Monday, March 23, 2009

Too-deep-for-a-Monday: Altruism - Why?

So I decided for today's Too-deep-for-a-Monday I would discuss a philosophical issue I've been pondering lately. (I'm rapidly running out of my stock of poems and I figured this would be a good alternative.) The issue is the phenomenon of Altruism.

Altruism is behavior that benefits others over oneself. I have been contemplating for a while, why does such behavior happen? It seems like people should want to look out for their own interests if they can, and thus altruistic behavior is backwards.

Here's my thoughts thus far, feel free to comment and add your own if you'd like.

My first thought is maybe it is just a moral imperative. Altruistic behavior is what we "should" do, so we do.

But for this to be true, who's keeping score? For those with religious beliefs that's an easy answer, but what about those without religious beliefs? Surely they can still have a moral code. What motivates them? (I guess in retrospect this proposed solution just shifts the problem from the question of why altruism to why morals. But I had a thought on morals anyway.)

Perhaps morals are a defense mechanism.

The logic might be like this, "the world is crazy and unpredictable, but if I follow this moral code then there's a semblance of order and predictability and that makes me feel better" or perhaps, "I can't directly control the behavior of others, but by having a public moral code, with disincentives to breaking it, maybe I'll gain some protection even if it limits my behavior." Friedrich Nietzsche had an idea kind of similar to this.

Perhaps morals have nothing to do with it, maybe Altruism is simply done out of the expectation of future rewards. For the religious there is the concept of reward in the afterlife for good deeds now, but the rewards don't have to be that far out to still motivate. Social image can be a future reward that works in this life. Perhaps Altruism benefits an individual by building a good reputation with others, maybe even by building a good reputation to oneself (we like to think we are good people, right?)

It occurs to me though that animals can be altruistic too, so at least part of the motivation has to be pretty fundamental.

Perhaps along the lines of the future rewards thing, it's just simple reciprocity - I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine.

Another possibility is that it is simply hard wired behavior in our brain (i.e. it just makes us feel good) - how would this have come to be? There's an easy answer from creationist/intelligent design perspective (it's just the way the Creator/Designer wanted it), but what about from an evolutionary perspective? For altruism to be hard wired, it would have to have been a successful trait. Altruism would seem to make an individual less fit (by using resources for the benefit of another, rather than oneself), but perhaps groups of altruistic individuals fare better than groups of selfish individuals.

So yeah, those are my thoughts on Altruism thus far. And that's it for this Too-deep-for-a-Monday. As I said before, feel free to comment if you have any thoughts. Maybe we can get a good discussion going about this. :)


  1. empathy...we have the very human ability to put ourselves in the position of others and feel their pain and want to stop the pain if we can.

    Some have a lot of it. Some have tamped it down, deep down but most of us have it.

    It's not completely black and white though..there are some who are empathetic only to those that look like them or some who can't imagine what others have gone through and their altruism comes from their own experience. So it's varied but I think empathy the answer to your question in great part.


  2. You're right, I hadn't really thought about the role empathy might play.

    Having the ability to feel the pain of others would certainly seem to be incentive to act in benefit of another.

    Empathy seems to me to be one of the "hard-wired" fundamental factors at play. That makes me wonder if any animals have the capacity for empathy and if that might explain some of their altruistic behavior.