A discussion at work recently involved our CEO (who has a psychology degree and is generally very knowledgable.. I have a lot of respect for his opinion) stating with great confidence that altruism is impossible, the argument being that an act of kindness is at the very least motivated by making oneself feel better by doing it. That makes an assumption that people are gratified by their act of kindness, but that's a different question. This is about the term itself.

The notion that we can't be kind without expecting reward didn't sit well with me, so I started thinking about it more, and realised I couldn't see past an apparent flaw in the concept.

First: definition. I'd understood it to mean an act of kindness for no reward. Google defines as: "disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others"

My CEO's argument appears to be that it's impossible because (effectively) the act of kindness is the reward, or at least that the feel-good-factor is directly linked to kindness, so there can be no kindness without feeling good. This seems to be generally accepted.

If that's the case, then my own definition phrase becomes "An act of kindness without kindness", which makes no sense.

Google's definition makes it even more clear: "disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others"

"disinterested concern" surely is a contradiction.

At that point, I find it difficult to think further on the subject. The only way I can see it working is if the act of kindness itself is discounted as a reward, in which case altruism becomes entirely possible.

So my question is: Is there an inherent contradiction in the notion of altruism? And if so, where does that leave the arguments about whether it's possible / impossible ?

  • see John Searle re: desire-independent reasons for action: sallyhaslanger.weebly.com/uploads/1/8/2/7/18272031/…
    – MmmHmm
    Nov 1, 2018 at 14:41
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    "disinterested concern" is not a contradiction. "disinterested" in this context means "free from selfish motive", not "not interested".
    – E...
    Nov 1, 2018 at 14:43
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    Virtue is its own reward does not use "reward" in the same sense as win in a lottery. It makes no difference what kinds of feelings one derives from doing "good". Those are second order feelings, altruism refers to the lack of first order selfish gain. And when one starts doing "virtuous" things for the sole purpose of feeling virtuous they cease being virtuous.
    – Conifold
    Nov 1, 2018 at 21:26
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    Many atheists come to this conclusion. For some perspective on the issue you may be interested in Daniel Dennett's work, Darwin's Dangerous Idea is one example.
    – ggcg
    Nov 1, 2018 at 22:14
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    @GettnDer Well, someone has.. (Is the question "is no one gonna mention x?" a contradiction? :)
    – Joachim
    Apr 26, 2019 at 9:12

9 Answers 9


David Sloan Wilson in the introduction to Does altruism exist? raises a similar question about altruism:

Consider, however, that the word "altruism" didn't exist until 1851 when it was coined by the French philosopher Auguste Comte. If people are altruistic, then why doesn't the word (or its equivalent) have a more ancient pedigree?

In the next paragraph he considers "the role altruism plays in religious thought". He describes a conference studying the question of altruism having this result:

According to the conference participants--each an expert scholar on a given religion--this concept is foreign to the imagination of all of the world's major religious traditions.

This suggests that the concept of "altruism" and its opposite, "selfishness", may need to be examined more closely. Neither concept may adequately describe how we relate to each other.

The OP asks:

So my question is: Is there an inherent contradiction in the notion of altruism? And if so, where does that leave the arguments about whether it's possible / impossible ?

If "altruism" does not actually describe how we behave it could be a contradictory concept perhaps viewing us too much as individuals rather than as members of a group. If it is not how we actually behave, it doesn't matter whether the concept is possible or impossible. What would be most useful is to describe better how we actually do relate to each other.


Wilson, D. S. (2015). Does altruism exist?: culture, genes, and the welfare of others. Yale University Press.

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    As defined, even Jesus didn't exercise "altruism": Jesus endured the cross for the joy set before him. (Hebrews 12:2) biblegateway.com/verse/en/Hebrews%2012:2 Nov 1, 2018 at 16:03
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    @elliotsvensson Good quote. It presents a different perspective on Jesus than some may have. Both altruism and selfishness may be terms coming out of a mechanistic worldview where relationships are reduced to atoms (individuals). Nov 1, 2018 at 16:51

Instead of defining a kind or altruistic act in such a way that it can't be accompanied by a good feeling in the person performing the act, it could be better defined as an act whose motivation, or reason wasn't feeling good, even though feeling good might be an incidental side effect, and even if the person knew they would feel good by performing the act. It wasn't the "why", it wasn't the reason that they did it.

