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  • Atakan Erdogdu

Does Pure Altruism Exist?

Updated: Oct 12, 2019

Imagine the following situation: a nun has just left the monastery and commenced her journey to the city centre to make weekly purchases. After she finished her shopping, on her way back to the monastery, she stumbled upon a homeless man sitting on the pavement, a small cup placed in front of him and a sign in his hands saying: ‘Homeless single father, need money for family’. The nun, placing her hands in her purse, hears the tinkling of change and decides to give it to him. She then accepts the blessings of the man with a slight nod and continues her way back.

In this article, we will explore the forms of altruism, leveraging insights from philosophy, behavioural economics and neuroeconomics, and probe into the motives of the nun to determine whether her act of giving was indeed selfless.


Defining Altruism


Prior to taking a stance in the debate on altruism, providing a definition of it is imperative. De Quervian et. al. (2004) distinguish between the biological and psychological definitions of altruism. The biological definition treats altruistic behaviour as ‘any costly behaviour that confers an economic benefit to other individuals’, regardless of the motives behind such behaviour. The psychological definition, in contrast, requires that such behaviour is driven by non-hedonic motives, i.e. without any benefit perceived or expected by the giver. In the given situation, even if the act of giving was motivated by the expectation of immaterial or spiritual reward, the nun’s act would still be altruistic under biological, but non-altruistic under psychological interpretation. However, we are concerned with altruism viewed through the lens of psychology, i.e. pure altruism.


Altruism – Egoism Dichotomy


One way to understand whether pure altruism can exist is to think about its antithesis – egoism, the motivational state with the ultimate goal of increasing one’s own welfare. The famous philosophers, Hobbes’ and Nietzche’s views concerning the dichotomy weigh heavily towards egoism. Nietzche, in his book Human, All Too Human, stated that “any social instinct (behaviour performed to help another) is said to be derived from the communal seeking of pleasure and elimination of pain”. A strong resemblance to this idea can be seen in Hobbes’ philosophy. In his classic work Leviathan, he indicated that “no man gives but with the intention of good to himself, because gift is voluntary… and the object is to every man his own good.” Therefore, motives, not consequences, must be used to differentiate altruism from egoism. The two main types of altruism on the basis of motives are warm-glow giving and pure altruism.

  • Warm-Glow Theory: The recipient’s well-being is a means to benefit the donor

  • Pure Altruism: There are no motives, intrinsic or extrinsic, benefiting the donor


In behavioural economics literature, the concept of egoism is accounted through warm-glow theory, in which the act of giving is a reward to the donor. This can be a mechanism that signals wealth, depicts the donor’s character under a positive light, satisfies the desire for self-assertion, overcomes the fear of retribution of God, or reduces guilt. In our nun example, the last two motives might be the dominant reasons for giving. Accordingly, the most fundamental question of our debate arises: How can we know if there are rewarding motives behind altruistic acts – whether the donor perceives internal or spiritual rewards from the act of giving?


What We Do Know: Insights from Neuroeconomics


Neuroeconomics attempts to answer our questions through investigating neural mechanisms in the human brain. Through the usage of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we can identify the parts of the brain whose activity increases during the execution of an act. Therefore, if the activity of a reward centre increases whilst performing an altruistic act, we can argue that pure altruism does not exist.



The illustrated graph is taken from Harbaugh et.al. (2007) neuroeconomics experiment. The two contexts of giving were tax payments (red bars) and voluntary giving (orange bars) to a charity organization.


On the x-axis three parts of the brain (caudate, nucleus accumbens, and insula) are shown, which comprise the reward centre. On the y-axis, the standardized coefficients of activity are depicted. The researchers regard the condition of tax payment as pure altruism since they argue that the motives, in this case, are highly non-hedonic. This is due to both the emotional and physical disconnection between the donor and the recipient. However, a compromise could not be reached in the neuroeconomics literature, since other researchers argued that the incurrence of costs is what caused the activity of the reward centre. In the voluntary case, the increase in the reward centre’s activity emphasizes that the donor has received an intrinsic reward from the act of giving, which can be explained by the warm-glow theory.


Conclusion: Revisiting Motives of the Nun


In conclusion, although insights from numerous science branches concur that warm-glow giving exists, a conclusion has not been reached concerning pure altruism, as it would require the ability to know intrinsic motives behind altruistic acts. Hence, apropos of the nun, the determination of her altruistic stance is as elusive as ever. Hitherto, we do not have the tools which can determine whether she has engaged in the behaviour of giving due to intrinsic rewards or she has given for the sake of helping without expecting anything in return. Neither scientists nor philosophers could agree whether true altruism really exists; maybe it all comes down to your own perceptions of human nature. 


Further Readings:


Batson, C. D. (2011). Altruism in humans. Oxford University Press, Oxford.


De Quervain, D.J., Fischbacher, U., Treyer, V., Schellhammer, M., Schnyder, U., Buck, A. and Fehr, E. (2004) The neural basis of altruistic punishment. Science, 305, pp. 1254-1258.


Dickert, S. Vastfjall, D. and Slovic, P. (2015). Neuroeconomics and dual information processes underlying charitable giving. In: Neuroeconomics, judgment, and decision making, pp. 181-199. Psychology Press, New York.


Harbough, W. T., Mayr, U. and Burghart D. R. (2007). Neural responses to taxation and voluntary giving reveal motives for charitable donations. Science 316, pp. 1622-5.

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