Is altruism possible? Or are we strictly egoistic creatures?

Influential philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Friedrich Nietzsche, Camus, and Ayn Rand have maintained that a truly altruistic deed is simply not possible. People will always harbor some expectation of personal gain, no matter how noble or self-sacrificing their actions might appear. Egoism always rears it's head in one form or another, and there lies the real motivation.

The resoning goes something like this: someone's action may be called altruistic only if all selfish motives are entirely absent from the equation. As soon as that person starts to consider his or her own benefit, that person is no longer acting altruistically. It's as if egoism trumps altruism. And since we have stated that this is always the case with people, that no one acts unless they percieve thay'll recive some personal gain from their action, therefore altruism is not possible.

  1. An action is said to be altruistic only if totally free of selfish motives
  2. A selfish motive can be found for every human action
  3. Therefore no human action can be said to be altruistic.
If this is true then what are we to make of the fact that some people insist that some actions really are altruistic. At best such claims of altruism serve as a socially acceptable euphemism under wich to hide one's true, if un-aknowleged, selfish motives. At it's worst such a claim amounts to out-right deception and hipocracy. People who say they are altruistic must either be ignorant of their own motives (wich must be selfish) or lying about them.

Could there be another way of looking at this issue?

I propose that the answer is yes.
If statement (1) or (2) were to change it is possible that the conclusion would be different. So let's revisit our assumptions, shall we?

Of the two predicates, the second stands out as the most robust. Changing (2) to "it is humanly possible for someone to be totally free of all selfish motives" makes a singularly weak statement. It demands that ALL selfish motive be eliminatied, even the faintest shadow of self. A difficult assertion to defend, to say the least! It makes sense to leave this one alone.

Instead, let's turn our attention to the first statement. What does (1) imply? It implies that motivation is binary. It's either off or on, It's either selfish or altruistic. But is it really that simple? If we examine the subject of motivation just a little more closely we discover some coplexity we missed at first gloss: On the one hand we do feel the urge for self preservation. We seek benefit for ourselves and this indeed motivates our action. Granted. But is this the only legitamate motivation a person can have? Is there any reason why the urge to benefit others should not be just as legitimate a motivation? And need these two motivations be thought of as exclusionary? There's no reason why both shouldn't coexist in the same person--or even the same action.

We can now define two different but equaly ligitimate types of human motivation: The self-serving kind wich we will call egoistic, and the other-serving kind wich we will call altruistic. A person's motivation can then be concieved of as a mixture of altruism and egoism.

let's look at a few examples: the firefighter who rescues the children from the burning building does so because she wants to save their lives AND becase she wants to prove her own heroism, her standing in the community, even her self worth. Or think of the father who urges his daughter to do well is school both for his daughter's future prosperity AS WELL AS to diminish his own embarrasment over having never finished school. These are examples of people who mix egoistic and altruistic motives in the same action.

Notice as well that these are not fixed quantities. Egoism may dominate as a motivator on some occasions. On other occasions Egoism may play a relativley insignificant role, in wich case the action is for the most part motivated by a desire to bring about benefit to someone else and therefore demonstrates a higher degree of altruism. The relative proportion of altruism to egoism in one's motivation can change greatly. The result is a wide range of actions that exhibit varying degrees of altruism.

By keeping (2), altering (1) and adding a few more statements to reflect a more complex assesment of human motivation, we can now re-state our sylogism:

  1. Human motivation can be of at least two types: egoistic (concered with the self) and altruistic (concered with others than the self.)
  2. The same action can have both egoistic and altruistic motivations.
  3. There is always some egoistic motive in every human action.
  4. It is possible to vary the amount of each type of motivation that an action can have.
  5. An action is said to be altruistic if that action has any altruistic motivation.
  6. It is possible for a human action to be characterized by one of many varying degrees of altruism
It is worth noting that the conclusion (f) does not conflict with statement (b). This means that just because someone may be motivated by a certain amount of egotism in a particular action, this does not cancel out the fact that this person may ALSO be motivated by a certain amount of altruism. For a given action, the presence of egoistic motivation does not negate the possablity that some altruistic motivation could be present as well.

So, by taking a closer look at the complex nature of human motivation, we were able to redefine our terms from absolute (you are either fully altruistic or completly lacking in altruism) to relative (there are degrees of altuism, some actions are more altruistic than others) and from exclusionary (an action can be motivated by either altruism or egotism, but never both) to non-exclusionary (motivation can be mixed.) As a result we are able to conclude that though it be impossible for human actions to be entirly free of egoistic motives, altruism is possible.

Though we do have to give up the notion of 'absolute altruism' -- no one's motives can achieve the state of complete selflesness, we will always be tainted by self (wich is in agreement with the existentailist) -- we still possess the ability to be altruistic, by degrees. Indeed, the potential to increase our selflessness and altruism appears to be limitless.

Al"tru*ist, n.

One imbued with altruism; -- opposed to egoist.


© Webster 1913.

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