Altruism and Selfishness

This is how I define “altruism” and “selfishness”:

  • Altruism: Acting for the benefit of others.
  • Selfishness: Acting for your own benefit.

These definitions match the common usage of the words. They are as simple and clear as possible.

Of course, like all definitions, they depend on the meanings of other words. So, now we have to dig a bit deeper.

They both depend on the definition of “benefit”. Selfishness and altruism are relative to a definition of value: what is good or bad for an individual. There are different types of altruism and selfishness, depending on how we define “benefit”.

Here are some ways that “benefit” could be defined:

  • Biological: Reproduction is the measure of value.
  • Psychological: Desire is the measure of value.
  • Energetic: Energy is the measure of value.

Whether an action is altruistic or selfish depends on which definition is used. An action that is altruistic when viewed energetically could be selfish when viewed biologically. For example, parenting is energetically altruistic but biologically selfish.

We also need to clarify the meaning of “for”. What does it mean to do something for the benefit of X? Does it mean only that X benefits from the action, or does it mean that the action was intended to benefit X?

This distinction matters, because actions have many effects, not just the intended effect. Almost any action will benefit some and harm others. For that reason, I define altruism and selfishness in terms of the intent or purpose of the action, not its effects. To say that an action is for the benefit of X is to say that it has the intent or purpose of benefiting X.

For example, when I buy groceries at the store, my action benefits the owners of the store, the employees of the store, the producers of the goods that I buy, and various other people. However, my reason for buying groceries is not to cause those effects. It is to satisfy my own desires. Thus, buying groceries is a selfish act, even though it benefits others. It has a selfish purpose.

To judge an action as altruistic or selfish, we have to specify its purpose, function or intention. To simplify things, I’m going to use the term “purpose” for the goal of an action, whether it is consciously intended or not. Actions have purposes. They are done to produce some effect. The notion of purpose implies a value-system in which achieving the purpose has positive value for the agent. I will also use the term “agent” whether the doer is conscious or not.

With that in mind, I make the following claims:

  1. Biological altruism cannot evolve. If it exists for some reason, it will be selected against.
  2. Psychological altruism does not exist. Any voluntary act is based on the desires of the agent, and is thus psychologically selfish.
  3. Energetic altruism can and does exist. If it is a choice, then it is proximately governed by psychological selfishness. If it is an evolved behavior (conscious or not), then it has a biologically selfish function.

The argument for claim 1 is very simple. Evolution creates reproducing machines. Biological forms are selected for their contributions to reproduction. Reproductive altruism would be eliminated by natural selection.

Suppose that there are two genetic variants in a population, S and A, that have different behavioral strategies. Organisms of type S are reproductively selfish: they act only toward their own reproduction. Organisms of type A act to benefit other members of the population. The S individuals benefit (reproductively) from the actions of A individuals. The A individuals do not benefit (reproductively) from the actions of S individuals. So, the S population has a net reproductive benefit from the A population, while the A population has a net reproductive loss. It follows that the S population will increase at the expense of the A population, until the A population disappears.

Selfishness beats altruism.

This claim is hard for many people to accept, because it conflicts with their moral intuitions. But it is a trivial implication of evolutionary theory. If it were false, then evolutionary theory would have to be discarded.

Unfortunately, the term “altruism” is sometimes used in confusing ways by evolutionary biologists. Two confusing uses of the term are “kin altruism” and “reciprocal altruism”. Neither is biological altruism, by my definition.

Kin altruism is acting for the benefit of children or close relatives. Most kin altruism is parental care: parents taking care of their own offspring. Helping one’s offspring is biologically selfish, because it is instrumental to reproduction. Some kin altruism involves children helping parents or siblings. Helping parents or siblings is not directly instrumental to reproduction for the helper, but it is a trait that benefits a parent when expressed in children, so it can be selected for.

“Kin altruism” is a confusing term, because it is applied to biologically selfish behaviors. “Kin investment” is a more accurate term.

Generally speaking, biological traits are selected for their contribution to the reproductive fitness of the individual, not for altruism toward genetically similar individuals. If you were energetically altruistic toward others who share your genes, your behavior would be very different. You share about 99% of your genes with other humans. You share a significant percentage of them with most animals and plants. If you cared about others based on your genetic similarity to them, you would be willing to kill your own child to save five sea cucumbers. But of course, that’s not now people behave. Every day, we eat organisms that share a large percentage of our genetic code.

