Does Pure Altruism Exist

Updated July 21, 2021

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Does Pure Altruism Exist essay

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One of the most defining attributes of humanity is the practice of altruism. We experience an innate concern for the welfare of others, this in turn shapes our actions. Humans are seemingly hardwired for altruism. Our practice of altruism goes far beyond what occurs in other species. Psychological altruism, as opposed to biological altruism, requires cognitive abilities that only humans are capable of. From infancy we show a responsiveness to the stress of others. Fearful faces, more than happy or angry ones, illicit the greatest responses in the prefrontal cortex in children as young as few months old.

Humans also have “automatic forms of empathy, and through the use of specialized brain cells (mirror neurons) we are able to gauge another person’s emotions” (Dweck). There has been debate since the beginning of philosophical discussion, as to whether pure altruism can even be possible. Theorists and researchers arguing against this view of altruism, state that these seemingly selfless acts actually reap personal benefits. The selflessness that is parenting and maintaining your immediate community, is done in the interest of protecting your genes or improving one’s own chances of survival. And the very act of altruism comes with extensive personal gratification.

The Problem Statement

Much of the debate against pure altruism is difficult to prove or disprove. Research that focuses on human egoism finds that no act is inherently self-sacrificial. Egoism however provides a frustratingly circular debate; by arguing acts preformed cannot be truly altruistic if the person derives enjoyment from preforming them. Wilson takes issue with several of his contemporary; they have “a way of transmuting altruism into selfishness” (32) to get out of having to explain the evolution of altruism. By this circular reasoning, egoism assumes people act only for personal gratification; and then concludes with people only act altruistically for personal gratification.


To create a research study where researchers can measure characteristics of altruism in children. The biggest area of contention comes from the argument that pure altruism does not exist. The experiment would seek to demonstrate that young children are more attuned to participants that exhibit distress, in the same way that babies focus longer on faces that are fearful. This study will show that another’s apparent distress will motivate the child to help, more than positive prior interactions or a control. If a child is shown to be wanting to help the researcher more if they are experiencing distress vs. neutral interaction or a positive prior interaction, it will suggests their motivation to be completely selfless. By exploring the nature, emotion and motivation of empathic concern; we can better understand why some people are more inclined to be “helpers”.

The Literature Review

Primary trends against innate altruism come from biological altruism and reciprocal altruism. Biological altruism views the act as being primarily selfish. By this definition altruism is little more than an evolutionarily beneficial adaptation, practiced so our genetics are propagated. The attentive rearing of our offspring and caring for our relatives; are actions that are ultimately self-serving. This view however, does little to rationalize scenarios like adoption. For this argument; adoption would actually reduce your biological fitness, as your time is now spent rearing a child who will not pass on your genetic makeup. The reciprocal altruism theory explains that we are most likely to be willing to help those who have helped us. In a community we are more successful, if the group is more successful. Selfishness beats altruism within groups; but in the end the altruistic group will beat the selfish group.

The reciprocal altruism theory fails to address many components of human altruism. Reciprocal interactions triggers high levels of altruistic behavior in response. This however does not prove that altruism is a learned behavior; only that like many behaviors, it can be reinforced. Research involving infants and young children, strongly indicates that they are hardwired for altruism. Infants who paid close attention to fearful faces while showing a strong response in their prefrontal cortex, were far more likely to exhibit altruistic behavior as toddlers. Eisenberg states there “is an inborn predisposition that children possess that make them want to help others” (67). This empathetic ability and desire to act altruistically, seems to be developed and concrete at a very young age.


A hypothesis of “Children Are More Likely to Help if They See Someone Exhibiting Distress” will be proposed. This experiment will involve three groups, each group will contain ten, 3yr old children. Two adult researchers will also be needed; one to observe and one to engage with the children. One group should experience brief, but positive reciprocal play at the meeting, for example rolling the ball back and forth. The other two groups should have a neutral introduction, where the participant researcher was approachable but preoccupied with another task. After introduction all three groups of children will play with a ball nearby.

The room should be comfortable, but no other toys that may overly distract. In all three groups the participant researcher will knock a cup of pencils of the desk they are sitting about 4 minutes after the introduction. In the group with the positive play introduction and one of the neutral introductions, the participant should not show much reaction to the cup spilling over. In the final group of neutral introductions, the participant should pretend to be very distressed about the cup spilling. I believe the findings will prove the hypothesis that children are more likely to help if they see someone exhibiting distress. This demonstrates altruism, as egoism and reciprocal altruism theories would predict the children to be more likely to help, when they had a prior positive interaction with the participant researcher.

