Does Altruism Exist?

Today I need to wash and sell my car (light blue 2008 Toyota Yaris with 40,000 miles, anyone?), get an official copy of my birth certificate, and finish packing for the movers coming tomorrow, among other things, so I don’t really have time to make a blog post or sit down with a cup of tea.  But I think that’s part of the experiment of this tea blog: write daily, even when there doesn’t seem to be time.

The tea box said Tension Tamer.  It’s nice, a little minty.

I want to start writing about altruism today.  I don’t know if I’ll finish the post today or if I’ll have to go on tomorrow.

One morning a few weeks ago I was walking from my friend’s house to the train station in York, suit cases in tow.  A lady in her front yard stopped me.  She told me about a new short cut to the train station that would cut five or so minutes from my journey.  I thanked her and went on.  (And took the short cut.)

This lady did not receive anything from me by helping me.  I was clearly leaving – she would not see me again and helping me would not raise her profile in the community.  Yet some people would tell me her action was not altruistic.  They’d point out that helping me made her feel good, so it was a selfish act.  Then they would smile smugly as if what they’ve just said matters and haven’t they stumped me now with their brilliant analysis of how altruism does not exist.

In reality, the fact that helping me made her feel good is a very important point.  There is every difference in the world between a selfish consequence that depends on a quid pro quo (esteem in the community, monetary renumeration, the expectation that others will treat you well in return, etc.) and a selfish consequence which is intrinsic satisfaction with the act itself.  Helping someone for the joy of helping someone is like having a cup of tea for the joy of a cup of tea or a massage for the enjoyment of the massage – or even painting because you like to paint or programming for the joy of programming.  It’s different from going to your job because you want a pay check or bringing your neighbour cookies because you need to build a relationship with them so that someday they’ll buy a house from you (yes, some sales theory rubs me the wrong way).

Why does this matter?  When we talk about ethics we’re faced with the questions of why people behave ethically and why people help each other.   Some argue that people help each other only because they want something out of it.  But intrinsic satisfaction with ethical behaviour or  with altruism doesn’t count as a quid pro quo.

A psychopath is someone who doesn’t receive intrinsic satisfaction from helping others or behaving ethically.  All of his actions are calculated towards achieving what’s in his best interests.  But we are not all psychopaths.  In fact, by some calculations only 4% of the world’s population are psychopaths (and since this is a tea blog I don’t have to find the reference for you).

The other 96% of us are different because we feel good when we help someone or treat them well (or bad when we don’t).  We do it not because we want anything from them or from society.  We do it because of an arational emotional reward (or punishment) in the brain.

So is there merit to altruistic behaviour if we receive an emotional reward for it?  Who cares?  What is important is that some – most – people behave ethically and altruistically without need for structures of external punishment and reward.

I’ve finished the tea, but I hope to follow this up with some reflections on the religious implications of what I’ve said here.

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3 thoughts on “Does Altruism Exist?

  1. One thing I really notice in addition to this: it really pays to be wary of people who do kind things for you if they don’t seem to be being kind because being kind makes them happy.

    I have met people who are always ‘being helpful’ whether or not anyone needs their help, and in one case I’d (amateur) label it as a psychopathic tendency: helping people’s a great way to control them. With that person, who was staying at the house I was living in at the time, their behaviour drove my self-esteem down from doing kind of OK right the way down to not believing I was of any use to anyone. So yeah, look for the smile and enjoy the shared moment when anyone helps you. And if there’s no smile and no mutual recognition, then put all your psychological barriers up, because your self worth is being plundered for their self worth.

    And of course with reference to your carrot and stick post, there’s a fair few people who insist on helping you because that’s what some vengeful bizarre idea they have of God is telling them to do. Which means that they’re too busy obeying the God in their head telling them to love their neighbour to actually see that they’re not loving their neighbour, they’re bullying their neighbour.

    Err, wow, that all came out bitter and negative. Which is a poor response to a lovely post reaffirming the joy of joy. But thanks for letting me put some stuff in writing.

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