The Myth of Altruism

This article began as little more than a thought experiment about two months ago. I was at the firehouse, talking with a friend and colleague, solving the world’s problems as we sat on the back ramp when the question came to my mind. I asked, “Is it possible to be altruistic?” Granted, this isn’t the type of conversation most people associate with firefighters; if you watch the shows we should’ve been talking about booze, baseball, or b-e-a-utiful women. But every now and again I corner someone and hit them with a whopper.

As we started wandering these rather esoteric pathways, I admitted to recognizing a sense of creeping doubt lurking in my mind that I just had to go hunting for. Locked away in the recesses of memory, I told him, I had found the memory of a night out with a group of friends:

We’d ended up at a miserable, filthy bar that served miserable, watery drinks, and played miserable, terrible music. I watched one of my buddies approach a woman and strike up a conversation, and I immediately realized that in spite of the bravado he’d shown at the table, he actually knew her from previous visits. Interestingly, once she turned our way, I realized that I knew her, too.

My stepbrother had been in a relationship with her for a while, and in that time, he’d come to be a stable fixture in her life, and the lives of her two children. My brother loved her, loved her kids, and that was reciprocated as much as I could tell. The fact that she was in a bar flirting with other men made my brow wrinkle, but at least I could warn off one suitor.

“Hey, listen,” I said when he came back to the table, “my stepbrother and her are a thing.”

He replied, “Someone should tell her that.”

I agreed but made it clear, “I’m telling you.” I went on to tell him that my stepbrother is a stand up guy, one of the really good ones, and it would wrong of him to inject himself into what was already a fairly unsteady relationship. I told him about the relationship with the kids and how my stepbrother loves them and loves the woman and yadda yadda, but none of that meant anything.

“So what?” was the answer—or near enough to put quotes around it. “He’s not doing it out of the goodness of his heart. He’s getting something out of it, too.”

That interaction went on, the talk moving toward hostility and backing away from it in steady waves until we finally came to the decision to part ways for the evening. And apparently I’d packed it away in a dusty box for another time. There was something in there that had troubled me: Was the jerk hitting on my stepbrother’s girlfriend right? Was the good and faithful behavior of my stepbrother only motivated out of some emotional reward he received?

And maybe I couldn’t even understand that quandary until I became a father. When I walk up the stairs after 24 hours at the firehouse and see my son’s face light up in brilliant smile, my heart is filled to overflowing. Is it possible that the joy I receive from his happiness is the motivating factor behind all the things that I do for him? All that I do for my wife? All the sacrifices I make for my family? Are my selfless deeds really geared to achieve that reaction? Could I really be doing everything for them—for myself?

Instinctively, I rejected the concept out of hand, but trying to be the man of intellectual integrity I strive to be, I decided to really dig into it. Was it possible that every selfless act was, in fact, originally motivated by some selfish need or desire, only to be explained by the conscious mind with a noble and worthy tale?

At first, I was determined to tackle the topic with cold reason. It seemed a simple enough topic; it should fall apart under properly applied logic, but as I measured it, I found it difficult to find a dividing line. Definitionally—at least denotatively—altruism is simply an act committed for the betterment of another without the expectation of benefit or reward for oneself. Now, if I used that as the dividing line, all these other problems fall out:

What does it mean to better someone else? What is benefit? What is reward? Is altruism only to do with motivations, or is it altered by the ends of my actions? If I receive a reward even if I don’t expect one, does that destroy my altruism? What if I know I will receive a benefit, but my actions are not motivated by that benefit? Is any act of betterment inherently Good? Is Good a necessary marker of altruism? Heck, what is Good? What is Right?

That’s when I realized that this problem isn’t the diamond cutter making precision cuts with fine tools. No, the first division is more akin to splitting wood. A firm stance is necessary, a solid grip, a steady eye, and smooth swing. But it all depends on that stance. On the footing. And when it comes to dealing with the root of the problem, you have to identify your presuppositions and worldview.

What do I mean? Presuppositions and worldview?

Everyone has a worldview.

Well, I talked a little about this last month in my article on Salvific Relativity, and we’re going to have to revisit some of that same ground. You see, without a final authority, we can’t define Good. If we presume that there is no creator of the universe, then we reduce each member of humanity to the caused effect of an infinite infinity of previously caused effects. In other words, at the beginning of the universe—is the Big Bang still a thing?—an atom of nitrogen ricocheted off a bundle hydrogen, which redirected into a gaggle of oxygen and on down the line like extra-galactic billiards until matter gained significant mass and gravity started acting on particles and spaces and energies began to expand and sooner or later we end up with Neanderthal bumping around this spheroid planet we call Earth.

