The notion of altruism is severely hampered by a false dichotomy, which claims that one's actions are either motivated by self-interest or by a kindly will to benefit others without regard to self. This is just silly: if I do things beneficial to others, there are diverse ways that this may turn back to benefit me. If I do something out of a kindly will to benefit others, you can always find some way to show that it benefits me; which you can use to undermine any claim that my action was pure, i.e. without regard to self. I might respond that, none the less, my intent was the kindness and the ultimate benefit to myself played no part in my motivation: but you can fairly retort that my instincts and subconscious motivations influence my intent – and (as I'll illustrate below) that is apt to imply that self-interest is the root cause of my beneficial intent. I here argue that, none the less, even if I pursue my self-interest by it, beneficial intent is still a meaningful thing that it is prudent to foster (at least in others).

The understanding that, ultimately, one's altruistic actions tend to benefit oneself has tended to lead some to a cynical view of altruism: that it is only pursued for self-interest, all appearance of good intent being a sham; or that it is no better than only pursuing self-interest. I acknowledge that much of what is done for the sake of others is in fact done by those cynically intent on gaining favourable reputation for themselves, and often the benefit to others is more apparent than real: but I deny the extrapolation that all good works are likewise cynical – albeit I concede that the harder someone is trying to get you to notice their good works, the more likely it is that their good intent is a sham. I grant that rationally pursuing one's own interests is a decent and proper thing to do, which should not be looked down upon simply because it leaves out of account the interests of others; but I maintain that it is, all the same, worth doing things for the common good even when it's hard to see how it serves one's own interests; and that the common good, as well as one's own self-interest, is generally well-served by encouraging others to look beyond their self-interest and see how they can serve the common good. Most importantly, I wish to counter the cynical dismissal of altruism, since such cynicism (when taken beyond its rational use, as one perspective to be borne in mind when trying to understand what others are doing) undermines the bonds of fellowship with our neighbours, which are a crucial part of what makes it possible for our civilization to function to our benefit.

How generosity benefits those who practice it

In the short term, the beneficiary of my action may be aware of my kindness and consequently chose to repay me: no matter how far in the future that repayment may come, I have gained by my kindness. They may, instead (and, to be honest, I prefer this), be inspired to help others; none the less this benefits me – I'm an other – in so far as they, in turn, inspire others to help yet others. Even when the direct beneficiary of my action is unaware of the help I have given, others may notice me being helpful; these may be influenced to treat me generously as a result; or they may be encouraged, by my example, to be likewise kind to unwitting others (among whom I may be one) in future. As long as someone notices my good deed, I stand to gain at least in reputation: if I'm considered a good person by those about me, I'm more apt than otherwise to be the beneficiary of other folks' good deeds.

Even when no-one (but me) notices my action, if it benefits someone, that's someone who is apt to be feeling happier than they would otherwise have felt: and happy folk are more apt to be kind to others. In a world where networks of friendship link any two people by a chain of (of order) six links, it is not hard to see how inspiring more folk to do well by others – by which they, in turn, are apt to inspire others – tends to make the world I experience more apt to do random acts of kindness to me. Consequently – no matter whether my intent is a calculated attempt to reap these benefits, a random piece of crazy or a genuine effort to be kind to others – it is impossible to draw a line between true altruism and self-interest.

One can take the above reductionist line further by applying evolutionary reasoning. Until relatively recently, pretty much all of my mammalian ancestors inhabited contexts in which those about them were, predominantly, their reasonably close relatives: consequently, any kindness they bestowed on those about them can be attributed to the evolutionary self-interest, formally of their genes, inherent in aiding other individuals carrying mostly the same genes as them. In these terms, my predisposition to do kind things for random strangers is really a predisposition to do kind things for likely relatives; it's playing out in a novel socio-cultural context in which abnormally many of the random strangers I encounter aren't close relatives, but it's still an evolutionary adaptation whose function is to benefit my close relatives – the fact that it happens to benefit unrelated strangers is just a transient anomally that costs little compared to the benefit, to my close relatives' actual descendants, of tending to do things beneficial to close relatives.

Psychologically, furthermore, I tend to feel better about myself when I do things which are kind to others. Consequently, altruism fosters happiness in those who practice it: and that happiness is both a direct benefit and apt to help the altruist to be more successful in overtly self-interested activities. These circumstances may be features of the culture into which I've been raised, but they are (within this culture) real all the same. Cultures in which folk are so raised can be expected to tend to favour mutually beneficial actions: and this is beneficial for the civilization expressing that culture, so is apt to ensure the spread of such cultures. Consequently, one can ascribe my good works to self-interest under the guise of bolstering my self-respect or ego; and the cultural mechanisms that ensure that works can be ascribed to the natural evolutionary dynamics of cultures.

More rational than we can see

Crucially, most of the above rationales for self-interest to produce altruistic behaviour are long-range: while random acts of kindness to strangers may get me some short-term benefits, they usually only benefit me (or my genes) via statistical and long-term effects. Those who are kind to those about them tend (or, at least, tended – throughout most of the history of my ancestry) to be being kind to close relatives. Those who inflict random kindness on those about them tend to find themselves living in generous cultures. These benefits are only tendencies and their effects tend to only work across time-scales comparable with and greater than the individual human life-span. All the same, they are real effects: it is rational to do the generous thing for the sake of the long term advantage, even though it may only by your siblings' grand-children, rather than yourself, who get to benefit from it.

