Are most people good only out of self-interest?
- Altruism is defined as “unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others.”
- Scientific research reveals that acts of kindness and “doing good” can raise one’s life expectancy and lower blood pressure.
- Started by businesswoman and philanthropist Shari Arison in 2007, Good Deeds Day is an annual tradition where “hundreds of thousands choose to volunteer and help others, putting into practice the simple idea that every single person can do something good, be it large or small, to improve the lives of others and positively change the world.”
- Enlightened self-interest is a term meaning “behavior based on awareness that what is in the public interest is eventually in the interest of all individuals and groups.”
The belief that humans are inherently altruistic is significantly flawed. Many experts theorize that expecting people to put others above themselves is impossible. Whether we realize it or not, our actions are almost always motivated by self-interest, even in what may appear to be pure acts of kindness.
This is because doing nice things for others tends to be a two-way street. Subconsciously, people are aware that if they do someone else a favor, that person will feel obligated to do something in return eventually. The classic line—'thank you, I owe you one'—clearly illustrates this, as it is natural for people to feel indebted to those who help them.
The same argument also applies to the kindness we direct towards strangers. Since most people were raised to live their lives guided by good values, they are likely to want to embody these values to satisfy their own conscience. Thus, they are kind to others only because they were taught to do so, not because they inherently believe they need to.
This belief that we need to be selfless is also motivated by our desire to be recognized by society as 'good' and 'moral.' With selfless or altruistic traits being valued so highly in most communities, many people are arguably compelled to appear selfless in a desperate attempt to feel accepted by others. However, this form of selflessness is only a mask and does not demonstrate a person's true qualities. There is, therefore, no such thing as a truly altruistic act. People are driven by selfishness, and every action they make will likely involve some element of self-interest.
To say that people are only good out of self-interest is cynical and inaccurate. When someone risks their life to save that of a stranger, it goes against many scientists' and philosophers' theories that evolutionarily, a human's only goal is to protect and pass on their own genes. However, empathy motivates people to perform good deeds simply to alleviate the suffering of another living being. Empathy gives humans a feeling of connection with other living things. This connection provides a pure form of motivation for good.
Evolutionary psychologists brought forth a theory that altruistic acts are due to a 'leftover trait' from when human beings lived in small groups that were closely related. At that time, the survival of the individual depended on the survival of the group. It is thought that we feel compelled to protect people around us due to that ancient instinct, demonstrating a reflex to be good rather than solely selfish motivation.
Additionally, altruism via social subjectivism says that society has put great importance on sacrifice for the greater good, viewing it as noble and admirable. Over time it has become expected and habitual for members of society to 'do the right thing' regardless of whether it benefits them.
Finally, parasitic symbiosis—when one person loses and another person benefits—illustrates a pure form of altruism in human beings. For example, when one donates money anonymously, they lose wages they earned while that money benefits someone else. There is no way to know who donated, send thanks, or gain esteem, demonstrating unselfish altruism. People are good because our empathy, genes, and society motivate goodness.