Extreme Altruism

03 April 2016


Altruists are people willing to do good things for others at a cost to their own happiness and well-being.  Some people think that humans are by nature completely self-interested.  Self-interest is the very opposite of altruism.   But in fact most of us have at least a touch of altruism in us.  

Think of the parent who sacrifices her own well being for the sake of her child. Think of the soldier who gives up the comforts of home and hearth to fight in some distant dessert. They're driven by altruism, not by naked self-interest. Some evolutionary psychologists and biologists even argue that a tendency toward at least a modest degree of  altruism – especially what’s called “in-group” altruism – altruism toward kith and kin --  is built into humans by natural selection. And it’s not just psychology and biology that call us to some degree of  altruism.  Morality and religion clearly do so as well.     

Altruism is clearly a good thing, if not always for individuals who practice it, at least for the groups to which they belong.  But is it possible to take altruism too far? Take somebody who adopts as many needy children as they possibly can and is filled with regret that they can’t do more. People like that seem kind of saintly, and we generally admire saints. They inspire us and help us honor the better angels of our nature. 

But imagine what it would be like to be the biological child of a couple who felt an insatiable saintly need to save every distressed child they possibly could. At some point,  you might be tempted to say.  “Mom, Dad, can we stop and be a normal family now so that we can have more things and do more things?” 

So where do we draw the line between self-indulgence and duty? I grant that it’s not okay to let your own children just starve so that you can feed more hungry children around the world. But isn’t it just as wrong to overindulge your children while entirely ignoring the needs of  less fortunate strangers? 

Depends what we mean by overindulgence. How could I justify buying my kids the latest hot toy, which they don’t really need, when I could use the same money to buy food and clothes for dozens of needy kids in some rural third world village? I think of all the money I spent on helping my son master baseball – all the good times he and I had together, traveling to tournaments and showcases. Should I have given that up to so that I could have helped more struggling strangers?

I gotta admit that I wouldn’t trade those experience for the world. So what does that make me – a selfish schmuck? Or a father who loves and cherishes his own son? I think I admire extreme altruists. But I don’t really have what it takes to be one. But our guest, Larissa MacFarquhar has written a whole book about people who live in extreme devotion to the well-being of strangers, and she's learned some surprising things about them. Tune in to hear all the gory details.

Comments (4)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, April 5, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Altruism is a funny thing.

Altruism is a funny thing. Having not yet read Ms. MacFarquhar's book, nor any other devoted to the topic, I can only say that altruism sometimes reminds me of people who spend too much time primping and admiring themselves in the mirror. Being  concerned with the well-being of one's friends and family is one thing: a human obligation towards those whose existence is central to our own identity and sense of what it means to be human. Being concerned, or overly concerned, with the well-being of strangers would appear to be dangerously aberrant; possibly turning toward self-destructive. Unless you are a pope---that station is an especially rare form of madness. Now, I suppose there are certain perks attending rampant altruism. Some folks are given recognition, and yes, even money when they espouse and pursue philanthropy. Often, philanthropists are held in the highest esteem, and of course, this makes them feel pretty good about their cause(s) and themselves. And so the relationship between altruism and philanthropy seems a close one.
We do enjoy feeling good about who we are and what we do. Pleasure vs pain. Self-esteem can be a natural state of being, or it may be artificially acquired  through "selfless acts of altruism". In either case, the motivation is most nearly selfish at its base.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Saturday, April 9, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

It seems like most of the

It seems like most of the discussion here was of altruists who took a different path to happiness not those who sacrificed happiness for altruistic reasons.  Am I missing the point?  Let me comeback to this.  I will read this book and check back here.
The soldier  or Mother Teresa are in a different category than couples making a quarter million a year and living below their means.  I have to think about this.  Not sure if this show is misguided or if I am.  I think it might be both.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Tuesday, April 12, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Rawls's notion of the maximin

Rawls's notion of the maximin comes to mind, obviating the question by maximizing the well-being of all. I find obsessives highly annoying (activists, religionists and the like). It is hard to see how the rich of today can live up to their means anyway, it is no more impressive that they spend it on philanthropy than on a lavish lifestyle. But the lower-class obsessives would be unnecessary if the resources available were distributed fairly. But fanaticism is inauthentic in any context.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, December 10, 2018 -- 11:10 AM

In the vein of good feelings,

In the vein of good feelings, my recent essay on the notion of infinity might give some insight. I will share some excerpts, if I may: I said that people feel better about things they can qualify or quantify, The evolution and continuing sophistication of human consciousness gives rise to an expanding need for comfort in this regard, hence, the growing emphasis on qualitative and quantitative measures from amoebas to zygotes...A little later in the piece, I said I had no quarrel with any of that. But, unless you love the heat of philosophy, the thrill of agony and the victory of defeat, you may as well cross infinity off your list, be that 'bucket' or otherwise. It is not an achievement. Nor a destination. Neither you nor I nor anyone else will ever get there...there is no 'there' to get to....Well these are only small snippets of a rather short writing. The key notion here is the comfort factor and our NEED-TO-KNOW, even when there is nothing to do with that knowledge. A little different from my 2016 observations---but, I have had some time to adjust, and that has made ME feel better...