Altruism Doesn't Exist

Is it really possible for someone to engage in a completely selfless act? A rational exploration of the question must lead to a negative rather then affirmative answer. For isn't it the case that no matter what action one engages in, it involves their selves and some kind of motivation on their part? So long as the individual in question could be said to have a motivation for acting, even if this motivation is a benevolent one, it cannot be said that they are acting in a truly selfless manner. So long as one has conciousness, so long as one is self-aware, one cannot truly be selfless. In order to be selfless one would have to cease to exist altogether, or by the very least enter an inhuman state in which one has no volition. But such a state of being is not how human beings work. It could only be used to describe non-concious forms of life such as a plant.

Altruism is not an objective description of human actions so much as a rationalization used to compel people into engaging in certain actions. It is certainly true that one could engage in an action that benefits another rather then oneself, but such an action could not take place without the deliberate concious effort and motivation of the individual in question. If a benevolent act towards another is truly voluntary, then it cannot be said to be genuinely altruistic because in such a scenario the individual actually percieves the act to be in their self-interest at least on a psychological level. That is, they desire to give to others. A genuine desire originates within the individual themself. Satisfaction is obtained upon the fulfillment of the desire, even if the desire is to fulfill a percieved positive obligation towards another.

So long as human beings act to remove a source of dissatisfaction, it could not be said that they act in a void of self-interest. They act in the persuit of satisfaction, which is their percieved self-interest. They employ means for the purpose of obtaining desired ends. The statement that humans act in self-interest on a fundamental level and that human beings are rational animals does not mean that humans will always make correct choices, that the ends they desire are necessarily logical and ethical, or that the means they employ in the persuit of such ends are the proper or most efficient ones toward obtaining their goals. It is merely a description of how human action works, that human beings are volitional creatures with goals and the capacity to choose among means for the purpose of obtaining their goals.

On one hand, every single person is rational in the sense that they possess the faculty of reason and are self-aware. They have the ability to freely make choices. In this sense of the word, noone can be more rational then anyone else because this is merely a description of our fundamental natures. On the other hand, in terms of their actual beliefs and choices, noone is consistantly rational if we are using rational to mean in accordance with objective reality and their actual best interest. People make all sorts of choices that can easily be demonstrated to be harmful to them, and people believe plenty of things that are not in accordance with objective reality. In this sense of the word, some people are simply more rational then others, make more coherant arguements and better choices. But when libertarians describe human beings as inherently being rational, we are using the first sense of the word, not the second. It would be disingenous to act as if we are argueing that everyone is consistant in their beliefs, sharp as a bell and makes wonderful lifestyle choices.

Altruism cannot be a logical description of human action because it contradicts the fundamental nature of how humans act. That is, no rational agent, in the general way in which rationality is defined, can possibly act in a manner that is entirely detached from motivation or desire. No human being is actually an altruist precisely because they are human beings. It would seem to be the case that the insights of praxeology and psychological egoism demonstrate this beyond the shadow of a doubt.

Comments

# Attackdonkey said on 25 March, 2008 12:37 AM

and this idea is called psychological egoism!

very good, about time we agreed on something without any qualifiers or exceptions.

# TomG said on 25 March, 2008 05:09 AM

a selfless act doesn't mean a non-self act, since acting involves self by definition ... but the key is what's the impetus for acting - that if the motivation does not aim to maximize one's own gain but rather someone else's by that given act, then despite the outcome it's still the focus that deems it selfless (of course one can define any such motivations as being irrational, and then you've got a perfectly cogent theory).

# Donald Lingerfelt said on 25 March, 2008 08:32 AM

I disagree.  There are many times (agreeably not all) where an act is totally selfless.  I see that many times there is a selfish motive in that we feel better about having done something for someone else, however not always.  Consider the event where someone loses his life in an effort to save someone else.  There are many such events in history.  We do these things because we are so concerned for the welfare of another that we accept the consequences.  If people were concerned with their own good only, they would not be willing to do these things.  I understand why you think as you do, but there are too many examples of the opposite.

# Brainpolice said on 25 March, 2008 09:30 AM

Some clarification:

I'm analyzing altruism from an ontological and metaphysical perspective, not an ethical one. Based on my understanding of what it means to exist as a human being, I see the premise of altruism as contradicting the fundamental nature of a human being. That by the very definition of being a human being, one has a "self" and that one cannot exist as a human being in the absence of a "self". I equate the "self" with volition itself.

In short, "Cogito ergo sum" (I think, therefore I am). The notion that one can be selfless would seem to contradict this insight, since I think that as a consequence of both material existance and volition one therefore has a "self". So it would be impossible to be "selfless" without eliminating one's volition completely. The "self" is a concept derived from man's nature as a rational animal that is concious of itself and capable of deliberate agency.