People often point to bees as an example of altruism in nature. In fact, bee behavior is entirely explained by biological selfishness. A bee hive is not a society. A bee hive is a family with some unusual genetic relationships that make it act almost like a single organism.

See Bees are Not Social.

Many people believe that kin altruism is the basis of society, but that is false. Society is based on cooperation between selfish individuals for their mutual benefit.

See Game Theory and Society.

Unfortunately, some biologists call cooperation “reciprocal altruism”. That is very misleading. Cooperation is selfish, not altruistic.

I can’t find the origin of the term, but it was made popular by the paper The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism by Robert Trivers, published in 1971.

In that paper, he gave this definition of altruism:

Altruistic behavior can be defined as behavior that benefits another organism, not closely related, while being apparently detrimental to the organism performing the behavior, benefit and detriment being defined in terms of contribution to inclusive fitness.

Note that he says “apparently”. He goes on to describe examples of cooperation, not altruism.

Cooperation can evolve, because it is selfish. There are many examples of cooperation in nature. Male and female birds work together to build a nest and raise their offspring. Algae and fungi live together in a lichen. A wolf pack hunts together. Cooperation depends on reciprocity, and there must be some way to create trust between the cooperators.

Now I will make the argument for Claim 2: that psychological altruism is impossible.

It follows simply from the definition of the terms. If you act voluntarily, you are (by definition) doing what you want to do. Intentional actions are based on desires.

You might occasionally say something like “I didn’t do it, even though I really wanted to”, but that is because you have conflicting desires. Suppose that someone offers you a slice of pizza, but you are on a diet, and so you don’t eat it. You have the desire to eat it, but you also have a stronger desire to not eat it. In that situation, you might say “I really wanted to eat the pizza”, but that’s not the whole truth. Taking both desires into account, you didn’t want to eat it. You did what you wanted to do.

You have different types of desires, and they can be in conflict, but your choices are always based on your desires. When desires conflict, the stronger desire wins out.

You do what you want to do.

Why do we sometimes want to help others?

One reason is that we crave the approval of others. Primates are small-group animals. For millions of years, our ancestors lived in small groups of less than 100 individuals. Our emotions are still mostly adapted to the ancestral condition of living in small bands or villages, in which everyone knows everyone else. In that environment, it was very important to be accepted and liked by others. We are emotionally adapted to create cooperative relationships with others. We want to be liked and accepted. A smiling face makes you feel good.

Like all behavior, social behavior is driven by emotions. We have special emotions that evolved to mediate social relationships. Those emotions evolved as biologically selfish mechanisms to extract energy from a social environment by cooperating with others.

Social emotions are not altruistic. We did not evolve to be nice. We evolved to live in societies, and maximize individual success in those societies. Generally speaking, people are friendly and prosocial only to the extent necessary to get what they want. If someone does not reciprocate your kindness, you will probably stop being nice to them.

Our ancestors stored value in the brains of others, in the form of goodwill. Social approval is a sign that you have good credit, and can cash in some of that goodwill for favors. Today, you can store money in a bank, and so the emotional approval of others has less practical importance. Modern civilization is based on explicit ideas, such as laws, money and citizenship, rather than emotions. But we still have the emotions of our ancestors, and so the goodwill of others still feels important. For our ancestors, it was essential to survival.

Cooperation is an exchange of work. Each side does something for the other. Both sides can benefit by exchanging work, either because they have different abilities, or because their combined actions can do something that neither can do alone.

Society is a work-exchange system, in which many individuals exchange work with each other. The individual invests work in society, and receives work from society. This could take the form of helping out your friends and receiving favors in return. Or it could be working for a wage that you can use to buy the products of other people’s labor. Either way, it is an exchange.

Society is not based on altruism. It is based on cooperation. It is a system of selfish individuals exchanging work for their mutual benefit. To the individual, society is a tool. Like any other tool, society is a way to increase the energetic efficiency of work. The members of a society are using it for their own benefit.

Now for claim 3. Energetic altruism does occur. If it is a choice, then it is proximately governed by psychological selfishness. If it is an evolved behavior (conscious or not), then it has a biologically selfish function.

