The Paradox of Altruism

I thought I’d write this article because it’s the time of the year when we all come together and do three things – give, receive and over-indulge. It brings a nice philosophical face to why I think really, even though at Christmas you claim you’re there to give – and you might very well think you are doing so, you really aren’t.

And so to everybody with whom I haven’t shared this before:

Altruism: Acting for the sake of other people’s interests, lack of self-indulgence. Its opposite is Hedonism: That pleasure is the principle good and proper goal of all action. Self-indulgence.

The Paradox
In my opinion, altruism must be a paradox. When we give something, or do something for others, our brains activate the reward system and pleasure-inducing chemicals are released, thus making us feel good about what we’ve done for the person.

It could be said that though the reward system comes into play immediately, people don’t do it for the reward. I’d argue with that because I think human nature operates on a mostly hedonistic basis – i.e. we look after ourselves (which might be extended to a family unit), which is shown throughout the countless collapses of socialist nations, and is the main reason why I don’t think that Marxist philosophy can be applied to a real world situation. And so, you see, I would argue that the fact that brain chemicals are released to reward us is indicative of our nature, thus self-indulgence coming into play when doing things for other people.

Though I know that opposing views to this philosophy would involve something like, “well when I give I don’t consciously do so for the so-called reward system.” And I’d say that’s fair enough, but it doesn’t change the fact that you actually do it for those reasons; you might not engage in this activity consciously, but the mere fact that this chemical reaction happens in the brain is the result of three things:

1. Human nature is our innate, collectively hidden traits, based upon self-interest. The fight or flight reaction is indicative of our shared ability, or ability to attempt, to survive;
2. Human nature has not yet changed since the ‘cave-man’ era, due to how long evolution takes to occur; and the dictum that it is never in our interest to remove our survival instincts; and
3. The reward system was originally put in place, so it is widely-accepted by the scientific community, to reward Neanderthals for hunting and eating food, as it is life-sustaining activity. It is now human nature to feel reward.

And so the reward system is innate, just like our ability or fight to survive. It’s so innate, in fact, that most things we do which are considered altruistic are in fact hedonistic, just not so obviously.

Altruism can’t exist when we are rewarded for our actions – selflesness is actions for others without reward, without self-indulgence.

So, I think you feel good after giving somebody a gift for a reason – because, naturally, you’re a selfish bastard. And so am I.