What’s So Bad About Feeling Good? A discussion of altruism, selfishness, and morality

I think most people believe that the world would be a better place if more people acted altruistically. Rather than focusing on trying to improve their own life, people should think about what they can do to help others. But the more I think about it, the less confident I am that an altruistic society is really something we should strive for.

Let’s take an example. Two people are contemplating volunteering at a center for homeless children. Person A absolutely hates their time there, but they know that the kids benefit, so they reduce their own well being out of a sense of moral duty and do it anyway. For person B, spending time with the kids is the highlight of their week. They know that they are helping the kids, but their primary motivation comes from having fun themselves.

Two questions come out of this example. First, can we really say that either person is acting selflessly? Although initially it would appear that at least person A is selfless, are they really acting against their own interest? Sure they don’t enjoy the time they spend volunteering, but if it makes them feel better about themselves, isn’t that as selfish a motivation as any other? As I discussed in my post on rationality, to an economist selfishness means nothing more than choosing the path that maximizes total (expected) happiness for a person. Person A values being a moral person and even if it comes with a short-term cost, they are willing to bear that cost because the benefit (being free of guilt, reputation, getting into heaven, the knowledge that they did something good, etc.) is even higher.

An even more interesting question comes when we try to evaluate which of the two people is more altruistic. I think it is natural to assume that altruism requires some amount of sacrifice. Even though the end result in the above example is the same – the kids are happy in either case – person B is just satisfying their own desires. How can they be altruistic? And I think that intuition is correct. If we want to make a meaningful distinction between altruism and selfishness, altruism needs to include some kind of sacrifice. If I act without thinking of others, my actions cannot be altruistic even if they coincidentally end up helping others. An entrepreneur that invents a cure for cancer in order to sell it isn’t altruistic even though they save the lives of millions of people. On the other hand, if I actively try to improve the lives of others even when I know it will hurt my happiness in the short run, we can call those truly altruistic actions.

But this definition of altruism makes it difficult to see the appeal of an altruistic society. Is a society where people help others only out of some sense of obligation, where I give only to satisfy some moral code, truly better than one where people love to give away? Would you want to live in a world full of people who act altruistically, constantly sacrificing their own well-being in order to improve the well-being of others? Or would you rather live somewhere where people act to make themselves happy, but their happiness comes directly from helping others?

Of course, the above dichotomy excludes a third outcome, one where everybody acts for themselves at the expense of others. Most would agree that this is by far the worst of the three societies. I definitely agree that our goal should be to avoid this result. The way to do that, however, doesn’t have to come from laws. It doesn’t have to come from religion. It doesn’t have to come from duty or obligation. Forcing people to do good might be effective, but wouldn’t it be a better society when people want to do good?

Fortunately, I think humans have evolved in such a way where we do feel good when we help others. Most of life’s best experiences come from our relationships with others. Love. Friendship. Family. Trust. Gratitude. Respect. Those feelings are some of the most valuable pieces of a happy life. They are impossible to achieve without other people. Someone might be able to get ahead in a purely materialistic sense by seeing their own well-being as their only concern. They’ll get more wealth. More fame. But not more happiness. The best way to get people to act selflessly is to make them aware of the fact that helping others is the best way to help themselves.

An altruistic society consists of a bunch of unhappy people doing their best to make other people feel happy. They help others despite the fact that it makes them feel bad. An ideal society, in my opinion, is one where people help others because it makes them feel good.