I have an ongoing debate with my oldest son about pure altruism and whether it actually exists. He believes that nobody ever acts in a purely selfless way; part of the motivation for altruistic behavior, he argues, is to feel good about oneself as a person. If you get some reward from the supposedly altruistic act then it can’t be purely selfless.
I go back and forth on my position. “You haven’t had children yet,” I once told him. “If I had to choose between us, I’d die for you.” This was a cheap and sentimental argument, trying to use my supposedly self-sacrificial feelings as his father to win the debate. He would have none of it. “That’s just because you wouldn’t be able to live with yourself otherwise.” While that isn’t the only reason, of course not, it is definitely a large part of it. This question isn’t finally settled in my mind but I think my son is winning the debate. With the Christmas holiday approaching — “the season of giving” — I’ve been thinking about compassion and self-sacrifice, and what motivates people to engage in apparently altruistic behavior.