Melissa Todd: What really motivates altruism?


Altruism, selfless concern for others, is meant to be the opposite characteristic of egoism, selfish concern for oneself.

But then, publicly wanging on about one’s altruism seems quite like egoism, in truth. I can understand people doing great charitable deeds and endlessly talking about it. Their peers assume they are good eggs. Their egos are stroked. They are probably trying to compensate for their own sense of inadequacy. Most of us do it, one way or another.

When they neglect their families and loved ones in order to perform their flamboyant charitable works – for you don’t get nearly so many ‘likes’ on Facebook for publicly caring for your partner, parents, children, particularly if you’re female – it can tip into a narcissism that borders on the pathological. Telescopic philanthropy, Dickens called it: only caring for distant strangers, ignoring the friends and family with an arguably greater, but less glamorous, claim on your time and energy.

It’s wearying, but understandable.  I’ll do anything for attention myself.

From an evolutionary perspective, true altruism – secretly giving to strangers, expecting no return – makes absolutely no sense. Of course, you still get the glow of thinking yourself a good fellow, even if no one else knows it; you might even believe that God will be pleased with you and give you a cushy seat in Heaven.

Or you might be motivated by something darker.

I’ve watched the Oxfam scandal unfold with a resigned, world weary despair, even as it spread to other charities, Save the Children, Plan International, and twenty odd others.

It’s often the case that those making headlines do so for unpleasant reasons. And of course there are some who genuinely feel an urge to alleviate suffering, who struggle to sit easy in a world where people are cold, hungry, destitute. Certainly, I abhor the strain of right-wing argument which suggests foreign aid should come to an end, and then latches on to this scandal as a means of bringing that about. For many practical and philosophical reasons, foreign aid is utterly essential.

Nonetheless, the urge to help emerges from the same place as the urge to exploit. It’s a desire to make yourself feel better at the expense of the vulnerable. Rather than seeking out relationships with equals, there are those inadequate aid workers that flock eagerly, vulture-like, to the poorest, most desperate parts of the globe to patronise the suffering and needy, to enjoy the warm glow of feeling worthwhile and necessary. They seek power, rather than an end to misery. And power, dominance, mastery over the vulnerable, can so easily tip into the erotic. I’ve never read or seen Fifty Shades, thank goodness, but all the same, I understand the connection.

If the world were equal and happy and all suffering were at an end, these people would be horrified. How would they spend their days then? Where find the thrill that gives life its zest?

It’s the same urge that sees women fall in love with men on Death Row. Our culture encourages us to see romance through the paradigm of rescue, heroes, knights on horseback – see Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Pretty Woman. We learn from infancy that rescue by hero is romantic. While victims are symbolic and the rescue is in progress, the vulnerable remain intriguing: when they are actually flesh and blood, smelly, annoying human beings, we lose interest, and when they don’t act properly grateful, or stay rescued, they incense us, and we treat them brutally.

It’s often said that those wishing to become politicians should automatically be barred from seeking office: those keenest to lead and enjoy power over their countrymen should on no account be allowed anywhere near the political system. The same, I would argue, should be said of aid workers.

Do-gooders eager to distribute aid should be let nowhere near the needy. While the world stays so stinkingly unfair, and aid remains a sad necessity in war torn lands, refugee camps, disaster zones, its distribution should be performed by first world citizens chosen randomly, like jurors.

Do them good, I expect. Open their eyes to how amazing their lives are: stop them moaning about slow broadband and roadworks. But those who actually want to devote their lives to assisting the destitute should on no account be let anywhere near them. The urge is exploitative and must be resisted. Lock your passport away and get some therapy.


  1. I’d rather have “do-gooders” any day rather than “do-badders”.
    Why all this psychological analysis of people who want to do good things? Why don’t we analyse people who do bad things? So we can teach them not to behave that way.
    It’s not as if the world,or this country, is full of politicians who want to do good. Too many politicians eg Trump and Putin, get elected in order to persecute “other” people. They are elected to act maliciously towards foreigners, or immigrants, or gay people, or people with a different religion.Then the people who vote for them find their own situation mysteriously deteriorating.
    Let’s spend more time working out why some vote for authoritarians in order to punish, rather than speculating about people who state a desire to (shock,horror) actually want to help others.

    • You make some great points. I suppose it’s easier to understand “do-badders” motivation, perhaps; certainly the examples you cite have acquired power and money by their do-badding, whereas do-gooders motivations must, by definition, be more complex, since there’s nothing obviously in it for them! But I’m all for ending persecution against “the other”, and if you write a column exploring how we might make that happen, I’d be delighted to read it.

  2. I am flattered that you think I could manage a whole column, but I will try to make a few points.
    I have always assumed, like others, that humans are “herd” animals ie. we stick together for help and assistance, not least because human offspring are not able to really care for themselves for many years. Our ancestors lived in hunter/gatherer groups,generally looking after each other, and sharing resources. I assume that any threat to an individual in such groups would be seen as a danger to all. So I can see how altruism towards others in the same group can also be seen as self-serving.
    I also assume that the feeling of unease that developed when things were going wrong could still be felt even in individuals who were , personally, healthy and secure. Perhaps this unease when contemplating a dysfunctional society explains why certain successful individuals, even in Western capitalist societies, resolve to use some of their resources to help others. They just cannot stand the idea that things are going wrong and that others are losing out unnecessarily.
    Of course, we know from history that any close-knit grouping can easily grow hostile and violent towards other similar groupings that might compete for resources in hard times.

