(Largely inspired by PHIL. I. STINE. at MyLeftWing.)
One of the constant debates across multiple disciplines at my university is the question of altruism. Does it exist, and if it does, is it better to be altruistically selfless, or selfish (or at least self-interested).
Now by altruism, I mean acting for the benefit of others with no personal motive for yourself. No ‘good-feelings’ reward, no dependency on karma, nothing. Just pure kindness.
To the first question, yes, altruism exists. People do good things without expecting any reward all the time, just as people do bad things without expecting any blow-back. I do millions of morally-neutral things every day simply out of habit or instinct. We aren’t constantly evaluating every decision we make in a cost-benefit model in our heads; we don’t have that kind of time. Largely, we simply do.
Now this is not what people generally think of when they argue over altruism, because it casts altruism in an unintelligent light. But that’s all there is to altruism; when we act without thinking, we can act without regards to personal benefit.
This leads to the second question: Is this a good idea? This is where the debate usually becomes completely unhinged. Those in favor of selfishness usually fall into the trap of saying “acting in our self-interests is in our self-interest!” While those in favor of altruism find themselves arguing against reason itself, often straying into areas of moral imperatives and invoking religious authorities.
To start with the second argument first, I’m not going to mount a defense of reason itself. That would take a book, not a blog post, and many people much smarter and better educated than me have done just that. So let’s assume that humans really can use their wits to improve their lot in life.
As to the selfish argument, nothing is actually said by saying that our self-interests are in our self-interests. Instead, since we’re already admitting that reason can improve our lives, we have to expose altruistic action as unreasonable. This I’ve already done in my explanation of how altruism is even possible. One cannot think something through thoroughly and then act recklessly. And if you’re thinking something through and acting, even if you are making a sacrifice for someone else, you have some interest in seeing that someone else happy. This is where all the talk of “good-feelings as motivation” comes into play. The only time, that I can think of, when people aren’t motivated by at least a subjective desire to feel good about their decisions is when they act without thinking at all.
Alternatively, one may sacrifice not for just another individual, but “for the greater good.” As my father likes to point out, you never stop being part of the greater good. Giving of yourself for something that you’re a part of is an investment. The only exception, is when you give your own life, either in terms of disabling yourself/changing your living conditions for far worse living conditions, or actually dying. In this case, I have to say, altruism is a good thing, a result that can be derived from rational calculation. Such situations are rare, of course, but us champions of reason must concede that they do happen. Most of the time though, altruism is reckless and dangerous, and those who champion it are championing the dark ages.