Monday, December 5, 2016
The Philosophy of helping others: Altruism Final installment
So thanks to Dr. Oliver, I learned that my philosophy of kindness actually has a name: Altruism. I began to wonder about all the other things about my philosophy that I didn’t know. When did it start? Who created it? What are some ways to practice it? WELL it turns out kindness has kind of always just been there. I did learn that the name was given by the French philosopher Auguste Comte. He derived it from the French word altrui which was taken from the Latin word alteri meaning other people.
Since there wasn’t a lot on the actually history of Altruism, I decided instead to figure out why it is a thing. The definition of Altruism, at least in the clinical sense, is intentional and voluntary actions that aim to enhance the welfare of another person in the absence of any quid pro quo external rewards. It sounds like a dumb question, Why is kindness a thing? If you think about it though, the whole idea of this way of life is to put others first and to have no gain yourself, or in some cases actually jeopardize your wellbeing. If you think about it from a biological stand point, it goes against every instinct you have. The main goal for a species, or on a smaller scale, an individual is to prosper and grow. This is the complete opposite of the idea of Altruism. After thinking about this, I did a little research and discovered a few theories on why people have the instinct to help others.
One biological theory for this is Kin selection. The theory is only narrowed to people related to you and is thought that you would be more willing to help increase the chances of gene transmission to future generations. Scientist believe that altruism between relatives occurs in order to ensure shared genes to be passed on, so in theory the closer related two people are, the more likely the will try to help each other. This theory has been shown in many types of animals such as vampire bats and many types of birds. (There is a link to the article on this below.) This theory clearly can't explain why acts of kindness happen between strangers, but it can give an explanation for why it occurs in some instances. Although, I'm not sure how much I could consider it altruism due to the fact, that the end result is to ensure the survival of your genes and is not completely selfless.
Another scientific theory on this is that Altruism activates reward centers in the brain. Two studies were done to see if helping others was a completely selfless act or if we subconsciously were being rewarded for our kindness. In both studies the subjects were asked to engage in altruism while there brain was being monitored by functional MRI's In the first study, The subjects were told that money would be taken from there bank account and be given to charity. Surprisingly enough altruism lit up the pleasure center of the brain (this is also the place that lights up when you are eating something really tasty food). In the other study, the subjects were put in a room and asked to either play a video game or watch it be played. Those watching it be played actually had a part of their brain light up that indicated that they were worried and empathized for the well being of the computer that was playing the game. Those actually playing did not have these sections light up indicating they were not worried about there own success. This experiment showed that in some cases people care more for others than their self.
Another theory is that social norms can influence someone to practice Altruism. There are many ways this could be achieved. One way is for it to be installed in you as you grew up, such as you were taught to help others or you grew up around someone who did this. Another way is to help others who have already helped you. I saw this repeatedly as I worked at a fast food restaurant. If one person would generously pay for the person behind them in line it usually influenced the to do the same for the person behind them. These chains would usually last a good six or seven cars.
One last theory on Altruism is cognitive reasons. Just like every other theory given, there is some incentive behind this theory as well. Some examples of theses are helping others to relieve your own anguish, or just helping others to uphold your own view that you are a good person. To back up the this theory, researches have shown that someone is more like to help others if they feel empathy for them. (This is known as the empathy-altruism hypothesis. In 1972, Batson and Toi set up an experiment where they used a talk show to inform college students of a disabled guys need for help. When the students were told to think objectively about the situation, many were a lot less likely to help than if they aloud feelings into the equation. Another idea proposed is that helping others relieves our own negative feelings. This idea is based around the negative-state relief model in which helping others lessens the discomfort of seeing them in pain.
As you can see, there are many explanations as to why altruism is a thing. Although scientist still haven't an exact answer, especially one that is truly pure altruism, they continue to search for an explanation. Maybe this is one of those questions that can't be answered with science though. It might have to many feelings attached or also it could be that everyone has there own reasons for doing it. I've never understood in class how someone could try finding the answer to something in a way other than the scientific way, but this topic definitely shows me that there are times when other methods (such as philosophizing about it) are better.
Links to theories and studies:
Links to comments on other papers: