruism comes from noble sources.
Yes, I have more than four times, been cross examined by some self serving theist, pretending to be all morally superior, because I did not have some pat answer that would validate their sacred script. Then they pondificate with this colorful judgement, that I am 'their moral inferior'. This is one reason that I refuse to play by their 'let's get the atheist' game. I figure that anyone with just a few brain cells, more or less, can also play this game. Watching Michael over the course of a weeks made it very clear to me that he plays this game, but when he screws up, back peddles or changes the subject. When the tables are turned, they just replay their script, with different material, the more esoteric the better!