Basically I think that the concept of altruism is nihilistic. It is the denial of what it means to be a human being on a fundamental level, to be a rational animal with volition. I'm not defining altruism as benevolence or even a positive obligation to serve others, but as selflessness. I'm defining altruism as a state of being in which one has no "self", no volition or desire. So to me, being an altruist, being selfless, would be to enter into a state of being no different than that of a rock.

# Donny with an A said on 25 March, 2008 04:23 PM

You might be interested in reading Amartya Sen's essay, "Rational Fools: A Critique of the Behavioral Foundations of Economic Theory."  It discusses this issue in depth and, I think, does a really good job.

# TomG said on 25 March, 2008 06:50 PM

I, for one, don't deny that humans are quite egoistic by nature - thus the popular bumper sticker "It's all about Me."  But egoism is different from egotism as "It's about Me" is from that catchy phrase.  I see it, in a sense, as a range from selfless to selfish - with doormats/pushovers and steamroller/megalomaniacs on the extremes.  So that if the healthy balance is 90% selfish (ie. It's much about Me), then a person who starts to get up into the 95%+ segment would likely be considered quite antisocial in his/her overt tendencies to always one-up everyone on everything.    

# Brainpolice said on 25 March, 2008 08:20 PM

Well I most certainly am not suggesting that people should act with no restraints at all. I'm not advocating hedonism, nor am I advocating social isolation. I'm not even making an ethical proposition.

I suppose in my understanding one can only approach becoming an altruist in degrees without actually consistantly becoming one. Someone can act in the name of altruism, but ontologically they cannot completely negate their "selves", their will, their desire, their volition, etc. They can only enter a partially or temporary sacrificial state of being, but without truly sacrificing their ego entirely. I simply think it's impossible to completely negate the ego.  

Basically I'm saying that to consistantly be selfless leads to a state of being of inaction. Altruism seems a lot like nihilism to me. Perhaps it's important that I add the qualifier "consistant" or "consistantly" to the argument?

# twistedbydsign99 said on 27 March, 2008 02:50 PM

All acts are in terms of self. We have proof this, the fact that they are carried out. To perform an action is to move towards fulfilling a need.

# Brainpolice said on 27 March, 2008 03:39 PM

Right. That's why, in ontological and psychological and praxeological terms, I don't see how it's possible for one to actually fullfill altruism, as in consistantly enter a state a being that is truly "selfless". Motivation can never be truly "selfless" because it involves the self and reflection thereof in order to take place.

# Kate said on 27 March, 2008 04:40 PM

I agree. I think it really depends on the philosophical theory or "ego theory."  

1. Empirical (like cynicism)

All human beings are selfish, all "apparently" unselfish actions are at deep motivated by selfish motivations.

Dogmatic denials of unselfish nature of humans is going against the evidence. How do we explain the self-sacrificing behaviors of the past? On the other hand, take Hobbs, he said that people only form communities and co-operate for selfish reasons. The classic example is "giving to the begger to relieve our own guilt."

2. Verbal (words "want," "likes")

This is pretty much a issue of linguistics. That a desire by any name is still selfish. No matter what you call it, or define it as.

3. Rationalism (only selfish motives are rational)

I agree that actions which are motivated by self-interest are far more rationale than those motivated by altruism. This idea is applied to all sorts of area of politics for example. Generally people who act in the most rationale manner are deemed to be "greedy" or "conscienceless" because self-serving is frowned upon. However, it is obvious to anyone with a  IQ over -1 that even the most unselfish policy initiatives, are still serving a particular group more than another. Such is the logic behind lobbying, your cause may seem "altruistic" but even if your reward is not monetary in nature you are still receiving perhaps, intangible or institutional benefits. Why would an individual ignore his or her own welfare for no good purpose? Ultimately, altruism is a unachievable end (its almost against human survival instinct), which borders on almost being comically quixotic.

4. Purely Nietzschean (good = selfish,  bad= unselfish)

Okay. So would we be a better world if we honestly based morality on self-interest rather than high handed tales of altruism? That view--in his opinion--would require a relativistic view of truth, contrary to western theological teachings. Society makes us believe that our positive aims should be-at least publicly- altruistic or unselfish. He claims that men are either "slaves" to a lower morality and envy those "higher" men who are able to escape such frivolity. The higher morality he spoke of was being free, individualistic, autocratic, whereas in the slave he saw pitying, chartable, conformist, helpful. Hence from this we get the concept of "necessary fiction" that these people need moral codes. There is far to much to talk about here.

I don't believe in altruism, I am a rationale person who acts with my best intention at heart, so to speak. If those actions happen to be of a "unselfish" nature, it would be purely coincidental.