Annotated Bibliography

Barragan, Rodolfo C. and Dweck, Carol S. “Rethinking Natural Altruism: Simple Reciprocal Interactions Trigger Children’s Benevolence.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 111, Issue 48, Dec. 2014, p.17071-17074. doi.org/10.137/journal.pbio.2005281

Psychologists Rodolfo Barragan and Carol Dweck conducted an experiment involving toddlers, to prove their hypothesis that altruism has environmental triggers. They set out to show that the results of an earlier study showing toddlers willingness to help strangers, may have been skewed by participants playing with the children prior to the initial study being conducted. The psychologist repeated the experiment with two groups. The first group repeated the earlier study exactly, while the second group eliminated the variable of reciprocal play and engaged in parallel play. In the parallel play group, the experimenter played with their own ball and not with the child. The examiner would then knock a bowl off a table on “accident”. Children who were in the reciprocal play group were three times more likely to help the examiner. The psychologist contends that the social cues of engagement (playing ball) and mutuality predisposed the children to want to help. The results of their experiment may suggest altruistic behavior is more governed more by a child’s interactions, than by their instincts. Despite these findings there might still be evolutionary leanings, i.e. automatic forms of empathy and mirror neurons, toward altruism, states Dweck.

Eisenberg, Nancy. Altruistic Emotion, Cognition, and Behavior. Psychology Press, 2014.

Author and clinical psychiatrist Nancy Eisenberg pulls together years of cognitive research and developmental theories in her book. The focus of the theories represented are centered around the moral development of children. The works of developmental theorist Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg and Eliot Turiel are discussed. The main takeaway from this collection of research is the cognitive processes of young children are inherently different than that of adults. Both adults and children take cues from peer interaction and figures of authority, but children are seemingly hardwired with altruistic traits. A child’s morality is developed and concrete at a very young age. Eisenberg states there “is an inborn predisposition that children possess that make them want to help others.” An example discussed is the likelihood of children being willing to offer assistance when they are told to do something like “clean up”, versus telling them you “need help” cleaning up. When presented with the knowledge that their help is needed, they are much more likely to help.

Grossmann, Tobias, et al. “The Neurodevelopmental Precursors of Altruistic Behavior in Infancy.” PLOS Biology, 2018. Sjournals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.2005281. Accessed 29 Jan. 2019.

Dr. Grossman’s extensive research on altruism in toddlers, shows a strong correlation between the awareness of another’s discomfort by an infant and strong displays of altruism at 1.5yrs. He began by recording an infant’s response to the emotion of fear on another person’s face. The measure of this response was determined by their eye movement while looking at pictures of various emotions. Several months later the children were observed again to examine how altruistically they behaved. Infants who paid close attention to fearful faces, were far more likely to exhibit altruistic behavior as toddlers. Prior research had shown a correlation between early sensitivity to fearful faces and later prosocial behavior. This research demonstrates altruistic characteristics in humans are unequivocally present at the earliest stages in development. “These findings critically advance our understanding of the emergence of altruism in humans by identifying responsiveness to fear in others as an early precursor contributing to variability in prosocial behavior” (Grossmann).

Pedersen, Eric, et al. “The Unresponsive Avenger: More Evidence that Disinterested Third Parties do Not Punish Altruistically.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Vol 147, April 2018.

The research in this experiment is contradictory to the widely held belief that when faced with seeing someone abused humans will intervene; even if the abuse is occurring to a complete stranger. Third party punishment is a person’s propensity to altruistically punish people who act badly towards another person who is unknown to them. As the result of prior experiments conducted, it had become established wisdom that humans will commonly participate in third party punishment. Pedersen and his team found evidence that contradicts this. Their results imply third-party altruistic punishment will only be found under very specific circumstances and real-life events mirroring the positive findings are unlikely to occur in such a manner. “We’ve drastically overestimated the extent to which we think that third parties are willing to intervene on behalf of strangers,” explained Pedersen, lead author and professor of psychology at Boulder. These findings have real world implications in our criminal system where punishment is decided by strangers and for policy makers looking to positively effect community integration and cohesivity.

Wilson, David Sloan. Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others. Yale University Press, 2015.

David Sloan Wilson examines the role of altruistic actions through the lens of the latest developments in evolutionary science. Evolutionary science holds that altruism has such deep roots in human nature because group cooperation promotes the survival of our species. A main equation explored by Wilson shows how a group with more altruists will outcompete groups comprised of selfish individuals. This in turn fosters more altruists in the entire population. Selfishness beats altruism within groups; but in the end the altruistic group will beat the selfish group. If group selection is correct, it follows that humans are fundamentally cooperative and even altruistic. According to Wilson, we could not have gotten to our present level of human cooperation and altruism without competition among groups in which the most successful groups were those that cooperated. Only the groups that were able to control disruptive forces from within could avoid destruction.

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