Post No.: 0260
Altruism is a motive to increase another’s welfare without conscious regard for one’s self-interests. Some believe that altruism is only a thinly-veiled self-interested behaviour where people will only help other people after doing a cost-benefit analysis (e.g. to get something later in return or to relieve guilt), and indeed maximising one’s individual payoffs in the long-run and bigger picture often means doing things that involve cooperation and collaboration.
But studies have found that, starting from babyhood onwards, most people exhibit a natural empathy when others feel distress and a relief when their suffering ends, and we do things simply to increase another’s welfare, and any personal satisfaction is merely a non-premeditated by-product at the time. People who don’t feel that way may score highly on the psychopathy scale (read Post No.: 0140 for more about psychopaths), but most people do have the empathy and compassion to want to alleviate another person’s suffering, especially when they’re right in front of them. In many situations, people will help when they believe the other party will actually receive the help they need, regardless of whether the recipient knows who’s helped them.
Some will cynically argue that even feeling that warm furry feeling for helping someone else is enough to make altruism really a ‘give and get’ thing, or a trade, when one really breaks it down. But most will consider any intrinsic rewards, such as the pleasure or relief of helping someone else, as very different to extrinsic rewards, such as seeking money or fame. Some dispute there’s always an intrinsic reward anyway (e.g. leaving things in wills for strangers, where one will be dead so cannot feel their, or any, joy when they finally receive what’s bequeathed).
I, myself, personally don’t actually care about those details – the most interesting thing is that it seems to be an extremely normal and common feeling to find it intrinsically rewarding to help others or give gifts, or to feel guilty if we don’t, which suggests that it evolved. And it evolved to be so overwhelmingly normal and common because it must’ve been, and still is, a highly beneficial instinct for the survival and reproduction of the species – just like eating feels pleasurable for most. Kind people are also highly sexually attractive. Not all instincts (or individual irrationalities) are therefore bad. Woof!
It frequently turns out that being selfless at the organism level results in being selfish or advantageous from a genetic perspective. The ‘reciprocity norm’ or ‘reciprocal altruism’ motivates helping because people help those who’ve helped them; thus we expect others to help us if we’ve helped them too. Reciprocity leads to tit-for-tat fairness and mutual benefits, and empathy leads to compassion. Kindness builds a positive reputation. It intuitively prescribes how one ought to behave. Yet we also help those whom we feel are incapable of ever reciprocating (the ‘social responsibility norm’) – most of us feel we should help those who really need it, without regard to future exchanges. For example, we’ll also help strangers whom we probabilistically will never meet again (or won’t even meet in the first place e.g. when we donate to a charity). Some soldiers, police officers or rescue service people will even die for their colleagues or nation – knowing full well even before training that this could realistically happen after they qualify.
One theory is that the biological survival strategy of compassion and looking after one’s offspring, other kin and the close community, has become over-generalised to other humans wherever they come from, and even towards other animals too. But from another, more reasoned, perspective, humans are on average 99.9% genetically similar to each and every other – humans are all closer to being one big related family than competing strangers from even a genetic perspective. Plus everyone helping everyone else, whomever everyone is, does, in the long-term and bigger picture, usually boost everyone’s survival odds overall as social animals in a small world.
There’s lots of evidence of altruism around the world, maybe because we’re social animals and we become greater than the sum of our parts if we generally cooperate. No one can build a city or keep it safe alone, for instance. We post reviews to help others and tip people we’ll never meet again. Some of us will even put stamps on addressed letters that are found on the street missing stamps, and then post them. Each interaction is not necessarily a rational decision (e.g. helping a stranger halfway around the world by donating to a charity), or has self-interest as its focus (e.g. going beyond the call of anyone’s duty) – but this instinctive compassionate behaviour is widespread and strong, indicating how beneficial it overall must be for the species.
Kindness can be exploited by free-riders though. But if free-riding behaviours became more common than altruistic, sharing, giving or ‘pass it forwards’ behaviours in this world then there’d be nothing to free-ride off at all, coupled with a far lower total social utility all-round, thus reducing the payoffs for both each and every individual as well as the group/species collectively. This would be the outcome in the public goods game, where if too many individuals e.g. decided not to reduce their own carbon emissions for selfishly not wishing to curb their own luxurious lifestyles, then the entire world, and everyone individually in it, will suffer (albeit in this example, not evenly e.g. those living on low coastal areas and poor developing countries will suffer more, which is a problem of justice).
So the main advantage of selfish people is as free-riders. But, according to game theory, only a small proportion of people can be free-riders to be sustainable in a community, for if everybody were (short-term, small picture) rationally self-interested then complex social civilisation wouldn’t function optimally; if at all. One is sure that most people in this world would love everyone to be more compassionate and cooperative, but the concern is of free-riders taking advantage of this collective cooperation without giving fairly in return when they can, whether reciprocally or passed forwards. It’d therefore be misguided for everyone to be totally selfish as a way of life – the better solution is to be ‘discriminate co-operators’ who actively thwart the overly-selfish free-riders/defectors.
