Friday, 21 March 2014

Altruistic Desires

When people are altruistically helpful, there is a sequence that runs from altruistic desires (wanting something good for another) to altruistic goals (intending to make things better for another) to altruistic actions (trying to make things better for another) to bringing about altruistic outcomes (making things better for another).

Goals, actions, and outcomes are only altruistic to the extent that they are motivated by attempts to satisfy altruistic desires. A commitment or an action taken to improve another’s welfare is not altruistic if the other-benefit is sought only instrumentally to satisfy non-altruistic desires. (“I’ll cheer him up so that he goes out with his mates and leaves me in peace. I’d not bother otherwise, the mardy git!”) [EDIT: I have come to think that it is an error to be prematurely purist about altruism. That is, I think there is value in first of all identifying whether a commitment or an action is aimed at other-welfare - at all, for any reason - and then worrying about 'deeper' reasons for that commitment or action - which can and should be considered at least 'superficially' altruistic - see If a hit man dispassionately assassinates someone we want to call his action 'aggressive' even once we know he 'only' committed the act for the 'selfish' reason of wanting to be paid. Similarly, if someone devotes their lives to helping others, their acts are at least 'superficially' altruistic even if 'ultimately' motivated only by a 'selfish' belief that being good is necessary and sufficient to get into heaven.]  Nor is an outcome which brings unintended benefits to another, even if foreseen (“I knew my folks would be thrilled but even that didn’t stop me!”)

Desires express personal preferences. Altruistic desires express personal preferences for situations in which others benefit.[1] There are two strands of evidence for altruistic desires.

The first is that people’s emotions and evaluations can be influenced by the perceived, remembered, or anticipated fate of those they feel altruistic toward. Even if they have done nothing to bring such events about, people can feel pleasure and satisfaction when valued others benefit (“I was delighted when he won the contract that brought an end to his financial woes!”)[2] and they can feel unhappiness and dissatisfaction when harm befalls others they care about (“I hate thinking of the pain those kids went through”).[3] Such reactions reveal that people can appreciate – and therefore desire - benefits for others.

The second strand of evidence that personal desires can be altruistic is that they can motivate altruistic intentions and actions, i.e., ones that are clearly directed towards trying to benefit others and that are satisfied by doing so.[4] When they behave altruistically, people do not seek benefits for ‘the self’. Rather, they seek personal satisfaction by helping those towards whom they are altruistic. [See comment after "EDIT" above. I now want to say that there is value in calling an act altruistic (if it is immediately aimed towards other-benefit) even if the 'deeper' motives for the action are themselves not altruistic. By this account, a shopkeeper is behaving at least superficially altruistically if they are trying to help, even if the reason they are trying to help is not altruistic, just as a boxer behaves aggressively even if they are doing so only to win a prize.] If trying to help will make things worse for others, people altruistic towards them [EDIT: with altruistic motives] will be less likely to act.[5] (“I stopped making his lunch when I realised that doing so was making him dependent and spoilt.”) Similarly, people may not be able or willing to enjoy themselves if doing so requires passing up opportunities to help others towards whom they feel altruistic.[6] (“I just couldn’t find the Comic Relief sketches funny until I’d made a donation. I really wanted to help those poor souls!”) Choices such as these reveal that people sometimes want - and therefore sometimes specifically pursue - good things for others.

A key issue is where altruistic desires come from.

One source can be witnessing someone in a need. The compassionate emotions and helping attempts that often result provide strong evidence of altruistic desires. It is less clear whether compassionate emotions give rise to altruistic desires, are a consequence of altruistic desires, actually are altruistic desires, or merely sometimes accompany altruistic desires. Addressing this question is beyond the reach of this blog post. Instead, let us say that desires are expressible via the statement “I want...”, altruistic desires are expressible via the statement “I want good things for someone else”, and that compassionate emotions can be both a source of altruistic desires and an explanation for why they sometimes lead to altruistic goals. If a person feels compassionate emotions in response to someone's situation (“I feel sorry for them”) this can give rise to an altruistic desire (“I wish someone would help them” or “I would like to help them”) which can in turn give rise to altruistic motivation (“I’m going to help them”).

