Altruism versus Egoism

The ideal person feels joy when he/she can serve others.

Aristotle

In spite of this idealistic quote of the Greek philosopher altruistic behaviour was always debated controversially. Many scientists claimed that human beings are exclusively driven by egoistic motives. The biologist and evolution theorist Richard Dawkins even stated in his book The selfish Gene (1976)  that every single human gene aims at asserting and augmenting itself 1. This theory seems to leave no space for the explanation of helping behaviour except of helping members of the own family in order to maintain the biologically related genetic make-up.

Open ClipArt-Vectors, pixabay

But on the other hand we can give countless examples of people who help others without obvious personal gain, and we don’t have to go back to Mother Teresa.  Amongst others, the recent so-called “refugee crisis” showed that people invest time, energy and money to tackle the welfare and  integration of newcomers. Many Europeans voluntarily distribute food and clothes, care for administrative issues, give language lessons or engage for the social integration of others. How can psychology explain this cooperativeness?

This leads us to the antithetic psychological concepts of altruism and egoism. Whereas egoism can be defined as an expression of the human drive for survival that is directed to the maximisation of personal benefit, altruism can be described as unselfish behaviour and thinking and acting processes  that are characterised by respect for others.

Studies showed that persons who feel sympathy and compassion for the distress of others are most inclined to help them. The concept of empathy is the basis for all altruistic thinking and acting. It can be described as the ability to understand or feel what another person is experiencing and, moreover, to put oneself in their framework of reference. Summarising, empathy means the capacity to place oneself in another person’s position.

We can identify some preconditions that make it more likely that a person wants to help fellow men
  • The protégés are close to the helper;
  • The helper is able to experience empathy and compassion;
  • The helper owns a sense of responsibility for the situation of others;
  • The helper is the only one who is able to help in the respective situation;
  • The helper owns resources that are necessary to help.
Many psychologists and social researchers doubt if “pure altruism” is possible. To come back to the example of Mother Teresa: She often mentioned that she was doing whatever she could do for unpriviledged people, but she was also experiencing joy and thankfulness while doing it. Many people who help others report the same effects: They experience joy, satisfaction and furthermore a sense of meaning. Many helpers also feel a higher self-esteem. Thus, it can be stated that helping is motivated not only by altruistic reasons, but very often the motor is a favourable mixture of altruistic and egoistic motives.

Helping and unselfish behaviour can also serve as an inspiration for others. Hence, helpers can be role models for others who may feel inspired to help as well.

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Footnotes

  1. Henning Engeln (2017). Warum Menschen einander helfen. http://www.spiegel.de/wissenschaft/mensch/altruismus-und-evolution-warum-wir-einander-helfen-a-1176855.html