    But we have evolved. The hunter/gatherer bands of the past settled down, formed clans and tribes which were much bigger than their previous extended families. We began to identify with much more people and to be prepared to help them out.

    Later, nations formed, merging previously hostile clans together. I am told that, in the “Dark Ages” one type of Germanic/Nordic tribe occupied modern-day Thanet and had a murderously hostile attitude to another ,similar, group around Sandwich etc. Angles and Jutes? Or Danes versus Saxons? Something like that. It must have been grim around Cliffsend on a Saturday night!!
    Anyway, such distinctions have long since evaporated into the “new” self identity of “Kentish” or English.

    Most previous violence between the English and Scots and Welsh etc is now conveniently forgotten when the greater “Nation” ,called the UK, is seen to be threatened.
    Today, the world economy is increasingly incorporated into one. Large Corporations bestride the globe, investing and disinvesting at will. Their owners buy passports and nationalities with relative ease in order to move freely from country to country. But, at this stage of human development, most of the world’s populations are still locked into the mentality of the separate Nation State. So there are still “others” who must be feared and opposed even though the large Corporations have business in all the states and would prefer to avoid conflict. As an example, we only have to look at the current , slightly artificial, clash between the UK and Russia. I am sure that there are millions in both countries that would seriously contemplate , and even welcome, open warfare between the two nations. Yet Russian firms, part-owned by Americans and Britons, supply lots of our fuel and Russian oligarchs are grateful for the property investment opportunities in London.Economic co operation is in their interests though national hostilities are being stoked up as we speak. Lots of scope for the “do-badding” politicians in both countries.
    But we know that humans have evolved from small groups to identify with larger and larger groups , all the way up to nations. At some stage, the integration of the world economy will present us with the opportunity for more emotional unity. Even though, as we know, the “do-badding” politicians are very active in trying to freeze human ideology at the Nation/State phase, while , themselves benefiting from the globalised trade.

    It is a tragedy to consider that millions of people are likely to be slaughtered in the wars to come before the world is finally amalgamated. And also tragic that I won’t be around to see it, given my age. But I can, at least, do my bit to help move ideas beyond the parochial.

  3. That reads very like a whole column to me! Have you read Moral Tribes? It makes some similar points as yours at greater length. Fantastic book.

    I can see your point that we are becoming ever more globalised and that increasingly, national borders are meaningless. Also, that as tribal creatures it makes practical sense for us to share resources and assist one another. Increasingly, too, with environmental armageddon on the horizon, we really need to care what our brothers in India and China etc are doing, as it may well have a direct and diabolical consequence on our own way of life.

    I so enjoyed your analysis of politicians trying to freeze ideology at the nation phase while themselves benefiting from globalisation. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a profounder truth more succinctly phrased! I think I must disagree with you though that the integration of the world economy will lead to more emotional unity, although it’s a wonderful idea. As we all lead our lives ever more on-line, we seem to be becoming more fragmented and tribal than ever before, and ever angrier at ‘the other’. But I don’t know, perhaps you’re right. I certainly hope so. But Brexit, for instance, seems to suggest differently, as well as the Arab spring and collapse of the USSR – nation states only seem to be held together by power grabs and do-badders.

    On a personal level, while I understand intellectually there are many fine reasons for altruism, both practical and philosophical, I still don’t feel any desire to be altruistic. Perhaps I’m just a really horrible human being. That seems likeliest. My husband gives tenners to every beggar he sees – on a postman’s salary! – because he simply can’t bear for anyone to suffer. It causes him actual physical pain. I sort of admire that, but I certainly don’t find myself equal to it. But he’s a Christian, so his actions are at least in part informed by his faith. He feels God will always provide for him. I come from horrible poverty, and I can’t be certain of any such thing: I feel I can be sure of nothing, in fact, except that if I give away money, I will have less money, money I might very well need, and may find no means of replacing. Still, I don’t feel any particular urge to ‘do bad’ either, so I guess that’s something. I’m too busy fighting my own tiny fight for myself and my family to bother much with the rest of the world, I’m afraid. I don’t wish it harm, but that’s as far as my wishes extend. I imagined my feelings were fairly typical, and if people felt differently there was something slightly odd about them – and the sex abuse scandals in Haiti and elsewhere make me suspect I’m not entirely wrong. But you’ve posited an interesting alternative view, and given me much to think about. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment at such length. Hugely appreciated

  4. I have to say I disagreed with much of Melissa’s piece, but found your initial response a little too simple ( they’re doing Good ergo they must BE good) Whether I agreed or not with Melissa, I found it interesting to investigate the drive behind charity workers in general ( especially in an age where directors of charities are on the kind of eye watering sums usually reserved for cutthroat bankers) So was a little bemused by much of your second response. Surely the world is fragmenting rather than gathering? Surely the old tribal instincts are now applied to the stock exchange?
    But I can see how an article like that would produce the itch to respond even if unable to pinpoint quite how or why.

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