Is real altruism possible for humans?

I’ve heard it argued that genuine altruism is an impossibility for humans; for example, even when we think we are selflessly serving others, we are really just doing it because it makes us feel worthy and gets us respect.

So is it really completely impossible; what about the person who, without consideration, meets death by diving in front of an oncoming vehicle to save a complete stranger?

If no-one were genuinely altruistic, how could it pay to pretend to be?

I’ve thought about this question for years. A few years ago I came to the conclusion that the human brain makes all of the decisions for the body. The brain is a completely selfish organ, which will only do or dictate what is in its own best interest. Seemingly altruistic acts can be explained away by 1) the belief that a good act will help to “buy” one’s ticket to heaven, or 2) a good act will help me gain the admiration of others. By the way, I believe that the strongest motivation for people is the need to be admired. It’s stronger than the need for power, the need for money and the need for sex. Therefore, there is no such thing as true altruism.

But then I think about the concept of unconditional love between a mother and a child. I think about how a mother will accept death or unbearable pain to protect the life of her newborn. This is the case with humans as well as with animals in the wild. This is the only example of altruism that I could think of that can’t be explained away by some form of selfishness. And I now conclude, that if this is true altruism, then it’s possible that there are others. Maybe others can give some examples.

It’s possible for a concept to exist without any genuine grounds; ‘pretended’ altruism need not necessarily be discernably false (even to the person doing the act - that’s the point - I’d heard it argued that even when you think you’re acting altruistically, youre not).

Kin selection is selfish. A mother will takes risks for her own child. She is acting to protect her genes. If a mother would risk her life or her child’s life to save a stranger’s child, this would be altruistic. I’m not saying altruism doesn’t exist, just that mother’s love is not an example.

You could, of course see this is simply an example of a rather sophisticated form of selfishness - giving one’s own life so that one’s genes are ensured survuival. There are plenty of examples of this in nature - salmon spawning and then dying so that thier young are born in nutrient rich waters; the spider lets his spouse is busy devour him, so that he can mate with her while she is busy chomping on him; etc.

My own thought is that true altruisim is possible - as in this story from the Burmese POW camps in WWII:

Story recounted in Ernest Gordon’s book Through the Valley of the Kwai (Harper & Brothers, New York: 1962) Retold on this site.

However, it is not common - just look around… humankind is to obsessed with its own desires to bother being altruistic - a recent survey in the UK revealed 10% of respondants would not call 999 (read 911 for USA) if they saw a murder being committed (either not wanting to be involved or fearing for own safety).


Excuse me??? That’s what you get for editing yourself…

I meant: “the spider who lets his spouse devour him so that …”


This is a confusion. If you view the mother as an empty box, a mere survival machine for her genes, then sure nepotistic acts are selfish from the point of view of the gene. But the same could be said for any “motivation” of the phenotype. This says nothing about whether the choice is altruistic at the level of the individual. That the reason a mother is motivated to act in a way to save her child is something which advanced the “selfish” interests of the gene in the environmnet of evolutionary adaptation does not mean that her motives are “really selfish”. What matters to us is our motives, not whether they were or are adaptive. If you want, of course, you can dismiss all human motives as illusion, but if you’re not willing so to do, you can’t slip back to genetic explanations for motivations for behaviour to get explain away inconvenient motivations.

DrMatrix and grimpixie-

I don’t think that a mother protecting her offspring can be seen as selfish. At least I haven’t been able to figure out the motivation. I don’t buy the “protecting her genes” argument. A woman can have 20 children and she’ll do the same for her 20th, knowing that her genes are going to move on to the next generation with or without #20.


I’m sure that we can all figure out several possible selfish motivations of the soldier in the POW camp. One is (going back to my belief that the admiration of others is the strongest motivation), that he was probably in pain or suffering, and decided to take the easy way out. Going out as a “hero” probably pushed him into doing it. Now, don’t get me wrong, because he may well have been completely unmotivated by any selfishness at all. But I think that for this purpose, we need to find examples in which there aren’t any possible selfish motives.

