Altruism: Selfishness or Selflessness?
For years, psychologists have been in search of evidence for genuine altruistic behavior, the unselfish concern for the welfare of others. Sure, we perform benevolent deeds everyday, just look around. We donate money to famine victims half way around the world. We stop on busy highways to help lonely drivers fix their flat tires in the middle of our hectic schedules. We care for young children who have fallen on the pavement. We comfort friends. We risk our lives to save innocent puppies trapped inside burning buildings on the ninth floor. However, psychologists have been skeptical of such acts because they are not truly altruistic. In fact they claim that there is no such thing as altruism because all apparent deeds of kindness are really only acts of selfishness in disguise (Barber, 2004). The performer always receives some form of benefit however subtle it may be, from material gains to praise and enhanced self-esteem. Biologists further claim that human nature is motivated by purely selfish reasons. We help relatives to ensure our genes will be passed on into the future or help strangers in hopes they will return the favor. After all, are we not all looking after our own selves living in a competitive, dangerous world? Therefore all altruistic behavior is pursued out of self-interest, not out of the true concern for another’s welfare whether it be consciously or subconsciously (Crabtree, 2006). We are ultimately acting in order to gain a good feeling or relieve a bad one, and so we are motivated out of self-interest in the end (Mook, 1991). Although this may stand true for many of us, genuine altruism does exist. Humans who help voluntarily are not seeking to impress others or ease their own feelings of distress, but are rather acting on established moral emotions such as empathy with the pure desire of helping.
Advocates of the universal egoism theory, that helpful acts are motivated by selfishness, argue we are kind in order to impress others and gain social approval or acceptance. According to psychologist Bibb Latane: If looking good were the motive you’d be more likely to help with others watching. (Kohn, 1990). In many cases this undoubtedly stands true. Our sense of worth is extremely dependent upon others’ judgments (Kohn, 1990). Living in a society that applauds and praises benevolent deeds, people will behave in a way that enhances their reputation and boosts their social position. We are more willing to risk our lives when opportunities to help stand before us because want to gain the title of the hero or good-guy of society and all the self-esteem benefits that follow. However, recent studies and experiments suggest just the opposite. According to interviews conducted by Samuel and Pearl Oliner of Humbolt State University, Christian rescuers who risked their lives to save endangered Jews during World War II believed their actions were quite natural and ordinary: I did nothing unusual; anyone would have done the same thing in my placeI insist on saying that it was absolutely natural to have done thisI feel that I only did my duty. I am not a hero. (Kohn, 1990). Furthermore, in an experiment by psychologists Nancy Eisenberg and Cynthia Neal, four and five year olds reported that they shared, helped, and comforted other children because they recognized that they simply needed aid, not because they expected to benefit in some way of helping or that they acted to receive social approval from teachers or authority figures (Kohn, 1990). This evidence suggests that altruism is not motivated out of the selfish concern of personal gain. It does indeed exist. None of the subjects of the studies and experiments were expecting or motivated by the reward of approval and praise by society. They rather acted because they perceived another in need, and it is the feeling of empathy that is the basis of altruistic behavior, according to psychologist C. Daniel Batson of University of Kansas. A second suggestion of altruistic behavior is that if the person feels just as pleased when someone else steps in to help, he or she may not have been interested in taking credit themselves for being a rescuer but only in making sure the victim was in good health, an altruistic motive indeed (Kohn, 19906). In one study, Batson told his subjects that performing well on a game with numbers will enable them to help someone else avoid electric shocks. Later, he informed the subjects that the person will not be receiving shocks after all, and found that many subjects were pleased even though they personally were not given the chance to perform a good deed. This suggests that people are truly concerned about the other’s welfare no matter how their well-being is accomplished or who performs the deed, proving we are not always looking to selfishly impress others or become the hero.
Secondly, universal egoists insist we perform acts of kindness in order to relieve our own distress as the sight of another’s suffering. When one is in pain, I am in pain, and in order to relieve my own suffering I will ease your suffering. This idea is supported by seventeenth century philosopher Thomas Hobbes who once donated money to a beggar and explained to a surprised observer that he was merely trying to relieve his own distress at seeing the beggar’s distress (Kohn, 1990). However, the simplest way to stop feeling terrible about another’s suffering is just to ignore it or leave, explains Arizona State University psychologist, Nancy Eisenberg (Kohn, 1990). Many people will help to relieve their distress because that is their only option. Yet if they were given the chance to escape the cause of their distress, individuals would be more willing to turn away than offer aid. Yet this is rarely the case. In a study by C. Daniel Batson, psychologist at the University of Kansas, students were given the option of leaving the room when listening to a radio news broadcast about a college senior whose parents had been killed in a car accident. He found that low-empathy students denied the student a helping hand by leaving the room while high-empathy students offered the most help and agreed to do so even though they could have simply escaped the situation completely (Kohn, 1990). This suggests that people do not act benevolently to selfishly relieve their own anxiety and discomfort, but rather help due to strong human emotions of compassion, empathy, and understanding of how the person feels. They are motivated by the goodness and willingness of their heart.
