The statement “People never intentionally act to benefit others except only to obtain some good for themselves” is often described as Altruism or an Altruistic act. This statement is not entirely true. It is possible for someone to intentionally act to benefit others, but this is something that does not happen very often. There are multiple theories as to why people do and do not perform altruistic acts. If someone is a member of your family you are more likely to help a person in need, if you feel sympathetic towards someone you are likely to help a person in need or if it is a social norm you are likely to help them.
If in a certain situation helping someone is not a social norm then you are less likely to help this person. Even if someone wanted to perform an altruistic act it is very difficult to do so in our society because we reward people who we perceive to be good, or to have done good things. If you perform an Altruistic act towards a member of your family would be acting within Hamilton’s kin selection theory (1960s). The kin selection theory which states that you are much more likely to perform an altruistic act if the person you are helping is a member of your family.
An example of this is recently in Melbourne there was a wall collapse. Three people died as a result of this incident; a woman in her thirties and an eighteen and nineteen-year-old siblings, the older brother and his sister. The older woman died upon impact, as did the brother, but only after he shielded his sister from the collapsing wall. His sister also died later in hospital. (ABC News, 1st April 2013) This is an example of the kin selection theory. Instead of doing what benefited himself, he tried to save his sister, despite it having dire consequences.
This would be considered an act of altruism as it did not benefit him, and in this case even had negative consequences, especially as his sister later died in hospital. Another reason people perform altruistic acts is out of sympathy. Sympathy is a natural feeling of concern for a person. Even if you can’t relate to the person you feel bad for them, or concerned for them. An example of someone feeling sympathetic is Julio Diaz, who when a mugger came up to him one night with a knife he handed over his wallet without complaint.
When the mugger went to walk away he stopped him and offered him his coat as well, saying he didn’t want the mugger to get cold. He then continued to offer to buy the mugger dinner. (Huffington Post, 17th November 2011). Diaz obviously felt sympathy towards the mugger, or he wouldn’t have given over his wallet, jacket and paid for his dinner. Diaz ended up getting his wallet back from the boy who handed it over after they had eaten. Diaz felt sympathy towards the boy due to the fact that the boy had almost nothing, where as Diaz had enough money to comfortably live.
Sympathy makes people feel like they have a moral obligation to help someone in need – the person they feel sympathetic towards. – Sometimes people help others because it is considered a social norm. An example of this is saying please and thank you. This is considered normal in most societies and it is often frowned upon if you don’t use these. A social norm is something people often take for granted and a lot of people are shocked when someone doesn’t follow what they consider to be normal. Another example of a social norm in our society is to wear clothes in public.
If you were walking down the street and you say someone walking towards you naked you would not think this was normal. You would wonder why they were naked and often avoid walking to close to, making eye contact with, or speaking to this person. If you were in some traditional aboriginal culture you would wear nothing but animal skin, or even walk around naked. This is/was considered a social norm within that society. There are some internationally recognized social norms, like not engaging in cannibalism, and dressing modestly.
While not all societies, past or present, follow these social norms most of the world does. There are also norms within society, religion and individual families. A social norm in our society is mate-ship, not letting down your friends, family, or community. There are plenty of social norms in religion, such as in Christianity it is not exactable to love someone of the same sex. This is an example of a social norm that is slowly changing over time, as do most social norms.
It was a social norm in Britain in the 1800’s that you attended church, where as in 2002 only 18. 6% of people in the United Kingdom attended church regularly. (Tearfund report, 2007) This is an example of how social norms change over time, and what we consider to be social norms at the moment may not be considered normal in 40,50,60,70 or more years. These things cannot be considered an altruistic act because you would benefit poorly from not doing these things, so it is good for you to say please and thank you, bringing it back to the first example.
There are also plenty of things people do not do to help others because it is considered outside of the social norms. If you saw a drunk person on the street you probably wouldn’t help them because society has shaped us to think that these people brought the state they are in on themselves, therefore it is not our problem to help them once they are in this situation. Social norms can be beneficial, but they can also detrimental. Another instance where helping someone is not considered an altruistic act is if the act is mutually beneficial.
This can cover a range of things, from the benefit to you being a smile from someone, to a bravery award. If you see a child drowning and you swim out and save them and when you get back their mother says thank you and buys you an ice cream then you are benefiting, the ice cream being the benefit. If while trying to save this child you drown you do not benefit in anyway, and this even has a negative affect on you. This would be an act of altruism because there is no mutual benefit.
A benefit for you may be something as small as a good feeling inside, or a smile, but these are benefits of saving the child, there for there is mutual benefit. You walk away with a good feeling and maybe an ice cream and the child walks away with his life. A real life example of this is Don Richie, who lived just across the road from one of Australia’s most notorious suicide locations. It is estimated that Richie saved more than 160 lives in his lifetime.
He received the title of Australia’s local hero in 2011(ABC Radio, 14th May 2012). This is something he got out of stopping these people commit suicide. Despite the fact that he had no knowledge he was going to receive this award when he started saving people, because he received this award it is not an act of altruism. Some would argue that even if he hadn’t received this award these would still not be acts of altruism, as he felt good about saving these people, and it made him a happier person.
This is his benefit, making it mutually beneficial and not an act of altruism. People do act to benefit others, without obtaining good for themselves, but this is a rare situation. Whether the person wanted to obtain some good for themselves or not they almost always do, as acts of kindness are rewarded in most societies. While people can intentionally act to benefit others without obtaining good for themselves this almost never happens, simply because of the way our society is shaped.