Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Is there any such thing as true altruism?

Altruism, according to the Oxford English dictionary, is ‘unselfish concern for other people’. This is the concept that you can do a good deed for no reason whatsoever; not even to make you feel good about yourself or in hope you can ask for a favour back of them later. But does altruism even exist? Is it possible to do something simply for the interests of another person?

Above: Derek
Derek, from Channel 4 mockumentary series ‘Derek’, is a great example of an altruistic person. He is on a constant high and spends his simple life helping and caring for other people and animals. He is self-content and there is nothing to suggest his happiness is a side-effect of being altruistic. Unfortunately, he is fictional though.

In real life, Stephen, 19, has an incurable form of cancer — you may have heard about him and his amazing work on the news recently — and he has selflessly scrapped his bucket list and instead raised over £3 million for the Teenage Cancer Trust. This is extremely close to true altruism but surely Stephen must feel good about himself knowing that he is potentially helping hundreds, if not thousands, of other people.

A type of altruism does exist however it is not as perfect as you think. Altruism can be used as a way of dealing with anxiety. It doesn’t make the person feel any better about themselves however it distracts them from thinking about the thing which is making them anxious.

It is clear that if true altruism does exist, it is extremely rare. Philosophers and specialists who have studied altruism argue that “altruism is an impossibility”, even Jesus said “you shall love your neighbour as yourself” obviously knowing that people will always put themselves first.

I was talking to a wise person a few weeks ago about what the key to happiness is. They said not to be materialistic because wealth doesn’t make you happy, the only true thing which makes you happy is helping other people. If the apparent key to happiness is helping other people, surely altruism can’t exist, can it?

Evidence of this is theory is Baldrick, in Black Adder. He always seems happier than Black Adder himself despite being his servant (however this may also be because he is a ‘blithering idiot’ and lives in his own little world inside his head).

I refuse to live in a cynical world where people are motivated to do things only for self-interest.
So maybe there is no such thing as true altruism — but it doesn’t really matter? A consequence of doing a great thing is feeling good about it and you shouldn’t feel bad about that. To me at least, it is a win-win situation if you can help someone and feel good about doing it.