I had an argument last night with someone as to whether altruism exists or not. Their argument was essentially “of course it does”. They used the example of a car accident they were in a while ago, in which they were very nearly killed, but they still consoled the driver of the other car (whom they feel was at fault). They ask what they could possibly be getting from doing something like that.
My argument is that human’s are incapable of rationalising in an altruistic way. For example, giving to charity is not altruistic, because we do it knowing full well it will make us feel better about ourselves. If we didn’t feel better, we wouldn’t do it.
Long story short, the argument was never resolved as my opponent simply shouted me down in the end, but I’ve continued thinking about it to myself. I do agree that there is some actions that appear altruistic, but I wonder if they “count”… for example, in the car accident situation posed above, she was deep in shock – she was unable to remember any details when questioned by police at the scene, and couldn’t even be sure she hadn’t been drinking, despite the fact that she never drank anyway. So, it is unlikely she was getting anything out of it consciously. That leaves three possibilities:
- Humans look after their own interests subconsciously, and she was thus aware her actions would have positive consequences for herself (at a later date, even).
- She was not acting rationally and was simply going through motor motions that seemed suitable for the situation.
- She was being altruistic.
Now, the first one is kind of true and kind of silly. Humans do tend to protect their own interests subconsciously – observe physical defence mechanisms that are reactionary and unconscious. Yet it sounds a bit conspiracy-theory-ish, and beyond that it blurs the line between conscious and subconscious, which defeats the purpose of their definition.
The second one I prefer. It implies selflessness in the literal sense, but still agrees with my personal feelings on the subject, as altruism is something I believe must be consciously engaged, by definition. So any subconscious actions are of course irrelevant.
The third option is pretty straight forward, but can be disproved in two ways. Firstly, observe that the two other alternatives are more explainable and more logical by their own semi-proofs. That’s not enough, though. The clincher is…
…and that’ll learn me to stop in the middle of something and not resume it ’till several days later. I have no idea what I was about to say. Hopefully it’ll come back to me at some point.