Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

Is there such a thing as a truly unselfish act?

        Science | Evolution

The Implications of Altruism
Sociologist Emile Durkheim considered altruism a social mechanism that keeps individuals focused on the greater good.
Sociologist Emile Durkheim considered altruism a social mechanism that keeps individuals focused on the greater good.

In his theories concerning morality, French sociologist Emile Durkheim stripped any application of terms like "good" to describe acts of altruism. To Durkheim, altruism existed outside of the individual; it was an external social force prescribed and demanded not for the benefit of any individual, but for the benefit of society -- simply to keep it intact.

Durkheim defined altruism as "the violent and voluntary act of self-destruction for no personal benefit," and "the opposite of rational self-interest" [source: Dubeski]. To the sociologist, behaviors like altruism exist because the needs of the society and the needs of the individual are at odds. Since people perceive the collective group to be more important than the individual, self-sacrificing behavioral concepts, like altruism, are required to keep the individual in line and subservient to the greater good.

Although Durkheim's critics say he jumps to conclusions in his explanation for altruism and morality in general, other anthropologists side with his interpretation. Some consider it an impossibility for society to have developed without the cooperation altruism fosters [source: Logan].

The implication that altruism is an external social mechanism is called social subjectivism, "the notion that truth and morality are creations of the mind of a collective (a group) of people" [source: Capitalism Magazine]. It means that we as a group have managed to create an intangible ideal like altruism and placed a high value on it. People see those who make personal sacrifices for the common good (or for the good of another person) as noble and admirable. If Durkheim and others who share a like mind about altruism are correct, then we have bought into altruism so deeply that our brains have evolved to deliver pleasure to us when we perform selfless acts.

To individualists (or egoists), the concept of altruism as a social fabrication is a dangerous thing. It defies true human nature in the egoists' opinion. "Each man takes responsibility for his own life and happiness and lets others do the same. No one sacrifices himself to others, nor sacrifices others to himself" [source: Strata]. In the eyes of an egoist, altruistic behavior allows people to be exploited by totalitarian governments: "Let us remember that under totalitarianism and state terror no one is accorded the moral right to exist as an end in himself, but must exclusively for particular others … or for a particular vision of society" [source: Dubeski]. Altruism, in this view, is an aspect of subservience, with the added benefit of being duped into feeling good about it.

It seems like we've gone a bit far afield to answer such a seemingly simple question: Is there such a thing as a truly unselfish act? If MRI evidence is accurate, then we have the reward system to contend with. If evolutionists are correct, then we perform altruistic acts in order to ensure the survival of our genes. And if subjectivists are right, then we're altruistic merely because we conform to social standards. So far, the existence for a truly unselfish act isn't looking good.

But there are two silver linings to this dark cloud. Although we are rewarded one way or another by performing an altruistic act, it still remains up to the individual whether or not to perform one. And if helping one another feels good, does that make it any less worthwhile?

For more information on the way your brain works, evolution and other related topics, visit the next page.

More to Explore