Irrational Altruism

I’ve been thinking, recently, about the motivation behind altruism.

I keep being told that the answer is what basically boils down to enlightened self-interest. That `altruism’ is the best strategy in the long run in situations such as the prisoner’s dilemma is widely accepted. It’s game theory. Arguably, it’s the foundation of Liberalism.

Or that it’s because we all believe, at some level, that good people will be rewarded and bad punished. Or that we hope for that. (And how, pray tell, is it good to hope that people are punished?)

(Some people will even flat out say that we should be good because God will reward the `good people’ — us, of course — with Heaven and put `bad people’ — often translates to different — in Hell. They usually also define good as what `God says,’ to which I respond with the Euthyphro Dilemma.)

I can’t accept this. Not emotionally and not rationally.

People sacrifice themselves, make the ultimate sacrifice, to do what they believe is the right thing. It happens again, and again, and again… (And many of these people don’t expect a reward in some after life, thank you very much!) Surely this isn’t acting to promote their best interests?

Surely goodness isn’t just intelligent selfishness?

But if not, what is it? Why should I try to be good, if not for self-interest, if not for punishment, for law, for reward… The only answer I can give is that I don’t need a reason. It, in itself, is enough. Feeling an extent of compassion and empathy is part of who I am as a human being… to a sufficient extent that a more compassionate and empathetic person is who I wish to be, and, by extension, I fear to become less so.

Altruism doesn’t have a strictly rational basis… but in this regard, I’m proud to be irrational.

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