You said in your first paragraph that your CEO states that feeling good is in fact always a motivation of an altruistic act, but then to support his point he seems to argue that it's always accompanied by feeling good. As mentioned in my first paragraph, being motivated by feeling good to perform an act vs. feeling good as a consequence of performing an act, are different.

If I give $500 to charity, I might feel good. If I spent that $500 on an activity that I find enjoyable, I might feel better than if I had spent the money on charity. Clearly feeling good wasn't the reason I gave the money to charity (since if it was my motivating reason, I would have spent it on the other activity) despite being a consequence of the kind act. It might not be among any of the reasons that I gave the money to charity. For example, I might hold some ethical beliefs that when taken together imply that I ought to give the $500 to charity, and so I do, and nowhere among these beliefs is mention of my feeling good.

I think the definition of kind or altruistic act, as one whose motivation isn't selfish, is closer to what people actually mean when they use the expression, rather than as meaning an act that (among other things) is unaccompanied by feeling good. So, even if all altruistic acts were accompanied by good feelings in the persons performing the acts, it still wouldn't conflict with this definition.

  • Well, heroine addict does not seek pleasure as well. It does not make an act of consuming heroine altruistic.
    – rus9384
    Nov 7, 2018 at 15:10
  • You're right. My suggested "definition" is unclear (and not even really a definition). What I meant is: perhaps a necessary condition of an altruistic act is that it isn't motivated by feeling good, or pleasure. This is in contrast to the OP's CEO who seems to say that a necessary condition of an altruistic act is that it isn't accompanied by feeling good, or pleasure. As you point out, there must be more to an altruistic act than merely not being motivated by pleasure, otherwise any act that isn't motivated by pleasure would be altruistic. Nov 7, 2018 at 15:42
  • I agree. Perhaps, "reward system" should be renamed to "motivation system". But the infalliably correct position is that everyone is motivated him/herself (of course, it can a response to some external events) through own neuronal activity. And then it all boils down to the definition of pain and pleasure. Are they the only motivators? Modern literature defines them so, so psychological egoism according to this position is infalliably correct as well. And remember, the one who wants to eat tasty food does not really think "I'm doing it to feel better". He just wants and eats if possible.
    – rus9384
    Nov 7, 2018 at 15:57
  • @rus9384 I'm no expert on addiction, but I think you're putting it a bit bluntly, really: I realize the addiction causes the addict to seek out 'fixes' because of the rooted urge it has turned into, but the idea of pleasure it can bring still must be the originator. It might be driven by instinct, but the anticipated outcome is one of satisfaction, right?
    – Joachim
    Apr 26, 2019 at 9:24
  • @Joachim Pleasure is caused by serotonine, opioids, etc. Motivation is caused by dopamine. While the two are often intertwined, they are not the same thing. The addiction per se does not cause the addict to seek out 'fixes'. I.e. a person can be a sex addict, but since sex is quite a safe thing, there is a little, if any, motivation to seek for 'fixes'. Heroine, on the other side, can be easily overdosed and that puts a person under risk, which is the reason to seek for 'fixes'. It's not always the pleasure, it can be pain avoiding or something else. It can even be a result of wrong reason.
    – rus9384
    Apr 27, 2019 at 10:13

We invent terms, so if "altruism" conveys something, then it conveys something.

However, I would like to point out what I consider to be a fascinating counterargument. Arne Naess put forth his concept of the "ecological self." He defined this ecological self as "that which the self relates to." If you see a starving person on the street, and you relate to the hard times they are going through, they are part of your ecological self.

A fascinating side effect of this concept is that altruism starts to look a lot like selfishness with respect to a much wider self. Naess argues in his papers that Mother Theresa was the most selfish person in the world. She only every active in self interest. However, the self she acted from was so wide and all encompassing that it was impossible for her not to support others with her actions.

So in the end it's all just words, but if your CEO argues that all actions are selfish, and you argue that altruistic actions exist, Naess' choice of words suggests that it is possible for both of you to be right.

