How Altruism Works


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Should Know from HowStuffWorks.com.

Josh Clark: Hi, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Josh Clark, a staff writer here at HowStuffWorks.com. With me is trusty editrix Candace Gibson. Candace, what are we talking about today?

Candace Gibson: The question is, "Is there such a thing as a truly unselfish act."

Josh Clark: What do you think? Is there?

Candace Gibson: I don't know. I'm sort of on the fence about this one. But one of my favorite sitcoms of all time, Friends, had an episode in which they sought to answer the question. And this episode was called, "The one where Phoebe hates PBS."

Josh Clark: Season five, I remember.

Candace Gibson: Exactly. And just to bring you up to speed, she had just given birth to her brother's triplets. And Joey said that wasn't really an unselfish thing to do because it made her feel so good. So she sets out to find something that is good for someone else but not good for her in any way and she stumped. And finally she decides to let a bee sting her because it will help the bee look cool in front of his bee friends.

Josh Clark: But that didn't work, though, right?

Candace Gibson: No because the bee died.

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Candace Gibson: So finally, towards the end of the show, she decides that she is going to make a pledge to PBS and Joey is taking pledges. And when he receives Phoebe's, he actually gets to be on TV, and that does something good for him and the plan is foiled because Phoebe feels great.

Josh Clark: So her altruistic act is ruined.

Candace Gibson: No. In a span of about what, a 30 minute sitcom, that question couldn't be answered, but there have been some deeper perspectives throughout the centuries.

Josh Clark: Yeah, and I'm sure you already know this, but what Phoebe and Joey were engaged in is a centuries old philosophical debate. Is there such a thing as a truly unselfish act or an altruistic act? We should probably define that real quick. Altruism is performing some self-sacrificing act for the benefit of another person. Clear enough, I don't think we'd be even having this discussion if that was it. But there's one caveat to that, which was posed by philosopher Immanuel Kant Cont who liked to shake things up. And that was that the person performing the unselfish act can't get anything out of it.

Candace Gibson: And we're not just talking about tangible things. We're talking about the intangible warm fuzzies.

Josh Clark: Sure. Now this has already been shown to actually have an effect on us humans, these warm fuzzies you just described. And using MRI machines, we've seen that by, at least donating to charity, the pleasure center, the reward center in our brain sets off a flow of endorphins and we feel just as good giving out money as we do receiving money. So clearly, there are warm fuzzies, which kind of supports Kant's idea that there is no such thing as an altruistic act. But so too, does evolution, right?

Candace Gibson: Yeah. In the natural world, there's also a couple of perspectives on this. And we look at something from the flora side. We have a tree. And when the tree sheds its leaves in the fall, essentially what it's doing is its providing a cushion of warmth to protect its roots throughout the winter so that it can regenerate again when there's' warmer weather. So it's propagating itself for future generations. And you could say that the same holds true for a mother who protects her child in the face of adversity, too. She's also trying to protect her lineage. But again, both of these things, the tree and the mother, they get something in return. The tree gets a longer life. The mother gets the love and loyalty of her child.

Josh Clark: Well let me as you this. What happens if the mother sees her child in the street about to be hit by an 18 wheeler, runs out, pushes her child out of the way and is hit herself, she's not getting anything out of that, is she?

Candace Gibson: Well I don't know. I guess at that point, you're sort of tapping into religion and storing up good deeds for the after life and final judgment, aren't you?

Josh Clark: I guess so. That's one way to look at it, sure.

Candace Gibson: That might be a question for another day, though and we have to talk about Josh's favorite philosopher, Emile Durkheim.

Josh Clark: Durkheim, he was a pretty heady fellow. He had the impression that altruism was merely a social construct that was used to control people. It basically, if we just all went around stabbing one another because we needed money, rather than just going out and working for it or borrowing it, society would fall apart. To Durkheim, one of the things we have to have to function as a society is something like altruism, self-sacrifice for the greater good. But Durkheim's view kind of makes us all look a little bit like dopes, actually, like we're performing all these self-sacrificial acts. And under his view, the person who's benefitting from it isn't really benefitting from it. It's really all for society, which is about as depressing a view of altruism as can be. So clearly, once again, the philosophers, sociologists and evolutionists have really screwed up the warm fuzzies, haven't they?

Candace Gibson: They really have. They're trying to take the heart out of the issue. But at the end of the day, it's all the same. If you do something nice for someone else and you happen to feel good in return, I don't think there's anything wrong with that at all.

Josh Clark: I think I agree with you, actually. Well Candace and I are going to go not stab anyone for money, so we'll be performing our own altruistic acts. Be sure to read, "Is there such a thing as a truly unselfish act," on HowStuffWorks.com.Announcer: For more on this and thousands of other topics, visit HowStuffWorks.com.