The main form of energetic altruism is the transfer of energy from parents to children. Parents are often energetically altruistic toward their children. Parental investment in offspring is biologically selfish, because it is instrumental to reproduction. Reproduction is not just creating offspring. It is having offspring that live to reproduce themselves.

In many species, parents (especially mothers) protect and support offspring. In humans and most mammals, this behavior is caused by the emotion of parental love, which is instinctive. Parents bond with their children, and empathize positively with them. If your child is in pain, you feel bad. If your child is happy, you feel good. Parents are motivated to work for the benefit of their children. This is psychologically selfish, and it has a biological function.

Sexual cooperation occurs in some species. It often involves net energetic altruism from the male to the female, but this is a “payment” for reproductive services. The male invests energetically in the female, and the female invests in their offspring. Sexual cooperation is biologically selfish.

In humans, sexual cooperation is based on the emotion of sexual love. Sexual love is different from parental love. It is conditional on reciprocity. Male love is conditional on fertility (beauty) and sexual fidelity. Female love is conditional on male protection and support. Each side must fulfill its role in the relationship. Sexual love is psychologically selfish, and it has a biologically selfish function.

Energetic altruism is sometimes caused by the misfit of our social emotions to the modern environment. Our emotions are adapted to small societies, and do not work perfectly in modern civilization. This causes some energetic altruism in situations where reciprocity is unlikely. We are occasionally nice to strangers who will never pay us back. However, kindness toward strangers is relatively rare. We pretend to be much nicer than we actually are.

The belief that humans are altruistic is part of our culture. So is the belief that society is based on altruism. These are moral myths: shared delusions that hide the reality of human nature and society. These myths have even been projected onto nature, via the moralistic fallacy. Biologists have tried to find altruism in nature, or explain how altruism could evolve. Philosophers have tried to rationalize these myths with moral theories. This is all delusion.

Human nature is biologically and psychologically selfish. Energetic altruism can occur, but it is always psychologically selfish, and it reflects some biologically selfish function (although not always perfectly). Society is based on cooperation, not altruism.


  1. I have a semantic disagreement but I think it matters because words have emotional implications, and while you can define a word to mean something in an article, and the logic in the article can be internally consistent and spot on, readers will be left with an impression or a feeling that is not necessarily correct.

    Here are better definitions for the terms that I think match better to what people generally think:

    Altruism: helping others at your own expense

    Selfishness: benefitting yourself at the expense of others

    Cooperation: working with a group for the benefit of everyone in the group

    I might be mistaken in these definitions. Maybe it has to do with my native language. Maybe the corresponding terms in my native language don't exactly match what native English speakers think of when they think about these terms.

    According to my definitions, cooperation cannot be selfish (in relation to the group one is cooperating with).

    More generally, selfishness is the violation of the implicit cooperation contract within a group. When a member of a cooperative group acts in ways that benefits himself at the expense of other members, those other members will call him selfish, and they may eventually evict him from the group.

    Therefore, selfishness in relation to one's in-group is heavily selected against.

    Some class of actions are understood by people to be altruistic even though they might have benefit to the person acting them. The key is the certainty of the payoff and the expectation of it.

    A person who is rich might help poor people in his community without explicitly asking for anything in return. This is perceived by members of the group as altruistic.

    Whether or not the group rewards this altruism is not yet known at the time of the action, but since it has the possibility of payoff, it can evolve, and it can even evolve to the point where the person doing the altruism genuinely does not expect a reward (because expecting a reward might tip off other people that he's just pretending).

    If the person has enough excess resources, he might continue to perform occasional altruistic acts because of his evolutionary history: his ancestors benefitted from these acts when they performed them without explicitly asking for a reward.

    Pathological altruism is not just doing favors for others at your expense, it's doing favors for others to your detriment. We have emotions to prevent us from doing that: pride and honor.

    When a person does a favor for others and receives insults in return, he will feel angry and antagonistic.

    I think clarifying these terms is important.

    Doing something at your expense is not the same as doing something to your detriment.

    When you are rich, you can donate to charity. It's your expense (you lose some money) but not your detriment (you still have excess money). So it's not pathological.

    Obviously you get a psychological payoff: it feels good to be in the position of giving others. But that's besides the point. When people talk about how altruism can evolve, they mean specifically that our psychology motivates us to perform altruistic acts and rewards us for it. So this is not a valid objects.