Actual or anticipated emotions other than compassionate ones are credible candidates as sources of altruistic desires. People feeling particularly good (“I feel so joyful!”) may want to spread the love (“I want everyone to feel as good as this!”) and people feeling bad in some ways (“I feel so guilty!”) may want to make the world less unpleasant for others (“I want to put things right for you”). Similarly, people may want to help in order to avoid feeling negative emotions or increase the likelihood of feeling positive ones, in each case specifically by improving others’ welfare.[7]

Moral and religious dogmas often decree that people have duties to help others. It seems reasonable to entertain the possibility that in some circumstances people may move from perceived requirements or obligations to help (“Someone should help” or “I should help”) to personal altruistic desires (“I want to help”).

People often have or make commitments that result in certain responses and behaviours becoming semi-automatic. Loving someone (“You are my reason for living!”) or wanting to be a certain sort of person (“I want my life to have meaning”) can lead people to value helping others (“I want to make your life perfect!” “I want to help the poor and needy”).[8]  

Each of these possibilities and others will be considered in greater depth in subsequent blog posts. For now, the important points are that (1) altruistic desires are a foundation link in a chain that can lead to altruistic goals, actions, and outcomes, and (2) exposure to situations which evoke compassionate emotions may not be the only way of engendering altruistic desires. As others including Batson have noted, the possibility of promoting enduring altruism would be greatly enhanced if we can identify determinants of it that are less capricious and fleeting than are emotions.[9]


[1] Batson (1997, pp. 520-521).
[2] Batson et al. (1988, Experiment 1).
[3] Batson and Weeks (1996).
[4] Batson (1987).
[5] Sibicky et al. (1995).
[6] Batson et al. (1989).
[7] Candidate emotions and anticipated emotions include anger (Vitaglione, & Barnett, 2003), guilt (Baumeister et al., 1994; Lindsey, 2005),  joy (Cunningham et al., 1980), and elevation (Schnall et al., 2010).
[8] Batson (1987, p. 92); Batson et al. (1995); Schoenrade et al. (1986).
[9] Batson (1997, p. 522).


Batson, C. D. (1987). Prosocial motivation: Is it ever truly altruistic? In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 20, pp. 65-122). New York: Academic Press.
Batson, C. D. (1990). How social an animal? The human capacity for caring. American Psychologist, 45 (3), 336-346. 
Batson, C. D. (1997). Self-other merging and the empathy-altruism hypothesis: Reply to Neuberg et al. (1997). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 517-522.
Batson, C. D., Batson, J. G., Griffitt, C. A., Barrientos, S., Brandt, J. R., Sprengelmeyer, P., & Bayley, M. J. (1989). Negative-state relief and the empathy-altruism hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56, 922-933.
Batson, C. D., Dyck, J. L., Brandt, J. R., Batson, J. G., Powell, A. L., McMaster, M. R., & Griffitt, C. (1988). Five studies testing two new egoistic alternatives to the empathy-altruism hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55, 52-77.
Batson, C. D., Turk, C. L., Shaw, L. L., & Klein, T. R. (1995). Information function of empathic emotion: learning that we value the other's welfare. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68, 300-313.
Batson, C. D., & Weeks, J. L. (1996). Mood effects of unsuccessful helping: Another test of the empathy-altruism hypothesis. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22, 148-157.
Baumeister, R. F., Stillwell, A. M., & Heatherton, T. F. (1994). Guilt: An interpersonal approach. Psychological Bulletin, 115, 243-267.
Cunningham, M. R., Steinberg, J., & Grev, R. (1980). Wanting to and having to help: Separate motivations for positive mood and guilt-induced helping. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 38, 181-192.
Lindsey, L. L. M. (2005). Anticipated guilt as behavioral motivation. An examination of appeals to help unknown others through bone-marrow donation. Human Communication Research 31, 453-481. 
Schnall, S., Roper, J.,& Fessler, D. M. T. (2010). Elevation leads to altruistic behavior above and beyond general positive affect. Psychological Science, 21 (3), 315-320.
Schoenrade, P. A., Batson, C. D., Brandt, J. R., & Loud, R. E. (1986). Attachment, accountability, and motivation to benefit another not in distress. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51, 557-563.
Sibicky, M. E., Schroeder, D. A., & Dovidio, J. F. (1995). Empathy and helping: considering the consequences of intervention. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 16, 435-453.
Vitaglione, G. D., & Barnett, M. A. (2003). Assessing a new dimension of empathy: Empathic anger as a predictor of helping and punishing desires. Motivation and Emotion, 27, 301-325.

Picture credits

Guarding innocence [Link]
Kindness receipt [Link]

How to cite this blog post using APA Style

T. Farsides. (2014, March 21). Altruistic desires. Retrieved from