In answering the question of whether altruism exists or not, C. Daniel Batson together with his colleagues believe that altruism does exist. On the other hand, Robert B. Cialdini and his colleagues argue that there no such thing as genuine altruism, let alone altruism as we commonly it. Those propose that altruism exists suggest that human beings are oftentimes inclined to help other individuals out of genuine altruism primarily because of our empathy towards others.
On the other hand, those who argue that there is no such thing as altruism tell us that it is not enough for people to simply have empathy to help others, especially those who are in dire need of help. More to empathy, Cialdini and his colleagues suggest that people sometimes help other individuals in order gain something in return—and that “something” is making the self feel better after doing the presumed altruistic deed. In the end, it signifies that at the bottom of altruism rests the inclination to satisfy ourselves such as our conscience through charitable decisions or actions.
The concept of empathy—or the act of immersing into another person’s perspective and experiencing compassion along the way—is at the heart of the position of Batson and his colleagues. That is, people can be altruistic if they are able to empathize with those they help. Conversely, the lack of empathy can hardly push people to become altruists at some point in time. I think it is possible for people to empathize or to put their feet into the shoes of others, so to speak. Sometimes people may want to share the burdens of others and, after a while, they end up helping them anyway.
The certainty of whether helping these people is an altruistic deed depends on whether or not those who empathized and helped expected something in return or anything at all. This leads us to the other side of the debate, namely the argument that empathy is never enough as people may help others so that they will feel better or be removed of any form of guilt or a heavy conscience. Cialdini and his colleagues propose that empathy is never sufficient in motivating people to help others.
In effect, they are suggesting that our efforts to feel the suffering of others as if it was our own and to resolve the problem of other people without expecting anything in return cannot be maintained. Rather, it is the nature of human beings to do something because they are expecting something in return. I think that is true in so far as my experiences are concerned. I have personally experienced situations wherein I felt that I needed to help other people including my friends and my relatives.
I tried to help them to the best of my abilities not out of altruism but out of one basic reason: I did not want to feel guilty if I am not able to help them at the end of the day. Although my conscience is pricked each time I am compelled by my sentiments to help them, my conscience is exactly the reason why I push myself to offer my assistance. I did not want to have a heavy conscience for not being able to be of any help. From that, I can say that I was not really being altruistic.
Rather, I was seeking to evade a moral failure to help much as I was seeking to avoid keeping a heavy conscience. On the other hand, Batson and his colleagues maintain that there are times when people become altruistic in their deeds. Because of our empathy towards others, we are inclined to help others without expecting anything in return. I think that is partly true in times when our friends or our close relatives are the ones who need our help. We hardly refrain from helping them essentially because they are dear to us.
As for strangers seeking our help, perhaps that is an entirely different matter. I think we are less inclined to help strangers because we barely have any idea about their identity unlike our friends and close relatives. I think that this disparity will only reaffirm the position that empathy is never sufficient and that human beings are generally far from being altruists. Since we are more inclined to provide our help to our friends and close relatives than to strangers, I think it is only safe to assume that the reason why we help them is because of our “ties” or relationship with them.
The lack of an apparent connection with others does not strongly encourage us to be unselfish individuals who could only care about the welfare of others and whose personal welfare only comes secondary. I find it difficult to see myself empathizing with strangers because I barely know who they are. I may be able to relate to their experience or suffering but that is just it. Conversely, I am unable to completely empathize with them because I do not have a close association with them. Because we do not have any strings attached, so to speak, I am not inclined to help strangers.
More importantly, I think that people are not genuinely altruists. On the contrary, people are still human beings who seek to preserve their own welfare whether or not other people will benefit from such an attempt. The main reason why we help others even though it might lead to our own suffering is that we seek to avoid carrying the burden of a heavy conscience or of the thought of not being able to help someone when they needed help the most. We can hardly stand seeing a person who is drowning because we fear our conscience will come to haunt us and deprive us of peace of mind.
We can hardly stand watching someone be mugged to demise by street criminals because we fear that the same thing might happen to us with no one to help us. In other words, we want to help others because we expect something in return, be it in the form of the same help when we experience the same things or in the form of a conscience that is light. Reference Nier, J. (2007). Does True Altruism Exist? In Taking Sides: Clashing Views in Social Psychology (2nd ed. ). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.