Monday, August 09, 2004


Over the past year or so I have been thinking a great deal about altruism. Mainly, does it exist, is it the correct term, and are there other terms which would better describe certain behaviours? My current thoughts are that if altruism is defined as "Unselfish concern for the welfare of others; selflessness," which it usualy is, then it is a term does not seem to have enough specificity. As well, if you look up selfish it will likely be defined as something like "Concerned chiefly or only with oneself." This too also lacks the precision necessary to describe the complexity and possible events and situations to which we would want to use such a word.

The problem lies in the fact that people engage in behaviours and practices which bring them some sort of positivity- which can come from things, feelings, social rewards..etc. If someone feels good by doing something to help others, it makes sense to think that they may only be doing the action to feel better about themselves. Could it be otherwise? You might ask about the person who likes to donate to charities anonymously because they like to help others but don't want the publicity. Why do they do it if it doesn't make them feel good? Isn't it really the positive feeling of helping others that makes them donate? (Moreso, they are even happier not recieving the publicity because that is an admired trait in our society.) Another example is that Steve works at a homeless shelter to serve breakfast to those in need. He does this because helping others makes him feel good. So.. is he selfish or altruistic? One could say his altruism in this sense is really selfishness, but is there anything wrong with that? I say no, but more on this later.

What about the claim that people only(!) do what is in their best interests? For the most part I agree, but with the caveats that how you define a person and the timeline of their interests is important. The benefactor can be more than the person's conscious experience and the best interests are usually those that are immediate and not long-term. Imagine Steve also works 9-5 in an office and because of his position at the shelter he is occasionally late for work and feels less focused on his job from time to time. Consequently, he has been warned about these issues and is in danger of losing his job. It would seem that to continue to function in this way may be detrimental for Steve's paying job, yet he continues to do so. I would say that the situation (potential job loss vs. helping homeless people) brings an overall amount of positivity to Steve and that is why he continues to do it. Steve might think that the positive feelings he receives is better than the job he has and is willing to lose it. Alternatively, he could be unable to fully predict how he would feel and the ramifications throughout his life if he were unemployed. Potentially, this is an issue of immediacy and an inability to accurately predict long term situations and their effects. The salient aspects of Steve's life are that he feels good after helping people, and this happens everyday, while being unemployed is a situation that only exists in theory.
Most people have people or things in their life which are very important to them. If there best friend wins the lottery they will feel happy, but if the friend is in a car accident they will feel badly. A person commits actions in the best interest of themselves, but this can also be in the best interests of their loved ones, friends, community, country or planet. How far it goes depends on how exended your sense of self is. Consequently, I think altruism would be better thought of as extended self-interest, and then try to specify the degree of extension appropriate for the behaviour. What do you think?

Note: Who's best interests are being served when someone commits suicide?


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