Our actions and our actions and our way of living may be influenced by our surrounding environment or culture, however, some behaviours apply to all humans. Egoism is the action an individual performs for their own good and self-interest (Herbert,1892). On the other hand, altruism is defined as the act of increasing the welfare of others while decreasing your own (Douglas, 2009). Although these key terms are seen as opposites, the question remains whether genuine acts of altruism exist or whether people’s actions are only motivated by self-interest. This essay will look to explore the contrasting relationship between these two terms.
Human Nature is the fundamental characteristics and traits, including ways of thinking, feeling and acting of humans. The concept of Human Nature may vary among humans depending on different aspects, such as culture or environment. The debate of “Nature versus Nurture”, for instance, questions whether human behaviour is shaped by the environment of a human being or by their genes. “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains” wrote the philosopher, writer and composer Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his book “The Social Contract” (1762) . He believed that humans were born inherently good but that society corrupts and changes them into selfish beings. Considering this theory, this could explain why people think that older people are wiser.
There are positive correlations between levels of altruism, age and experience. This can be rationalised as older generations were more likely to be altruistic as a result of a lesser materialistic societal view found in previous generations. So maybe people do not get wiser as they get older; they were born wise and values that have been instilled into them and the circumstances in which they grew up fed this wisdom. Although we are encouraged to be altruistic from a young age, today’s society is more likely to be selfish in some ways. The rise of consumerism and the easy access to technology made society insatiable and we do not want to abandon our comfort. People sometimes tend to be altruistic only if it is going to benefit them one way or another.
Every time a selfless act is accomplished, there is a feeling of reward and dopamine released in our body. We could wonder if the dopamine is the result of the good action or if the good action is performed to have this rewarding feeling; but unconsciously, this feeling encourages us to repeat the good action. If an altruistic act is encouraged by the benefits it generates, it can be considered as egoism; the act itself is still altruistic but the reason behind it is not. Having an altruistic behaviour does not make somebody altruistic; pure altruism comes from a psychological rather than a behavioural sense. The craving for recognition can also be the motive behind an act of generosity and some people only show altruism when they have an audience.
In April 2018, the Youtuber Tanner Fox posted a video on his channel entitled “GIVING YEEZY’S TO HOMELESS PEOPLE!”; Yeezy’s are trainers designed by the rapper Kanye West that cost hundreds, sometimes thousands of pounds. Fox starts the video saying “You really thought that I was just going to give Yeezys to the homeless?”, ignoring that these are the words he used for the title, and explains the he will sell his pairs of Yeezy’s and use the money to buy food and toiletries for homeless people. He then films himself going out in the streets to distribute the bags of goods. The video has been viewed more than 3 millions times and Fox received a massive amount of positive comments for his good action. Fox’s act seems generous indeed, but his main aim was to create a reaction from people and arouse people’s recognition.
The money he received from selling his trainers is nothing compared [to what he received from his video. “You’re a rare type of human to find. Kindhearted, kind, loving to all, and caring. God bless you Tanner”, commented one of Tanner’s subscribers. The simple fact to talk to someone about a good action that you made could be considered as egoism because unconsciously, you hope the person you are talking to will have a good opinion about you. For an act to be truly altruistic, the motive behind it has to be authentic, without pretension. Parents who make sacrifices for their children, doctors who give their lives for their patients, or even charities who give time to the cause they support; those actions can be qualified as purely altruistic.
Even though there might be a rewarding feeling, it does not lower the value of the action because the action itself does not benefit the actor directly. In Tanner Fox’ case, his action benefited him more than the homeless people he helped. People often become more altruistic when they think that someone is watching them. This mechanism is considered intrapersonal rather than socially mediated which is associated with reputation seeking; it has more to do with what people will think of them. Some organisations, such as Blood Donations, also use online recognition to encourage people to donate. Kathleen Chell, a volunteer for the RSPCA partnering with the Australian Red Cross, explains that “online donor appreciation strategies […] can reinforce positive feelings received from donating while […] building the person’s identity as a donor”. Once a person has donated their blood and feels appreciated for it, they are likely to incite their friends and family to become potential donors. Research shows that we do not have as much control over our thoughts and behaviour as we think; we get influenced by our environment and other people. This phenomenon, known as social conformity or peer pressure, is a type of social influence that results in a change of behaviour or beliefs, in order to fit in with a group.
People are more susceptible to do things considered trendy or acceptable in the public eye. This increase in conformity is a result of various social media people being introduced at younger ages. Brands and organisations use peer pressure and the fear of missing out (FOMO) to promote their products and associate them with influencers, people who literally influence other people on social media, and are considered as role models to follow. When people want to appear successful and be accepted by society, it is easy to get caught up in the mix of wanting to appear a certain way. There is a heuristic most of us use to determine what to do, think, say, and buy: the principle of social proof. To learn what is correct, we look at what other people are doing.
If you see the person next to you giving money to a homeless person, you might feel the need to do so as you do not want to appear less generous than them. However, this is personal and not necessarily about contributing to someone’s well-being. If someone is asking for your help, you might accept to help them just because you do not want to seem like a bad person. This mindset is the result of societal expectations and how people are meant to behave. This again, reminds us that people are “everywhere in chains”. Rousseau felt that a proper society had no place for blame, criticism, judgment, comparison with others, and the distinction of worth among men.
