Essay: What is Altruism?

Martin L. King once said that “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.” Princeton defines “altruism” as the quality of unselfish concern for the welfare of others. Most other dictionaries concur. Nevertheless, I have a problem with accepting the value opposition altruism – egoism, and the reason is that for me the concept of “altruism” is philosophically inconsistent.

Some years ago, the Discovery Channel aired a show about, as they put it, mother nature’s altruist – the prairie dog. Prairie dogs live in colonies. When a predator approaches and a mother prairie dog senses it, instincts tell the rodent, instead of running for its life, to stand still and make a loud squeaking noise. There are two effects: first, the entire colony escapes thanks to this intelligent alarm system, and second, the calling prairie dog attracts the attention of the predator, naturally becoming the actual prey. Evolution has given this species a peculiar mechanism for ensuring their continuation. That is all. No moral judgment, no emotion, and for that matter, no sense of heroism pass through the tiny brain of the prairie dog as it sacrifices itself. That, seemingly, defines the purest, most extreme form of altruism, sticking literally to all dictionary definitions. However, it is my deep conviction that in contrast to prairie dogs, no human being is capable of performing any form of “selfless concern for others’ welfare” without going through a complex emotional process. This process inevitably involves factors like the motive(s) of a person to act “altruistically”, and the very concept of “motive” by definition is entirely self-centered; it is the intrinsic, isolated personal gain that a person foresees in a future event or action. So, by definition humans are incapable of pure altruism.

To further clarify my point, I will present a comparison between an imaginary altruist extremist and respectively egoist extremist. After all, they both have twenty-four hours in their day. So, what differentiates them? Probably the extreme altruist spends twenty-four hours a day helping others, and perhaps the extreme egoist spends twenty-four hours a day on himself, and, why not, harming others along the way. We can infer then, that the difference between a perfect altruist and a perfect egoist is that they spend their time differently. Nevertheless, their motivation is perfectly identical: to feel good about themselves. This can define anyone’s motivation to act in any way in any given moment of time. Here is the thin line which makes “altruism” partially irrelevant to me: acting in order to improve one’s own feeling about herself is also an exact definition of “egoism”. In a way, every conscious thinking being is a pure egoist. The real difference is what actions one’s egoism triggers.

Thus, I firmly believe that “altruism” is a holographic term, deprived of intrinsic meaning. Rather, I think “altruism” is an artificially coined concept designed to allow moral discerning between different levels and forms of egoism.