There’s been a discussion — okay, a tangent that Ive gotten sucked into — over at Daylight Atheism. It’s about whether altruism is real… and since I’ve had rather a lot to say about it over there, I thought I should come say it back here as well.
I’ve always been bugged by people who insist that there’s no such thing as altruism; that everyone is basically selfish, and only they themselves are honest enough to admit it. The core of the argument seems to be that even the most altruistic acts — running into a burning building to save people, devoting your entire life to medical research or social justice, driving to shithole towns twice a month to take care of prisoners with HIV, etc. — are done for reasons of one’s own. They’re done to make yourself feel good, to make people like you, etc. Therefore, the acts are selfish — and therefore, there is no difference between the selfishness of, say, an Albert Schweitzer and that of a Donald Trump.
So here’s my problem.
If you’re going to define the word “selfish” as any and all behavior that benefits you even in the slightest — even if that gain is only that you get a marginal increase in social status, or that you get to privately feel like a good person — then that makes the word “selfish” pretty much meaningless. It’s basically re-defining the word “selfish” as “voluntary.” (Tip o’ the hat to Tim Walters for this catchy phrasing.)
Let’s take a look at the definition of the word “selfish,” shall we? According to Merriam Webster Online, “selfish” means:
1: concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself: seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others
2: arising from concern with one’s own welfare or advantage in disregard of others (a selfish act)
Please note that the definition doesn’t say “concerned with oneself; seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure, or well-being; arising from concern with one’s own welfare or advantage.” Doing those things does not make you selfish. Doing those things makes you sane. The key words are “excessively or exclusively,” “without regard for others,” “in disregard of others.” That’s what defines “selfish.”
This is a useful word. It’s a useful idea, a useful distinction to make. And it draws a clear distinction between the “you’re just doing that to feel good about yourself” kind of selfishness, and the kind of selfishness that’s what most of people mean when they use the word. Between, if you will, Albert Schweitzer selfishness and Donald Trump selfishness. These are different concepts. They’re different experiences. The experience of, “It makes me feel ecstatic and connected to make a contribution to humanity” is significantly different from the experience of, “Screw you, Jack, I’ve got mine.” It’s absurd to try to call them by the same name.
But there are other issues here, and they’re more than just semantics.
I am troubled by the idea that human beings are “really” any one thing. Human feelings, human motives, human nature itself, are all a big, complex, self-contradictory mess, and I find it very troubling when people insist on denying one part of human nature simply because we have another part that contradicts it. In particular, I’m troubled by the idea that, because our motivations are often a mixture of selfishness and altruism, and because altruism has a selfish component to it, this somehow negates the altruism, and only the selfishness is real. (And I find it interesting that the people arguing this don’t consider the possibility that this conflict negates the selfishness, and only the altruism is real.)
And perhaps most importantly:
Arguing that altruism isn’t real isn’t just unethical. It’s also factually inaccurate.
There is, in fact, increasing evidence that altruism is an essential part of human nature. Literally. It seems to be hard-wired into us genetically. As it is in other social species. (As is selfishness, of course. Both qualities exist, in pretty much everyone.) Denying its existence is like denying the existence of social hierarchies or sexual desire.
I never cease to be amazed by people who insist that everyone else really experiences life exactly the way they do, if only they’d be honest and admit it. And in particular, I never cease to be amazed by selfish people who insist that everyone else is fundamentally selfish, too, and just won’t admit it. It’s so obviously self-serving that it’s laughable.
No, there’s probably no such thing as “pure altruism.” Any completely self-sacrificing tendency would have been selected out by evolution in a hurry. But the fact that it isn’t pure doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.
If people want to behave selfishly — i.e., concerned excessively or exclusively with themselves without regard for others — I doubt that I can argue them out of it. I just wish they’d stop fooling themselves into believing that everyone else is really just like them and simply won’t admit it. If you genuinely lack altruistic feelings… well, everyone else is not just like you. There are people in the world who care about other people, who have empathy for them, who want to make the world better for everyone and not just for themselves. And the world is a better place because of it.
Yes, the care for other people is mixed with self-care. But that doesn’t negate it. The fact that you are missing out on a fundamental human experience is no reason to deny that experience’s very existence.