Altruism doesn't exist, but that's a good thing!

I've been looking for a nice way to word this, but there's really isn't any way to say it nicely. Altruism doesn't exist. Some people will already agree with me here, others will automatically be offended. Allow me to explain why altruism doesn't exist, why that's a good thing, and how this knowledge can benefit you.

Another confusing definition

First of all, let's define altruism, as that will clear up half of the confusion in discussions on this topic.

This is what Google says when you ask it to 'define altruism'.

Altruism: disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.


Pure altruism consists of sacrificing something for someone other than the self (e.g. sacrificing time, energy or possessions) with no expectation of any compensation or benefits, either direct, or indirect (e.g., receiving recognition for the act of giving).

For the sake of argument, it's important to include in the definition that in true altruism, there is no expectation of any compensation. In what follows, I will use Wikipedia's definition because it is more specific. Note that these two definitions are not mutually exclusive, wikipedia just goes into further detail.

It's small, but it's there.

The reason I argue that there is no such thing as true altruism, is that you will always expect a compensation. You won't necessarily expect a compensation consciously, but our bodies have evolved to expect a compensation down to the biological level. The nice feeling you get after an act of 'altruism' is a compensation. Even if there's nothing more, at some level, you definitely expected that feeling.

It is of course possible to perform an act of selflessness without expecting or wanting external compensation. One could argue that such an act is rare, but that is not the topic of this post. I could agree that altruism exists if we exclude the expectation of internal compensation from the definition, but that is also not relevant to this discussion at this point.

Even if you still believe that pure altruism exists, I hope that we can agree that it is rare and that, for all practical purposes, we can assume that people are generally egoistic. By egoistic, I here mean that they will value their own benefits above others' (except perhaps in the case of their children). This too, is evolutionary advantageous.

Wait, that is a good thing?

Years ago, at school, one of my more cynical teachers said the following:

If everyone would think of themselves, everyone would be thought of.

Of course, this sounded so cynical at the time that most of simply chuckled and went on with their respective thoughts. I'm quite sure this was indeed intended as a joke. Surely humanity would not benefit from people who only valued their own goals, ... or would it?

I am convinced that valueing your own goals, above anyone else's, can be of immense benefit to everyone else, especially if that were socially accepted. Before you stop reading, I ask you to allow me to explain what I call 'intelligent egoism' as opposed to 'blind egoism'.


The first reason this way of thinking would be beneficial, is that people would become more predictable. Predictability is a great part of trust, as well as clear communication.

If people valued their own goals, they would not solely rely on others to reach their own goals. If you could rely on the fact that people don't simply expect that you fulfil their goals for them, that would make them more predictable.

Predictability also allows for more efficient communication. As long as goals are clear, you could rely on logical actions from any other party to plan your own actions.

No mutual exclusion

The offence that some people take from my teacher's quote stems from the assumption that personal goals, as well as the path to them, are mutually exclusive or even opposite. While it is indeed possible that two people's respective goals are complete opposites - even though I argue that such a situation is rare - it as almost always possible to align the paths to the respective personal goals. This argument definitely requires an example. I will give a rather trivial and concrete example, but once it is clear, it will be very easy to abstract that idea to a more general situation.

Suppose Fred's life's goal is to become rich. Fred will have to find a way to make money. Fred finds out that he has a knack for communicating with people. Fred has studied communication at his local university and is currently a communication trainer for a big company. Now, his original goal was to make money, but Fred figured that in order to make money, he must generate value using his personal skills. He therefore has to be good at his job and sets himself a new sub-goal to be a great communication trainer. In return, Fred is paid for his services.

Now, let's look at John. John has always wanted to be a great leader. He started to work at a big company last month, and is now a low ranked manager. John struggles to work his way up the corporate ladder to become a chief executive. One day, he realises that his lack of communication skill are preventing him from doing so. John then goes on to find the company's communication trainer. He pays for the communication training and becomes a better leader over time.

As you might have imagined, Fred is training John and is making money in doing so. Both Fred and John will eventually go on to reach their personal goals, while still valueing their own goals primarily.

It is important to realise that both Fred and John had to value each others' goal to reach their own. However, they would never have done so, if they hadn't been focused on their own goals. This is why I claim that intelligent egoism is of more value to mankind, than blind 'altruism'.

A new sense of responsibility

Realising that altruism doesn't exist allows you to be responsible in a whole new way. You alone are responsible for achieving your own goals. The universe doesn't owe you anything, nor does anyone else. As harsh as this may sound, there is definitely a good side to it.

In your life, there will be times when you get to decide the rules of a certain social system. It could be the way your peers talk to you or it could be a transaction with a client that you're meeting. You can set up the system so that when the other parties strive to achieve their goals, your progress is advanced simultaneously. Such a system would easily reinforce itself by positive feedback.

Suppose a social system exists where everyone relies on each other to achieve their own goals. Such a system would collapse as soon as one person fails to help an other. The person who doesn't get any help, would become selfish and keep any of its resources to itself.

On the other hand, imagine a system where people only rely on theirselves. People would have to help each other to achieve their goals, as working alone could never get you as far as cooperating. In this kind of system, if one person fails to help himself by helping others, the system would still stand, as the other people would just go look for help elsewhere.

Intelligent egoism is simply a case of moving the equilibrium to a beneficial strategy.

It is your responsibility to make sure that achieving one's goal at the expense of, rather than by alligning their goals with the goals of other parties is detrimental to their success. You achieve this by organising the social systems you control such that blind egoism goes unrewarded. There is no use in forcing people to cooperate. We can, however, give them an incentive to cooperate.

You are, by extension of your own purposes, not only responsible for achieving your own goals. You are also responsible for any cooperations you take part in.

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