People discussing common acts of altruism and those arguing against it’s existence are using different definitions of altruism.
You smell fire, run outside, see a burning building, hear a child screaming, run inside the building, grab child, run out, and the building collapses. The child’s life is saved. You feel an incredible relief.
Was this action altruistic? It depends on one’s definition of ‘altruistic.’ According to some definitions, not at all.
Altruism: The attitude of caring about others and doing acts that help them although you do not get anything by doing those acts
(The Cambridge Dictionary)
If you would have decided against saving the kid, you may have felt terrible regret. At the time of the decision, you expected it to help you, even if it was only emotionally. The decision helped you, and thus was made selfishly.
Of course, most people won’t say that, just the snarky ones. You would expect that event to lead to stories like “Hero saves child from burning building”, rather than “Person selfishly saves child after realizing it would make him happier, all things considered.”
This is a problem of definition. I propose that there are two primary contexts to choose here in our definition of altruism. One is the context of your body. Your body was put into a bit of danger, and some distress. There were no clear physical benefits. According to this context, this was an altruistic action.
The second context is what I’ll call your consciousness. By that I mean the part of yourself that you hear in your head. The part that experiences emotions, not the part that generates them.
This part does expect a significant benefit. It expects to experience a flooding of dopamine and endorphins. In this case, the action wasn’t exactly altruistic.
I think that these definitions could be labeled as Emotion Exclusive altruism and Emotion Inclusive altruism. Here’s a little table of the ‘utils’ involved in different aspects of the above tale. When the net calculation is above 0, it implies that helping was a ‘selfish’ decision.
What counts as an emotion?
Immanuel Kant focussed on a similar point, but focussed on the feelings of direct empathy in his definition of what is similar to ‘emotion inclusive’ altruism.
From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
“Kant elaborates on his claim by imagining a transformation in one of these sympathetic and compassionate people: suppose someone’s misfortunes have brought him sorrows that extinguish his feeling for others. He retains his power to “assist others in distress” but now “their adversity no longer stir[s] him”. He feels no “inclination” to help them, but does so nonetheless, simply because he believes he has a moral duty to do so. Kant says that when this happens, this man’s character and his action have “moral worth” — whereas they had none before. His motive is now “incomparably the highest” — not only is it better than before, but, because it is now a moral motive, it has a kind of value that takes priority over every other kind (4:398).”
I’m not exactly sure what Kant meant by ‘believes he had a moral duty.’ The being he describes is one so far away from our experience that it’s difficult to relate to. It’s a being who both doesn’t experience sympathy and also does experience strong feelings of moral duty.
But one big question is one’s emotional expectations of ‘fulfilling moral duty’. Personally, I find that ‘fulfilling moral duty’ taps into similar emotional centers as helping people. This person has feelings regarding moral duty, that seem beneficial in the same ways that sympathetic feelings are. I would count both under emotion inclusive altruism. I would thus define emotion inclusive altruism in a very broad sense; but to reduce this would be a frustrating and very arbitrary exercise.
Reasoning about emotion inclusive altruism & selfishness
One could then ask if we could imagine a being both stripped of their ‘feelings for others’ and also their ‘feelings of moral duty.’
At this point the discussion has become incredibly esoteric, which indicates it doesn’t actually matter that much. The more we constrain the boundaries of what ‘altruism’ is, the less useful it is as a concept.
It also becomes challenging to reason about. If we made powerful robots, would we want them to do altruistic actions? What if this meant disabling their empathy centers to ensure that positive interactions were more theoretically ‘moral’? We could wind up in an interesting situation where we want to minimize altruistic actions in order to maximize human welfare. The more actions and personal benefit are already aligned, the less we must rely on the mysterious idea of ‘complete altruism.’
People who consider most socially beneficial actions to be ‘selfish’ are often viewed as being cynical, but I would argue that this is not at all the case once the idea of ‘selfishness’ is encompassing of personal emotions and similar other factors. In fact, one great thing about a lack of emotional inclusive altruism is that it allows us to reason about and predict behaviors. There’s no magical ‘moral’ factor of what one’s convictions are; rather, we can understand their behavior using a straight forward analysis of their values and empathy.
The word ‘selfish’ carries with it a lot of baggage. There’s the mental image of cruel people who are mean to others; that The Joker is ‘selfish’ while Batman is ‘moral’. But our definition of selfishness here is so accepting that intuitions about it should be re-evaluated. In this case The Joker and Batman are both “selfish”, but that in itself isn’t that interesting. What’s more interesting is how much empathy they have for other people and what their convictions are.
The common use of altruism
Rather than asking for a ‘true philosophical’ definition of altruism, it may be more useful to ask for the ‘commonly used’ definition.
Here are some recent articles on the subject (I took the first two pages of Google News)
I think it’s fairly obvious from a glance at any of these that they aren’t trying to analyze emotional benefits. These are basically all cases of emotional exclusive altruism, which is relatively weak compared to emotional inclusive altruism.
I would propose that we continue using the word this way, and that this very loose definition be assumed in common discourse.
One may wonder how useful it is to reason about emotionally inclusive altruism, given that it’s quite rarely used. In my experience the only times I’ve heard it were from people questioning the possibility of “true altruism”. For instance, one person attempts to discuss common altruistic behaviors, and then another interrupts by arguing that altruism is ‘impossible’ and attempting to end further debate. So, the common use of altruism is emotionally exclusive, but then people attack it assuming its emotionally inclusive. They are referring to strictly different things.
But I’m not only raising this distinction because I’m tired of hearing that one argument. I’m raising it because I think that the emotional factors of altruism are significant and should be understood as such. Positive feelings in people who do seemingly moral work may be some of the most powerful feelings out there.