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The essential nature of human action has been one important issue that scientists and philosophers have been keen to determine. The question on whether or not true altruism exists is by far and large, theoretical and abstract. In order to answer this question, it is imperative to note that an individual understands whether certain actions of an individual are aimed at personal gain, are egoistic and driven by human motives or are simple and genuinely selfless.
Altruism, which refers to the act of unselfishly offering help to others, is a commonplace behavior among many philanthropists who apparently offer helping hand, put their lives at risk and donate charities without ulterior motives. However, a section of social psychologists argue that there might be other factors motivating the actions of philanthropists. This essay will examine and pose the fundamental question on whether true altruism exists.
As Daniel Batson argues in the article “Taking Sides Clashing Views in Social Psychology” (2006), the force behind altruistic behavior by an individual who offer help to others is termed as empathy (Nier, 2006). It is what causes one person to feel the intrinsic experience of another person. This is evident especially if another person is in a troublesome situation. It is this feeling, as Batson further explains, that provokes altruistic reasons which are considered to be genuine concerns for helping others.
It is imperative to note that reducing or ending another person’s distress is an end-state goal of a truly altruistic behavior. It is driven by a feeling of empathy and not by an instrumental response that has been caused by ego. Research studies indicate that distinguishing the motivational concepts between altruism and egoism is difficult. However, Batson provides a clear contrast that enables individuals to appreciate true altruism.
Additionally, true altruism focuses only on behavior and not motivation. An egoistic person offering help is motivated by personal gains such as the desire to avoid pain, shame and guilt, or for self-esteem, to receive praise or material rewards. On the contrary, true altruism is concerned with increasing the welfare of others as an end-state goal of offering help. This forms a clear contrast between altruism and egoism.
In true altruism, the end-state goal of a philanthropist demonstrates unselfish desire towards increasing the welfare of others. Since it is not egoistically motivated, the response given to helping others is not instrumental and intermediate towards an agent’s own good. Based on some of the observations made by Batson and his colleagues, even though relief or personal satisfaction may be felt by a philanthropist after offering help, the goal of altruistic behavior is purely unselfish concern.
As already mentioned, philanthropists demonstrate unselfish interests in their bid to lend a helping hand to others. However, some social psychologists have taken keen interest in determining factors motivating behaviors of philanthropists. In most instances, it becomes difficult to determine the motives behind human actions.
According to Robert Cialdini in “Taking Sides Clashing Views in Social Psychology” (2006), individuals helping others do it with intention of avoiding the feeling of shame, guilt and other related negative feelings (Nier, 2006). He argues that the suffering of others usually causes philanthropists to feel distressed.
Based on this case and countering Batson’s argument, he claims that the distress in a philanthropist will prompt a reaction not fully aimed at helping the suffering individual but to reduce the distress philanthropist is experiencing. In this sense, the motivation will not only be aiming at helping the suffering individual, but also to increase the welfare of the philanthropist. Therefore, this will not be true altruism.
Additionally, most philanthropists feel uneasy as they helplessly watch others suffer (Nier, 2006). To get satisfaction, they offer help or put their lives at risk for others. Caldini refers to this action of offering help by a philanthropist intending to come out of distress and sadness as a negative state relief action. This term springs from the fact that the helping behavior of a philanthropist is driven by other factors besides altruism.
Research studies have indicated that the help that a great percentage of individuals give to others do not fully come from purely altruistic reasons. In the article “Taking Sides Clashing Views in Social Psychology” (2006), Caldini points out that it is a fact that most people, rather than reducing the distress of others, offer help just to relieve themselves from feeling distressed by the sufferings of others (Nier, 2006).
Grief, fear, disgust or shock of knowing about another person suffering causes an empathic emotion and desire to use an intermediate means to save self. This takes away the existence of true altruism since in the process of reducing self-distress; an individual will have reduced an equal distress of a suffering person.
It is definite that true altruism exists. While it may be an illusion to others, those caught in its web fully agree that it exists. According to Batson, the denial of egoism is altruism. Most individuals act purely and intentionally to benefit others. Even though egoism possesses some powerful lure over the weak doctrine of true altruism, it does not eliminate the fact that individuals can act altruistically.
For instance, a person can forsake a comfortable life to live in a hard and remote place in order to take care of HIV/AIDS patients. The self-sacrifice made by such a person will be for the welfare of the aforementioned patients and not merely for self-satisfaction.
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Nier, A. J. (2006). Taking sides clashing views in social psychology. Washington DC: McGraw Hill.