The Instigator
Pro (for)
4 Points
The Contender
Con (against)
2 Points

True Altruism Does Not Exist

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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 6/24/2014 Category: Philosophy
Updated: 7 years ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 2,056 times Debate No: 57105
Debate Rounds (3)
Comments (7)
Votes (1)




Hopefully someone will actually vote on this one. Anyway, I'm taking the position that there is no such thing as true altruism - defined here as "selfless concern for the well-being of others."

Con has the burden of proof here. He or she needs to make a convincing case that altruism exists (and to be clear, that doesn't just mean providing a long list of nice things people do for each other; I'd like to get more into the foundation/basis of altruism and take a more theoretical approach).

Since con has the burden of proof I don't think we need to waste time with acceptance - if you accept, you can go ahead and make your case. I'd like to keep it concise and fun. Thanks.


The selfless concern for the well-being of others has existed since the beginning of mankind and will exist for centuries to come.

When the mother sacrifices her beauty for the creation of a child that she could easily have not produced and adopted instead, she is indeed being selfless for the sake of her child's well-being and the emotional well-being of the father who probably wants to see his biological child raised.

When a father is directly ordered to not run back into a burning house in order to save his child but does so anyway, he is risking every selfish motive for the concern he has for that individual.

When people put their lives on the line to become rebels, such as the Underground Railroad [], all of whom had already escaped slavery themselves, they risk their entire freedom and legal safety by putting their neck on the line for the sake of freeing more and more slaves via illicit means.

There is true altruism all around the world, you just have to open your eyes to see it. The president of DDO and co-president [] do not gain money for what they do.
Debate Round No. 1


Much thanks to my opponent. Also, a quick clarification on the burden of proof...

Yes, generally when I claim is a made, the individual who makes the claim has the burden of proof. In this case, I'm making a negative claim - that is, I'm denying something generally accepted to be true. There are obviously cases where positing the existence of something (i.e. God) puts the burden on the individual making the positive claim, whereas the person countering that claim with the negative assertion that, i.e. God does not exist does NOT have the burden. Is this the same thing? No, not exactly. But the way I intended this debate is to see what reasons someone may offer in favor of altruism and explain why I think those reasons are insufficient or misleading. Ultimately, the burden of proof DOES lie on me to prove my position; but initially, I think it is up to con (and he/she has accepted and agreed to this) to make the case for altruism.

So, anyway, now that that's been said...

True altruism does not exist. Everything we do serves our own interests at least to some degree. Let's look at the cases provided by con:

The Mother
In the case of a mother having a child, it's pretty straight forward: we, as humans, have a biological imperative to reproduce. When we reproduce we are ensuring our own "survival" after we die - or, to put it more realistically, we are making sure that our genes are perpetuated. This is obviously not a selfless act, and even if the mother suffers some detriments to her physical appearance, that seems outweighed by the benefit of quasi-immortality.

The Father
A man running into a building to save his child is a brave act, to be sure. It many ways, it IS selfless - and in many ways it's not. Why do parents care so much for their children? Again, biology has the answer. As in the case of the mother, parents protect their children because their children carry their genes, and passing on our genes is one of the strongest drives we have. In addition, what would happen if the father didn't run into the building? He'd likely experience a lifetime of grief and anguish, which would cause him immense suffering. This suffering may be to such an extent that he no longer has a desire to live. But at any rate, it does not seem to be truly, 100% selfless.

The Underground Railroad
This is a good example. As con mentioned, these slaves have already attained their freedom; why bother going back? There are several reasons one might choose to do this:
1) Humans are social animals. We survive not only by doing what's best for us but what's best for the community (why? because communal survival usually helps self-preservation). And this is especially true for a community like that of slaves. For a group that is being systematically tortured and killed, preserving the community is especially important and helpful.
2) These freed slaves probably felt a sense of doing something greater than themselves, i.e. serving the "greater good." Philosophy, psychology and a number of other fields have theorized (correctly, in my opinion) that self-actualization is generally one of the highest forms of happiness and achievement. If one can do something that will truly "live on," so to speak, then one really feels as though they have triumphed - as though they have done something that will outlast them.
3) Empathy (or the guilt and/or torment of inaction). Empathy may seem like an altruistic virtue, but it's not. In fact, empathy exist precisely BECAUSE we make many moral and ethical decisions by saying "If it were me, I'd like someone to do X," or "I'd hate to have X done to me, so I should intervene." Again, this helps insure communal survival, which, in turn, insures self-preservation.

And these reasons can applied to most cases that appear purely altruistic. Virtually everything we do for anyone else results in, at the very least, a feeling of satisfaction or happiness in us. When we spend money on gifts for other people, we feel good about it. It makes us happy. Of course, it makes other people happy, too, and there's nothing wrong with that. But ultimately, it seems, we are somewhere benefitting - directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously. Thus, I believe altruism does not truly exist.

