On Altruism

Part 1


Most of us think we know a horse when we see one. Most of us recognize a gift when we receive one. Most of us cherish altruism when we see it displayed. As the Trojans would warn us, we would be wise to examine the entirety of the horse before accepting it for what it appears to be. The same is true for altruism. Although we aren’t likely to be burned and pillaged by a seeming act of altruism, if we don’t examine the motives for altruistic behaviors, we still may find ourselves fooled. We’re often prone to fool ourselves.

So what is altruism, and what are its motivations? As those ancient Greeks knew and their Trojan adversaries learned, motivations are essential in determining the essence of virtuous and wise thought and action, for instance, whether or not to accept the apparently altruistic gift of a wooden horse. When they accepted the peace offering of their Greek foes, the trusting Trojans may have had in mind these common definitions of “altruism”:

  • “Unselfish concern for the welfare of others; selflessness” (Webster’s New World Dictionary, Second College Edition)
  • “Concern for the welfare of others as opposed to egoism; selflessness” (The American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition).

These definitions point to three essential traits of altruism: unselfishness, concern for others, and selflessness. The second definition also includes a disqualifying trait: egoism.

My definition of altruism also comprises three traits: concern for others, unselfishness, and self-interest. “But wait,” you say. “Aren’t unselfishness and self-interest mutually exclusive, contradictory?”

Sometimes, they certainly are, but not when they are employed in the service of altruism. In fact, altruism is always motivated by self-interest, as well as by concern and unselfishness. None can be lacking.

Before moving on to the next section, I need to emphasize that I am speaking of human altruism, that is, motivations and behaviors that apply to Homo sapiens. I leave to biologists and other scientists the question of whether or not these motivations might apply to other primates.

–> Go to Part 2: I Have a Formula for That


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