Does True altruism exist?

David: When I was at university in the ‘80s, moral sentiment was… All the talk was about altruism and that we find it very difficult. We might be altruistic to someone we’re related to, but that’s about it.

MC: I think what’s the most fascinating aspect of human nature, to me, is the fact that we harbour these benevolent sentiments at the same time as being quite selfish and even malevolent in some situations.
One of my favourite quotes is from Blaise Pascal, who says, ‘Human beings are the glory and the scum of the universe,’ which is just so evocative, right?

And it’s absolutely true: we care a lot about fairness, for example. We’re really motivated to achieve fair outcomes and will even sacrifice personal costs to ensure that outcomes are fair. And this has been shown many times in the lab, and I’m sure you talked a lot about this with Martin [Nowak].

We like to cooperate. We like to cooperate for the sake of cooperating. We like to do good for the sake of doing good. And that’s why you can make people more generous just by reminding them about moral norms. You can also make people more generous by reminding them about their reputation.

So not only do we care about doing good, we know that other people care about that, and so then that gives us a selfish reason to do good. And one of the great debates in the altruism and cooperation literature over the past – well, as long as we’ve been studying it, really – is this question of does ‘true’ altruism exist? Are people willing to sacrifice themselves to help someone else, even maybe a stranger, for the sake of that other person? Or does it all come down to selfish value? And I don’t think that question has been fully resolved, yet. But there are certainly hints of evidence that we do genuinely value the welfare of others for its own sake, and not for the sake of what it can bring to us.

David: I’m amazed to hear you say, ‘we haven’t answered that question fully.’ I would have though when you say ‘we’, do you mean academics?

MC: Yes.

David: Because the rest of the world… There’s about several thousand years of clear evidence, surely. I mean, I don’t see that it’s a question. Yes, people do. They’re willing to be completely unselfish.

MC: Of course they are, behaviourally, but the unresolved question, in my mind, is, when I help someone, am I helping them because I truly care about them? Or am I helping them because it feels good to me?

Ard: Yeah. Scratch an altruist, watch a hypocrite bleed, right?

David: But when you when you say, ‘It feels good to me…’

MC: It feels good, yeah.

David: Would that…? I mean, if you’re standing by the side of the road and a child who you’ve never met trips and is going to be hit by the bus, and you reach in, and you risk life and limb, but you pull them back. You didn’t have time to think, ‘Now, am I related to them?’ And, ‘are there a lot of people watching?’

MC: Of course.

David: ‘Will people clap?’ You just did it.

MC: Yeah.

David: Now, is that being hypocritical or selfish, or is that just doing it? Is that the moral sentiment just making you do something good?

MC: Yeah, it’s making you do something good.

David: So there’s no question then, surely?

MC: So again the debate is not about whether people do good.

David: No.

MC: Even really, really profound heroic acts, like risking your life to save a stranger, people do do this, of course. There’s no argument about that. The question in academic research – which might be the kind of question which only academics who think about this all the time care about – is the question of, what is the motivation? And I think your point is a good one, which is to say that maybe a lot of these more selfish kinds of motivations actually take some time to compute.

There’s research by David Rand, who went into the narrative accounts of people who won the Carnegie Medal for heroism. (So these are people who have risked their lives to save a stranger), and he went in and he analysed the narratives of these experiences and looked for language indicating whether people thought about it or whether they just did it impulsively, and overwhelmingly the evidence shows that people are not deliberating in these kinds of situations, which is, I think, pretty good evidence for a pure, altruistic motive. But it’s not the smoking gun. I think we would we would need to be very clever in order to find that smoking gun.