In exploring some of the biological issues surrounding selfishness and altruism, invariably the philosophical issue of selfishness surfaces. Ayn Rand has argued that selfishness is a virtue because it is the rational and principled concern with one’s own well-being and is necessary to lead a healthy, purposeful, and fulfilling life. It isn’t my intent to deal with Ayn Rand, but rather to examine the sense that many people have regarding these concepts.

The only problem with Ayn Rand’s definition is that the meaning of “selfishness” was manipulated to become “self-interest”. According to the dictionary definition, “selfishness” is “extreme or exclusive self-interest” which is also the commonly understood form of the word.

By changing this definition, it became a case of where helping someone became a selfish act, because it was done only to make the individual feel good. In this case, we reach the nonsensical conclusion that altruistic acts are ultimately selfish. While I’m sure we can all parse such meanings and see how they might be assessed in that fashion, it is useless as an operating definition because it only allows one conclusion to ever be drawn.

Self-interest is not a choice one makes. It is simply the first-person state we find ourselves in and consequently any choice we make is clearly a self-interested one. In other words, it isn’t the consequences of our choices but rather the fact that we have choices that establishes the point that we are acting in our self-interest.

It is important to understand that our “interest” in this case, is not always beneficial, nor does it need to be. Self-interest is the base from which other actions can be interpreted as being “selfish” or “altruistic”.

The selfish individual tends to exaggerate the role and importance of self-interest and is generally viewed as not caring how it may impact others, while the altruistic individual will be inclined to suppress their self-interest in favor of others. Selfishness and altruism are opposites of each other and both ultimately relate to how individuals act in their self-interest within a cooperative group. Therefore we can say that selfishness represents individuals that want to withhold from the group, while altruism represents individuals that are willing to sacrifice for the group.

It is also necessary to recognize that individuals may belong to a wide range of groups, each playing roles of varying importance, so actions can be interpreted in that context, as well as recognizing that the behavior of selfishness and altruism are not constant characteristics, but may change with the circumstances and individuals involved.

Ultimately it is up to the cooperative group to make the value judgment regarding how selfishness or altruism would be viewed, and up to the individual to determine how they make choices.

While many of us feel comfortable in identifying selfishness, altruism is a bit more of a stretch. In many cases, the only images we have are caricatures of the reality.

Altruism has been institutionalized in most countries of the world. Ironically these are represented by religious organizations and the military. Religious groups typically establish themselves on the altruistic front by their beliefs, so that isn’t an unexpected development.

Of more interest is how altruism has been institutionalized by the existence of the military. It should be recognized that the purpose of the military is to have a collection of individuals that are fundamentally prepared to sacrifice themselves for the group they represent. We also see comparable behaviors in groups like the police, fire departments, etc.

Essentially all these organizations serve to promote the welfare of the group and specifically avoid the self-interest of the members within that group. This isn’t to say that there is no concern for their well-being, but the point is that the purpose of these organizations is specifically to avoid advancing individual self-interest and instead focus on the protection of the group and potentially sacrificing themselves for that objective.

What is also of interest is that many of the members in such organizations wouldn’t necessarily see themselves behaving altruistically. Instead we use words like “duty” and “honor”, but in the end, they are just different ways of expressing altruistic group behavior.

One can also observe any number of action/adventure movies or crime dramas and see no end of altruistic behaviors shown by the heroes. Invariably the bad guys are ultimately selfish. The real irony is that most people tend to view altruism as some sort of mindless, self-sacrifice, akin to sheep going to the slaughter. Yet, some of our main entertainment and respected organizations exist specifically for that purpose.

Whether anyone likes it or not, the cooperative group is an absolute necessity to the survival of humans. So it is useful to recognize that human society honors and respects those that participate in the altruism of group preservation. While the myth that humans are “rugged individualists” and that “selfishness is a virtue” may initially sound reasonable and even attractive. It is just a myth and never has been true, nor will it ever be true.