What is a truly altruistic act? Does altruism really exist?

You give a tramp some change. Help a mother with a pram up some stairs. Throw yourself in front of a bullet to save your child.

When we do these things (the last not so often probably) are we really being nice? Or are we just trying not to look like dicks and soothing our consciences? Does a “nice” person not want to be nice? Are they not simply satisfying their own desires and temporarily silencing a nagging voice, indulging themselves as we all do, whether it be stuffing your own face with cake or jacking off in front of your keyboard? Not that I’m against those things…

What is true altruism? Maybe even dying to save another is just guilt-avoidance. People even say it themselves (on TV) “I couldn’t live without x”, “I couldn’t bear to see x get raped to death by ninjas”. They’d rather be dead than live knowing they could have saved their cat if only they had offered themselves up as a sacrifice to Quetzalcoatl instead.

This is one of my thoughts I’d love to have shot down in flames, so do your best.

I always have little to gain and something to lose (potentially a lot to lose) but I take in every homeless person I meet in my current situation in a small town with no shelter for homeless people.

I know one reason I do it is I feel bad, especially in winter, when I think about them afterwards, if I don’t, and wonder if I’m going to read “Homeless man dies of exposure” on a headline, in which case I’d really feel like a turd. If you mean trying to be guiltless as the “avoidance of guilt” then I suppose I avoid guilt.

I see “avoidance of guilt” as meaning that you know you have guilt and do something else (while your guilt remains) to try to make it bother you less. I’m more trying to prevent my guilt to begin with.

I don’t do this near as much in cities with shelters.

Usually, we look at extremes like selfishness and altruism to be about caring or not caring for cost. In the case of selfishness, we care about our costs to the exclusion of all others; in the case of altruism, we care about their benefits, to the exclusion of our cost. If you dig deep enough, leaves aren’t just green, not all Catholics abide by all Catholic doctrine, selfishness has some external concerns, and altruism isn’t purely altruistic. I think altruists as practiced tend to be more utilitarian and recognize that their marginal benefits are much smaller than someone else’s. I think we can all agree that we can find someone less fortunate than themselves, who could do more with the next dollar, next hot meal, and so on. Altruists seem to do something about it, or at least something more. I don’t see any reason to deny this scale, even if no one hovers at the absolute end of it.

All these acts have selfish motives. Giving and helping make you feel good, when your child suffers you suffer emotionally as well.

There is altruism though, people have directly risked their own lives or knowingly forfeited them to save total strangers for no other reason than it was right. It’s so rare we call it heroism, and is by it’s very nature unnatural.

To make that blunt, am I correct that your opinion is nothing is altruistic unless a person dies to give something or help something?

You must know me personally. Because I would have trouble with the knowledge that I could have saved my cat
had I been able to offer myself up as a sacrifice to Quetzalcoatl instead.

That’s just redefining "altruism out of existence. It’s like redefining “movement” as “able to move unassisted in three dimensions” and then claiming that humans can’t move. Outside of pure reflexes like breathing, feeling good and feeling bad are the only ultimate motivations for their actions humans have. Positive and negative stimuli are how our brain decides between courses of action, or to do anything at all. A human without those motivations wouldn’t be “altruistic”; they’d just be a passive lump that would sit where they were put and starve to death. They wouldn’t even chew if you stuck food in their mouth.

Altruism is a label applied by voyeurs. They can not know the motivations of the participants in a transaction. Some may do good only when they have an audience. They have their reward. People who have formed a habit of being helpful don’t analyze much, and couldn’t car less what label a voyeur would apply to a situation. I applaud good deeds. They are the coin of community, whatever the motivation.

Yes, humans are hard-wired to perform altruistic acts because we evolved to live in small groups where tit-for-tat social interactions yielded positive results. I’m nice to you because it feels good to be nice. It feels good to be nice because my genes “know” that other humans are wired for tit-for-tat behavior so being nice is a good strategy for being treated nicely in return.

So what?

That’s what being nice is. Trying to compare it to some theoretical standard of super-human niceness is pointless. There is no standard for niceness outside of normal human practice.

To some extent it’s just interesting to me to consider it and try to find an example that I’m convinced is true altruism.

I wouldn’t call it “superhuman” so much as “inhuman”. We aren’t talking about someone being a better person than normal humans; we are talking about someone who is “altruistic” for no recognizable human reason at all. Either an android or Cthulhu; they are “altruistic” either out of some emotionless program or for some reason we can’t even define.

