On Atheist Heroes and the possibility of Altruism

Recently, a friend of mine started a discussion about whether acts of pure altruism are possible. Altruism is defined in my dictionary as “the practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others”. Philosophically, Altruism can only exist if there is a category of action which creates benefit for others, while creating no benefit (or even a detriment) to self. 

The denial of altruism is a fashion among certain styles of thinking. Ayn Rand style Objectivism says altruism is not only impossible, but even psychologically sick, since the “natural state” of human beings is competitive enlightened selfishness, in which the fittest and most deserving seize resources for themselves, to the detriment of those less fit and deserving. Biologist Richard Dawkins states that even our genes are “selfish” and fool us into behaviors that may appear cooperative or even self-giving, but in the long run are designed to spread our genetic material as widely as possible, to the detriment of other beings’ genetic material.

And lest we think this is merely an issue among “secular” thinkers, religion is rife with this as well. The first serious adult discussion I got into on the possibility of altruism was with a Christian pastor. When we were in our late 20's this pastor told me he doesn't believe in altruism, and the Gospel needs to be couched in a way that appeals to people's selfishness, to give people incentive to give their lives to Christ. Now he is an Evangelical megachurch pastor. And he is not alone. Most religions offer enticements which appeal to human selfishness in order to convert, or behave, or sacrifice: From “pie in the sky in the sweet bye and bye” of eternal life in a “heaven”, to avoiding “hell” in the afterlife, to social acceptance and promotion, to the more crass promises of riches and wealth found in Prosperity Theology. Religions are by no means exempt from effectively denying the possibility of altruism. 

But is this “double punch” from secular and religious authority enough to finish off the possibility of altruism once and for all?

I still think, on justified grounds, that truly altruistic acts are both possible and actual. One may say we are hard-wired and socially conditioned for cooperative behavior. And we are. We tend to feel intrinsically good when we help someone (even without any other social benefit). We tend to feel shame when we don’t help someone (even if no one knows but us). Yet, we are also hard-wired and socially conditioned to perform predatory behavior as well. We are trained to compete, to seize what we want, to fend off rivals to obtain resources we think will benefit us. 

But our “wiring” and our “conditioning” doesn’t destroy the possibility of predatory behavior that is self-serving, and based on the idea of winners and losers. Imagine how silly the argument would sound to say “Oh because Bob was programmed to act in a predatory way, therefore predatory behavior does not exist”. In the same way, it is a silly argument to say “Oh because Sue was programmed in an altruistic way, therefore altruistic behavior does not exist”. This is a variant of the Genetic Fallacy: The source of something does not determine its current reality, nature, or value.

So, although we are wired and conditioned for both predatory an cooperative behavior from our evolutionary inheritance, neither negates the actual conscious moral practice of selfishness or altruism by humans right now. The argument is whether altruism is currently a possible or even actual behavior. Again, altruism can only exist if there is a category of action which creates benefit for others, while creating no benefit (or even a detriment) to self. 

There are four categories of benefit to self in Utilitarian ethics:

A. Physical benefits: The action brings physical pleasure or increase of health and life. 

B. Social benefits: The action brings about affirmation, social power, or increased access to physical benefits through the community. 

C. Psychological benefits: The action brings about some sense of meaning or purpose or peace or other psychological good for the actor. 

D. Spiritual benefits: The action brings about blessedness of life in some other realm of being beyond this life. 

The question is: Is there a category of action in which the actor seeks to help others WITHOUT accruing any of the above benefits to themselves in so helping others?

The Christian faith is based upon a particularly gruesome and famous altruistic act. But my favorite example of pure altruism for the purposes of this kind of argument are atheist military heroes, especially of the sort that die in combat. People who wish to debunk altruism (often as a way of validating human selfishness, and hence their selfishness) will often write off martyrdom as a selfish attempt to get into heaven by a last great heroic act. This is often the comeback when I bring up Jesus or any of the saints or holy figures of other religions: They were just doing it to get a better parking spot in "heaven". I think this profoundly misses the point of real religion, but I don't even have to worry about that side argument when bringing up brave atheist soldiers who gave their lives and their futures to die for their country and their comrades. 

