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Misunderstanding Altruism

June 13, 2014

If the dominant ideas of our times preach that individualism and selfishness are the truest nature of humans, then it only stands to reason that altruism should be derided as non-existent. Quite a few people argue that even those acts that many would consider altruistic are in fact not because those who perform acts on behalf of others derive personal benefit from it. Since it makes people feel good who do things on behalf of others, they are not truly altruistic because if they were, they would not expect anything in return, including feeling any personal pleasure in making personal sacrifices for others.

If we look at what it is that makes sociology a science, however, and we take that fundamental principle of sociology (and anthropology) seriously and fully consistently, then we would have to argue against those who assert that altruism is fictive. If social life requires mutual interdependence for society to be even possible, and if humanity could not exist absent group life, then reciprocity is an indispensable ground rule for social existence.

Imagine a society in which no one ever thanked someone else for assisting them in any way (such as holding a door open for them when they’re carrying groceries in both hands). Imagine a world in which some version of “please” was non-existent. Imagine a society in which “being polite” had no meaning and everyone did only that which served their own narrow personal interest and if anyone occasionally did something on behalf of someone else it was never ever acknowledged with a smile or thank you or pat on the back or kiss on the cheek. Is that a world that you would want to live in? Could such a world even exist at all?

Some people would object, however, that reciprocity, the mutual expectation that others in your society will observe social norms that call for assisting one another and showing through words and/or deeds that you are aware that your existence and welfare depend upon others, is really only egoism in disguise.

If you expect something in return, even if it’s in the form of feeling good that you have done something for others anonymously (such as putting money into someone else’s expired parking meter), then you are not really being altruistic since you are in fact getting some personal benefit from knowing that you have done something good for someone else. In order for you to truly be altruistic, you must not expect anything in return for your good deeds. You must only always give without ever receiving anything from anyone else or even from yourself in the form of feeling happy that you have done something for others.

The first thing I would say about that line of argument is that it is a peculiar standard to set for people: you are only being selfless if you derive no benefit whatsoever from doing good things on behalf of others. You must feel nothing whatsoever and indeed, it would be best, given this line of reasoning, if it made you feel worse to do good things, then you truly are selfless.

It should be apparent that this line of reasoning has some inherent problems.

The second thing I would say about this is even more important: it is only to be expected that the vast majority of people in any society should expect and must rely upon others to consistently, if not invariably, show tacit or explicit appreciation for others who do things on their behalf.

If we ourselves and others don’t know that people should show appreciation for others – by saying thank you and showing courtesy and consideration for others – then that would mean that as a society we could not count on others to abide by the basic ground rules for social life itself. If that were true, then we could not live together and if we cannot live together, humans could not survive because our very survival requires that we cooperate with each other.

Many or most people have been taught that there is such a thing as “human nature.” They learn this notion outside of and despite anthropology and sociology because both of these social sciences repudiate the idea of some unchanging “human nature.” Those who invoke the idea of “human nature” usually say, “humans are naturally selfish or naturally self-centered.”

But there is nothing natural about being human, so how can there be a trait that is naturally human? To be fully human you must have human DNA, but human DNA only makes it possible to become human. It does not guarantee it. In order to become a human being you must have human DNA and then you must learn how to be human through a protracted process of training which we call parenting and socialization/rearing. Children who have been abandoned by humans and have survived because they have been raised by wolves or other social animals, or children who have been so savagely mistreated by human caregivers that they have been chained up in a closet like a badly cared for dog, grow up to look like humans, but they lack some of the attributes such as the ability to speak a human language and some critical parts of their brains never properly develop. They look like humans but they are not fully human because they were not raised as humans and taught to be human.

It is not a bad thing but a good thing that people who do things for others in general expect some acknowledgement for their actions. If no one expected any acknowledgement ever and they derived no pleasure from doing anything for anyone else, then a) there would be no social norms at all and b) social existence would be impossible and therefore humanity would be impossible. We only can survive and thrive because of others and there must be some ground rules for that group existence, otherwise groups could not exist at all. This is why putting people into solitary isolation for an extended period of time is a form of torture. Humans need others so badly that one of the coping mechanisms for people forced into extended isolation is for them to imagine voices in their heads. They are trying to provide company for themselves in the absence of real company. And of course, when you start hearing voices in your head this is also a sign that you are going mad from being isolated too long.

The idea, then, that altruism only exists when someone never expects anything from anyone else in the form of appreciation and that the altruistic person must not and cannot derive personal benefit in the form of feeling good about doing something good for others because that would be a sign that they are really just selfish, is looking at humans from an analytical framework that negates the existence of social groups. If you recognize that social groups have to possess certain characteristics that allow them to be groups, including mutual expectations by the group’s members, then the idea that altruism can only exist outside of those realities is really a perspective that reflects a variant of extreme individualism. It abstracts the altruistic individual from any ties to the larger society and treats that “altruistic” individual as some supra-individual.

No one could possibly fit such a description nor would you want such a person to be in existence because if someone truly would refuse to have any appreciation shown for what they do, they would be a very bizarre person to have around. “No, don’t thank me. No, don’t show me any appreciation because if you do it would ruin my altruism. I feel no satisfaction for doing things for others. In fact, it makes me feel worse each time I do it, which is why I’m really a genuine altruist because it actually makes me feel bad since if it made me feel good in any way that would make me selfish. And selfishness is what I want to avoid at all costs!”

Social life necessitates reciprocity. If reciprocity was not something that we could generally count on, then we could not live together at all. There is a reason why almost everyone feels annoyed at others who fail to show any social graces such as thanking people for little and big favors alike. It’s because on an unconscious level we know that our very existence as a species requires that others observe and recognize the importance of mutuality.

Not only, then, is altruism on some level or another necessary for human life, the more it exists the better. It is a good thing, not a bad thing, that people who make sacrifices for others feel some level of personal fulfillment for doing things on behalf of others. It is what you would want in a fulfilling society that people feel better when they are helping others.


One of the reasons why so many people continue to think that humans are naturally selfish is because we are constantly told that this is so by popular culture, by the propagandists for capitalist ideology, and by many others strongly influenced by that ideology. It is also, after all, the logic underlying the American Dream which a majority of Americans subscribe to consciously. I say “consciously” because the mutual expectations that nearly everyone has in our daily lives – showing appreciation for the many favors that others do for us everyday, telling people “bless you” when they sneeze, and so on – are so ingrained in us that if you ask people why people who don’t demonstrate these social skills are hard to be around and why we try to avoid such people, they have a hard time answering it other than to say that it’s rude if people don’t abide by these social conventions. It is so fundamental to our day to day existence to depend upon others around us, reinforced constantly by our behaviors and expectations, that most people can’t even tell you why we do it or even properly realize on a conscious level how crucial it is.

In short then, we’re taught both critical social skills from infancy and the dominant official ideology tells us the opposite of this, that we are “naturally” self-centered. The two messages are conflicting but because the second message is the overt one and the first message is something we learn through osmosis and without knowing consciously why we do it, the overt message is what people tend to emphasize and think is the primary one, even though people’s daily actions belie that. Understanding how indispensable cooperation and reciprocity is to our very existence and sense of fulfillment is something that needs to be made conscious for us because then the overarching ideology of selfishness could be clearly shown to be not only discordant with actual life but a major threat to our collective welfare and that of the planet.


About the author: Dennis Loo is Professor of Sociology at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He is a Harvard honors graduate in Government and received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is the author of “Globalization and the Demolition of Society” and Co-Editor/Author of “Impeach the President: the Case Against Bush and Cheney”. Website: Dr. Dennis Loo

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