    Now, if you help a poor person with food and shelter, and he pays back your favor by killing one of your children, and then you continue to do favors to this poor person, now that's being altruistic to your detriment. You are actively being hurt yet you are still doing favors to those who are hurting you. This is pathological altruism, and it indeed cannot evolve, because it will be selected against.

    1. I define and use both terms in a way that is consistent with their dictionary definitions.

      Maybe you dislike the terms because you tacitly assume that cooperation is not self-serving and that people are altruistic by nature.

      I've explained how cooperation evolved, and how it is driven by emotions. Cooperation doesn't have to be explicitly specified or consciously understood. We innately feel more friendly toward people who have done us favors, and we end friendships with people who don't reciprocate our favors. We evolved to cooperate instinctively and intuitively, not by consciously calculating costs and benefits. Our brains subconsciously calculate expected returns on investment in social relationships. (That's why you like some people and dislike others.) Our emotions were selected to generate cooperation, not altruism.

    2. You define selfishness as "Selfishness is acting for your own benefit." and you stop there. That's not how dictionaries define it. All the dictionaries define selfish as caring about yourself while disregarding others. The whole point of cooperation is that it benefits everyone, not just yourself. So by definition cooperation is not selfishness.

      You also define altruism as "Altruism is acting for the benefit of others." and you stop there.

      By your definition, cooperation is _both_ altruistic and selfish, because it benefits you and benefits others.

      I've noticed that actually the whole point of your essay is arguing semantics. You have a big problem with people describing cooperation as "reciprocal altruism", but this description is entirely consistent with your definition: if altruism is benefitting others, and if cooperation means people who benefit each other, then by definition cooperation is reciprocal altruism.

      Your entire point is that people are selfish, not nice. But you're just choosing definitions for these words that make your conclusion true. It's not the correct definition, therefore you are leading your readers to the wrong conclusions.

      I don't disagree with your analysis about how natural selection drives our behavior / psychology / emotions. I don't think there's anything really new or ground breaking here.

      But you're changing the meaning of words. This matters a lot.

      People are not good at remembering long and complicated arguments. People will just remember the conclusion or impression. They will think: I read this really well thought out essay that proves that everyone is selfish and no one is nice. But in their brain, this impression will hook in to their own internal definition of "selfish" and "nice", etc, which may not be the same as your definition.

    3. 1) I am not changing the definitions of words. I am using the terms as they are defined in most dictionaries, and I have also given my own definitions to be clear. The word "selfishness" has been used by famous authors (e.g. Any Rand) in the way I use it here.

      2) No, by my definition cooperation is selfish, not altruistic. It is for your benefit, not for the benefit of the other. "For" denotes the functional reason of something. E.g. "I went to the store for milk". Even if you buying milk allowed the store-keeper to pay his mortgage, that's not the reason why you went to the store.

      3) No, the point of the essay is not semantics. It makes biological and psychological claims. I have had this argument with dozens of people, and you are the only one to think it is about semantics.

      The intent of the essay is not to be new and ground-breaking. It is to debunk a common misconception about human nature: that we are altruistic and that society is based on altruism (by my definition). Even many biologists have these misconceptions, however, so it is contentious in almost any circle. For example, the famous biologist E. O. Wilson thought that bee hives were like human societies.
      Ordinary people often reject capitalism as "selfish and greedy", even though their own personal relationships are just as selfish and greedy. Leftists say "If you can be taught to hate, you can be taught to love", implying that society is based on love. So no, I am not just rephrasing conventional wisdom by any stretch of the imagination.

      I'm arguing against a deep and widely held belief about human nature. It's not possible to write such an article so it can just be skimmed briefly and understood without making an effort to think about the ideas.

    4. Society is not based on altruism. I do not disagree with that statement. Society is based on laws. A lawless society is not a society.

      But positive concern for the well being of others does exist in the human psychology. It was shaped by evolution. Of course these emotions ultimately exist to the reproductive advantage of yourself (or your parents - since your existence and reproduction is partly to their reproductive benefit). So the majority of these emotions are dedicated to your immediate family.

      (I know that you don't disagree with this - you actually explained in your essay how/why these emotions develop).

      These positive emotions also exist to a lesser degree with your close friends and relatives - cousins, for example. Although it may not manifest itself unless you have close contact with them, which was historically true. Most people in the past lived in large extended families and were always in direct contact not only with their direct kin but also their cousins. (This is a tangent, but it might be worth exploring whether or not friendship with strangers is a kind of "bug" that hooks into our natural tendency to befriend our cousins).

