I recently read an article about altruism (not In English or I'd link), which stated there is actually no such thing.

While humans do not have ability to relay tangible things to each other by means of words – for instance, you will never be able to describe the color red to a blind man – we do have the ability to relay emotions. We see a movie and relate to the characters. They make us cry when they cry, and when they feel pain- we feel pain. Similarly, when we see a wrong being done, we get emotional, as if this wrong was done to us. We relate to the pain, and make it our own – and that prompts us to action.

The article stated that what prompts us to act isn't actually the urge to end the other guy's   suffering - but rather our own. Our empathy causes us to feel as if the pain is actually ours, and the desire to right a wrong is the desire to make OUR pain go away. Thus there is no such thing as altruism. Things that may seem to an outsider as selflessness are actually a very selfish desire to rid one's self of pressing negative emotions caused by empathy.

It's a great evolutionary tool for assuring cooperation.

In another discussion,Adriana posted on Paul Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon who found that people will donate twice as much money when presented with a human story rather than with dry statistics. I think this related to the same point.

Another relevant experiment Is the Milgram experiment, which showed that people are far more likely to hurt others if they can't hear or see their victim.

Your  thoughts?

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We share a common humanity - and thus have natural empathy (or antipathy) towards others. 


Altruism "selfish" or "selfless" ? Like most things, it's not either/or - but a combination of both. 



I definitely believe there is no truly selfless action, and I also do NOT believe that absolute selflessness is a virtue. Of course, when we feed our children, we have a vested (selfish) interest in their well-being; we have vested interest in the well-being of those in our community. If they are vaccinated against viruses, then we (and those we love) are safer. When we donate to charities, we boost our self-esteem and feel good about ourselves. When we make a commitment to recycle, it's because we believe we are impacted by a world that is polluted.


I think I can agree that altruism, from its literal definition, does not exist. No action is ever completely selfless. And I don't know why people think that's something to aspire to, either. That's sort of a different conversation, but I don't understand how self-sacrifice or denial is "good". In certain circumstances, it's certainly called for; in general, however, it reminds me too much of religious dogma.


We love because we want to be loved; we give because we hope the favor will be returned. We're communal creatures, and what is done to one is done to all... in a very real sense. If we feel their suffering, and strive to end that suffering, it's because they are a part of us. Their happiness is our happiness, or it should be. I don't know what's to be gained from stating altruism doesn't exist. Empathy is positive, no matter what the underlying motive. We all matter; not just "others"... and we can all strive to end one another's pain.


Selflessness does not exist, nor should it. Like I said, we're communal; thinking of ourselves entails thinking of others.

I remember thinking this through many years ago - it's not a new argument, certainly.


Yes, it can be argued that there is no such thing as altruism. But I don't think that's quite true. We may be doing something good just for the sake of doing something good or because we have the power to do it, and it could be argued that we are doing it because we ourselves get a good feeling from it. But it's not a good argument. We have the choice to do nothing and never know how much good that act would have done or to do something indirectly that we will never know if it did good or not. When you recycle for "the good of the planet" how would you feel if you found out that the materials that you recycled just went into a storage facility which was later abandoned and that those materials were never recycled at all? 


When you compare a person who wants to help as much as they can with someone who just doesn't care, it's hard to not label what the generous person does as altruistic. In other words, if everyone did good there would be no bad to set a baseline.

It's an old argument - over 2000 years old : Glaucon & The Ring of Gyges - Plato's Republic :



i think the most amazing part of all of this is the underlying ability to feel empathy in the first place.

a world of egotism without empathy would leave a crying person in the street on his own. but add empathy to the mix, and people will see themseves in the crying person and offer solace.

i've noticed time and again that the key to motivating people is to show them THEY have a direct stake in the matter. you don't recycle until you realize it could hurt YOU. the whole new age idea of the world being one living breathing organism is a brilliant attempt to tap into the underlying egotism of us all and make us act because "if a tree is chopped doen in a rain forest, it hurt ME".

i don't see any of this as good or bad. just a fact of ife...

...we are suffering from a scarcity of empathy...


you brought up a curious point. would you say that multiculturalism contributes to scarcity of empathy? when people feel different, aren't they less likely to see themselves in others?

Personally, I think most of you Americans have enormous resources of empathy, compassion & sympathy, but far too narrowly focused on those in your own country & other English-speaking countries (eg UK) - at the expense of others.


What stunts that natural empathy is a powerfully-controlled 'propaganda matrix', which can so easily get you fearful & scared. The same here in UK to some extent.


As a people, you are so shit scared in America - a primary emotion which is manipulated easily for political & military ends....and not in your interests as a nation - nor ours.

"The whole new age idea of the world being one living breathing organism"

"New age idea" ?

Read James Lovelock's "Gaia Theory".
i stand corrected. i should have said- the renaissance of...

i agree with you that nothing should be seen as definite- either or. 


but other than that i think it's a mistake to label something as cynical, because while it might indeed be cynical- it still doesn't make it necessarily false.

we will die for a loved one- but not for anyone. why only a loved one? how are they more important? because of how they make US feel. i say this as a believer in "true love", at least in the sense that statistically it is very rare to find someone who is your perfect match. 

actully when writing this i had partners in mind- not parents/children. obviously our genes of self preservation are stronger than anything


"but I am not quite as cynical as the person who wrote that article" - to me that sounded as if the argument was ruled out becuase it didn't fit in with a desired world view. of course it's valid commentary on the personal level.

This concept that there is no pure altruism does not only pertain to the reward of self appeasement, there are other rewards, such as going to heaven (for religious), and of peer approval, to name only a few.


When it comes to animal behaviour, selflessness involving close kin is expressly excluded from the definition of reciprocal altruism.


Now if in truth if we as biologists can agree that 'altruism' is no longer a valid term, then the terminology 'reciprocal altruism' makes not more sense. Which leaves us with simple reciprocal... reciprocity.


Being that reciprocation has LONG been understood in nature, and is similarly motivated in humans... we have an ideological choice:

--we can anthropomorphise and impose the additional word 'morality' onto the already fully explained biological behaviour of reciprocity

--we can modify the terminology of the human psychological trait to better reflect the biological reality


Notice how neither of these options signify a difference in the actual 'niceness' of the behaviour of the animal or the human. It only requires a willingness on the part of us scientifically inclined humans to adapt our language to biological fundamentals, instead of anthropomorphising. There is nothing in this new concept of 'reciprocal altruism' that is not already accounted for in reciprocity. The definition of reciprocity is already inclusive of any altruistic concept.



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