Wednesday, August 11, 2010

What is Altruism?

I just realized that it was Tuesday, so I should have put up a question. This one might actually deserve a Friday, but I need something about which to write, so here it goes. The question at hand comes from Frank, and asks, paraphrased, if it is possible to be completely altruistic?

I used to think the answer was no, and that everything we did is done for self serving reasons. My reasoning was that even the most self sacrificing saint does what they believe is right, and thus gains personal satisfaction from that. However, when called on to examine the question again, I realized that I might need a more complex understanding of what altruism is.

Previously I had considered it to be doing something for little or no personal benefit, and thus complete altruism was impossible because everything we do benefits us in some manner. Instead, here I shall amend the definition to something along the lines of how altruistic an act is depends on the degree to which the needs of others inform how we form our desires. That is, an act that we derive enjoyment from can still be altruistic if our enjoyment is derived by attempting to meet the needs of others, rather than focusing on our own needs.

In this case, I do believe that highly altruistic actions do exist. Indeed, most good parents will be completely altruistic to their babies. Of course, problems can still arise when the perfect altruist misconceives the needs of others, but I do believe in perfect altruism in principle.

What do other people think, both about my definition, and whether perfect altruism exists? When answering, feel free to use my definition of altruism or another that you specify.


Frank said...

Well, I would say that due to sin, true altruism cannot exist on this planet at this time. I do like your example of a parent, and think that maybe this would be the only time when a person could be truly altruistic, and yet I think back to the many parents who simply do not do what is right for their kids, and so even that worthy example does not cover all cases.

And this is probably then number one reason I have chosen to embrace the Christian faith: we are sinners, and we simply cannot do enough good works to get to God. I think this is what Paul was hitting on in 1 Corinthians 13 when he said even if he did all those great things but didn't have love in our hearts we would be nothing. Sadly, sin twists and destroys, and I believe keeps us from being altruistic.

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