Altruism: natural behavior or self-benefit?

These days of Christmas and New Year Eve holiday break I take some time to reflect on which can be a possible – objective – definition of real and effective altruism.

If you’re asking yourself why I am so interested about, the answer is very simple but require some background as I am not the first who try to resonate on its meaning and deepen function in our society.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy we can assume that “in evolutionary biology, an organism is said to behave altruistically when its behavior benefits other organisms, at a cost to itself […] In everyday parlance, an action would only be called ‘altruistic’ if it was done with the conscious intention of helping another. But in the biological sense there is no such requirement. Indeed, some of the most interesting examples of biological altruism are found among creatures that are (presumably) not capable of conscious thought at all, i.e. insects.”

Almost everyone – as I know and experienced – define him or herself very very altruistic, up to different manifestation of what can be defined an habit, an objective, an attitude, a living aim, and so on and so forth. It can be volunteering in a specific association (with a defined target of reference) or project, give part of the monthly or annually salary to foundations, hospitals or specific research institutions, participate in some events that require diverse professional figures starting with no funds but with a clear aim and working vision in order o sustain the idea on the long term becoming effective for the members of the city.

Such as many others daily human stories, daily actions or genuine manifestation examples of altruism that you may now have in mind.

Everyone of us witness or have heard about some true acts or expressions of kinship and altruistic manifestations in our daily life. Behavior inspired by a sense of immediate solidarity.  The idea here is that altruism can be considered “genuine” if you are able to put for a moment your ego aside while the primary though – and motivation – in your mind is to achieve the good of others. Doing so, you should be able to govern all the other attitudes that shape your own behavior.

These are the premises regarding the question of why human beings are sometimes prepared to risk their society “position”, recognition gained over long time, talking or acting in first person just to help others. In fact, altruism has puzzled philosophers and scientists for centuries!

One line of reasoning that we can follow is that this problem of altruism is tightly connected with all the questions related to the concept of natural selection.

Saying it by other words, if we are more accustomed to think that natural selection acts at an individual level, favoring some individual beings over others, then it seems that altruism do not have the terrain and substrate necessary to evolve. If we take this claim for granted, then behaving altruistically to not give any possible advantage to the individual organism by definition.

However, if we want that altruism may be advantageous on the long term, then the clue we’re in search of is the group level… First of all, a group containing lots of altruists (accustomed to subordinate their own selfish interests for the greater good of the community) may have a survival advantage.  Within each group (were selection dictate its laws), is true that altruists have a selective disadvantage relative to their selfish colleagues, but the general fitness of the whole group will be enhanced by their presence. Groups that are composed only (or mainly!) by selfish organisms got extinct, but this is not the case of the ones “implemented” thanks to altruists efforts.

According to modern Dawkins view, human beings are basically selfish… He became known for the concept that all of us are ‘carriers’ of thousands of genes, whose main aim is to survive and replicate. We shouldn’t be woven by the interest in sacrificing ourselves for others, by helping them. Despite that, reasoning within genetic terms, helping people close to us (such can be primary uncles, elders and cousins along with our nuclear family) can offer a guide, a path that can allow our genes to survive. We sacrifice something to carry on and protect part of all the genes that are in common with ours.

If this point is really logical to understand and imagine, then why some of us still want to help people who haven’t a direct relation to them? Why I have a dog cured and loved as it was a child I am responsible for, as well as thousands of people living close to me do?

According to some psychologists, there can’t be a ‘pure’ altruism. When we give our help to strangers we do not know (or animals) but that we see close in the eyes, there must be a benefit to us, right? even if we’re not aware of it.

The hearth trending truth is that this concept, enclosed in the word of altruism, embed just when spelled loudly the ‘good’ and the ‘respect’ features we give to ourselves by respecting others in the way we desire and believe should be needed even for us. The act of giving is the best powerful pathway for creating more personal joy and improving overall health. Nowadays almost everyone of us have heard or read that the increasing production of the three main neurochemical drivers of happiness, dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin are the physiological responsible of a rapid boost of our mood.

If range levels of serotonin are constant or even higher our sleep, digestion, memory, learning and appetite functions can only benefit from that. Moreover, dopamine is connected to motivation and while oxytocin (a potent anti-inflammatory) begins to flow, blood pressure decrease, bonding increase and trust and empathy can be enhanced.

Interestingly, some evolutionary psychologists suggested that the attitude to be altruistic towards strangers can be interpreted as a  ‘leftover’ trait from when human beings lived in small groups with people that presented some genetic similarities with them. This instinct to help the members of the group is like a “survival attitude” to protect it from dangers and therefore safeguard our genes. Even if today we do not live in small and unprotected tribes we continue to give support and attentions to the people around us even if we have any blood bond with them.


Now, I don’t doubt that lot of the acts we see all the time around us with the make-up of kindness are partly driven by self-interest, egocentric attitude or twofold purposes, but I am asking myself too if is it too naive to recognize the fact that immediate and disinterested forms of altruism can exist as well?

When we feel the astonishing sensation of being recognized as we did something relevant for others, increasing their well-being and by response our esteem and better perception about our inner self immediately afterwards, are we fool or dreamers? Or at the very moment that we act “good” for others, blindly, what we are in search of is a selfish inner desire to be the ones who have the tools to alleviate suffer and misery…

This is a reflection some of us should do, without any extra judgement. The open question should be framed on the main reasons that drives on these acts.

Altruism, is it a natural behavior or another form of self beneficial experiential acts?

Big question, right? Maybe it’s about choices, life perspectives, priorities on our personal life menu..You can have even both at the same time, one immediately after the other, but in this case is not natural behavior for sure. It is just a choice that you select to agree.

We are human beings that identify with other people, by sensing all sort of suffering with altruistic acts. But sometimes we are able to manage these “nursery” kit because we passed through them – in different ways and perceptions – and taking care of others “wounds” can heal ourselves too.

In other words, there are many form of altruism and gratitude that can be manifested in a group. Your attitudes can change. Your satisfaction taking care of altruistic manner can be variegated and the level of curiosity on its features can vary in many different ways. Just even only for the time you dedicate to a sincere smile, or a night walk with the dog of the neighbor that we you see every morning in the elevator, sharing slowly yawns, as at 7 a.m is when the working “pilgrimage” begin. And now that, embraced by the tightly grip of the seasonal flue, he is knocking to my home, and next to him the eyes of his dog claimed the usual play and daily walk what we can do is just suspend the tiredness of the day and  just behave as natural enthusiast! putting shoes on, going out, playing a bit with the big meek pit bull and be glad that he knocked to us.

I think that this choice change everything, as it should mean something.

Am I right?

Have a great day and see you on the next post!


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