This conversation is closed.

Can true altruism exist in humans?

Can people really act with 100% altruistic behaviors; in other words, can people act in a way that solely benefits another individual without any type of material or emotional personal benefit?

For example, one can suppose that a type of gift given from one individual to another is entirely for the benefit of the receiver, but then we may also suppose that the gift provides some type of benefit to the giver (good feelings, potential reciprocity expectations, etc).
Is there any way for a human to perform an act such as this with zero intentions to benefit in any way?

  • thumb
    Oct 8 2012: You can not do something that helps another person, without feeling good for having done it. So if you're looking for people to suffer after acts of charity... You will never find it.
  • thumb
    Oct 8 2012: Altruism speaks of motive, not of advantage gained. Altruism requires no modifiers like "real", or "100%". Either a given act is selfless, altruistic, or it is not. If the motive for an act is to improve the life of another person, or persons, that is altruism . The fact that it was altruistic is not changed when, and if, the result of such an act proves beneficial or advantageous to the person performing the act. Yes, altrusm is a reality in humans.
    • Oct 8 2012: I know that the act could benefit the performer, but what I am talking about is the intentions of the performer. I believe that they know either consciously or unconsciously the benefits that could result from the act. I propose that these perceived "benefits" alter the decision to act or not to act.
      • Oct 8 2012: At some point it becomes impossible to distinguish between doing something because it's the right thing to do and doing something because you like the feeling of having done the right thing, because believing something is the right thing to do is the same as feeling good about doing the right thing.
        • thumb
          Oct 8 2012: RE: "How can you you believe. . . "
          You cannot, nor did I say you can.
      • thumb
        Oct 8 2012: We agree! If motives are in any way selfish (like, "I will help that person who is in distress because helping them will make me feel good about myself.") the act is not altuistic. Helping a person in distress simply because they need help and you can help is altruistic. I think the issue of premeditation or forethought enter into this question.
        • Oct 8 2012: How can you believe helping someone is right without feeling good about helping someone? Doesn't your brain translate "helping = good" into "helping feels good" to make you believe that helping is good in the first place?
  • thumb
    Oct 8 2012: No one's intentions exist in a vacuum. I don't believe it's possible for one to do anything with only one, isolated intention.

    According to your argument, if I receive the least amount of personal gratification from an altruistic act, my intentions were not 100% altruistic. And even were that true, so what? Isn't it enough that altruism is compelling enough for the human species that we're willing to practice it regularly?
    • Oct 8 2012: I agree, if you believe any amount of (possible) later satisfaction or reward must have been the motivation for the act of altruism then "true" altruism doesn't exist. But that belief can be false. And in the end, does it really matter if you help your group to help everyone in that group but you or if you help them to help everyone in the group including you? In both cases you're still giving something of yourself you probably didn't strictly have to, because you probably could've gone libertarian and do something, with the same amount of effort, that benefitted you more and the rest of the group less.
  • thumb
    Oct 8 2012: If I understand your question, if a person values altruism you would say that isn't "true altruism," because acting on his/her values is also gratifying to him/her personally. If a person gives in some way without valuing it- because he is compelled to do it, you would probably not call it altruism because his heart wasn't in it) or say that the act is entirely for personal benefit in the sense of avoiding the penalty for not following through.

    I believe it would be quite incorrect to conclude from this that altruism is fundamentally self-serving or selfish.
    • thumb
      Oct 8 2012: Bingo! The antithesis of an altruistic act is a selfish or self-serving act.
  • thumb
    Oct 10 2012: Pure altruism is impossible; we want to know our efforts are worth while.

    So, what then can we say about altruism?

    It's a strange concern. The altruism for one's family/friends seems to be the norm, but after your family/friends what then is the benefit of selfless acts?

    In a paper I been reading called "Social Incentives and Human Evolution" the author dictates when groups interact within themselves, altruism is a concern. How much does the group support the individual and vice versa? Altruism requires a give and take relationship. The 'give' requires an amount of sacrifice and the 'take' is the expected reward. When the 'take' is lower than the 'give' is that more altruistic? Thus, I believe there are degrees and levels of altruism. (The author argues we have evolved socially/culturally based on what the group(s) desires and rejects (gives and takes) - so perhaps history is vital to the concern of what is in fact a high level of altruism or a low one)

    I for one do feel we can be both altruistic and selfish while maintaining a good attitude towards life - it's a balancing act.
    • thumb

      W. Ying

      • +2
      Oct 15 2012: I agree:
      No pure or 100% altruism!
      Our instincts (ancestors’ successful experiences saved in DNA) make us symbiotic rather than altruistic.
      Otherwise, humankind can never survive!