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    That's an interesing viewpoint ! Its gonna take me a few coffees+ to get my head around that, thanks! Nov 5, 2018 at 9:46

I feel you and your psychologist are missing a vital point. The important question would be that of why we feel good when we perform an act of kindness. This is the question biologists have a problem answering. It almost goes without saying that we receive some benefit from performing acts of kindness but this is not an explanation for altruism.

The obvious answer is empathy. We share in the enjoyment of the benefits received by the person we are helping.

Thus Schopenhauer explains altruism as the breakthrough of a metaphysical truth, which would be the unity of consciousness and our shared identity. His idea is that we are not normally consciously aware of this truth but nevertheless it seeps unbenownst to us into our feelings, emotions and behaviour.

This would tie in with the mystic claim that this shared identity may be verified by a study of consciousness. We need not believe this to see that it would at least be one way to explain altruism, which at present remains a problem in biology. Thus for the mystics helping someone else is helping oneself and is in this sense selfish behaviour.

Thus calling altruism selfish behaviour does not explain it. We would have to explain why we feel pleasure when being helpful to others.

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    "This is the question biologists have a problem answering" ...they do?
    – H Walters
    Nov 1, 2018 at 15:58
  • @HWalters - There is a considerable literature and no consensus. For instance - rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/276/1654/13
    – user20253
    Nov 1, 2018 at 17:29
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    I disagree that they have a problem answering it, but there are schools of thought that have a problem accepting the answer. It is beneficial to our survival as a social species.
    – ggcg
    Nov 1, 2018 at 22:13
  • The Selfish/Immortal gene answers the question of biological altruism.
    – user27745
    Nov 1, 2018 at 22:46
  • @ggog - Then you know the answer and should explain it to the OP. .
    – user20253
    Nov 2, 2018 at 11:04

"Altruism", the word is an invented denotation for an observed phenomenon. As such it couldn't be a contradiction any more than could "fly". The practice, the phenomenon observed, couldn't be a contradiction any more than any manifest object can.

The only possible contradiction could be between the practice and the motive. But the motive is individual and subjective, unlike the phenomenon of Altruism. Therefore whether it is contradictory would need to be evaluated on individual basis. And for that we will need empirical data.

It's understandable from el CEO's background to be inclined to speak to the motives of all, in general. But this is an instance of a _inductive fallacy called a "sweeping generalization": https://www.logicallyfallacious.com/tools/qa/Bo/LogicalFallacies/k69rsPfm/What_is_the_difference_between_hasty_generalization_and_sweeping_generalization

Just consider: to make the statement "altruism is a contradiction" false, you would need only one counter example of a person that act selflessly. Now consider how many people frequently do acts of kindness to their own detriment. And finally think of people who, for example, run repeatedly into a burning building, saving children two at a time, only to eventually collapse of smoke inhalation...

  • Ta for the answer - tis true, but "Triangle with 4 sides" describes a concept which has a contradiction. It;s not observable because it's not possible, but then el CEO argues Altruism isn't possible. So I guess your answer depends on that ? Am I restating your answer there ? Nov 6, 2018 at 13:22
  • @user2808054 Edited answer.
    – christo183
    Nov 7, 2018 at 4:08
  • thanks ! +1. that makes a lot more sense :-) Nov 7, 2018 at 13:47
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    Something this and other answers seem to be overlooking is negative feelings. People don't run into burning buildings saving children in order to feel good about it. But perhaps they do it because they would feel so awful if they refrained from trying to save them. Altruistic behaviour isn't necessarily motivated by wanting to feel good, it can also be motivated by the fear of feeling guilt and regret. Sep 8, 2019 at 1:05

"so there can be no kindness without feeling good"

The flaw is that "feeling good" is being seen through a lens of selfishness. Evil and good divide on the cusp of self-centeredness and selflessness: the non-prioritization of one's self. When an individual overcomes self-centeredness they actually become good. It is a change of attitude, inevitably perceived as making sense; not something done for a feeling of virtue.

"disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others"

""disinterested concern" surely is a contradiction."

