The altruism debate discusses whether it is possible to perform actions that are entirely selfless. Like politics, people speak with conviction once they’ve picked a side, but also like politics, it is a debate that will fail to cease because once we pick a side, we end up speaking an entirely different language than our counterparts.

To analyze altruism, let’s use a simple example:

It is raining outside and you are entering a building to seek shelter. You notice that there is someone trailing ten steps behind you also running for the door, and you are left with the decision of whether to hold the door open for them. For this scenario, let’s say you ultimately decided to sacrifice the three seconds of your time to save them the extra effort of having to open the door in the rain.

Is this a selfless act or a selfish act? An equally compelling case can be made for both.

Many will view this scenario (and all scenarios for that matter) at the superficial level that solely looks at outcome. If that is done here, the fact that you sacrificed your time to help the other person is enough evidence to prove that altruism exists. If only the world was that black and white.

Others will look at intent. Is it not entirely possible that you held the door open for your sake? Perhaps you wanted to feel good about yourself when hearing a grateful “thank you” or perhaps you wanted to spare yourself of the potential awkward encounter that would ensue if you were standing beside same person, let’s call him Joe, in the Starbucks line had you let the door shut on his face. If either of these explanations (or any of the million other possible explanations) are the true motivation behind holding the door, should this not be considered a selfish act, as the true reason for holding the door had nothing to do with Joe?

When looking at altruism, I will always look at the intent of the individual, and usually, this intent lies on subconscious level. The problem that then arises, which prevents one from coming to a definite conclusion, is that frequently the individuals themselves can’t even identify the subconscious intent of their actions when given the chance (if you want proof just look at the last comment on my post on critical thinking). So if people are incapable of identifying their own intent, this raises serious obstacles when looking for conclusions via scientific research or friendly debates.

This is where the complexity of the problem sets it. Sure, if you held the door open to feel good about yourself, you are acting out of self-interest, not altruism. But then again, if your definition of an altruistic act doesn’t extend beyond the actual outcome, this doesn’t even matter. Can you see what I mean by how semantics are everything when speaking about altruism?

If this isn’t confusing enough, let me add another dimension. Let’s assume you held the door open to feel good about yourself; why do you feel this way? I.e. what makes you inclined to perform altruistic acts, and by extension, why are some people more inclined to perform altruistic acts than others (at least when looking at outcome)? Surely, many will feel perfectly content with themselves without holding the door open, however, is this “cold” person actually more selfish than their honorable counterpart in this scenario (you) just because they’re not swayed by those subconscious forces? Maybe they’re not as religious or maybe they weren’t socialized in a “giving” environment, so should these facts render this person more selfish and an exception to the rules of altruism? 

Because altruism is a topic dealing with innate instincts, variables arising from differences in socialization do not deserve a seat at the table, i.e. the fact that you can train a person to constantly perform altruistic acts does not mean that humans are capable of acting with no self-interest, it just means these self-benefitting interests are malleable. Perhaps you are trained to feel very guilty when refusing to perform an act helping another person, so you perform altruistic acts to prevent feeling this guilt rather than to help others. Self-interest.

So where am I going with this? My main point here is that there is always a deeper level in this debate as to how far you can go when making your personal definition of an altruistic act. My other point is that when discussing this with another person, the first thing you should do is gauge where they stand in this “spectrum” in order to be able to speak the same language. There will always be people on one end who are simply incapable of analyzing subconscious intent, and there will always be people on the other end of the spectrum who are incapable of empathizing with those who can’t analyze subconscious intent. That is why this debate will never end, but regardless, with this perspective you will at least be able to recognize this to prevent ugly debates from dominating your holiday dinners with family and friends (unless you have a normal family that doesn’t discuss altruism at the table – in that case feel free to forget everything I’ve written).