The Paradox of Altruism


For centuries, philosophers, scientists, religious leaders, economists, sociologists, psychologists – and Uncle Tom Cobbley and all! – have debated this subject. Are we born selfish, with, as Richard Dawkins suggests, a ‘selfish gene’ that means every good act we carry out is motivated by self-preservation, or as Darwin thought ‘survival of the fittest’? Or have we evolved genetically and culturally with a built-in altruistic predisposition?

If the former view is accepted, then every altruistic, selfless act is done for personal payback of some kind. Examples might include the warm feeling we get after dropping a few coins in a street musician’s guitar case, a stranger giving to another stranger, with no witnesses and nothing to our own advantage from doing this. Or has the rich, anonymous donor who enables a new Infant Intensive Care Unit to be built, parted with huge amounts of cash as a tax write-off, or to store up points with the Almighty? Then we have the ethical egoist, and the Objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand, extolling the virtues of selfishness. In this view, only when someone has taken care of their own needs, can they be of value and do good for others. In fact, they can actually contribute more to the common good, because the self-preservation and personal gains put them in a better position to be selfless, in the long run. So the question of whether altruism is ethically right comes under debate, and it is better perhaps not to become embroiled in this; further reading in philosophical theory is recommended, along with a clear head and a rational approach. Our paradox of altruism calls forth emotional responses, in my view.

So back to the question. In my opinion, the latter theory, that we have a biologically and culturally in-build desire to help other people is right; people who are not our own family, total strangers needing help, people in distress. You have only to look at the responses to appeals for famine-ravaged countries, for those suffering the devastation of natural disasters, and just plain reaching out to help a child or old person who stumbles and falls. Those in distress who need help almost always receive it. A cynical argument could be that guilt motivates us to give aid, but many who do give have little themselves, and deprive themselves in order to help. Look at the bravery of the rescuers at the Twin Towers, many who lost their lives in trying to save others. Where was the payback or selfishness in their actions? Have you ever witnessed a young child, enjoying a chocolate treat, who willingly shares with another baby? I have, often. Why does this happen, if we are supposedly only motivated by selfishness and never by altruism?

The argument cannot help but extend into the realms of ethics, morality and philosophical debate, as mentioned before. But the most telling example I can think of that proves we are indeed basically altruistic, comes from Jacob Bronowski’s essay on a moral man. A scientist, one Louis Slotin, working in 1946 on the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, made an error that caused a radiation leak. He calmly told his co-workers to mark where they were standing, and then used his own hands to dismantle the plutonium, knowing he would die, but that his colleagues would live. No payback, no hope for a future, maybe a conviction that he had to do what he believed right. I think he was probably scared and resigned, but he gave others the chance to live, while sacrificing himself. To me, that represented no paradox, no doubts, and showed that within the human psyche, or possibly by genetic and cultural programming, there lies the capacity to be truly altruistic.

Sources: Scientific American: The Samaritan Paradox. At

Further Reading: Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Book 1, Chapter 8. ebook available at

Bronowski, J. 1978. ‘A Moral for an Age of Plenty’ in ‘A sense of the future: Essays in Natural Philosophy. p. 202-205. Cambridge, MA MIT Press

Dawkins, R. 1976. ‘The Selfish Gene’ Oxford University Press, 1989.

Ayn Rand. 1961. ‘The Virtue of Selfishness’ Signet, 1964 (may also be available as ebook)