We tend to be kinder if we don’t over-think things (suggesting that our evolved default instinct is to be kind but we can override this if we over-think about whether to be kind or not), if we have greater empathy with others (and we empathise more with, and tend to therefore be kinder towards, people from our own ingroups e.g. by ethnicity, socio-economic status, football team allegiance), and if the victims are identifiable. Adolescents tend to be less kind on average but there’s a huge variance between individuals and most grow out of it as their brains mature.
We often altruistically punish too i.e. give up a bit of something oneself in order to punish defectors/violators of a social norm even though one wasn’t directly affected by the violation (so in effect inconveniencing oneself to hurt a third-party on behalf of the group as a whole) e.g. seeing a stranger bully another stranger and then risking one’s own welfare to punish that bully. Punishing defectors, even though this brings a personal cost to carry out this punishment (even if it’s just one’s time), in the bigger picture protects and enforces group social norms and so improves cooperation within the group. It therefore culturally and evolutionarily serves the benefit of the group, hence is adaptive.
Across all cultures, we frequently see cooperation with genetically-unrelated (using the definition of ‘kin’) strangers, often in large groups too, with people who’ll likely never ever be personally seen again, and when reputational gains are insignificant or absent – these kinds of altruism cannot be explained by kin selection or the rational self-interest motives of signalling theory or reciprocal altruism. People often adopt children. Social beings, like humans, evolved instincts that also served the group over merely the individual (i.e. ‘group selection’, or natural selection acting on the level of groups).
Thus pure altruism is not an illusion. People often give without an extrinsically self-interested motive or consciously-calculated positive payoff. Those who sacrifice their own lives heroically for a greater cause or the overall benefit of the group, to save another person’s life or for the sake of other people, cannot possibly be rationally and self-interestedly extrinsically compensated. What’ll money or fame do for you when you’re dead? People who sacrifice their own lives don’t necessarily have children or believe in an afterlife either. Altruism is giving for the welfare of others, without expectation of recognition or reward, so the only motivation of true/pure altruism or heroism is the welfare of others.
Forcing altruism from others doesn’t, however, produce true altruism. And forcing cooperation from those who cannot really afford to give has been the mistake of those experiments that pushed collectivism too far.
But true altruism and heroism exists – and it’s not selfish and not always rational (at least individualistically, immediately, directly or in the short-term). And most people celebrate and look up to these kind folk and sacrificial heroes because we innately, via evolution, revere their qualities. People across time and cultures have given to those whom they’ve never met and will likely never meet and/or likely cannot ever afford to give back whether with interest or not, to possibly return the favour reciprocally. Many people love dogs because they have enormous empathy with humans – they seem to be deeply in tune with humans and are happy to see humans happy, and are sad to see humans sad and want to make things better (woof woof!)
Not all giving is for the pleasure to do so but due to compassion, sympathy and empathy (e.g. sharing in the sadness of a stranger’s loss i.e. this isn’t about gaining pleasure from another person’s loss nor feeling a sense of superiority over them).
Again, if altruism normally feels good (like sex normally feels good) then that suggests that we’re hard-wired to do it and it’s overall good for the species from an evolutionary perspective – in fact, most human cultures today and throughout history conversely find or have found individualistic selfishness and greed generally repulsive in society (like insanitariness normally feels repulsive), which suggests that these behaviours are overall not good for the species from an evolutionary perspective.
Likewise, most people don’t find conflicts and wars (the ultimate form of competition) as joyful events to behold, whilst most people feel a warm feeling whenever people get along and cooperate. That evolved ‘warm and happy feeling’ means that it’s something we want to experience as much as possible because it’s good for our survival (like friendships), and finding conflict abhorrent and disappointing evolved because it’s something we don’t want to experience as much as possible (like disloyalty).
It’s nothing wrong, it’s natural and advantageous to be somewhat selfish because no one can give you what you want more than yourself, you don’t want to be unfairly taken advantage of, and if you’re in no fit state yourself then you cannot help others even if you wanted to – but those who venerate selfishness and greed as if it’s their core mantra are, or aspire to be, the free-riders in society. Those who play the game of merely ‘appearing’ kind for their own reputation will eventually be found out too, even though they might get away with it initially. We aren’t and shouldn’t be totally selfish or totally indiscriminately kind (although collectively we could probably be a little bit kinder). A bit of healthy competition is good too – as long as it doesn’t ever get dirty.
Still, caring evolved to be almost universally liked, unlike selfishness. Altruism evolved to be pleasurable for most of us for a reason.
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