      Now, all these emotions do exist, but they are not altruistic. The definition of altruism seems to be "selfless concern for the well-being of others". This "altruistic" emotion probably only exists for your children, and it's obviously not the basis for society.

      But, "selfishness" is not the logical negation of altruism. Something being "not altruistic" does not imply that it is "selfish".

      I hold that your definition of selfishness is incomplete, and therefor incorrect.

      Definitions from major dictionaries:

      Cambridge dictionary:
      "Someone who is selfish only thinks of their own advantage:"

      Notice the keyword "only" which you drop from your definition.

      Merriem Webster (two entries)
      1 : concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself : seeking or concentrating on one's own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others
      2 : arising from concern with one's own welfare or advantage in disregard of others

      Again, both definitions include disregard for others. A key element of the definition that you ignore, and it changes the meaning of the word.

      Oxford Dictionary:
      (of a person, action, or motive) lacking consideration for other people; concerned chiefly with one's own personal profit or pleasure.

      Same point.

      British Dictionary:
      chiefly concerned with one's own interest, advantage, etc, esp to the total exclusion of the interests of others

      All major dictionary definitions match my definition and not yours.
      I don't know how you can look at these definitions and not see how your definition is not the same.
      It's blatantly obvious.

      Another way to think about the implication of this definition is in terms of prisoners dilemma. The two choices each person has is to act either (1) selfishly or (2) cooperatively.

      Selfishness is not the opposite of altruism, it's the opposite of cooperation. (another opposite of cooperation is altruism - maybe "opposite" is not the right term here, but I hope my point is clear).

      Buying milk from a store is not "selfish" - you simply need to ask anyone (who hasn't read your essay to be influenced by it) whether or not they think an action that benefits yourself without infringing on other people should be considered as "selfish". I predict that the majority of people would say that it should not be considered as "selfish".

      I'm of the opinion that words mean what the majority of people think they mean. The opinion of specific authors or philosophers (e.g. Ayn Rand) not withstanding.

    5. Your definition was "benefitting yourself at the expense of others"

      Not a single one of the dictionary definitions that you listed included "at the expense of others" or anything like that.

      "Disregard for others" is not "at the expense of others". It means that you are concerned with yourself, and not concerned with them. In other words, you are acting for your benefit, not theirs. It matches my definition, not yours.

      Every definition you listed fits my definition better than yours.

      You don't understand the prisoner's dilemma. The choices are selfishness or altruism. There is no cooperation choice, because reciprocity is not ensured. That's why the prisoner's dilemma has to be solved to create cooperation.

      I'm not going to waste more time on debating this in text. If you want to debate me, let's do it in voice.

  2. > Selfishness beats altruism.
    i would have really appreciated if you had defined/described `beats` as well; as much as you did for the `for`, `benefit`, `selfishness` and `altruism`, since i'm confused on what you meant by that

    i would take the stance of selfishness and altruism are inter-related and dependent on each other: have their fair shares of role/functionality to take and cannot exist solely as by themselves; just a confusion induced response to your statement `Selfishness beats altruism.`

    i think no one beats no other; beats in what? that's what i'm confused about. beats in responsibility(see another vague word which demands description :D)? beats in terms of material success? beats in a race to become a billionaire? (i hope i'm able to convey my confusion)

    as of now my stance is that these both, `selfishness` and `altruism` are symbiotic/intertwined/interrelated but i'm more than happy to modify my stance if you can describe what you meant by `beats` that'd be really good

    you have also described co-operation as selfish and not altruistic, i would say that's a really good perspective, i was taking co-operation as the middle point for selfishness and altruism, but seemingly it leans towards one end or another and might not be the actual middle point of the spectrum, i've not really given enough thought to it, so can't really give much of constructive criticism or appreciation, but overall very good perspectives and thank you for sharing those :D

    1. "Selfishness beats altruism" just summarizes the previous paragraph, which explains why biological altruism cannot evolve (claim 1). So, it should be clear in context what "beats" means. It means selfishness will be selected for, and altruism will be selected against, so selfishness will replace altruism.

      In an evolutionary competition (or an economic competition) selfishness will win and altruism will lose.

      Yeah, cooperation is selfish. It is an exchange in which both sides benefit.


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