Because humans are by nature saints, it must be the corrupting influence of society that is responsible for the misconduct of an individual. In opposite to Rousseau’s theory, Dawkins claims that everyone is born selfish and has to be taught altruism in some form or another (2006). From a young age, we are taught to be altruistic. If all humans were born inherently good, altruism would not have to be taught. In fact, as kids, we are rewarded for good behaviour and we assimilate altruism to a positive experience. But there is a misconception about altruism. The method of “if you are being good, you will be rewarded” is used by a lot of parents to teach their children how to behave and be kind; however, it does not teach them genuine altruism but reciprocal altruism. It is often remarked that reciprocal altruism, or reciprocity norm, cannot be qualified as genuine altruism because it is performed with the expectation of getting something in return, while true altruism is described a selfless act for the sole sake of someone’s well-being.
Empathy can also be mistaken for altruism. If you see something bad happening to somebody and you put yourself in their position, you will want to help them. However, the reason you help them is because you understand the circumstances as your own and if that happened to you, you would want someone to help you too. These emotions are related, but indirectly, empathetic people could be considered selfish as their motive to help is that they could imagine themselves being in the same uncomfortable position. These behaviours are known as prosocial behaviours.
While altruism is one possible motivation for those actions, prosocial behaviour refers to a pattern of activity. There are many things that predict whether people will help others. Another common theory, among the reciprocity norm, empathy-altruism hypothesis and altruistic personality traits, is kin selection. Kin selection is an evolutionary concept that says that people will help others who are related to them, even if it decreases their own comfort.
According to the theory of evolution, this is because we want our genes to survive for future generations. The co-operative behaviour of honey bees, for example, can be explained by kin selection. Typically, mothers take care of their own offspring. This behaviour is explained in terms of fitness; the mother is ensuring her alleles will be passed on from generation to generation. Again, this phenomenon could be seen as egoistic; by helping their offspring, queen honey bees can indirectly maintain the passing on of similar alleles. Thus, kin selection remains the principal factor behind eusociality. In Darwinian theory, this phenomenon is described as “survival of the fittest”.
Herbert Spencer (1863) first used this phrase after reading Darwin’s book ‘On the Origin of Species” (1859), formulating the theory of evolution by natural selection, in which organisms change over time as a result of changes in heritable physical or behavioural traits. Based on evolutionary theory, sociobiology doubts whether any human actions are altruistic. All actions are done from the ultimate motive of self-gain and survival. Self-preservation is part of Human Nature; In his book The Last Train From Hiroshima (2010), Charles Pellegrino quotes one of the survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb blasts as saying that those who survived were, in general, those who looked after their own safety, instead of trying to help others : ‘those who survived the bomb were […] in a greater or lesser degree selfish, self-centered–guided by instinct and not by civilisation. And we know it, we who have survived”.
In period of crisis, human beings are naturally going to do what it takes to live. For instance, during this time of pandemic, some people are only focused on their own needs and are fighting over food and other commodities instead of being united and helping each other out. Others rely on everyone to stay home so they can go out without risking too much to be infected. People who are bored at home and are ordering things online do not necessarily think of the people who are forced to keep working in extenuating circumstances, in order to deliver the parcels. These behaviours can be qualified as egoistic. On the other hand, doctors and nurses who are working everyday to save lives and risking their own, are being altruistic. When we look at these examples, we can tell that some people are truly altruistic and some are not.
Although fundamentally opposite, Rousseau’s and Dawkin’s theory both imply that society and environment has an impact on the way we become and that we can be pre-disposed to be good or bad. Studies have shown that we can be pre-disposed to be altruistic and that genes can have a role on an individual’s altruism. Some people were born altruistic, some were not. In this case, it has to be incluated to us. A non-genetic way to pass down values and ideas from an individual to another, are memes. A meme is an element of a culture or system of behaviour passed from one individual to another by imitation or other non-genetic means. This is the concept of international Darwinism. Today’s society draws its inspiration in previous generations and songs, stories, ideas, theories, technologies and arts are all copied with variations, in order to evolve. The memes our ancestors created have shaped our brains and allowed us to create more memes that next generations will copy as well. Just like egoism and altruism, some traits are specific to human beings and others have to be taught in a way or another.
To conclude, human beings are in constant evolution. Egoism and altruism are part of Human Nature and cannot exist without each other and, although fundamentally opposite, are extremely close. True altruism is only possible provided that it is performed with pure intentions. Factors such as culture, environment or genetics, can influence our way of thinking and behaving, which can make us more or less altruistic. However, in a society where freedom of thoughts and actions are under pressure, we could wonder if genuine altruism exists.
- Spencer, H. and Machan, T. R. (1978) The principles of ethics: in 2 vol. Indianapolis: Liberty Classics.
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- Dawkins, R. (2006) The selfish gene. 30th anniversary ed. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.
- Wakefield, J. C. (1993) ‘Is altruism part of human nature? Toward a theoretical foundation for the helping professions’, Social Service Review, 67(3), pp. 406–458.
- Rousseau, J.-J. (1762) Du contrat social ou Principes du droit politique et autres écrits du contrat social. Paris: Librairie Generale Franca̧ise (Le livre de Poche Classiques de la philosophie, 4644).