I don’t think that is a good standard but it may exist somewhere. By that definition, I think it takes some type of devout religious or philosophical beliefs but only within those that offer no personal reward like anything to do with a better afterlife. How about Buddhist monks that set themselves on fire to protest war?

They know it going to be very painful and I don’t think they expect to get anything from it personally through their beliefs but they do it anyway. I am skeptical about how much good their actions actually do but they are willing to kill themselves to further an earthly cause that they won’t benefit from. Of course, the problem is that we can’t prove that they weren’t just suicidal to begin with then it becomes a selfish act in many people’s eyes. You can’t really win this debate because of many logical fallacies including the No-True-Scotsman argument.

What of a teenager mother surrendering her child to adoption, thereby and willingly, taking on a lifetime of loss and pain. There is no benefit for her, but enormous potential benefit for her child. She does not feel good, or guilt free, she is in agony, but makes her choice regardless. I think that might be altruism.

And what of caregiving? Someone gives up 6 yrs of their lives to see to the needs of someone fully bedridden and incontinent, double their own body weight. It’s not their mother, there is no debt or obligation. This task takes an enormous toll on the caregiver, costing every semblance of life, as they once knew it, sometimes it almost takes their sanity, almost costs them their marriage and ends in crushing loss. It’s a long, long train of meds, and laundry, meals and diapers, and eventually, decline. There is very little ‘feeling good’, the decision itself was taken without regard to cost to self. I should think this could be called altruism, don’t you think?

This is just my opinion, but I very strongly believe that altruism exists. Oh, and I lived both of the above mentioned examples, just as described.

For an activity to be altruistic it must come from sacrifice. Giving my friend $10,000 to avoid foreclosure is sacrifice, Bill Gates giving my friend $10,000 is not altruism.

So I’ll back off my earlier position of requiring imminent bodily harm, but the act does demand true sacrifice, and that is rare.

I don’t agree; a lack of self interest is enough to qualify an act as altruistic. Self sacrifice is more than just altruistic.

If you define altruism to mean “Willingly doing something you wouldn’t will to do”, then, no, it doesn’t exist; you’ve defined it out of existence.

But no one actually uses the word “altruism” that way in ordinary language. In ordinary language, wanting to help others, and getting pleasure out of doing so, doesn’t make you any less altruistic. Indeed, it’s just part of the territory that goes into being altruistic!

I would argue that if you take a self-sacrificing action you must believe it’s the right thing to do. And if you believe it’s the right thing to do, you should feel guilty for not doing it. Such a mother would feel worse keeping the child and denying it a happier childhood than giving it away.

Maybe… I think there would still be some guilt had such a person not taken the time to care for the bedridden person, but I’m not sure that guilt would be comparable to 6 years of doing that.

What I mean is, what actions are purely for the benefit of others and not, when you get down to it, a selfish act to make the subject feel better?

Quite possible… but then again maybe their religion is nagging at them, telling themselves it’s selfish to stay alive when maybe they can save more than one life by protesting.

The difficulty is that I would argue that it is selfish to choose to continue living when you think you could save 2+ lives by dying. Not that I think it’s “wrong” to make that choice in this instance.

Long story short: No. Even the act of doing something nice for someone else makes oneself feel better.

Oh how I miss the days when there was a difference between self-interest and selfish. Everyone acts in their own self-interest, we sort of take that as an axiom. Sometimes people act a certain way because it gives them pleasure. But sometimes people act a certain way, and it happens to make them feel better, but they didn’t do it because it would have made them feel better. We call this altruism when there is above-average personal sacrifice involved.

The deflationary theory of human activity that just says “everything is selfish” is such irritating claptrap.

So now you’re discounting any act as non altruistic if you conceive there’s a possibility the doer may have felt guilt to do otherwise? Not whether they did or not, just that you think it’s possible they might have?

No, actually. Women who surrender their children feel enormous guilt, for a lifetime. They are judged as being less for ‘giving away’ their own flesh and blood. Because they have no way of knowing if their child did, in fact, get a better life, or not. Your projection of what you think, notwithstanding.

Again, your projection of the doer potentially feeling guilt for choosing otherwise has no bearing. In fact, had anyone told me, when I was choosing, that the caregiving would last for six years, I can assure you I’d have chosen full time care for her, convinced I would be unable to go that distance. If at any time during those six years, it had become necessary, (say my husband took sick?), we would have made that decision without feeling guilty in the slightest.

Neither of these choices made me feel good or better, neither were motivated by avoidance of guilt I’d have felt, to choose otherwise.