Note: This is why I initially wanted BoP on con. I assumed his argument would go something like this, and it didn't make sense to me to state my argument, then restate it in relation to more specific examples. Anyway, I look forward to seeing what s/he has to say next round. Thank you.


My opponent seems to be confusing concern for some supernatural thing independent of biology or logic.

He observes that the mother is programmed love the child and gain emotional reward from it but this is irrelevant if the concern she has for the child is selfless in nature. Just because the person is driven to feel the concern does not invalidate the concern's existence. Altruism concern of others independent of one's own needs and this is exactly what the mother feels for her child. It's very rare that the mother would think "oh that baby has my DNA I better keep it healthy!" this doesn't even cross her mind. Whether this is the cause for her selfless concern or not is irrelevant. Just because the basis for the concern is selfish doesn't meant that the concern itself is selfless in practice and theoretically independent of selfishness on its own. You can develop selfless emotions from selfish origins, this is not important.

Altruism was only defined, by Pro, as "selfless concern for the well-being of others." it was never extended to mean "selfless concern for the well-being of others originating from self-defeating foundation." This is an entirely different definition and not the one being debated.

The argument regarding the father is most amusing. My opponent suggests that risking one's life for another is selfish because of the concern that the father if programmed to feel for the child. Well what if the child is adopted? What if the child is just a student of his and he's the teacher? All are very realistic situations with suddenly no biological motive to them. The issue isn't whether or not the concern is biologically programmed or not, the issue is if the concern exists or not and it does.

When Pro stated that "Humans are social animals. We survive not only by doing what's best for us but what's best for the community" this can only be true if each human in the community has a genuine concern for the well-being of others surpassing that of their own immediate needs. Who care if this altruism is due to the instinctive need for self-preservation or not? You only need friends at school so you can survive but that doesn't mean that the concern you feel for them isn't ranking their needs above yours. Concern is purely subjective, so to objectively observe the outcome of selfless concern and conclude that it's selfish is to recognize its existence in the first place. How can you analyze the motivation behind selfless concern for others if you don't recognize the existence of the concern to begin with?

My opponent then converts empathy into self-preservation. It is not. You sacrifice your own happiness to stoop to the sadness level of another in order to get the motivation to make them happy. This is selfless concern whether or not that's overall selfish reward from it later on is irrelevant. In that moment, what you are feeling is true altruism, therefore it exists.

This is essentially Pro's argument:

Because the basis of selfless concern for the well-being of others is a biological instinct for society's well being that happens to result in one benefiting from it, the selfless concern does not exist.

This makes no sense. Just because people benefit form being selflessly concerned for others doesn't negate the concern's existence.
Debate Round No. 2


Thanks for the response, ToughEnough.

"My opponent seems to be confusing concern for some supernatural thing independent of biology or logic."
I have no idea what this means. I don't believe in anything supernatural nor did I ever indicate that I did. In fact, I haven't claimed anything outside of altruism; the entire point of my debate is to reduce "altruism," at least to some degree, to self-interest.

It seems con has largely misinterpreted my argument. "He observes that the mother is programmed love the child and gain emotional reward from it but this is irrelevant if the concern she has for the child is selfless in nature." This begs the questions. You can't refute one of my arguments on the ground that it is irrelevant "if the concern she has... is selfless in nature." You're supposed to be showing me WHY it is selfless in nature (or that is, in fact, selfless). The entire point of my argument is that it's not, and I provided reasons for that position. Now, don't get me wrong: I don't think that mothers have their own self-preservation in mind when they decide to have children. But the point I'm making is that while this SEEMS altruistic, it is in fact just a biological imperative (an unconscious one, sure, but that's irrelevant) that ultimate benefits the mother. She gains not only the promise of spreading her genes but also gains emotional satisfaction from loving a child and feeling as though she has contributed to the world beyond herself.

Con takes issue with my definition. I'm not sure why, though. The entire purpose of the debate is that the first word of that definition - "selfless" - is misleading or untrue. In order for an action to be selfless, it must be done entirely for the benefit of someone else. I believe I have given reason to at least cast some doubt on that claim. Additionally, I'd like to remind con that we are debating WHY altruism is not truly selfless; the fact that it "originates from from self-defeating foundation" (whatever exactly that means) is another issue. I am attempting only to show that truly "selfless" actions are in fact not entirely selfless. That is all.

Con takes the biological imperative out of the father scenario. Interesting point! However, my reasons in this (and all other) scenario was not purely biological. A father could love an adopted son just as much as a biological one. He would still undoubtedly feel regret and guilt for not saving his son, and would also suffer considerable torment if the child died. Keep in mind, I'm not saying that these actions are not partially selfless - they are. But I believe if I can show that they are at least partly motivated by self-interest then I will have made my case.

