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Are Altruistic Acts Truly Unselfish?

Updated on October 28, 2011

Would you say there is true altruism? Or is every action performed in order to benefit one's self?

These are two very interesting questions. Some might perceive them as mutually exclusive but in my case, at least, I would have to answer "yes" to BOTH questions.

Altruism is an unselfish concern for the welfare of others. Would I say there is true altruism? Yes, I would. As examples of such concern, I would offer a mother for her children, a soldier falling on a grenade to protect his comrades, Mother Theresa, Mohamad, etc. I’m pretty sure that we are all aware of many examples of people who feel the pain and misery of others and who would like to provide some relief.

Actions, on the other hand, are very different then feelings of concern. Actions are deeds and they can be as simple as those discussed in a Psyc 101 lecture or so complex that we need a Phd to understand them. Regardless of the complexity, the concept of reward is usually present. Therefore, my answer to the second question, "Is every action performed in order to benefit one's self?", would have to be "yes" again.

Studies of behavioral psychology using mice in a maze, suggest that most creatures, certainly the mice used in the studies, are born with an inherent ability to quickly learn to act in ways that are designed to provide rewards and to avoid actions that are designed to deny rewards. When applying these observations to us humans, we can expect that we will almost always act in ways that provide some kind of a benefit, albeit great or small, real or imagined. As most of us already know, for some people even pain and misery can be a form of reward.

So, if we accept that all learned behaviors are intended to lead to some reward for the doer then we need to accept the possibility that none can really be considered totally unselfish. However, let's not over emphasize the need for total unselfishness in acts motivated by altruism. Someone dropping $1000 in cash into the mailbox of a needy family should still earn our admiration and applause unless, of course, the money happens to belong to someone else.

Leave a comment below. Q
Leave a comment below. Q

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  • Quilligrapher profile image

    Quilligrapher 5 years ago from New York


    I am pleased that you have taken the time to read my work. I am grateful for your comment.

  • gmwilliams profile image

    Grace Marguerite Williams 5 years ago from the Greatest City In The World-New York City, New York

    You premise is indeed excellent. Of course, there are some people who are quite unselfish when they donate to charities and other organizations to help the less fortunate among us. However, many people do these things for underlying selfish ones such as to get noticed and/or for publicity! You are so on target. Voted up and extremely useful!

  • DAWNEMARS profile image

    DAWNEMARS 6 years ago from The Edge of a Forest in Europe

    Great introduction to behaviourism and altruism. Looking forward to reading more of your hubs.

  • Quilligrapher profile image

    Quilligrapher 6 years ago from New York

    Thank you, tlmcgaa70, for the read and for the comment. Both are greatly appreciated.


  • tlmcgaa70 profile image

    tlmcgaa70 6 years ago from south dakota, usa

    great hub. and very similar to my questions about courage.

    i believe like you that altruism exists, but also actions done for rewards...even if the reward is only the feeling we get inside. for example, one of my greatest joys in life is giving, especially to someone in need, so my reward is the joy i receive. it is all i could ask for or ever want in return.

  • Quilligrapher profile image

    Quilligrapher 7 years ago from New York

    Feel free, Sembj, to redefine Altruism. It’s not my definition. I just borrowed it from Webster who doesn’t include self-sacrifice as a necessary component. Altruism aside, the emergency workers at the Fukuskima reactor should be recognized as heroes of the highest order. Motivation always carries the greatest weight when judging anyone’s actions. Thanks for the read. Your comments are always welcomed. Q.

  • Sembj profile image

    Sembj 7 years ago

    I would argue that altruism means more than expressing a concern, it requires an aspect of self-sacrifice. And I think behavioral explanations for complex human behavior such as altruism fail to capture or explain the whole picture. Behavioral explanations and techniques are useful up to a point but I believe is deservedly discredited as anything approaching a total explanation for our behaviors.

    Using an explanation based on behaviorism to explain the volunteers actions at the Fukushima nuclear power plant would be missing a great deal of what is going on. Human behavior is enormously complex and we should all beware of offering simple explanations particularly when we are talking of those willing to quietly and pretty well anonymously sacrifice themselves for others. I have written about these guys and the topic and give the site in case any wish to follow the conversation, as it were. You can find it at

    I think R. G. San Ramon's comments were on the money but, alas, his hub was gone when I went to look for it.

    Congratulations for writing an engaging hub that sparks comment.

  • Quilligrapher profile image

    Quilligrapher 8 years ago from New York

    Thanks for your comments Philosotographer. You do not need wealth to be a philanthropists, you need a desire to help mankind. You sound like you may be one already. Money may be an outward sign but it is not a requirement. May all of your good works be devoid of rewards and truly altruistic.


  • philosotographer profile image

    philosotographer 8 years ago

    I would rather be a philanthropist over pretty much anything else. The reward is the feeling of truly helping people. If I were rich I would live my life helping people simply because I would not have to worry about feeding myself and family financially. I don't think there is any way to really avoid the reward whatever it may be. Great post by the way, makes you think.

  • Niteriter profile image

    Niteriter 8 years ago from Canada

    Maybe this piece will cause some evangelists to reflect on the true motivation for their evangelism. How long have you been holding this box, Pandora?

  • profile image

    R.G. San Ramon 8 years ago

    Perhaps the debate on the truthfulness of altruism lies on the confusing distinction between intention (or motivation) and the rewarding effect of the behavior. Imagine a person who sacrificed his life to save a child from being crushed by a speeding truck. The intention is definitely for the child, and a secondary goal is probably to be kept alive. Although the situation clearly states that the heroic man will definitely put himself in danger by trying to save the child, he will still do it, putting the safety of the child first before himself. The rewarding effect of altruism could have easily been misinterpreted as the man's motivation should the man succeed in helping the child and keeping himself alive. Now imagine the man dead and the child successfully saved. How can the rewarding effect be enough to explain the man's behavior? Furthermore, notice how extreme acts of altruism operate as quick as an instinct. There is more to Altruism than debating whether it is true or not. I have made an almost similar hub on this. (I found out about yours through the list of Related Hubs. :D) The hub is entitled "Can Humans be truly Altruistic?" and it discusses how two Psychology approach the controversy on Altruism. Of course you can read my own take on this. Hope you drop by, take time and comment on my hub. Thanks in advance. :)

  • Quilligrapher profile image

    Quilligrapher 8 years ago from New York

    I shall take comfort in your comment, Dr. Kenyon.  LOL.

    Many thanks for the read and for sharing with us.


  • Dr Nancy Kenyon profile image

    Nancy Kenyon 8 years ago from Orlando, FL

    Especially enjoyed your input.  I studied Altruism in grad school (years ago) and have maintained that most individuals find it more comforting assuming they have not been rewarded for their deed and it is in this comforting that we clearly discover the real answer.  Thank you.