Saturday, March 10, 2007

Altruism: pure or just social exchange and inclusive fitness?

I have been researching a lot on what altruism is, and from what I have read it is quite confusing. The definition of altruism is a helping act that benefits another despite the costs to ourselves. But from the different examples of altruism that we find every day, like opening a door for someone else, or helping a friend or relative out with some money is not truly altruistic. These acts of kindness are of reciprocity (scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours), the kin selection (helping those who have similar genes, such as relatives, same ethnic background, etc), and the social responsibility norm (It’s the right thing to do). The closest thing that comes to it is the social responsibility norm, but that still is not constituted as pure altruism because it is based off of the social learning theory that we learn behaviors (in this case altruistic) from behavioral modeling, that is watching someone else benefit or lose from the act. The more often we watch others perform altruistic behaviors in society, we feel that we have a social responsibility to help people in need because it gains us social approval. We use reciprocal altruism, kin selection, and altruistic norms to identify our helping acts in every day situations as altruistic, even though they are still motivated to benefit ourselves.
There are other models that also explain altruistic behaviors, including the empathy-altruism hypothesis, the empathy joy hypothesis, and the negative-state relief model. The empathy-altruism hypothesis states that when we see someone in need, we put ourselves in their shoes (hence feeling empathy), and then we relieve our feelings of empathy by helping that person out. Though we are not necessarily expecting to be rewarded, we are still relieving that empathic feeling thus gaining from the experience. The empathy joy hypothesis states that we feel joy when we relieve our empathy by helping others, and the gain would therefore be the pleasant feeling of the act. Then there is the negative-state relief model which is much like the empathy-altruism hypothesis, in which we are feeling a negative arousal and therefore feel a need to help those we see in need. It hurts us to see others who are in a worse position when we can help them, and so the gain is the relief we feel.
But what negates the purity of these altruistic models is that in each situation, we still way the costs and benefits of giving. If we are feeling empathic towards someone but the cost to ourselves is more devastating, than we do not see it as worth the risk. The empathy joy hypothesis says that we will feel good after the act, but if the act doesn’t make us feel happy afterwards, it is out of the question. The negative-relief model is a bit trickier, but if the cost of helping will make us equally if not more negative than before the altruistic act, then there is no reason for us to do so.
My personal opinion is that pure altruism is non existent because in one way or another we are being benefited by a good act. People like Ghandi and Mother Teresa to name a few are considered to show pure altruism, but if you think about it, they are performing altruism to gain benefits to their people and religion, therefore gaining benefits to themselves as well. What do you guys think? Are there people out there that help for no reason what so ever?


Gigi said...

It does seem nearly impossible to find an example of giving with no return (ie the empathetic return or joy of helping others). It does make me think of the father a couple weeks back who saved a son from a burning house and went mack in to save his other son and wife, and he ended up perishing as a result. Do you think his motives were altruistic? He gave his life to save his child. I am sure at the time he was not weighing consequences as to why he was acting to save his son, rather he was just trying to save his son. I guess it is alturistic, since he died, but if he had lived does it make it non-alturistic since he would have had the joy of a living son?
Any situation of giving, can be re-anaylzed to be non alturistic, since it is impossible to give without receiving.

soporia_pres said...

That example right there is inclusive fitness gigi. Any father in his right mind would go into a burning house to rescue his son, but they are less likely to go into a burning house for to save a complete stranger. So your father is a firefighter? You also have to realize that if he is a firefighter, that is just a part of his job description, and so it could just be that the situation called for him to go in again, whether it was for his son or no.

Dreamer said...

Based on the theories that you have mentioned, it's indeed near impossible to state an act of altruism without gaining something in return. Because as human beings, we are naturally entitled to feelings and emotions which are ultimately affected by the choices we make. For instance, when someone donates blood volunteerily, there will certainly be a positive impact on his emotion. And that would be his gain from performing this act. Because our actions are based on our motivations, there has to be some positive change in our mood after performing that act.
Hence, I would say there is no real altruism in this world, going by that definition.

However, I would like to think of an altruistic act as one in which we place others' welfare above ours, with no ulterior motive or expectation of a tangible reward.Note that I did not mention emotional reward.

*I chanced upon your blog when researching for my paper, i think it's really interesting and I do enjoy engaging my brain on such topics.


By extention, we can not apply Altruism purely in any certain as humans.

Our thoughts, emotions and feelins always derail us from one side of the fence to the other.
Your work is really inspiring i should say i think it will form the basis of my arguments in a Psychology class.

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