Altruism vs Self Interest

1 January 2017

Who is the Real Winner? Altruistic acts extend across the whole world, from humans to all different kinds of animals. Soldiers storming the beaches of Normandy for the freedom of our country to Vervet monkeys sounding loud alarms to warn of threats even though it draws a predators attention to themselves (Crowl 1). Altruism and self-interest are inherent motivations in all species and will continue to be forever. Personally, whenever I hold the door for someone it makes me feel good about my self since I was making life that much easier for one of my fellow human beings.

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While at the same time thoughts float around my mind that make me think about why I held the door. Was it because I really was trying to help out another person or was it because I was looking for the satisfaction from the thank you I would receive from the individual I held the door for. It would bother me for about a minute or so and then I would come to the rationalization that I was just being a nice guy and trying to do the right thing. Call it altruistic or see it as me acting out of self-interest, either way it is just the right thing to do and I cannot beat myself up too much about it.

This controversy between self-interest and altruism has gone through many people’s heads at some points, and both Jenner and Darwin had to deal with this topic of discussion during their lifetime and within their own work. Of course it is always nice to get a pat on the back and be recognized for accomplishments one has achieved over a lifetime, but at the end of the day what are our motives to do these generous things and to help others? Edward Jenner was surrounded by medical practices his whole life and eventually took up a career of being a successful family doctor and surgeon.

Any job in the medical field requires at least a little bit of altruism since you are actually in the profession of helping others. Jenner did not just stick to practicing his day job, he also started to gain an interest into the origins of smallpox. He came up with the initial theory of, “The initial source of infection was a disease of horses, called “the grease”, which was transferred to cows by farm workers, transformed, and then manifested as cowpox “(Jenner).

Even though later on he found out that cowpox did not come from “the grease” he continued to test his theories trough trial and error until he came up with what he thought to be mmunization of smallpox. Jenner did not have to take all this time and effort out of his life to pursue this global epidemic that was killing 30 percent of whoever contracted it. Only Jenner could possibly know his true motives behind all the hard work he put into smallpox, but to me it is a combination of two things. First, he pretty much grew up in a hospital and was around medical practice his whole life and looked at smallpox as a challenge that had stumped the whole medical community and he was going to be the one to solve the problem.

At first glance it seems like he is seeking glory for being the doctor who solved the smallpox epidemic and acting in a very self-interested manner. After further analysis of the situation I realized there was another motive pushing him to eradicate smallpox. He had to be thinking of his four children and the possibility of them contracting the smallpox virus. This most likely gave him thoughts of other kids around the world and how this virus could ruin their childhood and life.

Although, it may sound like a stretch, I’m sure this had to of crossed Jenner’s mind once or twice throughout all of his work toward the vaccination of smallpox. What makes me think Jenner did it mostly out of pure altruism and love for helping others is that he did not get to reap the full rewards of saving so many people. He was dead over a hundred years before the World Health Organization declared the virus to be totally eradicated. I’m also sure he did not know that his work saved more lives than the work of any other man in history and no one will out do him anytime soon.

So naturally, I would say Jenner acted mostly out of pure altruism and did all of his work for the better of our species. Charles Darwin is best known for establishing the fact that all species of life have descended over time from common ancestry and also the idea of natural selection. The theory of natural selection can also be described as “survival of the fittest” and according to the theory, those individuals with slightly better adaptations throughout time would get more food, be healthier, live longer and most importantly have more sexual mates (Darwin Chapt. ).

This would cause the individuals to act out of self-interest and do what ever it takes for themselves to live as long as possible and pass on their genes so they could continue their species. But in nature today we see that it is not totally true because all living things have to act unselfishly sometimes for the better of their whole species survival. This was the biggest dilemma for Darwin himself and he probably recognized it as the greatest challenge to his theory of natural selection he talked about in his book “The Origin of Species”.

I could see Darwin getting very frustrated and worked up over this very idea since it pretty much goes against all of his findings. Organisms acting against their own self-interests, inevitably slimming their chances at reproducing just would not make sense to him. Darwin would argue that such a trait in an organism would eventually die out since those carrying it would be putting themselves at a disadvantage. After some further research, I found that evolutionary forces also act on groups as a whole rather than just individuals.

Later research by many scientists have shown how an individual organism may, by reducing its own advantage, increase the survivability of the group and thereby a greater proportion of its own characteristics (Crowl 2). It just shows how far being altruistic goes in all forms of life. Putting others before you is not only the right thing to do but in the end it benefits your species as a whole. Obviously, you have to act in your own self-interest in specific situations but it is always good to balance the two and keep them in equilibrium.

And so it goes on, the everlasting debate between acting out of pure self-interest or having an altruistic point of view on life. This argument can get brought up in almost any context and in regard to any human being or any other species on the face of the earth. I picked two of the more famous and interesting people in our history compare and contrast their view on this topic and how it correlated to their life long studies. No matter how much I tried to get inside their minds and understand their motives I could only do it to a certain point.

I would think I had a full understanding of why they were doing what they were doing but then another possibility would pop into my head. Analyzing as much as you want but at the end of the day only each individual can truly know their own motives and reasons for their actions.

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