On Altruism

Part 2


The conventional definition of altruism can be displayed in this simple formula: A = c + u + s, where A stands for altruism, c stands for concern, u stands for unselfishness, and s stands for selflessness. In this definition, concern for others refers to a personal desire to help another person (or an animal). Here, concern stems from empathy. By unselfishness, this definition refers to a willingness to make some degree of emotional or material sacrifice for another. The American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition, defines selfless as “Without concern for oneself”; The Webster’s II New Riverside University Dictionary defines selfless similarly: “Concerned about others rather than oneself.”

However, I think that the combination of selflessness and human altruism is a mutually exclusive pairing in a healthy, sane person. Except in some cases of suicide, a will to self-destruction is pathologically nihilistic. It’s possible and even common, though, in heroic behaviors for self-annihilation to result as an unintended consequence of an altruistic action. I’ll say more about that in Part 4.

So I don’t include selflessness in my formulation of human altruism, substituting self-interest in its place to yield A = c + si + u, where the new term si stands for perceived self-interest. In my view, human altruism results from the interaction of these three motivations working in harmony to move a person to act altruistically. Without feeling some concern for or empathy with another being, what would prompt a person toward altruism? Without a felt recognition of perceived self-interest, a person lacks a strong enough motivation to risk an emotional or material sacrifice. A willingness to take that risk establishes the third motivation, unselfishness. When, and only when, these three motivations unite harmoniously and powerfully enough can they produce altruistic behavior.

–> Go to Part 3: Some Splaining To Do


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