Disinterested here means without specific interests. You can be quite detached, yet then there is the situation that presents itself, which has to be dealt with rationally. Perhaps a question is, how far out of your way would you go to stop a daft sheep walking off a cliff?

  • Hi Chris, re the meaning of "feeling good": I meant "feeling happy" rather than feeling good as opposed to evil. The clearer meaning of disinterested still seems like a contraction: Concern for a situaton whithout any feeling about the outcome.. ? then how is one concerned ? Perhaps examples are a good way of clarifying, and your sheep example is pretty good. Kind of altruism so long as it doens't hurt lol Nov 1, 2018 at 16:37

In some eastern traditions Vedanta, Karma Yoga, Buddhism etc. you could define altruism as ego-less love or compassion. These traditions make an emphasis on removing the ego which is the idea of the self as individual and think of the world as a collective consciousness. e.g. "you are me, I'm you, the same consciousness in different places in space and times playing different personalities".

In this case altruism is very possible if you can go beyond your personal ego or individuality. Besides according to these traditions, it's mandatory if you want evolve spiritually because they consider ego an illusion created by the mind that ultimately leads to suffering.

It is said that real love is the one who has no ego or the one which can transcend it. e.g "true love is shown when the lover does the best for the loved one even when that's not the best for their own selfish interest".

The same thing can applied to kindness, e.g. "a musician who plays music not just to entertain others but because the musician also enjoys playing the music for people". Altruism can happen just out of the desire to make a world a better place. To make a difference. Sometimes you feel that you are the one who needs to make the spark hoping that it will start the fire. Sometimes you do things because it's the right thing to do even when you don't feel good about doing them.


The argument appears to be : If an 'act of kindness is at the very least motivated by making oneself feel better by doing it', then it is selfish, aimed at and motivated by self-satisfaction. If it is motivated by self-regard, then it is not motivated by regard for others - and so is not altruistic.

Two comments. An act can be over-determined, motivated both by self-regard - self-satisfaction - and regard for others.

But the main point - second comment - is that even if all (intentional) actions are motivated by self-regard or self-satisfaction there are some actions from which self-satisfaction can be gained only and intrinsically by the self-satisfaction's being directed to another's good. Such actions are altruistic; and they pose no contradiction to the self-satisfaction thesis.

If I love X and pay X's medical bills, X's good is intrinsic to my motivation. If I can only gain self-satisfaction, which motivates all my actions, by serving X's good, then the action of paying X's medical bills is altruistic. Sure, for the sake of argument, all action is motivated by self-satisfaction, or the desire for it, but what makes an action altruistic is the extra consideration that I seek self-satisfaction in a specific way, i.e. by serving X's good; this is not accidental or contingent to my motivation.

Put the point another way; in altruistic action the object is inherently and necessarily another's good. This distinguishes the class of altruistic actions even if one grants (which I don't) that all action is motivated by self-satisfaction, or the desire for it.

  • So if I understand correctly, you're suggetsing discounting the self-satisfaction as a motivation, in which case an act which benefits others without reward (other than that self satisfaction) is altruism? I'd be interested to read the comments on this, but I can get behind that notion. Frankliy, I just like it :-) Apr 29, 2019 at 11:21

I will attempt an answer from an evolutionary perspective. Anything that has evolutionary value is not only possible , but likely to emerge and become real. Altruism is one of those things. For a more general answer, check " The Selfish Gene", by Richard Dawkins. For the way it applies to our species see this link.

Anything with evolutionary value, nature will find a way (reward/punishment "tricks") to internalize it and make it more desirable for the individual, or group. It might take a very long time, and many generations , but it will get there.

You are trying to rationalize this integration process (that nature performs over many generations) of the goals worth pursuing, that an individual might have in his genetic repertoire. Rational behavior as it pertains to a life span is one thing. What is rational, when you take into consideration extended periods of time is a different thing, specially when evolutionary processes are in play. And as long as you think about it, even if you find this notion contradictory, she (mother nature) is happy, her mission has been accomplished. She failed as far as your CEO friend is concerned, but then again, she doesn't want to make an altruist out of every individual in a group, because that would be a much more serious type of failure.

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