In my previous post I suggested that people sometimes act as they do because they want to help others and that to this extent they, their goals, and their behaviour can be called altruistic. This seems no more contentious than suggesting that people sometimes act as they do because they want to harm others and that to this extent they, their goals, and their behaviour can be called aggressive. I can think of few more worthwhile tasks than trying to understand people being altruistic or aggressive in these ways.
These conceptualisations of altruism and aggression are as elegant as I can make them. Multiple important things are and are not intended by the words I have very carefully chosen. I will explore all of them in later posts, but here are some headlines.
Altruistic and aggressive actions require an ability to conceive another’s welfare, motivation to influence that welfare, and the ability to pursue that goal. It is possible that things other than people can behave altruistically or aggressively if they have these capabilities. (Maybe certain animals, God, nature, groups, laws...?) It is also possible that, if they lack one or more of these characteristics, some people cannot behave altruistically or aggressively. (Maybe new-born babies, people in comas, the grief-stricken, narcissists, psychopaths...?)
Altruism and aggression are not mutually exclusive. It is perfectly possible to try to harm someone at the same time as trying to help them in other ways. (Think of an angry father holding his daughter just a little too tightly while explaining the importance of her not running out into the road again.)
A person being both altruistic and aggressive towards another can be called ambivalent. A person seeking neither to help nor harm another can be called indifferent. Altruism, aggression, ambivalence, and indifference capture all the orientations a person can adopt towards others.
No one can be altruistic or aggressive all the time, in every way, to everyone. When considering the possible existence of altruism or aggression it is almost always useful to ask, “Who is trying to help or harm whom and in what way?” (To whom and in what ways is a policewoman altruistic, aggressive, and indifferent when she shoots a man because she wants to prevent him killing some children?)
People do not always succeed in their sincere attempts to help or harm others. Even when they do succeed as intended, there may be unanticipated or unwelcome additional consequences. People who seek to help or harm others are altruistic or aggressive even if things do not turn out exactly as they wished. When deciding if a person is, was, or will be altruistic or aggressive, it is their goals to help or harm that count. (Is killing a sick animal altruistic or aggressive? What about relieving someone’s pain with drugs which are likely to kill them?)
It follows that the outcomes altruists or aggressors seek are intended to be helpful or harmful as they, the altruists or aggressors, understand those terms. Others may disagree with their assessments of what is helpful or harmful, including those they are trying to help or harm.
It is not only other individuals that people seek to help or harm. In my next post, I will compare and contrast people trying to influence others’ welfare (altruism and aggression) with people seeking to influence their own welfare (prudence and ‘self-harm’).
I hope you liked this post. If not, I apologise. I was trying to help.
Altruists seek to influence others’ welfare in ways that the altruists think are likely to be beneficial for those others.
Altruism requires an ability to conceive another’s welfare, motivation to influence that welfare, and the ability to pursue that goal.
When considering potentially altruistic behaviour, it is useful to ask, “Who is trying to help whom and in what way?”
Consequences other than those intended can result from altruistic acts.
Final thoughts and further reading
Parallels can be drawn between altruism and other goal-seeking behaviour and it is useful to draw them. People seem relatively reluctant to use the term “altruism” and relatively permissive in using the term “aggression”. I believe that the two are largely equivalent and should be used equally freely or equally restrictively. (Is a cat ‘playing’ with a mouse altruistic, aggressive, ambivalent or indifferent to its welfare?)
Carlsmith, K. M., & Sood, A. M. (2009). The fine line between interrogation and retribution. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45 (1), 191-196. [Link]
Rempel, J. K., & Burris, C. T. (2005). Let me count the ways: An integrative theory of love and hate. Personal Relationships, 1 (2), 297-313. [Abstract]
How to cite this blog post using APA Style
T. Farsides. (2013, September 30). Altruism and aggression. Retrieved from http://tomfarsides.blogspot.com/2013/09/altruism-and-aggression.html
Soldier carrying child from link
Record cover from video link