Does altruism exist?

Altruism may be defined as the ‘selfless concern for others’ in association with ‘behaviour that benefits others at personal cost’. Therefore if I donate a pound to a beggar this appears to be an altruistic act. I have made myself poorer in order to benefit the beggar.

But what does it actually take for an act of apparent kindness to be rightfully considered as an altruistic act, and are such acts even possible? Does altruism really exist?


The fact is that by donating the pound to the beggar I may have saved myself from the guilt of not donating the pound. Outwardly it might seem that I am kind-hearted and willing to act against my own self-interest but my deeper motivations may reveal a different story.

The most common refutation of altruism therefore rests on the fact that the potentially altruistic perpetrator is seen to have received an implicit or explicit reward. This is most obviously the case when there is a real chance that the benevolence will be repaid by a reciprocal act sometime in the future. Helping people makes it more likely that they will help you when you need it. But let us now consider the following thought experiment:

A man and an old woman are both left stranded in the desert after a plane crash. There is no possible chance of rescue and they both know that they are going to die, However, in the last moments of life they spot a thermos flask in the wreckage. It contains cold water. There is not enough water to seriously prolong either of their lives, they will still die, but they both crave the water. It will make their last moments more bearable; just a small respite before certain death. Realising that there is not enough water for both of them, the man gives the water to the old woman. She drinks the water and smiles before they both die. (Dyball, 2011)

In these circumstances, with no obvious chance for reward, has the man acted altruistically?

Ian Dyball

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