Does altruism exist? Science and philosophy weigh in

We often praise selfless action, but it is even possible?

An act of true altruism? Lifeguards pull a migrant woman from the sea
Lifeguards and rescue workers help a migrant woman to shore in Greece. Are they acting out of concern for her, or veiled self-interest? (BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

We often look up to selfless individuals as paragons of virtue. We remember those who saved others during the Holocaust at great personal risk as saints; we look in awe at those who turn down potential billions on medical patents in favor of keeping the cost of vaccines low; we praise those who give their lives for others as heroes. 


Given how we typically view altruistic people favorably it is easy to understand why many ethical systems and religions would give altruism, the concern for the well-being of others, a place of honor. Jesus Christ preached on altruism frequently, Kant praised it, and we often think of the people who spit on it as monsters. Which makes the debate over if altruism even exists shocking.  

What is psychological egoism?

Every philosophy 101 professor has heard the argument before:

  1. We act as we are motivated to by our desires.
  2. When we act on our desires, we are seeking the feeling of satisfaction that comes from fulfilling them.
  3. Since feeling satisfied benefits us, all actions have some level of self-interest to them.

If this argument is correct, then when I do something altruistic, saving a drowning child, for example, I am at least partially doing it because I need to fulfill my desire. Because of this, I cannot claim to have been entirely altruistic, if I can say I was altruistic at all!

This position is called psychological egoism and can also be argued for empirically. We can all think of a case where somebody was genuinely motivated by self-interest but tried to write their actions off as being for the greater good. Proponents of psychological egoism often argue that this is true for everybody; that we all act in our self-interest all the time and only rationalize our actions later.

Is altruism impossible?

There are two fundamental objections to this argument. The first is that it works a little too well; it is impossible to disprove it empirically.

Imagine for a moment that you are trying to come up with an example of a genuinely altruistic action for a person who subscribes to this idea; they can always devise a secret motive for anybody which make them at least somewhat egotistical. If you say that a person helped a drowning pig out of real concern for the animal, the egoist could say they only did it to soothe their conscience.

If you suggest Jonas Salk really did care about others when he refused to profit off the polio vaccine, the egoist can propose that he only wanted to look good. Since a person just trying to look good by taking a seemingly altruistic action wouldn’t admit it, it is impossible to disprove that they have this egotistical motivation.

However, ever since Karl Popper wrote his philosophy of science, falsifiability has been held up as a vital part of any theory. Anything which cannot be proven false is now considered unscientific and problematic. Such a view also doesn’t really tell us very much, if it just restates how everybody thinks already. But what about the logic? It seems pretty solid. 

Beware: Thin logic ahead

The logic also isn’t quite as sound as it looks. It relies on a particular conception of desire and satisfaction. It is most frequently compared with how we experience the desire to eat. 

We desire to eat because of how we feel. We then eat and feel satisfaction at having fulfilled our desire. We do not eat for the sake of eating in this case, but rather to feel satisfaction afterward. 

However, some desires don’t function this way. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy gives an excellent example of one:

Suppose, for example, that I want my young children to be prosperous as adults long after I have died, and I take steps that increase to some small degree their chances of achieving that distant goal. What my desire is for is their prosperity far into the future, not my current or future feeling of satisfaction. I don’t know and cannot know whether the steps that I take will actually bring about the goal I seek; what I do know is that I will not be alive when they are adults, and so even if they are prosperous, that will give me no pleasure. (Since, by hypothesis I can only hope, and do not feel confident, that the provisions I make for them will actually produce the good results I seek for them, I get little current satisfaction from my act.) It would make no sense, therefore, to suggest that I do not want them to be prosperous for their sake, but only as a means to the achievement of some goal of my own. 

This example shows us that the idea of desire working like hunger is not always true, which derails the argument. From a logical standpoint, psychological egoism is refutable. Most philosophers hold that altruism is possible as there doesn’t seem to be a reason why we can’t act altruistically, even if we don’t. 

What does science have to say? 

Science isn’t of much help, as various studies and books that try to understand our mental processes during acts of giving show mixed results that can be interpreted any number of ways.

A study that used MRI machines to map the responses of brains to altruistic behavior found that several parts of our brain are involved in making altruistic decisions. Altruistic giving lights up the part of our brains associated with emotional processing, mentalizing and perspective taking, self/other discernment, and our reward centers.

The authors suggest that Together, activation in these regions is likely if individuals are actively engaged in thinking about not only the emotions and feelings of others but also about their own thoughts, feelings, and desired outcomes.”

These findings suggest that our brains get some reward for altruistic behavior, even if the motivation was selfless. However, the authors warn that “Future research is required to characterize the ecological validity of altruistic behavioral research on the way people actually live their lives.”

Richard Dawkins famously suggested that we have a “selfish gene.” This doesn’t mean that our genetic codes have wills they act on, or that we are hardwired for egotism either. Instead, he means that evolution favors genes that create consequences favoring their own survival. He uses this as a way to explain the existence of both egotistical and altruistic action since both motivations can be of use to survival. 

This does suggest, however, that all altruistic action is for the benefit of our DNA. This might mean true altruism doesn’t exist at a fundamental level. However, the people who work for the benefit of others typically don't consider the survival of their genome when they act. 

On the side of true altruism being real, we have professor C. Daniel Batson. He summarized a lifetime of experiments on altruistic behavior in his book Altruism in Humans. His conclusion is true altruism is possible, and that empathy is a primary motivator for these actions. He does, however, acknowledge that many factors are at play and that lab experiments always have shortcomings. 

While the question of if we can act out of pure altruistic concern for others remains unsettled, our admiration for those who seem to remains well established. It may be some time before we know for sure if anybody can truly be altruistic. In the meanwhile, it can’t hurt to presume it’s real.   

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

Your genetics influence how resilient you are to the cold

What makes some people more likely to shiver than others?

KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images
Surprising Science

Some people just aren't bothered by the cold, no matter how low the temperature dips. And the reason for this may be in a person's genes.

Keep reading Show less

Harvard study finds perfect blend of fruits and vegetables to lower risk of death

Eating veggies is good for you. Now we can stop debating how much we should eat.

Credit: Pixabay
Surprising Science
  • A massive new study confirms that five servings of fruit and veggies a day can lower the risk of death.
  • The maximum benefit is found at two servings of fruit and three of veggies—anything more offers no extra benefit according to the researchers.
  • Not all fruits and veggies are equal. Leafy greens are better for you than starchy corn and potatoes.
Keep reading Show less
Quantcast