I mean, if Newton’s Third Law is correct (and always has been correct—another presumption we have to make), then absolutely nothing up until now has happened by chance. It’s just physics. I’m writing this because this is just what this sack of chemicals we call Chad does at this particular temperature at this particular place while being acted on by the forces acting on him. And all these things were set in motion a gajillion years ago. If we had breadth and depth of vision enough, we could calculate the future. In this worldview, there is no such thing as Good; only cause and effect. No such thing free will; only chemical reaction. And therefore, nothing that we do is truly altruistic, because in order for an action to be altruistic, it must be taken purposefully; and in that worldview there is no purpose.

But let’s say you reject the idea that your behavior is roughly (read: precisely) caused by geometry. Let’s say that you hold that in spite of all the physics in the universe, mankind is still capable of making meaningful and purposeful decisions. You think that mankind has evolved through natural processes from proteins and amino acids to single-celled life to fish to frogs to monkeys to man. Yeah, I know that’s not the chain, but it doesn’t ultimately matter in this discussion.

Well, we don’t have a foundation for what is Good. Through the process of evolution, we have become masters at perpetuating our own genetic material. Not a single generation of our ancestry has failed to continue the line. It’s up to us to see that our species continues on—and more distinctly, we will do what we can to ensure that our own genes are the ones to move the species forward.

Our idea of Good essentially becomes a matter of mathematics. Is the action we take beneficial to more members of our species than it is harmful to? If A is greater than B, then the action is Good. Right? Well, it’s not that simple. Because humans haven’t evolved to think on a species-wide level.

Look at your own life. You’re first. Always. If you’re on fire and your spouse is on fire—sorry, deary, you’re gonna burn for a little longer while I save my own skin. And sure, you could argue that it’s not really a choice and I would tell you, “Precisely.”

But your spouse would be second, because they help you rear your children. And your children are your way of passing your genes to the future, so they’re third. And then it would be members of your tribe. Whatever little enclave you’ve set up to help you survive against the ravages of the world, be they saber-tooth tigers, machete-wielding Hutus, tornadoes, overly-aggressive soccer hooligans. Whatever, whenever. The point is, it’s concentric circles of concern all surrounding one little speck. You.

All those concentric circles, though, intersect with other concentric circles, radiating from other little specks. And every little speck has concentric circles. Every single one. Sometimes our concerns fall in line with others, and that’s where tribes and neighbors and societies and communities of all shapes and sizes come from, but there is eventually conflict. One society has a different set of values than another. One culture has a different set of social mores than another. One group has defined “good” differently than another. So when two groups disagree on what is “right” and what is “good,” which one is truly correct? Both? Neither? Whichever group is mathematically superior? More technologically advanced? More erudite and sophisticated? Has the more influential culture? And by whose standards ought these questions be answered?

At the end of the day, it is the ancestors of fish arguing against the ancestors of fish about how to make better frogs. By what standard are frogs better than fish? Frankly, in this vein of thought, why is existence to be preferred over non-existence? By what human standard is “to be” better than “not to be?” If all you have to go on is consensus, then you end up in some ridiculously convoluted and inherently contradictory places.

I’m going to steal an analogy (understanding that all analogies are inherently flawed, just go with me):

Let us imagine a world completely conquered by a barbaric and murderous nation. Call it what you will. In that world, a soldier tortures an innocent child. The child did nothing to deserve his torment. He committed no crimes. His torture is approved by all members of the nation as necessary to the continuation of that nation. Even the child, himself, accepts his torture. Is the soldier’s action Good?

Well, according to the evolutionary worldview that places societies and cultures as the final arbiters of their own moralities, there is no room to decry the act. And yet I would hope that most, if not all of you, would see that the torture of an innocent is grotesque and abhorrent.

Again, if we’re nothing but the ancestors of fish, it doesn’t matter. Good is alterable. Evil becomes virtue without a whimper.

And nothing to stand on. Can’t swing the axe cleanly. No way to solve the problem of altruism. That’s a dark place to be.


When I got here, I was actually optimistic. I thought that as I snuggled myself down into my Christian worldview, the Truth of Altruism would just spring forward. Bells and whistles, ticker tape parade, songs of joy! But it didn’t happen that way.

