Pro-Human Extremist

Extremism in the defense of humanity is no vice

What is altruism?

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For biologists, it’s anything an animal does that increases other animals’ fitness while decreasing its own. Classic examples include bees stinging intruders to defend their hive, and small mammals like chipmunks and meerkats making alarm calls when they see predators nearby. There are well-established biological explanations for how these behaviors can have evolved by natural selection.

But for most people including myself (even though I’m a biologist), the more interesting version of altruism is the psychological one:

selfless concern for the well-being of others  (Oxford English Dictionary)

unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others  (Merriam-Webster)

C. Daniel Batson, a psychologist who has spent decades studying altruistic behavior in humans, gives a slightly more technical definition in this draft of a lecture from 2008:

a motivational state with the ultimate goal of increasing another’s welfare

In contrast to the biological version of altruism, the psychological is about emotions rather than actions. You are feeling altruistic whenever you sincerely care what happens to someone else. If you are sincerely motivated to make someone else’s life better, then you’re likely to do something about it should the occasion arise, but psychologically speaking the altruism is in the state of caring rather than in whatever actions that caring may lead to.

The psychological definition of altruism also says nothing about what effect the state of caring about another person’s well-being has on the person doing the caring. For biologists, a behavior isn’t altruistic if it also benefits the animal doing the behaving. But for psychologists, a motivational state can be truly altruistic even if it’s good for the person who is altruistically motivated. So if altruistic caring makes you feel good, or even if it causes your life to be better in the long run, it’s still altruistic as long as your true motivation is to benefit someone else. You are altruistic as long as your ultimate goal is to benefit others, and any benefits to yourself are pleasant but unintended consequences.

A lot of psychologists and philosophers have rejected the idea that altruism really exists in humans, preferring instead the dogma of universal egoism. They have argued that seemingly altruistic responses like wanting to help a person in need are actually caused by self-oriented motivations like avoiding the unpleasant feeling of seeing another person suffer, or anticipating the pleasure of being thanked by the person who was helped out.

In the paper linked to above, Batson describes the sort of research that has tested whether the ultimate motivations underlying seemingly altruistic responses in humans are indeed other-oriented or self-oriented. The findings of that research consistently support the altruistic explanation over any plausible explanation based on self-oriented motivations.

So if it seems to you that human beings do indeed care about the welfare of others, it looks like you’re right.

© Joel Benington, 2011.

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Written by Joel Benington

May 18, 2011 at 7:45 pm

Posted in altruism

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  1. […] But your actions can be explained in terms of the value to you of their utility—in terms of altruism. I emphasize this because some people delight in undercutting the idea of altruism by pointing out […]

  2. […] existence of a welfare state in a democracy can be explained based on a simple economic model of human altruism, in which voters have a utility function that includes other people’s utility. By voting for a […]


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