Sunday, December 4, 2011

Does altruism matter?

The other day on the subway, I gave up my seat for an older woman. Afterwards, I thought about why I had done it. Some was out of what you might call altruism, an actual concern that her feet probably hurt more than mine did. Some was to maintain my community as one I want to live in. When I'm pregnant or old, I want people to give me seats, so I'd better do the same for such people now. And some was because I want people to see me as a good person, the kind of person who gives seats to old ladies.

Some people like to analyze whether altruism is real. "Aha," they say, "there's no such thing as pure altruism! You're really doing it out of selfishness!" The woman who got my seat on the subway doesn't care.

You can help other people because you think it's morally right, or because it feels good, or for the tax break, or to impress your friends. The result is the same. Do it for whatever reason works for you.


  1. There seem to be some social norms against being public about how much you give. Probably these norms make it harder for the tendency to spread? And they probably come from this notion you're addressing, that giving 'should' be 'truly altruistic."

  2. There's the Biblical injunction to give secretly, which I think still affects people's thinking on the topic. I have an "ugh" reaction to really overt signaling about this stuff - say, having a building named after yourself. But I think being open about giving has an overall good effect.