Altruism: Myth or Reality?
We humans devote much time and energy to helping others. We send money to famine victims halfway around the world—or to save whales. We stay up all night to comfort a friend with a broken relationship. We stop on a busy highway to help a stranded motorist change a flat tire. Why do we do these things? What is our motive?
The dominant answer in Western thought is well expressed by the wise and witty Duke de la Rouchefoucauld, 2001: “The most disinterested love is, after all, but a kind of bargain, in which the dear love of our own selves always proposes to be the gainer some way or other” (Maxim 82, 1691). Bernard Mandeville puts it even more graphically:
"There is no merit in saving an innocent babe ready to drop into the fire. The action is neither good nor bad, and what benefit soever the infant received, we only obliged our selves, for to have seen it fall, and not strove to hinder it, would have caused a pain, which self-preservation compelled us to prevent. . . . (1714/1732, p. 42)"
According to La Rouchefoucauld, Mandeville, and many others, altruism—motivation with the ultimate goal of increasing another’s welfare—is a myth. It does not really exist. The motivation for everything we do is egoistic. Our ultimate goal is always to increase our own welfare. We help others only to the extent that helping them benefits us.
Egoistic Motives for Helping Others
The case against altruism can be very persuasive because we can benefit in many ways from helping others. Some ways are obvious, as when we get paid or praised for what we do, or escape punishment or censure. Even when we help in the absence of external rewards, we may still benefit. As Mandeville suggested, seeing someone in distress—the babe ready to drop into the fire—may cause us distress, and we help because it relieves our distress. Or we may help to feel good about ourselves for being kind. Or to escape feeling guilt and shame for being callous.
Even heroes and martyrs can benefit from their acts of apparent selflessness. Consider soldiers who save their comrades by diving on a grenade. They may have acted to escape anticipated guilt and shame for letting others die. Or to mgain the admiration and praise of those left behind—or rewards in an afterlife. Or they may simply have misjudged the situation, not realizing their actions would cost them their lives. The suggestion that heroic acts could be motivated by self-benefit may seem cynical, but it must be faced if we are to know whether altruism really exists.
Empathic Concern: A Possible Source of Altruistic Motivation
To be sure, Western thought has had advocates of altruism, including such prominent figures as Thomas Aquinas, David Hume, Adam Smith, and Charles Darwin. What do these advocates think produces altruistic motivation? In both earlier philosophical writing and more recent psychological work, the most frequently mentioned possible source of altruism is an other-oriented emotional reaction to seeing another person in need. This reaction has been called by many names, including sympathy, pity, compassion, soft-heartedness, and tenderness. We call it empathic concern. It is other-oriented in that it involves feeling for, not feeling as, the other. (Some researchers, such as Eisenberg, 2000, use empathy to refer to feeling as the other feels; we do not.) The proposal that empathic concern produces altruistic motivation to relieve the empathy-inducing need has been called the empathy-altruism hypothesis (Batson, 1991).
There are three conspicuous self-benefits of empathy-induced helping, producing three egoistic alternatives to the empathy-altruism hypothesis: aversive-arousal reduction, punishment avoidance, and reward gain. Advocates of the empathy-altruism hypothesis do not deny that relieving the empathy-inducing need is likely to enable the helper to reduce aversive arousal, avoid punishments, and gain rewards. However, they claim that these self-benefits are not the ultimate goal of empathy-induced helping, only unintended consequences. Advocates of the egoistic alternatives disagree. They claim that one or more of these self-benefits is the ultimate goal of the motivation to help produced by empathy.