Why Altruism Really Does Exist

A lot of intellectuals seem to conclude that there’s no such thing as true altruism. Their reasoning invariably seems to be that, whatever we do, including any altruistic act, we wouldn’t do if there weren’t some incentive, or, in other words, a reward for doing it. They see this as a truism regarding the very nature of decision-making. And, of course, they reason that doing something for a reward, even if it helps another person, is just as selfish as any other act. To stand in as the award in question, they may reason that doing such a thing necessarily gives the agent a dopamine hit.

First, we don’t know for sure that there’s an expected reward for everything we do. Or maybe there is, but the locus of reward is transpersonal. In other words, it’s only a reward given a transpersonal understanding of reality. That is, it’s only a reward because one views another’s well-being as just as important as their own, probably because they see their own divine spark in the other. An act of love may well entail a sacrifice that outweighs any reward we can rationalistically reason about. It often does.

Second, even if there is always an expected reward, such as a dopamine hit, for every altruistic act we do, the very fact that doing good for another gives one a dopamine hit is gratuitous and indicates the existence of altruism.

To be fair, the claims against altruism may center not only around incentives, but also around deterrents, such as the pain of seeing another in pain or losing another. The same reasoning I give above basically applies to that case, too. I.e., it’s only a deterrent to do something that hurts or kills another because we’re considering damage not only to ourselves but to a wider sphere. And, if doing harm to another causes a surge of uncomfortable brain chemicals in us, the very fact that that relationship between harming another and our own happiness exists is gratuitous and an indication of altruism.

Also to be fair, a lot of people believe that our propensity to help others, and more generally our conscience, as part of our social nature, is a product of evolutionary psychology, evolved presumably because it’s a survival advantage to the species. Such people would probably then say that the mechanism that connects “altruistic” behavior to reward isn’t gratuitous as I claimed it is. They might say that it’s virtually no different from evolution having provided us with a shower of $1 bills every time we do good for others, only, instead of $1 bills, it’s brain chemicals.

To this I would say, first, that it’s questionable whether that having been evolutionally baked into us means it’s not altruism. Maybe it simply means that evolution provided us with altruism? Though it does seem to take the magic and beauty out of it.

Second, I’d say it’s wrong and scientistic to assume that virtually all aspects of behavior are solely attributable to evolutionary psychology. First, because there are behaviors that arise secondarily/incidentally from the entire framework, analogously to how men having nipples provides no direct biological-evolutionary benefit, and second, because the human mind is too dynamic and too much of a carte blanche (not entirely, but to a large degree) for many of its behaviors to be instinctual or otherwise genetically programmed into us.

Third, because compassion is a fundamental trait of life, and to reduce it to a mere evolutionary mechanism is to snuff out magic and beauty in your own mind, and also in the minds of anyone who believes you. Humans feel compassion not only for other humans, but also for other animals. And many other animals have been known to perform acts of compassion—sometimes brave ones—not only for members of their own species, but also for members of other species.

Similarly, many animals have been known to engage in play, and scientists have been hard-pressed to think up a likely evolutionary cause for this. It’s because play is a fundamental activity of life qua life—perhaps all life ever does, while the more boring and arduous activities of life are forms of play that are only engaged by beings such as us and other animals who are stuck in saṃsāra, meaning basically “the cycle of aimless drifting, wandering or mundane existence,” also connected with the cycle of reincarnation, or, in other words, beings who are stuck in māyā, meaning basically illusion.

It’s the biggest tragedy when people allow their rationalism or cynicism to trample on and snuff out that which is beautiful in life.

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