"Is Pure Altruism Possible?"
[Professor of philosophy at Georgetown University]
October 19th, 2010
The New York Times
[Professor of philosophy at Georgetown University]
October 19th, 2010
The New York Times
Who could doubt the existence of altruism?
True, news stories of malice and greed abound. But all around us we see evidence of human beings sacrificing themselves and doing good for others. Remember Wesley Autrey? On Jan. 2, 2007, Mr. Autrey jumped down onto the tracks of a New York City subway platform as a train was approaching to save a man who had suffered a seizure and fallen. A few months later the Virginia Tech professor Liviu Librescu blocked the door to his classroom so his students could escape the bullets of Seung-Hui Cho, who was on a rampage that would leave 32 students and faculty members dead. In so doing, Mr. Librescu gave his life.
Still, doubting altruism is easy, even when it seems at first glance to be apparent. It’s undeniable that people sometimes act in a way that benefits others, but it may seem that they always get something in return - at the very least, the satisfaction of having their desire to help fulfilled. Students in introductory philosophy courses torture their professors with this reasoning. And its logic can seem inexorable.
Contemporary discussions of altruism quickly turn to evolutionary explanations. Reciprocal altruism and kin selection are the two main theories. According to reciprocal altruism, evolution favors organisms that sacrifice their good for others in order to gain a favor in return. Kin selection - the famous “selfish gene” theory popularized by Richard Dawkins - says that an individual who behaves altruistically towards others who share its genes will tend to reproduce those genes. Organisms may be altruistic; genes are selfish. The feeling that loving your children more than yourself is hard-wired lends plausibility to the theory of kin selection.
These evolutionary theories explain a puzzle: how organisms that sacrifice their own “reproductive fitness” - their ability to survive and reproduce - could possibly have evolved. But neither theory fully accounts for our ordinary understanding of altruism.
The defect of reciprocal altruism is clear. If a person acts to benefit another in the expectation that the favor will be returned, the natural response is: “That’s not altruism!” Pure altruism, we think, requires a person to sacrifice for another without consideration of personal gain. Doing good for another person because something’s in it for the do-er is the very opposite of what we have in mind. Kin selection does better by allowing that organisms may genuinely sacrifice their interests for another, but it fails to explain why they sometimes do so for those with whom they share no genes, as Professor Librescu and Mr. Autrey did.
When we ask whether human beings are altruistic, we want to know about their motives or intentions. Biological altruism explains how unselfish behavior might have evolved but, as Frans de Waal suggested in his column in The Stone on Sunday, it implies nothing about the motives or intentions of the agent: after all, birds and bats and bees can act altruistically. This fact helps to explain why, despite these evolutionary theories, the view that people never intentionally act to benefit others except to obtain some good for themselves still possesses a powerful lure over our thinking.
The lure of this view - egoism - has two sources, one psychological, the other logical. Consider first the psychological. One reason people deny that altruism exists is that, looking inward, they doubt the purity of their own motives. We know that even when we appear to act unselfishly, other reasons for our behavior often rear their heads: the prospect of a future favor, the boost to reputation, or simply the good feeling that comes from appearing to act unselfishly. As Kant and Freud observed, people’s true motives may be hidden, even (or perhaps especially) from themselves. Even if we think we’re acting solely to further another person’s good, that might not be the real reason. (There might be no single “real reason” - actions can have multiple motives.)
So the psychological lure of egoism as a theory of human action is partly explained by a certain humility or skepticism people have about their own or others’ motives. There’s also a less flattering reason: denying the possibility of pure altruism provides a convenient excuse for selfish behavior. If “everybody is like that” - if everybody must be like that - we need not feel guilty about our own self-interested behavior or try to change it.
The logical lure of egoism is different: the view seems impossible to disprove. No matter how altruistic a person appears to be, it’s possible to conceive of her motive in egoistic terms. On this way of looking at it, the guilt Mr. Autrey would have suffered had he ignored the man on the tracks made risking his life worth the gamble. The doctor who gives up a comfortable life to care for AIDS patients in a remote place does what she wants to do, and therefore gets satisfaction from what only appears to be self-sacrifice. So, it seems, altruism is simply self-interest of a subtle kind.
The impossibility of disproving egoism may sound like a virtue of the theory, but, as philosophers of science know, it’s really a fatal drawback. A theory that purports to tell us something about the world, as egoism does, should be falsifiable. Not false, of course, but capable of being tested and thus proved false. If every state of affairs is compatible with egoism, then egoism doesn’t tell us anything distinctive about how things are.
A related reason for the lure of egoism, noted by Bishop Joseph Butler in the 18th century, concerns ambiguity in the concepts of desire and the satisfaction of desire. If people possess altruistic motives, then they sometimes act to benefit others without the prospect of gain to themselves. In other words, they desire the good of others for its own sake, not simply as a means to their own satisfaction. It’s obvious that Professor Librescu desired that his students not die, and acted accordingly to save their lives. He succeeded, so his desire was satisfied. But he was not satisfied - since he died in the attempt to save the students. From the fact that a person’s desire is satisfied we can draw no conclusions about effects on his mental state or well-being.
Still, when our desires are satisfied we normally experience satisfaction; we feel good when we do good. But that doesn’t mean we do good only in order to get that “warm glow” - that our true incentives are self-interested (as economists tend to claim). Indeed, as de Waal argues, if we didn’t desire the good of others for its own sake, then attaining it wouldn’t produce the warm glow.
Common sense tells us that some people are more altruistic than others. Egoism’s claim that these differences are illusory - that deep down, everybody acts only to further their own interests - contradicts our observations and deep-seated human practices of moral evaluation.
At the same time, we may notice that generous people don’t necessarily suffer more or flourish less than those who are more self-interested. Altruists may be more content or fulfilled than selfish people. Nice guys don’t always finish last.
But nor do they always finish first. The point is rather that the kind of altruism we ought to encourage, and probably the only kind with staying power, is satisfying to those who practice it. Studies of rescuers show that they don’t believe their behavior is extraordinary; they feel they must do what they do, because it’s just part of who they are. The same holds for more common, less newsworthy acts - working in soup kitchens, taking pets to people in nursing homes, helping strangers find their way, being neighborly. People who act in these ways believe that they ought to help others, but they also want to help, because doing so affirms who they are and want to be and the kind of world they want to exist. As Prof. Neera Badhwar has argued, their identity is tied up with their values, thus tying self-interest and altruism together. The correlation between doing good and feeling good is not inevitable- inevitability lands us again with that empty, unfalsifiable egoism - but it is more than incidental.
Altruists should not be confused with people who automatically sacrifice their own interests for others. We admire Paul Rusesabagina, the hotel manager who saved over 1,000 Tutsis and Hutus during the 1994 Rwandan genocide; we admire health workers who give up comfortable lives to treat sick people in hard places. But we don’t admire people who let others walk all over them; that amounts to lack of self-respect, not altruism.
Altruism is possible and altruism is real, although in healthy people it intertwines subtly with the well-being of the agent who does good. And this is crucial for seeing how to increase the amount of altruism in the world. Aristotle had it right in his “Nicomachean Ethics”: we have to raise people from their “very youth” and educate them “so as both to delight in and to be pained by the things that we ought.”