You see, I immediately recognized that if altruism is a work of betterment for another without the motivation of reward, then in a Christian worldview, mankind is not capable of such an act of Good. The psalmist tells us (143:2) that “no one living is righteous.” In Psalm 53 we are told “there is none who does good, not even one.”

The prophet Isaiah says (53:6) “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

Paul affirms this all throughout his epistle to the Romans:

  • 3:10-12, quoting Psalms – “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”
  • 3:23 – “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”
  • 5:12 – “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned”
  • 11:32 – “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.”

This concept of “total depravity” is throughout both Old and New Testaments. In no particular order: Genesis, 2 Chronicles, Micah, Ecclesiastes, Matthew, Mark, Luke, 1 John. This list is nearly inexhaustible. So if I hold to God as my final authority, and I hold to scripture as the infallible Word of God, then I have to accept that mankind, left to his own devices, will openly rebel against the will of God and what He declares is Good.

That fits. Man cannot do Good of his own accord. And this is where God comes in. We have His promise in Ezekiel 36:25-27 “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” [emphasis mine]

“I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh…”

And what are those rules? Well, according to Jesus (Matthew 22:37-40), “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

All of the Law. So, whatever Good we do is done through the Holy Spirit in accordance to the Lord our God’s just decrees. Is it possible to do selfless Good when you are commanded to do so? If you’re only following orders, how can any action be truly selfless? Clearly, I wouldn’t be doing Good if left to my own devices, right?

It’s here that I got stuck. For about two weeks I rolled around in this mire, wondering if I had proven to myself that all good intentions were truly just a mirage. I had convinced myself of the myth of altruism. Strangely enough, it was the United States House of Representatives vote on the AHCA that was the catalyst that showed me the error of my reasoning.

Now, I certainly don’t mean to say that a bunch of puffed up bureaucrats showed me a gap in my theology, but it was an internet interaction with a friend that opened my eyes. You see, she has a daughter with serious medical conditions and physical disabilities. She’s an amazing mother who feels with her entire heart. And in a moment of frustration and fear, she posted a meme that criticized anyone who disagreed with the position that the federal government ought to be involved in the health care of the citizens.

Don’t fade on me, now, I’m not taking this into any political realm, I promise. You can have your view and your neighbor can have his, but it’s irrelevant to what we’re discussing here.

I reached out to her and gave her a couple reasons why some folks might take issue with the old Affordable Care Act, and how those reasons don’t make those people heartless or unsympathetic or greedy. She got emotional and I had to assure her that I wasn’t trying to argue some political point, only trying to open her eyes to the fact that we shouldn’t drop f-bombs on people just because they disagree with us; that they might just see a different path to the betterment of others.

It was the realization that there are caring, loving, responsible people on both sides of this incredibly divisive political issue who were acting selflessly for the betterment of the country. Not just individuals, but the entire nation as a whole. My reasoning balked, of course, this didn’t really add anything new to my thoughts on altruism. I mean, God working within and through us is clearly still the catalyst for our Good actions, but it all rested in the discussion of how we choose to treat our fellow man.

When speaking on the nature of man’s depravity, it’s easy to lose track of the true nature of our free will. Without God, we are incapable of choosing Good. That does not mean that Good is not a choice open to us, only that we will not choose it.

It was best put to me this way: Do you command your dog not to sit in a chair at the kitchen table and eat its meals with fork and knife?

Dogs can’t play poker! Crazy!

No. Obviously that’s unnecessary. It is not in the nature of your dog to make such a decision. Likewise, with man, we are inherently incapable of choosing what is Good. We still freely choose what we want, but what we want is always detestable in the sight of God. It is God’s Grace, and His Grace alone, that opens our hearts to the greater possibilities. It is only God’s Grace that gives us true freedom. True free will.

It is there, in that freedom, that altruism exists. God makes it possible for us to choose selfless acts of charity and love. It is God, and God alone, that takes our hearts of stone and gives us hearts of flesh to feel the pains of our fellow man and to act to soothe those hurts. It is God who gives us eyes to see the hardships of our neighbors and a willingness to spend our time and our energy and our money to aid them.

You may get something in return—a burger, help cleaning out your gutters, shoveling your driveway, or removing fence posts when you’re just too tired to do it on your own—but if you’re seeking some reward, then that’s not altruism anyway.

No, altruism is measured by our own motivations, and without God, your motivation cannot be pure. It’s careening atoms or the propagation of the species or the protection of your tribe or the obedience to your cultural mores. Because man, in his natural fallen state, cannot choose what is Good.

Only through God. Which means only through Christ.