Thought Leadership

How selfish are you? Is there such a things as altruism?

By Colin Walls

Sometimes it can be interesting to ponder the imponderable – to try and figure out some of the mysteries of life [the Universe and Everything]. It is surprising how often such considerations can result in circular arguments or intellectual dead ends.

This is what I faced when I was thinking about selfishness and altruism …

We are approaching a time of year that, for many of us, is [or should be] dominated by thoughts and actions for the benefit of others. For example, in the town where I live the Food Bank has been so inundated with donations that they see their biggest challenge now is distribution. [I am not going to be drawn into the political discussion of whether such a facility should need to exist in a civilized country.] The world is also mourning the death of Nelson Mandela – a man who sacrificed a third of his life by going to jail for simply demanding what he was sure was right and just.

As children, we are taught not to be selfish, even though other aspects of our society encourage a “look after number 1” approach to life. I would be the last to suggest that caring for others is a bad idea, but I wonder whether it is actually possible to be truly selfless – to really exercise pure altruism.

Looking up “altruism” in a dictionary, I found: “The quality of unselfish concern for the welfare of others”, which was more or less my understanding of the word’s meaning. So, to be altruistic in its precise sense, you must perform an act which benefits another person or other people, but has no benefit to yourself. Can you ever do that? Of course you can perform charitable deeds and random acts of kindness for which you receive no material reward. But you probably feel good about yourself and is that not a reward in itself?

I have never been very good at asking people for help. But, although my life is very good now, I faced some challenging times a few years ago. At that time, I needed to ask for help and found that people were only too happy to assist. When I thought about it, I began to understand why. I asked myself how I felt when someone sought my help and I was able to oblige. The answer was that I felt pretty darned good.

To understand many aspects of the world, both physical matters and psychological issues, it can be helpful to look at the extreme scenarios, as this can give some clues about the everyday situation. What is the ultimate selfless or altruistic act? I guess the answer is the sacrifice of one’s own life for the benefit of others. But, if you are religious, you may believe that your reward will come in the “hereafter”, so the act is not altruistic. Maybe it is, if you are atheist. Then again, you may be thinking about what they will write on your gravestone …

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at