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Does True Altruism Exist?

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Helping Hand
Credit: Don Bosco

Perhaps this is a topic in which people will never truly come to a conclusion, other than to say that each individual person is entitled to his/her opinion. In layman terms, altruism is the act of doing something nice for somebody while gaining no personal benefit(s) from the act(s). Merriam-Webster's online dictionary defines altruism as “ 1 unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others” and “ 2 behavior by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its species."[1] Some people will be hesitant to accept the second definition, stating that humans are not animals. That calls for a different post, and is an entirely different topic altogether. I personally believe that humans are animals, and that we belong to a species.

Given the aforementioned definitions and what I previously deemed as a conclusion, my opinion is that altruism does exist, but true altruism does not. The topic of altruism is widely discussed within society, and even portrayed in popular media. There is an episode of the television series Friends where the character Phoebe Buffay tries to prove to her friend that she can do something nice without gaining anything beneficial in return. Phoebe thinks she has finally found the answer when she lets a bee sting her, which obviously causes her pain. She tells one of her friends what she has done, who tells her that the bee most likely died after stinging her, bringing Phoebe back to square one.

Yes, altruism exists, because people do nice things for others. These things may include holding doors open for others, working as doctors, buying somebody a cup of coffee, giving somebody a ride, giving a homeless person money, working in a soup kitchen, and doing any type of favor for anybody. The possibilities are endless. These examples of altruism pertain to Merriam-Webster's first definition. Needless to say, most people carry out some of these acts of kindness more often during the holiday season. These altruistic acts may seem selfless, but in fact, they are all selfish. Since they are deemed as selfish, true altruism does not exist. For starters, in any type of profession, whether it be medical or retail, the employee gains money. If not money, the employees/interns gain experience, university or college credits, or at the very least, something they can add to their resume. In any case, they gain something personally beneficial. In less obvious cases of selfishness (such as people who volunteer, people who hold doors open for others, or people who give money to somebody in need), the act of doing something nice makes that person feel good. Feeling good about an act one has carried out is also personally beneficial, and ultimately, selfish.


I have interned at a psychiatric residential facility for children with behavioral and psychological problems. I am a social worker/psychotherapist there, and though many people praise me for doing something “so good,” “so kind,” and “so selfless,” I know that at the end of the day, I do have some selfish reasons for doing what I do. Yes, I always try to put the children's needs before my own needs, but doing so makes me feel good. In addition to feeling good about what I do, I got paid (no matter how small the amount), and gained credits toward my Master's degree and subsequently my graduation from university.

True altruism in relation to the second definition by Merriam-Webster may seem a bit more difficult to argue against. However, the end results are still very clear-cut and similar to the first definition's conclusions. One might think that it is selfless to carry out an act that is beneficial for a person or animal while bringing harm one's own way, but again, one will feel good for helping that person or animal. And more than likely, one will receive praise from those around him/her. This feeling of "feeling good" and receiving praise also applies to giving money to those in need – one loses money while somebody else gains money.

I often see people post good deeds they've done on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites. However, they are discreetly (or so painstakingly obviously) screaming out to the public, “Look what I did! Look! Look and praise me!” They will almost always receive praise, or at the very least, people will like or favorite their post. I am not exempt from posting good deeds, and have done it before. More recently, I have posted a good deed during the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. I was nominated a few times, and decided to donate money to ALS instead of dump a bucket full of ice water on my head. I posted the confirmation page of my donation on Instagram. Underneath the picture, I wrote that I do not think dumping water on my head will help anyone or raise awareness, and that the ALS cause has just turned into a game. Some people scoffed at me for not dumping water on my head, stating that it was “just for fun.” “My point, exactly,” I responded. Just for fun. I would rather help the cause than just do something for fun that is supposed to be helping. Of course there were others who praised me for donating money, and agreed with me. Obviously, the praise made me feel good. I feel good for donating money. Though it seems very selfless, it is (as with all other acts of kindness) simultaneously very selfish. To make myself clear, these acts are altruistic, but not truly altruistic.

ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

The second dictionary definition also applies to people who die for others. Personally, I believe that dying for another is the least selfish act anybody can ever carry out. However, before dying for other people, people knows that after their death, others will say very nice things about them and their actions. I am not implying that knowing of the praise beforehand will make their death any easier. However, it makes them feel good, no matter how minute that feeling is. In instances where parents die for their children, or in any occurrence where somebody dies for somebody younger, I agree with the widespread notion that they are dying so that their genes can have a chance to live on through the youth. If somebody dies for a younger stranger, the death has occurred so that the younger person can live on, and consequently help the human species exist longer.

I am very adamant in my beliefs on this topic, and will go as far as to say that humans are not even capable of carrying out truly altruistic acts. However, I understand that many people believe in its existence. Perhaps they choose to believe it exists because believing in true altruism gives them hope and makes them feel better about the world we live in. If there are any acts of true altruism anybody can think of, please feel free to share.



Jul 21, 2015 4:41am
Very good article and draw
Jul 21, 2015 6:11am
Thank you!
Sep 24, 2015 5:56am
Very nice approach.. Rolling on a Circle..
We all act in the way we believe is best.
It's calculated based on our understanding of everything, even ourselves in it.
Perhaps altruism exists only in eremites.
Sep 29, 2015 11:56am
Very interesting views. And thank you!
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  1. "Altruism." Merriam-Webster. 30/11/2014 <Web >

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