When we define altruism as placing someone else’s interests, or the interests of society, above our own interests – when we make it about sacrifice or even self-abnegation – we make it sound pretty difficult. We don’t encourage many people to believe they can be altruists.

But if we define altruism as a broadening of the concept of self-interest, so that the sphere of what we see as benefiting the self is expanded to include what benefits others and society, then altruism becomes more approachable. People can grow into altruism by considering the reciprocity of benefit: if I do something that benefits you, I too will benefit in some way, so it’s a “win-win.”

The critical distinction is whether we conceive of reciprocity from a scarcity mindset or from an abundance mindset. From a scarcity mindset, we might say: OK, if I’m going to give something, I have to be absolutely sure of what I’m going to get in return. My reward must be something tangible and I must know when and how I’m going to receive it, and in what quantity. Otherwise I won’t take the risk.

But from an abundance mindset, we might say, OK, I’m going to give something, and I’m going to have faith that I will get something in return, but I don’t know when I will get it, or what form it will take, or how much it’s going to be, or where it’s going to come from. I’m going to keep giving in many different situations over time. And in one particular situation, the thing I get in return might be nothing more than the satisfaction of knowing I did something good to help someone else. Will this always be an even trade? Maybe not. Perhaps the intangible satisfaction of doing good won’t be all that thrilling to me in one particular case. But I have plenty already. And I’m willing to take a risk, since I trust that my “loss” in any one circumstance will be outweighed by my “gain” in another.

So altruism can be defined as a belief in the reciprocity of benefit, seen from an “abundance” perspective, with a high tolerance for short-term loss, and a willingness to accept intangible future rewards as meaningful and worthy. It’s a kind of optimism about how prosocial behavior will unfold over time – not expecting too much reward from any particular instance of this behavior – but believing that the reward will be great eventually. It’s a long-term investment in karma.

But that doesn’t seem to be the full picture, because it misses the concept of empathy and allows too much room for greed.

Someone might donate a million dollars to a charity, then brag about it. Are they an altruist? Perhaps they did it as a tax write-off. The donation might have been an act of greed if they only wanted a financial benefit and prestige to boot. If they didn’t really care about what the charity was going to do with their money and they weren’t thinking about the people who would benefit from the charity’s work, then the answer is no. Yes, it’s still good that the donation happened, but no, to accept this donor as an altruist would be to devalue the concept. It seems that a person should only get to be called an altruist if their actions are heartfelt – the person has to care about others in addition to being willing to perform the motions of assisting others.

But we’re wrong if we take an example like this and use it to conclude that any action taken in one’s own self-interest cannot be genuinely altruistic at the same time.

Consider a person who looks around a city street and notices a tourist needing directions, then stops to help, even though this delay is going to make them late to an important business meeting. It would seem that this Good Samaritan has sacrificed something, in a way that brings no concrete gain to themselves, so their action might qualify as truly altruistic according to the traditional definition of selfless behavior that benefits someone else. The person saw the stranger in distress, thought about what it’s like to be lost in an unfamiliar city, thought about how we must be kind to each other to make the world a better place, and so they elevated the stranger’s interests above their own.

But if we look closer here we can see that an expectation of reciprocity does come into play, even in this “pure” act of kindness. Helping a stranger made the Good Samaritan feel good. They could imagine the positive outcome they created and savor it. They could feel they had been useful. They could feel they had behaved in a way consistent with their own values, obeying the Golden Rule. They could feel they had set a positive example. They could feel they had done their duty. They could remember the tourist’s smile. So in a sense, the Good Samaritan gained something significant – a whole constellation of positive emotions. And those emotions were arguably more valuable than being on time to the meeting. There was still a “transaction” that happened here, albeit a loose and open one instead of a tight and fussy one.

