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Critically evaluate the extent to which human altruism exists.

The question asks you to critically evaluate a statement or assumption. The word criticise indicates that you should make a judgement backed by a reasoned discussion of the evidence involved and describe the merit of psychological theories discussed. The word evaluate indicates that you need to consider how valid or effective different explanations of altruistic and non-altruistic behaviour are – what are the strengths and weaknesses? Do remember that you are not being asked to offer your personal opinion; you will need to provide evidence from psychological theories and research to support your position.

The content words for Option A are ‘the extent to which human altruism exists’. This means that you need to consider motivations for helping behaviour, focusing on the extent to which people help selflessly.

You will need to make a judgement, based on academic research and theory, about whether people can act altruistically, i.e. whether or not helping behaviour can be motivated by selfless rather than self-interested or egoistic reasons. For example, you will know from your reading that a number of psychological studies have attempted to identify when and why people help others. Can people be motivated to help for purely altruistic reasons, or do they get something out of helping that serves their own needs and interests?

The Empathy-Altruism Theory

“It is far better to endure patiently a smart which nobody feels but yourself, than to commit a hasty action whose evil consequences will extend to all connected with you.” 

The above quoted lines of the famous British author Charlotte Brontë from her novel “Jane Eyre” gives a pertinent insight into the concept of altruism. The term altruism can be defined as the “principle or practice of concern for the welfare of others” (Boorman and Levitt 2012). Therefore, this concept is often called by the name of “selflessness” (Boorman and Levitt 2012). It is interesting to note that term was originally coined by “Auguste Comte”, a French philosopher as an “antonym of egoism” (DellaVigna, List and Malmendier 2012). The concept of altruism has been a topic of much discussion in the present times and it would be fair to say that the concept has undergone much transformation in the present times (DellaVigna, List and Malmendier 2012). It is significant to note that in the present world of individualism where the primary focus of the people is on the achievement of the personal goals as well as objectives the concept of altruism has somewhat lost its earlier sheen (Saroglou 2013). This paper intends to analyze whether the individuals care more about themselves than they care about the other people.

In the opinion of Jack Kerouac articulated in his famous book “The Portable Jack Kerouac” “Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now”.  It is significant to note that in most of the religions of the world and philosophies the concept of altruism finds an important place (Saroglou 2013). In the opinion of many people there is an inherent desire in all the human beings to do go or an act which is likely to bring about a certain amount of significant change in the lives of the other individuals (Wilson 2015). This inherent desire of the individuals to do a certain amount of good or welfare for others finds a pertinent reflection in the various precepts of “The empathy-altruism theory” of Batson which was propounded by him in the year 1981 (Wilson 2015). According to this particular theory, “some helpful actions are truly altruistic because they are motivated by the genuine desire to increase another’s welfare” (Wilson 2015). Moreover, this particular theory also takes into consideration the emotions involved in the process as well as the situation in which the person is involved and these two factors determine the fact whether the person is going to do the altruistic activity or not (Wilson 2015). Batson considers the concept of empathy as one of the major factors which influences the person concerned to do the deed that is likely to benefit another person (Boehm 2012). Therefore he says that “Observing another person’s situation may either produce empathic concern (i.e. positive emotions like sympathy or compassion) or personal distress (i.e. negative emotions)” and it is to relieve this particular situation of the other person that the individual indulges in the act (Wilson 2015). The “Kin Selection Theory” of Hamilton propounded in the year 1983, on the other hand, states that the individuals are more likely to help others who are directly in relation to them like their family or immediate kin members (Batson et al. 2016). Therefore, it can be said that as per the precepts of this particular theory the individuals care more about themselves as well as their near relatives or kin than the other people who are not related to them directly (Batson et al. 2016).

The Kin Selection Theory

The article “Person-Oriented Conception of Happiness: Between Freud, Jung and Maslow” written by Levit and published in the journal “International Journal of Economy, Management and Social Sciences” in the year 2013 offers an overview of the concept of altruism and the opinion of the famous personnels like Freud, Jung and Maslow on this particular topic. In the opinion of the psychologist Sigmund Freud there is an inherent motive behind all the activities of the human beings and they normally indulge in the various altruistic for the satisfaction of their “id” as well as “ego” (Levit 2013). Thus, in the opinion of Freud there is an inherent motive behind all the good deeds done by the individuals. The psychologist Carl Jung, on the other hand, takes the views articulated by Freud a step further and says that the basic fulcrum of the all the altruistic activities of the human beings lies in the portray of a positive or a benevolent image of their persona to themselves (Levit 2013). In the opinion of the theorist Maslow, on the other hand, the primary goal or the objective of all the human beings is the attainment of the stage of individual self-actualization as their ultimate aim in life (Levit 2013). Therefore, the activities which they perform are solely motivated by the desire to attain the level of self-actualization and not for doing deeds which are beneficial to other people.

