Brief thought exercise: Is pure/true altruism even possible?

Issues of altruism and fairness and ego have been at the forefront of a lot of social science / psychology for years, and there’s been numerous articles smarter than this one on the topic of “true altruism” — see here, here and here for examples. The central argument is fairly basic: if you do something good for someone else, but you receive something in return — i.e. a feeling of gratification — is that truly altruistic? Or is the debate around the expectation of the outcome from what you did? If you act in a way that benefits others but you always get something in return, then does the idea of altruism even exist at all?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently for different reasons — part job search, part having time on my hands — and I’m not actually sure anymore that people ever do things for a wholly true reason (i.e. to benefit others, or some less-advantaged group). I may have gotten bitter as I got older, but I just haven’t seen many examples in my own life of people doing things solely for the benefit of others, with no expectation of a reaped return. Jane Goodall once said that we still have a long way to go to realize our human potential for love, compassion and altruism. Would you agree? Do you think altruism in its purest form can actually exist in human beings — and do you think the current socially-connected world, where seemingly everything from a picture of a pint glass to a wedding photo can be an opportunity for self-sharing, has actually lessened the presence of real altruism?

Leave comments if you have any thoughts. It’s just something I’m interested in.

Ted Bauer


  1. For me it comes down to intent and expectations. When people give money and service in church related activities they trust in the church to distribute those things to those that deserve and need them. At work people draw a fine line between altruism and reciprocity. Someone may have the potential to solve problems but choose not to because they never receive an incentive for doing so. Workers expect reciprocity in the form of growth. Workers are not altruistic. Some programs such as “good idea” programs exist to capture those moments but without proper rewards, these programs are frivolous.

    The problem may also be in perspective. True altruism requires zero gratification or reward. When a recipient of church aid receives aid, the recipient does not praise or thank the donor directly so the donor is altruistic in that relationship. Church members can praise donors lessening the altruistic magnitude.

    In community service, church patrons can praise the hard work or perseverance of donors but not praise the outcome. “Thanks for your hard work” versus “Thanks for coming out to feed the homeless.” The recipient of praise may also receive the compliment in the wrong mindset as praise for outcome rather than act.

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