Altruistic behavior: An oxymoron?

al⋅tru⋅is⋅tic

[al-troo-is-tik]  Show IPA

–adjective

1. unselfishly concerned for or devoted to the welfare of others (opposed to egoistic ).
2. Animal Behavior. of or pertaining to behavior by an animal that may be to its disadvantage but that benefits others of its kind, often its close relatives.

self⋅ish

[sel-fish]  Show IPA

–adjective

1. devoted to or caring only for oneself; concerned primarily with one’s own interests, benefits, welfare, etc., regardless of others.
2. characterized by or manifesting concern or care only for oneself: selfish motives.

How should one define what is altruistic and what is selfish? The definitions seem to transcend the obvious boundaries. While some acts are doubtless selfish (such as taking additional servings at a tea reception before others have had their share), many others reside in a gray area depending on how we choose to define altruism and selfishness.

The definitions seem to suggest we need to look beyond the actions: justifications play a more important role than the act itself. Consider a colleague who needs your assistance. You understand that by helping him, you might get a good appraisal and thereby increase your chances of promotion. Apart from that, you see him as no more than an acquaintance and derive no joy whatsoever in helping him. Should helping him be considered an altruistic act because it is devoted to his welfare (and yours as well), or should it be considered selfish because the intention is far from noble? The second definition of selfish focuses on self-interested motives – this seems to provide some teeth to the latter argument.

At the same time, the question arises as to whether the welfare distribution should have any bearing on whether an act is considered altruistic or selfish. By helping your colleague, both stand to gain. Does the potential gain to you render the act selfish? Let’s go one step further and say that you derive plenty of joy from helping people. Paradoxically, you stand to gain even more – just that this time round your intentions appear more “noble”. Does this make the act more altruistic, or does it make it more selfish since you derive some additional satisfaction?

What this really brings up is the question of how we should define altruistic. Perhaps a tighter definition is needed; we might say altruism must strictly yield no benefits to oneself, for otherwise one might be acting for self-interest and should therefore be considered selfish. But what of him who fails or chooses not to consider the potential benefits to oneself, and behaves altruistically solely because he enjoys making others happy? Then the obvious question is: does it not make him happy as well? And if it does, shouldn’t that be considered a benefit to himself?

Economics suggests that we are rational; behavioral economics goes one step further and suggests that we are “boundedly rational”. Either way, it is tremendously difficult to imagine and justify why a person would act with absolutely no intent (regardless of how noble or ignoble it may be). I believe Richard Dawkins discusses this in The Selfish Gene, though I’ve yet to read it. Till then, it might be useful for us to relax the definitions of altruism and selfishness. After all, not everything needs to be in black-and-white.

Yours altruistically,

Tim

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2 thoughts on “Altruistic behavior: An oxymoron?

  1. Pingback: The cloak of social responsibility « hypothetical thinking.

  2. Pingback: On altruism: call for comments « hypothetical thinking.

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