      That is why symbiosis makes us HAPPY VALIDLY.
  • thumb
    Oct 8 2012: It is possible for people to act in a way that completely benefits another individual without expecting material benefits; but I think there is an emotional benefit, whether it is expected or not.
    There are people who give because they want to please someone or some people, and their motives is not to feel good or to get something back (even though they may know that giving gives a good feeling). However there are people who give because of the percieved benefits of giving- which is not a bad thing.

    When we look at Mother Teresa of Calcutta, what possibly could she hope to gain, in terms of material benefit, from the homeless, orphans, lepers and war victims? She could work in other comfortable and convinient places and still be a good catholic.

    True altruism may be rare; but it is impossible to care about the needs and happiness of other people more than your own without benefitting from such acts.
  • thumb
    Oct 8 2012: There are many accounts of truly altruistic behavior. The soldier who throws himself on a bomb to save his companions etc. Of course, the soldier is dead and cannot benefit from his actions. However, altruism lies on a continuum from sharing to selfless behavior to self sacrifice. I am not sure why you would only consider self sacrifice as true altruism.
    • thumb
      Oct 8 2012: I agree with your idea too, Linda. We posted at the same time so I hadn't seen your post yet.
  • Oct 10 2012: I guess it's all about your ego - the higher the ego, the less altruistic you are. And yes, there really are people who do stuff without expectations, and rare they might be, but you can't count them out. But indirectly, there is a sort of emotional expectation as Feyisayo Anjorin stated very well. When you help out someone, you expect them to be happy, satisfied and sometimes thankful too. If they don't give you the feeling they liked your help, its not really gonna encourage you to do the same thing again. So yes there are some expectations, but certainly not selfish ones.
  • thumb
    Oct 8 2012: You would need to remove the ego first that innate idea of being #1 in something.
  • thumb
    Oct 8 2012: All behavior is a learned trait passed on to us by our parents, siblings, friends, as well as enemies, and our enviroment. For a society to exist as "altruistic" it must be something believed in at every level of society. When we are born we are a blank slate taking in information at the speed of light and translating it into usable and coherent data. If our environment can provide all we need, our parents are completely open minded and open to new ideas, our friends engage us on an intellectual level, and people we don't know treated us as if we were connected on some fundamental level (, which we are; you would find that altruistic mindsets would be a force of evolution. Most importantly of all, people need to be able to express themselves in whatever way they need to. You will find that the more people are told what is and is not "OK", the more they will lash out at their environment in both predictable and unpredictable ways.
  • thumb
    Oct 8 2012: Altruism can be a habit: selflessness: an attitude or way of behaving marked by unselfish concern for the welfare of others

    Or a ethical belief: belief in acting for others' good: the belief that acting for the benefit of others is right and good

    The ethical defination would be easier to support. The habit would be the hardest to sustain over time.

    In either mode iot would appear that there is some degree of selective practice. Could I for instance be a dog lover and that would be my target for this selflessness. I could apply it only to MY dogs and still be within the defination.

    Or could I send a check and clear my conscience that I have acted for the others good and thereby meeting the defination once again.

    In both cases I have met the letter but surely not the intent.

    True altruism would mean behavior beyond most of our capabilities. I would love to say that it is possible but I must confess that the odds are very much against.
  • thumb
    Oct 8 2012: I agree with Fritzie's comments.

    But there is also some confusion as to what your question is asking (at least to me).

    You use the terms "people" and "humans", which can represent more than just an individual.

    When talking about ONE person, it may be possible for that one person to act "altruistically".

    But if you are talking about a group of people doing it together, it becomes much less likely it will happen as the number of "people" or "humans" increase in the membership of the group. Thus, "group altruism" is not very likely to happen on a large scale.

    I have yet to see any group organization in the history of mankind where every member of the group acted in an altruistic manner so as to be able to say the entire group was altruistic. If I am wrong about that, please inform me about any large group that exists today that is totally altruistic, where no members of that group act in a non-altruistic manner.

    And that is the problem with ever being able to form a totaly altruistic society or "world".