Is it even right to say that the Good Samaritan made a sacrifice? Well, they sacrificed one thing for another thing. They sacrificed being on time – perhaps their entire reputation for punctuality – for the good feelings that come with kindness. Those two things are incommensurate but if we were forced to compare them, we might say the person came out better in the end for choosing kindness. We could even say the person behaved in a “selfish” way since they prioritized the positive feelings they would get from helping the stranger over the concerns of others at the meeting who were expecting that the meeting could start on time. It’s also true that the Good Samaritan wanted to avoid the bad feeling they would have gotten by ignoring the stranger and knowing they had been unhelpful. That pain of moral failure was more significant to the Good Samaritan than the pain of being late and disappointing their colleagues. So by helping the stranger, they got the specific pleasure they wanted and avoided the specific pain they didn’t want, all while ignoring the displeasure of many others who were waiting. 

Does this make the Good Samaritan truly selfish? They are selfish in the sense that they have a self. But the nature of the pleasure they sought and the nature of the pain they tried to avoid are critical to how we interpret their behavior. Here, the pleasure and pain are proxies for their belief in goodness. Their emotions can be seen as manifestations of their belief in goodness and so by being swayed by these emotions they were being swayed by goodness itself. If that makes them “selfish” then we’re making the term “selfish” too broad to be meaningful.

These examples are meant to show that there are many ways we can benefit when we help others. In the first example, the benefit of a tax write-off and bragging rights seems hollow and makes us conclude the act wasn’t truly altruistic. In the second example, we can accept that the Good Samaritan was manifesting altruism even though they got precisely what they wanted out of the deal.

What matters is that the Good Samaritan thought about the stranger’s situation and hoped to make it better. What matters too is that in doing this, they weren’t particular about what they’d receive in return, or how they’d receive it. They were ready to accept an intangible benefit as real and meaningful. And they took an “abundance” mindset that let them accept the risk of possibly receiving nothing in this particular case.

So altruism can be defined as a belief in the reciprocity of benefit, seen from an “abundance” perspective, with a high tolerance for the risk of short term “loss,” and a willingness to accept intangible future rewards as meaningful and worthy, all powered by empathy.

But why bother providing this lengthy definition of altruism? Certainly, it’s more complex than the simple idea of placing someone else’s interests above one’s own.

The reason is that definitions matter. How we define altruism affects how we see our ability to be altruists. Since altruistic behavior benefits all of us, we should want to promote it. And in order to do that, we should define it in a way that encourages everyone – ourselves and others – to believe we can practice it. Since many of us believe, deep down, that we’re usually going to make choices that benefit our own selves, it helps to frame altruism as a behavior that benefits our own selves, as long as we’re flexible about how and when that benefit might be realized.

But there’s a catch in this act of semantic reframing. The catch is that altruism benefits us by freeing us from ourselves, by removing us from the jail of self-concern. Part of the “reward” we receive when we behave altruistically is that we have the chance to think less about our own concerns, and that’s liberating. It’s a burden to have to look out for our own interests all the time. It’s a burden to have to maximize personal utility all the time. Altruistic behavior offers a relief from that… but only if we engage in altruism without expecting something in return. Only if altruism means putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes and focusing on their interests without worrying too much about ours.

If we position altruism as something that benefits the self, are we then compromising one of the key benefits it provides, which is the relief from dwelling on our own selves and what we’re going to get?

No, we are not compromising that benefit, because we are not expecting something tangible in return for altruistic behavior and we are not expecting an intangible reward to be provided in any specific amount on any specific schedule. We’re taking a broad, loose, expansive view of how we might benefit, relieving ourselves from the duty of tracking all the details. We are leaving it up to faith, or fate, to decide what happens next, trusting that it’ll be something good, if not now, then eventually.

In conclusion, altruism is a kind of optimism. It’s a positive expectation that we hold about the long-term outcome of investing in others’ wellbeing. We trust that we’ll benefit from doing this, but we release ourselves from the burden of tracking how and when we’ll benefit. We’re making a long-term investment in karma, without expecting that we can predict it or control it.

To believe that helping others helps us too – that’s a natural and good belief. We should let it motivate us. We should define altruism in a way that motivates us. Because we all need to become motivated altruists if life on our planet is to survive. ■

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