What. The Heck. Is the Point. Of Debating Altruism?!

Healthy debate can be a productive way to expand our outlook and improve our mental process. But what good comes from debating the existence of true altruism? This person, this person, this personand all these people decided to even write about the debate. Why??

If my actions make other people feel good, and if I feel good as an outcome of seeing that others feel good, then what’s wrong with that?! Some people might say, “nothing’s wrong with that, but that’s not altruism.”

Therefore, the only way to start this conversation is by breaking down the definition of altruism. Then, the best way to continue the article is to think about the holistic influence of applying critical thinking to altruistic behaviors.

A review of the definition of “altruism” from a myriad of sources such as Merriam-Webster[1], Cambridge English Dictionary[2], Collins Dictionary[3], MacMillan Dictionary[4], thematically demonstrates that an emphasis is placed on the positive well-being of others. This point can be accepted without debate or question.

References to the well-being of the person who is doing an “altruistic” act are fuzzy, but do any of the definitions require that one person feel a lack of happiness (or worse, require that one person feel pain) while another person feels happiness? No, none of them do.

When the Cambridge definition states, “…even if it results in disadvantages to yourself”, that does not mean there is a required absence of personal well-being or happiness.

MacMillan Dictionary’s reference to “caring about other people more than you care about yourself” also does not mean you do not care about yourself at all, but rather it means that you prioritize other people.

Therefore, a person’s inspiration for behaving in the best interest of others — altruistically — can possibly boil down to these two scenarios:

(a) my top priority, and driving motivation, is to positively influence other people; my emotions are an afterthought, and whether or not I feel happy afterwards is just anecdotal

(b) the best way to feel happy is to make other people happy; so, to make myself happy I will do good things for others

The difference between these two options is nuanced, and the answer is relative.

Since the only person who can accurately judge the inspiration is the person doing the act of kindness, themselves, it’s impossible for bystanders to effectively evaluate whether or not an act was altruistic.

We can, however, observe the outcome with certainty. And the outcome is the same regardless of the motivation: one or more persons are positively impacted.

When the outcome is the same, what is the point of debating the origin??

If we head down a path of skepticism, and doubt that goodness can exist in people around us, then that will cast a shadow over all our behaviors and outlooks.

Since actions build upon themselves, wouldn’t it be more beneficial to us and to our society to purely encourage acts of kindness without doubting its inspiration?


You might remember acts of kindness that have gone viral like the man who saved a rabbit from the California wildfires, the strangers who bought a fast-food worker a car so he wouldn’t have to walk six miles every day, or the stranger who saved a woman on the subway. People like this most likely will always do acts of kindness and be altruistic simply because it’s their default reaction. Some people have a natural tendency to prioritize the well-being of others without even thinking about it.

While it’s nice to know that such people exist on one end of the spectrum, most of the population can be found more towards the middle of the range.

Millions of people are kindhearted, generally good, and more introspective. Therefore, when it comes to doing an act of kindness, they may debate it for a while.

50% of the time, the average person may assume that someone else will help; the other 50% of the time, that same person may do an act of kindness themselves. It’s a delicate balance that happens even without us thinking about it.

What would it take to tip the scales towards 51% acts of kindness?

I believe it would take a belief that altruism and genuine kindness can and do exist — full stop.

If we all hold each other to the belief that altruism does exist, then I believe more people will give themselves permission to do acts of kindness.

To support my perspective, I’ll offer an analogy to the recent legalization of marijuana. There are three different kinds of people: those who will use marijuana regardless of its legal standings; those who were curious about it and may be inclined to try it now that it’s legal; those who have no interest whatsoever and will not be influenced by legalization. Studies show that, even though the rate of increase is lower than what was initially projected, marijuana use has increased since it was legalized. The elimination of the legal hurdle may have been enough to motivate people who were curious, but who abstained due to the law and public opinion.

So, is it possible that we will see an increase in acts of kindness if we eliminate the mental hurdle caused by the debate over altruism?

Yes, I do believe so.

[1] Merriam-Webster definition of ‘Altruism’: unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others; behavior by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its species

[2] Cambridge English Dictionary definition of ‘Altruism’: showing a wish to help or bring advantages to others, even if it results is a disadvantage to yourself

[3] Collins Dictionary definition of ‘Altruism’: if your behavior or motives are altruistic, you show concern for the happiness and welfare of other people rather than for yourself

[4] MacMillan Dictionary definition of ‘Altruism’: thinking or behaving in a way that shows you care about other people and their interests more than you care about yourself

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