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 supposedly altruistic act, we wouldn’t do it if there weren’t some incentive, or in other words a reward, for doing it. They see this as a truism pertaining to 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 or at least self-centered 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/serotonin/whatever hit.
First, it’s only an assumption that there’s an expected reward for everything we do and that furthermore that reward necessarily is equal to or outweighs the effort and/or sacrifice put into doing a thing. We don’t really know that. Or maybe it’s true in a sense, but the locus of reward is transpersonal. In other words, it’s only considered a reward given a transpersonal understanding of the dynamic between the benefactor and the beneficiary. That is, it’s only thought of as a reward because one views another’s well-being as just as important as their own, the other’s joy being their joy and the other’s pain being their pain, probably because they recognize their own divine spark in the other, or else just due to a liminal awareness that separation is an illusion and we’re all one. They love the other. An act of love may well entail a sacrifice that outweighs any personal reward we can reason about rationalistically. 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 one has configured themselves, or was already naturally configured, such that doing good for another gives one a dopamine hit is gratuitous and indicates the presence 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. But 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 in a broader arena. 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 unhappiness exists is, again, 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 evolutionary drives and the overall biological dynamic, analogously to how nipples on men provide no direct survival or reproductive 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, it’s my contention that many facets of mind or behavior, such as love and compassion, are likely fundamental traits of life/consciousness itself, and that to reduce those to mere evolutionary mechanism is to snuff out magic and beauty, both in your own mind and in the minds of anyone else who’s influenced by your mechanistic worldview. Consciousness/life existed way before evolution began; it has always existed, and evolution and brains merely harness consciousness/life and its properties, shaping and manipulating it to do its bidding with mechanisms such as, for example, the feelings of pain and pleasure.
If you think about it, it’s mysterious how evolutionary imperatives could possibly impinge on our experience of free will to make us desire to avoid pain or seek pleasure. How does a feeling carry with it inherent intentionality? It’s more intuitive to think that not liking pain and liking pleasure are somehow preexisting, inherent traits of consciousness/life that evolutionary psychology and brains merely make use of.
Also, humans feel compassion not only for other humans, but also for other animals. And many other animals have been known to perform acts of aid—sometimes very brave ones—not only for members of their own species, but also for members of other species. This is somewhat problematic to try to explain away via natural selection, since natural selection as we understand it should only happen on the level of the genepools of individual 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. I propose that It’s actually because play is a baked-in activity of life qua life. Perhaps it’s all life ever really does on the most fundamental level, while the more boring, arduous, and undesirable activities of life are forms of play that are only engaged in by beings such as us and other animals because we’re stuck in saṃsāra, which means basically “the cycle of aimless drifting, wandering or mundane existence,” which is also connected to the cycle of reincarnation; or, in other words, we and the other animals are stuck in māyā, meaning basically “illusion.”
For further reasoning on why consciousness and/or mind is apparently primary, see https://myriachromat.wordpress.com/2020/02/07/why-im-an-idealist/ and https://myriachromat.wordpress.com/2018/04/13/notes-on-science-scientism-mysticism-religion-logic-physicalism-skepticism-etc/#Emergent.
It’s the biggest tragedy when people allow their rationalism or cynicism to trample on and snuff out the realization of beauty in those things that are most beautiful in life.