And, lest you think I am making up this category of person, here you go:

To this we might add all of the millions of Russian atheists who died during World War II to free their country from Nazi Fascism. We may argue whether their politics or economics were good or bad. But the fact is, millions of them laid down their lives for the benefit of others, in often gruesome ways, with no certainty of success.

There is no conceivable personal benefit for an atheist to give their life in service for their country or comrades. When they sacrifice their lives, they forfeit any kind of expectation future rewards, relationships, and pleasures. They have no expectation of going to heaven. They cease to exist. They have no way of being validated by the praise and honor that will be given in their memory. From their perspective there is precisely zero benefit they derive from their self sacrifice. 

And in fact, rationally they probably only can look forward to their martyrdom negatively affecting their family, and all who relied upon them outside of the battle field. And furthermore, any benefits they did accrue prior to their sacrifice— training, education, healthcare, social admiration, paychecks, etc.— all of that is forfeited the very moment they decide to jump on the grenade to save their comrades, rather than roll the other way and take cover.

To be specific, atheist heroes deny benefit D as impossible. The act of self sacrifice cancels out A entirely. Since they cease to exist, and have no knowledge of whether their act will actually help anyone else out, B is refuted as well. Only a perverse person would argue that the real reason they are sacrificing themselves is that they are masochists who enjoy C for the fleeting seconds they can savor death before falling into the void. Imagine how absurd it would be to say at a funeral for an atheist hero “Doug gave his life not for the good of others, but for the pleasures derived in imagining how great his sacrifice was in the split second before he lost consciousness and went into the void”. 

Some might even argue that the fleeting ephemeral pleasure of accomplishment is why Doug gave his life. But even if there was a microsecond’s awareness of pleasure (which is doubtful in such a situation), it was the effect of, and not the motive for, Doug’s heroic act. And it would be accompanied by massive amounts of pain and dread, followed by infinite nothingness. In short, the costs infinitely outweigh the “reward”. And if Doug was only acting for selfishness, he was infinitely stupid. If selfish acquisition is our moral norm, that would make Doug reprehensible, and not a hero. And yet, we all know deep down that Doug is a hero. This is because Doug’s act is one of heroic altruism in which there is no conceivable benefit, and many formidable detriments, for the atheist soldier who “falls on the grenade”. 

And yet, they were willing to give themselves over to the infinite void of nothingness in order to protect their comrades at arms. 

So regardless of how we are "wired", the case that altruism is both possible and actual is confirmed in the case of atheist heroes. This kind of act constitutes at least one entire category of altruism. Furthermore, this category of action could be easily enlarged by further showing that only a perverse justifier of rank selfishness could make the case that some sort of masochistic psychological pleasure is the real reason why a parent works three jobs to raise their kids, or why Mother Teresa gave her life in the slums of India. And these in turn would open the category further to include all kinds of small acts of sacrifice and kindness we find in the world. 

I am sure there are other equally powerful demonstrations of actual altruism, but atheist military heroes are the most conspicuous example that debunks the argument to justify selfishness that often hovers in the background of these discussions. I question the moral motivation of someone who wants to argue away any possibility of altruism. Want to argue it is rare? Fine. Want to argue it is difficult? True. But to argue it cannot happen? Why?

At the end of the day, I see two options here. Either acts of immediate self-sacrifice are conspicuous examples of heroic altruism, and thus represent the pinnacle of human good, because our moral norm is compassion and love. Or they are flawed and stupid attempts at self-reward, in which the intended benefit is infinitely smaller than the massive and total loss incurred, and thus they are morally evil, because our moral norm is to gain as much as possible for self. 

It may be that altruism functions as a kind of moral “North Star” to orient the ethical choices of our lives. For most people, most of our actions will be tinged with greater and lesser amounts of self-interest, even in our most “self-giving” acts. And we may never quite attain to pure altruism. But altruism still remains the infinite goal toward which we journey, which adds value and meaning to the paths we take in life. But at rare times, and in exceptional people, there is clearly a species of pure altruism displayed by their self-sacrifice for the good of others. And to try and exempt one's conscience entirely from the moral duty of altruism smacks of an ingrown and entitled moral malformation of some type. 

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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.