Could We Be Heroes? The Altruism Argument


“Mary: “Everyone always does what is in their own best interest. Altruistic acts (i.e. acts done from the motive of helping others) are a myth.”

Sheila: “But how can you say that? Soldiers have been known to jump on hand grenades to save their comrades. How can that be self-interested?”

Mary: “That soldier no doubt thought his life would go better by ending with an act of glorious heroism than living a long life as someone who let his comrades die. It was a self-interested act.”

Who is right? Why?

Thus begins my fourth chapter discussion question in my Ethics philosophy class. With this one paragraph, so many thoughts begin whirling through my head. I hate this class with a passion. Why does Mary have to seem so pessimistic all the time? What does this have to do with running a business? This is such a load of bull, blah, blah, blah, aaaarrrrgh… When I signed up for the mandatory Ethics class, I thought it would be about honest business practices, setting boundaries, legalities, and other topics that pertain to my degree.

That was a huge misconception.

Philosophy is just not in me. Things are either black or white with very little gray in between. Are some decisions hard to make? Yes. Do they require years of musing and thought? Hell, no.

As I read our textbook, “The Elements of Moral Philosophy” by James Rachels, it occurs to me that there is absolutely NOTHING that philosophers know for sure. They cannot prove that what they write is right or wrong. They can provide an extensive, detailed argument about subjectivism, egoism, or whatnot: but it all boils down to “Whatever I just wrote, I still have no idea whether this is the truth.” Well, according to the subjectivism chapter, what these philosophers believe to be true may not be true for everyone else. To them, truth is a matter of circumstance, or opinion, or perspective. But then, there must be some form of universal truth in order for all of us get along. What is this universal truth? How do we define it? Such is the type of questioning we receive in this class.

“Whatever I just wrote, I still have no idea whether this is the truth…”

Okay. So let’s back up and let me explain real quick: I’m not dissing other people’s beliefs or point of view. I promise, I’m not. But when asked the question, “Jones once killed a man over 37 cents, his job consists of dumping hazardous waste into the river, and he kicks puppies in his spare time. Is he a bad man or is he just doing what he thinks is best?” it will make you pretty angry to be discussing something that is clearly, purely wrong.

Philosophy is really all just a matter of opinion. When all is said and put into a book, we still don’t know the absolute truth unless it is fact. Philosophers still do not know if fetuses have souls. They do not know whether ‘the good’ and ‘the right’ are the same thing. And so on, and so forth… the arguments never end.

The arguments never end.

So, going back to the original question that Pessimist Mary posed to Sheila – the subject of this question is whether altruism (actions done to help others) truly exist, or whether every seemingly altruistic act is really for a selfish purpose. Do we commit altruistic acts to fulfill our individual wants and needs, or do we really do them selflessly?

This was my response:

“The act of covering a hand grenade is a split-second ordeal. There is no time to think “would my life be better or worse if I do or do not do this?” Something has to be done, and done immediately. Either everyone dies, or just one dies.

Let’s say that there was time to think before making this decision. Perhaps the thinking of a soldier requires that they have something to stand up for – such as freedom, family back home, or brothers-and-sisters-in-arms. They think instead, “By jumping on this grenade, I will be killed – but my fellow soldiers will have life and be able to see their families again. They will have freedom.” This is the kind of act that has no self-absorbed thought or intention. It is, by pure definition, altruistic.

Want another example? Feeding the hungry and homeless. Not everyone believe in Karma. If I treat someone well, it does not ensure that I myself will be treated well by other people. If I feed and clothe the homeless, the intention may simply be to help others in a time of need. There is no underlying motive. When we were created, we were given a monumental capacity for compassion and empathy: and where we see a need that should be filled, we desire to fill that need because there is compassion for others. Not because I am ensuring that others will help me if I should find myself in a poor situation, but because I know that someone needs help.”

Altruism does exist. Human beings can do things out of love, respects, and compassion. We can be unintentional heroes.

That’s all, folks.

Let me know what you think. As much as I dislike this class, I don’t mind hearing other perspectives and critiques!


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