Okay, let me see if I udnerstand the OP’s premise.

  1. Person A gets great pleasure and satisfaction from working at a soup kitchen, and seeing the smiles on the face of homeless men she feeds.

  2. Person B gets great pleasure and satisfaction from torturing small animals.

Are we to conclude that Person A and Person B are morally equivalent, simply because they both engage in activities that give them personal pleasure? Are both persons equally selfish?

Nope, sorry, I don’t think you do understandI’m not asking about the relative moral values of choices or actions at all
merely whether it’s concievably possible for a human being to act altruistically.

Baby #20 is still her child with her genes. If she were willing to sacrifice Baby #20 to save me or my (hypothetical) child, I’d call that unselfish, but I maintain that kin selection is selfish.

Two years ago I wrote a play titled “Altruism” (a darwinian black comedy in three acts).

The play takes place at a Krishnamurti Dialogue Group meeting in Santa Fe, NM.

The cast is made up of a husband (non group member), his wife, another female, and three Alpha Males from three european countries.

One of the alpha males brings up the subject of altruism, and gives this definition of altruism—“An altruist is an individual that assists humanity, without seeking, expecting, or receiveing anything in return.”

The play is largely based on Geoffrey Miller’s book (“The Mating Mind”).

Is the above definition acceptable?

Does the altruist have to experience pain, and absolutely no pleasure in his/her act of altruism? I would say yes, and I think this is the bottom line for altruism.

Baby #20 is still her child with her genes. If she were willing to sacrifice Baby #20 to save me or my (hypothetical) child, I’d call that unselfish, but I maintain that kin selection is selfish.

In the spirit of the question I aksed, I’m quite happy to accept that an act that results or contributes to to survival of an individual’s genes disqualifies that act from being altruistic.

But does that mean we can think of no exceptions; what about my person saving a complete stranger in the OP; he didn’t have time to think “hey, this will make me a hero”, just “hey, that person is about to come to harm”

Originally posted by Mangetout

What about my person saving a complete stranger in the OP; he didn’t have time to think “hey, this will make me a hero”, just “hey, that person is about to come to harm”

According to a researcher (? Libet), the above persons muscles would have already acted before he/she had either one of the thoughts. If this is true, then there is no need for a “thinker”, with one exception—Dialogue Groups.


On another defunct message board, I onced waxed poetic about how Darwinism didn’t explain altruistic virtues such as courage, charity and compassion. Cliffy, an occaisional poster here, scuttled that notion. Cliffy pointed out that herd instincts in humans accounted for much altruistic behaviour - if the herd survives, the likelihood of the individual surviving will increase.Grimpixie’s example of the heroic action of the POW supports this theory of herd instinct.

To my disappointment, I no longer think pure altruism is possible.

If you ask me, a mother saving another’s child at the expense of her own isn’t altruism, it’s just insanity. I doubt it ever happens.

One definition of cynicism is simply the belief that human action is motivated by self-interest, even when it appears to be unselfish. I used to have a book of maxims by La Rochefoucauld, and he held that view. From memory only (can’t seem to find a good website on him right now), one maxim was something like: What we think of as generosity is nothing more than the vanity of giving, a feeling that we love more than that which we give away. Many other maxims expressed similar ideas.

I think he would say that a person who dives into traffic to save the life of a stranger is motivated by the feeling, conscious or not, that the horror of watching another person run over would be worse than the pain of being run over. (I imagine some who take risks for others are just really optimistic, and think they can save the stranger and themselves. In that case, La Rochefoucauld would say the the act is motivated by the desire to be a hero.)

Similarly, the mother who gives her life to save her child knows, perhaps subconsciously, that she would suffer far more from her child’s death than from her own. By giving her life, she spares herself the misery of experiencing her child’s death.

Seems reasonable, and it doesn’t diminish the value of the act, to me. Lots of things aren’t as pretty upon analysis as they are at first glance; maybe “altruism” is like that. It still has a lot to recommend it, even if it isn’t as “pure” as we would like it to be.