The Selfish Nature of Altruism

  When people consider altruism, they refer to acts of selfless compassion. To be altruistic is to go beyond the opportunistic nature of rationality. Instead, we tell ourselves to pursue the noble route of empathy. Many argue that the reason altruism is such a grand gesture is because it involves foregoing your own personal pleasure for the benefit of others. Acts of charity and philanthropy are lauded by society because they involve sacrifice. Through acts of altruism, we aren’t merely helping people, we’re helping people at the expense of our own time, energy and money. But what if altruism isn’t as selfless an act as we perceive it to be? What if altruism is one of the most selfish things we can do? In the words of biologist and philosopher Michael Ghiselin, “Scratch an altruist, and watch a hypocrite bleed”.

Charitable giving and being an overall nice guy is a key part of societal improvement. Which charity you volunteer at and how they utilize your donations is another matter though. What we need to question is the root and implications of altruism.

In his popular book, “The Selfish Gene”, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins describes in length the concepts of Darwinism and how selfishness is integral to the survival of a species. Ethologically however, Dawkins sees patterns of compassion and kindness among different classes of animals. Elephants bury the dead of their group, apes groom each other, dolphins rescue drowning swimmers, and so on and so forth. It is ironic, that in the survival of the fittest, living organisms often take out the time to help others in need. The reason is simple. The ‘fittest’ in ‘survival of the fittest’ is not merely a euphemism for ‘physical capability’. It’s more about the nature of a species to understand stimuli and adapt to it, thus elongating its lifespan. The reason animals display the emotions of empathy is because they are genetically programmed to do so – it’s the ‘selfish gene’. Animals help each other within their species, because of the overall positive social externalities it causes. The improved state of affairs within their species will inevitably lead to a high chance of survival for the future. Imagine that: Genetically programmed utilitarianism. Animals will even help those beyond their species, if they believe such acts of kindness will be reciprocated. Quite aptly, the sentiment is ‘You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’.

A lot of altruism stems from a sense of empathy, genetic or otherwise. In the field of psychology, there is a distinction between two types of empathy: ‘cognitive empathy’ and ‘emotional empathy’. Cognitive empathy is when we look at things through the other person’s perspective. It is a desirable trait as it helps us rationalise and form an informed decision through a cost-benefit analysis. Then there’s the other type of empathy, emotional empathy. Emotional empathy occurs when we literally feel the emotions of others through mutual contact. The reason emotional empathy is dangerous is because it clouds judgement. Of course, there are those who argue for the emotional quotient in human beings. Our ability to empathise with each other in such a way helps us become more benevolent and understanding. It’s supposed to reduce myopic prejudices. The only problem is that emotional empathy is riddled with implicit biases, thus alleviating the very phenomena it’s meant to generate.

Paul Bloom, the professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale, has outlined several biases that restrict this form of empathy. We’re much more likely to empathize with people of the same race, gender and nationality than others. In the process we tend to isolate and sometimes even antagonize the ‘other’. The quest for emotional empathy often leads us to help others in need. However, we’re not really trying to reduce their pain, we’re trying to reduce our own. Bloom’s own research shows that when given the choice between offering money to a beggar and simply choosing to ignore him altogether, respondents would try to skip the interaction at all. We’d rather not have to deal with this situation at all rather than help someone in need. Sometimes we give to comfort ourselves, not others. The motivation is egoistic, not sympathetic.

There is an eminent philanthropist by the name of Zell Kravinsky, who famously donated almost all of his wealth to charity. In addition to a contribution of circa $ 45 million, Kravinsky donated his own kidney to a complete stranger. His rationale, which he explained to Peter Singer and his students, was as follows:

“[H]e puts his altruism in mathematical terms. Quoting scientific studies that the show the risk of dying to be only 1 in 4,000, he says that not making the donation would have meant that he valued his life at 4,000 times that of a stranger, a valuation he finds totally justified.”

Continuing the overarching theme of utilitarianism, consider this case for a moment. Kravinsky’s judgement is not clouded by any bias, he is not doing this out of an ulterior motive for reciprocation, and most of all he’s being a rational agent. Having said that, he’s still not following a moralistically ideal type of compassion. Kravinsky reasons with himself that valuing his life at 4,000 times that of someone else is “obscene”. He’s not donating his kidney out of sense of moral righteousness but so that he can comfort himself in the idea that he has mathematically assigned the proper value to human life, albeit in this case his own.

Some economists see altruism as deeply irrational behaviour. Instead of maximising one’s own utility, an agent will go out of his way to assist others. But assisting others carries with it, it’s own sense of utility. Helping others makes us feel good. We’re chasing that good. The feeling of self-importance and self-worth that comes along with it. The reason we help others is because for a moment, we find restitution and an overwhelming feeling of fulfilment.

Altruism is a wonderful thing. At the end of the day no matter what the reason behind it, it helps people. The end justifies the means. However, as long as we question the reasons behind our need for altruism, compassion and empathy, we’re taking a step in the right direction. Let’s not always think of altruism as the moral high ground. So, the next time you give to charity or help out your neighbours with their furniture, ask yourself, is your neighbour the only person you’re comforting?


Calvin Paperwala is a research executive at a market research consultancy in the U.A.E. He did his undergraduate degree in Economics and Management from the University of London: International Programme.

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