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Is Pure Altruism Possible?

October 20, 2010

Judith Lichtenberg in The New York Times:

Who could doubt the existence of altruism?

True, news stories of malice and greed abound. But all around us we see evidence of human beings sacrificing themselves and doing good for others. Remember Wesley Autrey? On Jan. 2, 2007, Mr. Autrey jumped down onto the tracks of a New York City subway platform as a train was approaching to save a man who had suffered a seizure and fallen. A few months later the Virginia Tech professor Liviu Librescu blocked the door to his classroom so his students could escape the bullets of Seung-Hui Cho, who was on a rampage that would leave 32 students and faculty members dead. In so doing, Mr. Librescu gave his life.

Still, doubting altruism is easy, even when it seems at first glance to be apparent. It’s undeniable that people sometimes act in a way that benefits others, but it may seem that they always get something in return — at the very least, the satisfaction of having their desire to help fulfilled. Students in introductory philosophy courses torture their professors with this reasoning. And its logic can seem inexorable.

Contemporary discussions of altruism quickly turn to evolutionary explanations. [More]

 

 

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