Mini-Feature: Is Pure Altruism Real?

If doing something good for others makes us feel good, can there ever be such a thing as pure altruism?

Is it good to feel good? Not necessarily, and judging by at least a few major religions, not even reliably so. Now, altruism is ostensibly defined by the doing of good for no personal benefit. But if feeling good is connected to doing good in only the most unreliable of ways, altruism would have to mean benefiting others without any regard for its consequences to ourselves.

At the same time, all the altruists I seem to encounter have a still different definition of themselves—namely, as people who seek to maximize doing good for others without any negative regard to how good it makes they themselves feel. What kind of masochistic idiot would find a problem with enjoying helping others?

But to circle back to the beginning, as reasonable as that hedonic altruism sounds, if religious wisdom is right that feeling good can’t be trusted—even if we feel good making others feel good, because their feeling good can’t be trusted either—then why would we ever want to attempt pure altruism? Anything that made us feel that good would surely be a kind of dangerous illusion, one priming us not just to feel bad but to do bad, to others as well as ourselves.

These tortures are characteristic of philosophy and ethics, and of course simply eschewing pleasure for masochism is known not to be the route to virtue either. This is why we end up with religions, which, whatever their differences or limitations, lead us away from the exhausting paradoxes of “altruism,” and toward the life-giving paradoxes of taking the way prepared for us by God.

-James Poulos, executive editor of The American Mind

This is the sort of question that used to perturb me—and not for good reasons—when I was in college and felt the need to come up with philosophically sound reasons why I shouldn't have to do charity work. There was a volunteer club that many other kids participated in, and they would go to old age homes or impoverished neighborhoods and do activities with the residents or local children.

It was all harmless and in good fun, but the cheeriness and general vibes annoyed me. I wanted to be both a hardened cynic who could see through other people's self-righteous smugness, but also a golden soul who loved humanity so much that he couldn't abide falsehood.

In reality, I was just a selfish little shit who didn't want to get up early on Saturday morning to take a school bus to an old age home.

I worked over the question of altruism energetically, and concluded that the good deeds that people were doing were offset in the moral balance by the sense of self-satisfaction that they derived. Being self-satisfied, I felt, was the most repugnant emotion one could have; at the time, I had no sense of the meaning of self-esteem, and basically put every sense of self except self-loathing into a broad category of wickedness and falsity.

Sneering at the kids who returned from their morning's exertions, I quoted Whitman. "When I give, I give myself." Except I didn't give of myself, in any sense, to anyone. I liked the idea of altruism, but it seemed beyond me to be altruistic in reality.

I don't get worked up about the motivations of the charitable. If someone wants their name on a hospital in exchange for disbursing millions, so be it. If selfishness isn't the opposite of altruism but its secret helper, well that doesn't really matter to the beneficiary, does it?

-Seth Barron, managing editor of The American Mind

The great sages Joey and Phoebe from Friends wrestled extensively with this question in “The One Where Phoebe Hates PBS” (“what about you having those babies for your brother?! Talk about selfish”). But with respect to them, the best answer still remains the one implied by Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Book 2, Chapter 3 (1104b-5a). “The pleasure or pain that accompanies someone’s deeds ought to be taken as signs of his characteristics.”  

That is, the highest pleasures which accompany our virtues are not distinct from those virtues: they are essential aspects of those virtues, inextricable from them and from the character they define. We degrade ourselves by pursuing and avoiding “either the pleasures and pains that one ought not to pursue or avoid, or when one ought not, or as one ought not.” Conversely, being good just is loving good and hating evil, and acting on those loves and hatreds.

So in the case of altruism, there is a certain pleasure—one might even call it a certain rich satisfaction, to distinguish it from mere self-indulgence—that accompanies doing a good deed for another. Consider the soldier who hurls his body on a grenade to save the life of his brothers. I doubt he enjoys the experience very much in a purely physical or even mental sense. But he is drawn to do the deed. Why? Because, in the virtue of his courageous altruism, he desires that higher delight which will be his, and his forever, if he makes his sacrifice. 

Thus Aristotle distinguishes “things pleasant by nature” from those things which give us pleasure because they scratch some itch or satisfy some deficiency. We do indeed often perform acts of altruism because we want to assuage our sense of inadequacy, or convince ourselves and others that we’re nice people. That kind of pleasure is not the pleasure of true virtue. 

But “things pleasant by nature are those that prompt an action belonging to a healthy nature” (7.14, 1154b). That which is good is also pleasant, because God made us to love what is good. We are broken and far from home, so we must learn how. That is the work of a lifetime. Our training one way or another begins in our infancy, and never ends. But it is in fact the whole business of being human—the only job we have worth doing. 

-Spencer Klavan, associate editor of The American Mind