# Brainpolice said on 27 March, 2008 09:16 PM

Thanks for the very thoughtful comment.

# Katee said on 27 March, 2008 11:46 PM

lol dingaling....no need to thank me

after all I got where I am needed....

BTW I joined your board...I finally petered out on PG =)

# TomG said on 28 March, 2008 04:02 AM

Katie concluded:  "If those actions happen to be of a "unselfish" nature, it would be purely coincidental."

if we can get past the semantical, contextual, and even etymological distinctions in meaning to the term "a selfless act" - and look only at what the very impetus that wills potency to act, then can one see conditions for the subordination of self-maximization (ie. actual relative sacrifice) for the sake of the extra-self's improved state (regardless of actual outcome).  Now one could argue that this motivation is a moment of demostrated irrationality - but it doesn't negate the essence of having committed a selfless act, that may even have self-optimizing spinoff or direct consequences.  Again, what was the intent, the motivation, the very will for setting potency to act.

# Katee said on 28 March, 2008 10:50 AM

"look only at the very impetus that wills potency to act..."

By that logic, it is really quite cyclical and in my opinion,  very much subject to one's interpretation of human psychology and or one's subjective motivations manifested though actions.  The very impetus, as you put it, would be self motivated. Wither that is a sacrificial action is irrelevant.

I never denied the possibility of a "selfless act" as I mentioned I do not believe it to be rational. Now we do act irrationality, but even those actions...a man taking a bullet for his wife, pushing a child out of the way of a car, neither actions are rational, but neither are purely altruistic within the drawn out framework. When I mentioned the "begger" example, it's not that we are being altruistic or selfless when we give him money, we are alleviating our own guilt, a arguably selfish motive. On the other hand, some may argue that rationale is bullarky and splitting hairs.

I can't say for certain but Hegel would not agree all humans are purely selfish. In his (sometimes) pseudo religious reasoning would bring up the greatest sacrifice Christ made for all of humanity. That is contingent that you believe in Christ, and you are willing to accept theology into this conversation.

As I said it is really all dependent on you're perspective.

# twv said on 28 March, 2008 02:13 PM

This is what comes from taking metaphysics and ontology too seriously, above a critical common sense position.

Sure, you can define altruism out of existence by appealing to the usual essentialist baggage of ancient philosophy, but you don't contribute anything to the understanding of real-world egoism or altruism. You are merely playing with words.

It is not for nothing that Walter Kauffmann defined ontology as "the pseudoscience of being."

# tw said on 29 March, 2008 12:06 PM

This is why I do not identify myself as an Austrian nor participate with Austrians, even that I have Austrian beliefs. Austrians ramble oversimplified dichotomies, like egoism and altruism. Neither egoism nor altruism exist. Just because it is the individual is selfishly motivated to be altruistic by his genetic code, it does not mean that his motivation is egoistic. I would not waste time and argue. It is neither. Egoism and altruism are <i>definitional</i> fallacies, and altruism is not a subset of egoism. Sorry, but I see this blog post as Objectivist propaganda. <a href="en.wikipedia.org/.../Philosophical_egosim">Philosophical egosim</a> has been refuted. Oversimplified dichotomies would be nihilistic at the "fundamental level."

# zsignal said on 29 March, 2008 12:30 PM

And you are on this site......

# Brainpolice said on 30 March, 2008 07:36 AM

Tw:

I don't see how I'm setting up an oversimplified dychotomy. In fact, the point of this little writting here kind of breaks the typical dychotomy between egoism and altruism, as it rules out the possibility of the altruism side of the equation as being a reasonable descriptor of human action.

Actually I think a hardcore Objectivist might actually disagree with what I'm saying here. It certainly is not Objectivist propaganda, and I most certainly am not an Objectivist (with a large O at least).

# TomG said on 30 March, 2008 04:34 PM

If someone (or a movement) cares to define any act of selflessness as phony, delusional or insane then there's really no point in countering that belief with anecdotal examples - plentiful though they may be.  In order for someone to see a different view of reality, it would take putting on a different pair of glasses that allow such light to penetrate the otherwise impenetrable filters that maintain that upheld paradigm.  It's no different than my trying to argue with staunch anarchists about the fact that things are the way they are because that's how they should be (i.e. would be, given the state of being and mankind that's been dealt) - while they scream 'til blue in the face that people just haven't gotten enlightened enough to have faith in their anti-statist truths (and I'm *not* arguing against Misesean revealed praxis, etc - but it's more the unachievable ideal to be strived for, but not lamented for never being reached perfectly - since it can't any more than any other Utopian end in a most flawful universe).  So, most simply put, if someone wants to believe that there's never been a sane person capable of caring about his/her fellow man even at his/her own expense (or even death!) then there's nothing anyone can do to force that perception/revelation (it's either realized in time as possible or one goes to the end thinking fallaciously (and there's no safety in numbers when it comes to confronting and rejecting truth - only groupthink and mutual delusion).  Delving into the Randian "virtue of selfishness" arena for a sec, there's no virtue in it at all - only necessity to take care of one's own affairs first, in order to become of use in helping others too (which is really the root of all happiness all the while).  