The article “Theories of human altruism: A systematic review”, on the other hand, written by the authors “Feigin, Owens and Goodyear-Smith” and published in the journal “Annals of Neuroscience and Psychology” in the year 2014 provides an overview of the various theories related to the concept of altruism (Feigin, Owens and Goodyear-Smith 2014). The primary goal of this article was to “summarize the social psychological literature on theories of altruism in humans from 1960 to 2014” (Feigin, Owens and Goodyear-Smith 2014). Furthermore, the article also provides an overview of the concept of altruism and the various interpretations of the theories propounded by the diverse theorists. It is significant to note that most of these theories focus on the personal motive of the various individuals for the various acts of altruism which they perform. In the opinion of the authors altruism is “an intentional and voluntary act performed to benefit another person as the primary motivation and either without a conscious expectation of reward (altruistic approach) or with the conscious or unconscious expectation of reward (pseudo-altruistic approach)” (Feigin, Owens and Goodyear-Smith 2014). However, they also point out the fact that the concept has undergone much transformation in the recent times on the score of various factors. The authors more particularly focus on the role of the human ego and its impact on the various altruistic activities of the human beings. However, the major focus of these authors is on the personal motives of the individuals concerned.

In the opinion of Kahlil Gibran, “I slept and I dreamed that life is all joy. I woke and I saw that life is all service. I served and I saw that service is joy”. Furthermore, the opinion of Richard Dawkins articulated in his famous work “The Selfish Gene” is significant to note in this particular context when he says “Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do”. Thus, it can be said that the various theories related to the concept try to justify the various altruistic activities of the various human beings on the diverse precepts of morality, justness, righteousness, empathy and other concepts (Batson 2014). However, most of the theorists are of the opinion that there is a hidden motive behind the various altruistic activities of the human beings like the satisfaction of the ego and the id and others. Therefore, it can be said that various individual activities of the human beings are motivated by personal needs and not out of their desire to do benevolent activities (Singer 2015). However, the opinion of Ayn Rand articulated in the work “The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought” is significant to note in this particular context “Altruism holds that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only moral justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty. The political expression of altruism is collectivism or statism, which holds that man's life and work belong to the state….the state may dispose of him in any way it pleases for the sake of whatever it deems to be its own tribal, collective good”.

To conclude, the concept of altruism has been a part of the society for a very long time and in the recent times it has undergone much transformation due to the change in the nature of the human psychology and also the change in the nature of the human society. Therefore, it can be said that most of the human activities in the present times are motivated to do personal good rather than to do good for the other individuals. The various theories propounded by the diverse theorists as well as the psychologists point out the same fact that behind every altruistic activity committed by the various individuals there is a hidden motive be it the psychological satisfaction of the ego and the id or the other kinds of gains or benefits.

References

Batson, C.D., 2014. The altruism question: Toward a social-psychological answer. Psychology Press.

Batson, C.D., Ahmad, N., Lishner, D.A. and Tsang, J., 2016. Empathy and altruism. Oxford handbook of hypo-egoic phenomena: Theory and research on the quiet ego, pp.161-174.

Boehm, C., 2012. Moral origins: The evolution of virtue, altruism, and shame. Soft Skull Press.

Boorman, S. and Levitt, P.R., 2012. The genetics of altruism. Elsevier.

DellaVigna, S., List, J.A. and Malmendier, U., 2012. Testing for altruism and social pressure in charitable giving. The quarterly journal of economics, 127(1), pp.1-56.

Feigin, S., Owens, G. and Goodyear-Smith, F., 2014. Theories of human altruism: A systematic review. Annals of Neuroscience and Psychology, 1(1), pp.1-9.

Levit, L.Z., 2013. Person-Oriented Conception of Happiness: Between Freud, Jung and Maslow. International Journal of Economy, Management and Social Sciences, 2(8), pp.576-584.

Saroglou, V., 2013. Religion, spirituality, and altruism. APA handbook of psychology, religion and spirituality, 1, pp.439-457.

Singer, P., 2015. The most good you can do: How effective altruism is changing ideas about living ethically. Text Publishing.

Wilson, D.S., 2015. Does altruism exist?: culture, genes, and the welfare of others. Yale University Press.

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