Furthermore, supporters of the universal egoist theory argue humans act altruistically out of the selfish purpose to enhance one’s psychological well-being. We feel useful and good about ourselves when we help others (Crabtree, 2006). True, we do see ourselves in a different light when we help another. Yet the egoistic situation would seem much different if the other person’s relief from distress or the other person’s happiness is what you want to achieve, which in turn makes you happy (Mook, 1991). The psychological reward is rather a side-effect of achieving another’s well-being, not the intended reward, and therefore cannot be considered egoistic. In addition, psychologist Ervin Staub found that children who voluntarily shared their candy turned out to have higher self-esteem levels than those who did not share (Kohn, 1990). According to Staub: If I’m feeling good about myself, I can respond to the need of others (Kohn, 1990). Those who were kind others were not looking to gain further self-esteem by impressing others, but it was rather because they already felt good about themselves that they acted benevolently. Therefore, we are not purely motivated by psychological rewards. It is because we have already achieved high self-esteem that we feel motivated to help others.
Lastly, if all human behavior is based self-interest, do we instinctively perform deeds for others without taking the time to deliberate the rewards and punishments of taking a risk? In many altruistic cases, individuals claimed their decision to act or not to act was subconscious and impulsive. It was not calculated nor premeditated. They recognized another in need and were instantaneously willing to sacrifice their lives. Butch McGaughy, a sixty-four year old fireman who risked his life to rescue his sixty-seven year old neighbor trapped in a burning house states: Nothing struck my mind about my being hurt. It’s just an automatic instinct (Haggerty 2006). Furthermore many of the Holocaust rescuers interviewed by the Oliners have reported that they relied on instinct, not deliberate thought, to guide their actions. The rescuer is not going to stand there for a minute saying, ‘What happens to me if I die? What will happen to my kids?’ Professor Oliners says. It’s an impulse. It’s quick. (Haggerty 2006). Such instinctive behavior may be explained by qualities that are hard-wired into our biology. In 2006, associate professor of psychology at Duke University Medical Center, Scott Huettel, found that a specific structure of the brain called the posterior superior temporal cortex (pSTC) is focused not on reward, but instead on perceiving others’ intentions. In other words, humans are naturally capable of empathy, and it is this intrinsic emotion that enables us to spontaneously react to another in need. Our human capacity to ‘tune in’ to others when exposed to their feelings may explain why we do not always behave selfishly in human interactions but instead engage in altruistic, helping behavior, says Tania Singer of the University College London (Mundell, 2007). Furthermore, in 2005, researcher Jean Decety of University of Washington in Seattle found that when people viewed pictures of strangers in painful situations such as getting their toes caught in a door, other specific structures deep in the brain called the anterior cingulated cortex and insula were stimulated (Mundell, 2007). These structures are consistently found to be activated in connection with one’s own pain even though they are not triggered by physical sensations of pain, supporting the idea that humans are naturally able to perceive other’s emotions. We are intrinsically empathetic. Therefore, we perform altruistic acts not out selfish concerns but rather because we are biologically capable and do not take the time to outweigh the rewards with the punishments. Our empathetic concern thereby motivates us to perform altruistic acts.
In conclusion, humans are clearly capable of pure, genuine altruistic behavior. We are not always motivated by the self-interest of impressing others, gaining social approval or acceptance, relieving distress at the sight of another in distress, or enhance our own psychological well-being. We rather act upon empathy and our natural inclination to help others in need as can be seen through the many experiments, studies, research, and reports of helpful behavior that altruistic deeds are not calculated or predetermined. Such a shift in our view of human motivation requires us to review our perspective of human nature and our potential. Others can be more to us than objects and sources of reward as we seek to enhance our own welfare. Rather, we have the potential to care about them as fellow human beings and people with feelings. However in the end, it does not matter whether we perform altruistic deeds out of self-concern or for the welfare of another. Living in a world wrought with warfare, conflict, prejudice, and animosity, altruism is needed now more than ever. It will make the world a much better place for all human beings, and perhaps one day we may be able to achieve peace, harmony, and appreciate another for who we truly are on the inside.