# Brainpolice said on 31 March, 2008 05:58 AM

"It's no different than my trying to argue with staunch anarchists about the fact that things are the way they are because that's how they should be (i.e. would be, given the state of being and mankind that's been dealt) - while they scream 'til blue in the face that people just haven't gotten enlightened enough to have faith in their anti-statist truths (and I'm *not* arguing against Misesean revealed praxis, etc - but it's more the unachievable ideal to be strived for, but not lamented for never being reached perfectly - since it can't any more than any other Utopian end in a most flawful universe)."

The idea that things are the way they are because that's how they should be, or that things necessarily have to be the way they are is a very unlibertarian view of things. It's a rather conservative view of stagnation, an apologetic for current conditions under the false guise of realism. It does not logically follow that because things are certain way they must always be that way. The world is dynamic, not static.

Furthermore, I never put foreward the notion that people aren't enlightened enough, so as far as this particular conversation goes that is a straw man. I also reject the disingenous notion that anarchism is utopian, as I readily concede the imperfections of human nature. Hobbesian or negative notions of human nature, however, do not justify the state. In fact, it would logically follow that if humans are incapable of self-rule they aren't any more capable of sensible ruling eachother. All negative assumptions about human nature apply equally if not moreso to the state, as the state is nothing but an institution made up of human beings.

"So, most simply put, if someone wants to believe that there's never been a sane person capable of caring about his/her fellow man even at his/her own expense (or even death!) then there's nothing anyone can do to force that perception/revelation (it's either realized in time as possible or one goes to the end thinking fallaciously (and there's no safety in numbers when it comes to confronting and rejecting truth - only groupthink and mutual delusion).  Delving into the Randian "virtue of selfishness" arena for a sec, there's no virtue in it at all - only necessity to take care of one's own affairs first, in order to become of use in helping others too (which is really the root of all happiness all the while)."

But once again here you fall into the typical trap of conflating altruism with all empathy and benevolence, when clearly that is not what altruism is or means. I merely posit that empathy or sympathy for others arises from self-reflection (as Herbert Spencer noted in Social Statics). People respect the rights of others to the extent that they respect their own rights. I merely put foreward the notion that all human action is end-oriented, that all desire involves the self and cannot take place without some kind of incentive on the part of the actor, which may broadly be defined as "percieved self-interest" by the very least. I don't see how you've presented any real argument against these premises.

# TomG said on 31 March, 2008 07:39 PM

"Selfless concern for the welfare of others" is what The American Heritage Dictionary pocket edition I have defines as Atruism.  Sounds like empathy and (in action) benevolence to me - no conflation at all.  Self-reflection just feeds egoism. whereas human experience (especially amongst the muck and rabble) lends itself to seeing that we're not alone in the toil and travails of existence.  And yes indeed, if one has the conviction that good acts toward his/her fellow person renders browney points in the afterlife, then even that can be interpreted as still end-oriented (in fact, *very*-end so).  But there are those who have died for principles - such as a Thomas More - without a concern for how it optimizes their own interest/position, but simply because it was the right thing to do.  Praytell how do you explain the guy who decides to jump on the live hand grenade that drops in the trench - in order for his fellow comrades to survive it?  Thanks.

# Brainpolice said on 02 April, 2008 07:56 PM

So long as the concern is YOUR concern, even if the concern is FOR others, it is still YOUR concern and therefore it cannot be said to be genuinely "selfless". So long as you purposefully engage in the action, it is not "selfless" as the motivation for the action derives in your own mind, even if in your own mind you rationalize that action as being for the benefit of others. The very act of rationalizing an action defeats the "selflessness". So long as the rationalization for the motivation takes place inside his own mind, the guy who jumps on the live hand grenade is not truly "selfless". Once he dies, of course, he is.

Also, you seem to make the common mistake of assuming that egoism means atomism or solipsism, as if it implies that human action takes place in a vacuum without respect to interpersonal relations. But no egoist has ever taken such a view to my knowledge. The point, at least from the standpoint of psychological egoism, is merely that purposeful human action is driven by self-interested motivation, that motivation itself inherently involves self-reflection. The point, from the standpoint of methodological individualism, is that large-scale human interrelations must be understood as a cumulative result of individual actors rather than holistically.

# Joe Shmoe said on 18 February, 2009 12:25 PM

Didn't I see a less wordy version of this argument on an episode of Friends? Tres Intellectuel!