Because the benefits of altruistic behaviour are, generally, long-term and indirect, they are typically nebulous and hard to quantify. Consequently, rational analyses tend to fail to take proper account of them: this is a real failing of the techniques modern western culture's science uses for assessing costs and benefits for the sake of assessing optimal behaviour. Folk internalise the rationales above as instincts and intuitions: we act on these valid reasons without necessarily being aware of them, much less able to articulate them. Consequently, what our best efforts at rational analysis declares to be optimal behaviour may well be defeated by our instincts, intuitions and cultural norms: and, at least some of the time, we are wise to do so, despite our delusions of rationality saying otherwise. The benefits of altruism are no less real, and important, for being hard to quantify.

The complexity of the vast entanglement of humanity's activity implies that, sometimes, there are benefits to one's actions that fall outside our ability to prove the benefits exist; yet those who have faith in the existence of those benefits tend to gain thereby.

Gary Drescher's book Good and Real addresses how we make choices and extends the usual simplistic cost-benefit analyses with a subjunctive reciprocity notion that provides a rational basis for the do as you would be done by maxim; without any appeal to explicit altruism, considerations of strict self-interest lead to altruistic choices, even in some cases where one's actions that cause benefit to others do not cause – nor even can ever cause – benefit to self. As long as the pattern of decision-making that leads you to the decision is one that, were it present in others, would benefit self, he presents reasoning that favours adhering to such a pattern. In practice, much of what folk actually do that is altruistic can be explained as the correct result of a rational decision-making process more sophisticated than most of us can actually follow; we have evolved prejudices in favour of certain ways of making decisions, some of which happen to accord with this process.

Re(de)fining the notion of altruism

Thus it's impossible to objectively say that anyone ever does anything purely for the sake of others. The subjective reality is that the individual doing things for the sake of others is conscious of varying degrees of self-interest and of generous intent. It remains that each of the mechanisms described above, whereby raw self-interest leads to generosity, is something I'm glad to see others engage in: what is important to me, when someone else does it, is not that they ultimately gain by their generosity so much as that I (possibly, thanks to the complexities alluded to above, via others) benefit from their tendency towards generosity.

If someone's playing (whether consciously or not) socio-political games under which I'm going to be obligated to repay them for their generosity, that undermines the benefit to me; if this exceeds the benefit, I shalln't view it as altruism; but, when others confer net benefits on those about them, myself included, I see no reason to let the fact that they benefit by it stand in the way of giving them credit for the kindness of their action. Admittedly, if someone is doing things for the general benefit of all but deliberately (and typically covertly) limiting the benefit to others in order to be able to milk some situation for all the personal benefit they can get out of it, I'll tend to see this more in terms of the pursuit of rational self-interest than in terms of altruism.

If we merely leave out, from the definition of altruism, any requirement that the action not benefit the actor, we can simply specify it in terms of the intent of the action being, fundamentally, to benefit others. That such action ultimately tends to benefit the actor may be taken (thanks to the above) as given: and should not be allowed bo detract from the good will we feel towards the actor. After all, it's in my interests to foster, in other folk, such behaviours as are apt to benefit me: and being grateful for their altruism achieves that (self-interested) end, albeit indirectly and nebulously. When your rational self-interest leads you to act in ways conducive to the common weal, I'm just as happy to call it altruistic as when you're unaware of the ways that your actions benefit you (or your genes) – because it's just as beneficial to me that you do it, regardless of your awareness. If we simply stop demanding a needless and meaningless purity, altruism becomes a useful concept.

The purity of acting in the general interest while arranging to gain no benefit to self, if that were possible, has been held up as somehow better than pursuing the common weal with equal vigour while relishing the benefits that flow to oneself therefrom. I consider this a folly. If nothing else, those who pursue rational self-interest by aiming to benefit their neighbours are apt to be better focussed on what is actually effective – because they have their eyes on the real benefits that do accrue from their actions – where those who disdain to partake of the benefits their actions have won for all are all too wont to have misguided notions of what really serves the common good: although their actions may indeed achieve things they consider to be good for others, those others may disagree about the desirability of these effects. While I reserve the right to try to persuade you to revise your opinion, I ultimately respect your judgement on what's good for you, even when I've failed to change your mind: do-gooders all too often fail to extend such respect to those they purport to help, with unwelcome effects, which do-gooders tend to either ignore or somehow blame on others.

So let altruism be understood as acting in ways truly intended to (possibly among other things) promote the common good. When mixed with incompetence it may fail to achieve its ends; when corrupted with misguided notions of what's in the common interest, it may achieve its ends but not the common good; either of these may deprive the altruist of the credit their good intent might have earned, but neither changes the fact of that good intent. Self-serving expectations of reward, or the psychological trickery of internally rewarding oneself, for being virtuous may lead an ego into fake altruism, either consciously or otherwise; which others may mistake for the real thing, but that doesn't change the fact that the good intent was at best a sham, if present at all. Often altruism overlaps with rational self-interest; when the latter choses to act via the common interest, it is no less altruistic for, also, serving the individual interest. (Note, however, that there is a distinction to be drawn between it's in my interests to do that and I'm further encouraged to do it by the realisation that it also serves the common good, which is altruistic, and to obtain my objective I have to do something which happens to benefit others; I care not one whit for that, but I shall let others reap the benefits I must bestow on them to get what I want, which isn't, for all that it's benign.)

Indeed, it is in our self-interest to promote and encourage altruism in one another: and, because it is as much in your interest as mine that I encourage others to be altruistic, and the mechanism by which I thus benefit us is fundamentally by benefitting everyone, it can furthermore be altruistic to promote altruism (as long as the intent to benefit others is present alongside the intent to reap one's own benefits). A culture which embraces this happy harmony is apt to prosper.

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