In regards to my point about humans being social animals, con says, "this can only be true if each human in the community has a genuine concern for the well-being of others surpassing that of their own immediate needs." Why? Based on what? This is a baseless claim. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins would disagree with you. He posits that humans started acting 'altruistically' because we used to live in close communities, surrounded by people we'd see again and again. In this environment, helping someone else would very probably result in that person later helping you (1). When we evolved into larger communities where this was no longer the case, the "selfish gene" (as he calls it) remained. So communal preservation seems to also be a byproduct of self-interest.

Surprisingly, con then asks. "Who care if this altruism is due to the instinctive need for self-preservation or not?" Well, that's what this entire debate has been about, has it not? That is, in fact, the entire basis of my position.

"My opponent then converts empathy into self-preservation." No, I stated that empathy is BASED in self-preservation, which it is. Empathy is, by definition, the ability to understand and share someone else's emotions and points of view. This can only be done if one understands one's own emotions. That's why sociopaths can kill people without remorse; they lack the ability to think "What if this happened to me?" Again, I'd direct you to the Dawkins article.

"This is essentially pro's argument"
Straw man, reductionist.

To conclude, I maintain that TRUE altruism does not exist. Many actions appear selfless, and, in many ways, they are. But I believe that behind every 'selfless' action lies some self-interest. I have shown this to be the case in all of con's scenarios and I have provided a scientific basis for my claim. Con has largely misinterpreted or misunderstood my arguments. At any rate, I'd like to thank him/her for accepting and thank anyone who reads/votes.



toughenough forfeited this round.
Debate Round No. 3
7 comments have been posted on this debate. Showing 1 through 7 records.
Posted by Molzahn 7 years ago
I can't officially vote because I won't give my phone number in order to verify the account, but I would cast "2-2-1-2-3-2." Con had a more clever approach to disarming the thesis (as this was indeed a semantically heavy topic), but loses that point for forfeiting the final round. Tied Vote.
Posted by Strycora 7 years ago
I don't disagree with you entirely, but I wouldn't call the behavior an evolutionary misfiring in humans. We evolved to build society and community. All over the world, we established moral codes through religion that in essence are remarkably similar in their promotion of altruism. Therefore, altruism in humans is a demonstration of our evolutionary superiority to other animals. Humans are the only species that can consciously risk their lives; animals that do not share our self consciousness do not share our death consciousness. Despite this, altruism is far more common in we humans than in any other animal. We feel driven to do altruistic acts by a sense of identification with the object of our kindness. Of course we evolved to identify with our fellow man, but today we can behave altruistically by saving the neigbor's dog from a housefire, or letting a fish off the hook. That isn't very beneficial to our survival as a species. In conclusion, our ability to identify with (and therefore favor above ourselves) has come from evolution, but remember that every relationship you've ever had with anyone is because you identify with them. If true altruism is unreal, so is true love. Just because you identify with the other doesn't mean that denying the self for them isn't really denying the self.
Posted by Mathaelthedestroyer 7 years ago
Or the motivation was to help others BECAUSE we receive a sense of gratification from it (an unconscious desire, but it remains nonetheless) and it's an evolutionary misfiring. Read the article I posted.
Posted by Strycora 7 years ago
Doing something for others and feeling good about it afterwards is still altruism because the motivation was to help others, not to feel good about helping others. Are you saying that because these deeds are fulfilling, they're not altruistic? Pah! What you call "true altruism" I call stupidity, plain and simple!
Posted by Mathaelthedestroyer 7 years ago
To clarify the burden of proof issue:

1) If you don't want burden of proof, don't accept the debate. That being said...
2) Yes, generally any claim (especially anything that challenges a well-established concept like this) would carry the burden of proof. But in this case, I'm claiming a negative; and while I did instigate the argument and make the first claim, I feel that the argument would be pretty weird for me to BEGIN by making the case that altruism exists. After all, I have no idea how con will be arguing. So while I could assume the burden of proof and begin the debate by trying to make a case against altruism across the board, it made more sense to me for con to accept BoP (which he/she did) and for me to then try to show why any given argument for altruism is either inconsistent or unsatisfying.
Posted by CJKAllstar 7 years ago
Er...BOP lies on Con? What?

BOP lies on the claim-maker. Always. It is onus probandi which is a logical fallacy.

When there is a one-sided claim, BOP lies on the claim-maker. It isn't shared, such a thing only exists within a resolution that does not assert.

And you can prove a negative. You can't prove a negative via argumentum ad ignoratiam, but contradiction, empirical evidence and syllogistically you can. If a = b, b is not c, then a is not c.

In that case, it is totally possible to argue for a negative and because you are the claim maker, BOP is on you.
Posted by Molzahn 7 years ago
I would only engage in this debate if pro is willing to substantiate a paradigm which excludes altruism. The burden of proof lies with both positions.
1 votes has been placed for this debate.
Vote Placed by lannan13 7 years ago
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Total points awarded:42 
Reasons for voting decision: Forfeiture

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