Can altruism really exist?
4th May, 2012
People have been asking this question for a long time. What is altruism? It can be defined as an ‘unselfish, intentional behaviour and attitude to others that benefit other people.’ The behaviours tend to have no obvious gain for the provider and can have obvious costs for the provider such as resources, time and money. It’s often seen as being of self benefit such as rewards, physical and psychological gain, status, reputation, power and control. When needing to judge whether or not the behaviour could be seen as altruistic we need to ask what is the person’s intended outcome of the decision that they made.
The person who displays altruism will gain either ‘emotional satisfaction or a reduction of negative feelings’ through completing the act of behaviour. This is seen by the ‘Hedonism’ theorists as ‘really selfish’. I believe human beings are capable of doing these acts consciously and unconsciously. As all human behaviour has been proven to be learnt behaviour thus then we could see acts of altruism as learnt behaviours. Does this mean they can be unlearnt?
Some theorists agree that all behaviours can be unlearnt consciously and unconsciously. Which would mean that altruism could also occur from and in the consciousness of a person and the unconsciousness. We as human beings have in built in us a need of survival which can fuel our selfish acts of behaviour. All behaviour for humans is our way of completing an action that biologically or psychologically our bodies are in need of at that given time. If we believe an action will satisfy a need then we will do whatever is necessary to complete it. This can mean committing criminal behaviour, self harm, heroics and charitable acts. When a person’s need is that strong sometimes our brain does not have rational thoughts.
There are two sides of altruistic behaviour one of these is called; pro- social behaviour but this would only express the positive side of altruism not the negative. One of the motives for the pro- social behaviour of altruism appears to be empathy. When empathy is present in altruism you will immediately get a pro-social behaviour. Thus meaning when no empathy is in involved this can deem a negative altruistic behaviour.
The other is; anti- social behaviour which is often mentioned in the media regarding other human behaviours. This is most often seen as behaviour that will encourage either direct or indirect harm to themselves or another individual or animal. An individual’s personality can play a part in determining whether a person’s behaviour is mainly pro- social or anti- social. Media coverage, influence and the society as a whole can also add factors into effecting the choices that we as humans make. But can we always make choices we ask ourselves. In the conscious mind yes however some behaviour is triggered from our unconscious which means an individual cannot always choose which altruistic behaviour they display.
According to Krebs and Davies there are four main reasons why all animals including humans exhibit altruistic behaviour. They are:
- Kin selection- an individual can increase its genetic representation in future generations by providing help to their closest relatives.
- Reciprocity- an individual will behave altruistically towards another individual with the expectation that they will return this in the future.
- Mutualism- two individuals will behave in an altruistic way at the same time because they both will hope to gain from working together.
- Manipulation- an individual is misled or manipulated by the other individual into behaving in an altruistic way also seen as peer pressure.
Batson claimed that there are two main emotional reactions that occur when we observe someone in distress;
- An empathic concern meaning a sympathetic response to another individuals distress and a need to reduce it.
- Personal distress is a concern with one’s own discomfort and the need to also reduce this.
There is evidence to prove that children’s thinking and behaviour become more altruistic as their ability to empathise with others increases.
It is difficult to say whether people are offering to help for altruistic reasons rather than simply to avoid disapproval from others or to avoid the feelings of guilt associated with failing to help, or to experience pleasure when the other person has received help.
Altruistic behaviour can be encouraged by observational learning or by offering rewards for helping which would give promotion to the receiver of such gains to repeat their behaviour in the future. Some say that true altruism is most likely defined in situations where the potential helper can easily not help but quietly escape or slip away.
There are various ways in which an altruistic behaviour can benefit some of these are;
- Egoism (a self benefit)- We can help others to secure material, social reward and or to escape material, social and self punishment giving ourselves a self fulfilling reward indirectly.
- Altruism (benefiting someone else)- pro-social acts can benefit to the welfare of others by directly helping them.
- Collectiveness (benefitting a group)- pro-social acts can contribute to the welfare of a social group. Such as family, religious group.
- Principlism (upholding a moral principle)- pro-social acts follow a moral principle. Benefitting a larger number of people such as civilisation ect.
Some believe that examples of true altruism can be seen as forms of egoism. Collectivism and principlism allows us to view some pro social behaviours as acting for the common good, carrying a hidden positive message to others. Some remain unconvinced that true altruism exists.
To answer the question that I set myself of can altruism really exist my personal belief is no. I believe looking at these points of view and facts based on extensive researches I believe all behavioural acts are learnt and are then acted upon either consciously or unconsciously which means that in any given scenario there will always be someone or somewhere that will benefit whether in a positive or negative way. So, all behaviour can be learnt and unlearnt, specifically addictions, states of minds, thoughts, feelings, emotions and coping mechanisms.
Related articles from our experts
Greg Savva, Counselling in Twickenham & Whitton, Masters Degree, UKCP,March 21st, 2018
Nicholas Opyrchal UKCP reg. MBACPMarch 20th, 2018
Kate BullMarch 20th, 2018
Imi Lo: Psychotherapist, Art Therapist & Author (MMH,UKCP,HCPC,FRSA,MBPsS)March 29th, 2015
Keeley Townsend BA (Hons), Ad.Dip.CP with Distinction, MNCS (Acc)December 14th, 2009
Andrea Harrn Psychotherapist and Author of The Mood CardsMay 13th, 2011
Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.