The Puzzle of Reciprocal Altruism: What Makes Humans Help the Others?

Conflicts are happening almost everywhere in the world nowadays. Many—especially women and children—are suffering because of the constant wars. While most of us can only watch and mourn from afar, there are actually some people who really went there and lent their hands to help. Some of them are paid to do so, but some others do it voluntarily. Can you believe that? They are risking their own lives for no pennies at all!

Many scientists and philosophers have been wondering what makes humans help others. Based on the neo-Darwinian theory, humans are actually selfish. We are designed to carry numerous genes, survive ourselves, and reproduce the new generation. Therefore, helping or even sacrificing ourselves for others doesn’t seem to make any sense. That is probably why the reciprocal altruism theory exists.

What is Reciprocal Altruism?

Reciprocal altruism is a theory that explains humans’ helping behavior towards others with a hope that they would return the help in the future. The behaviors include (but are not limited to) helping people in pain due to sickness or accidents and sharing knowledge, medicine, money, food, etc.

Based on the theory, it is a human nature that when one takes our help but doesn’t give back, we feel upset. On the other hand, if we take but can’t return the help, we will feel sorry. As a matter of fact, our society is based on helping and getting helped back.

Even though a little bit different from that of humans, reciprocal altruism is also a phenomenon among several types of animals. Chimpanzees will look after their counterparts that have helped them before while vampire bats will feed the other bats that have done some favors for them in the past. Apparently, the phenomenon happens amidst species in a stable colony with a relatively long life-span.

Historically, the “altruism” concept was first introduced by Auguste Comte, a French philosopher in the 19th century. Derived from a word in French, “altruisme”, Comte had no doubt that the concept is actually a moral doctrine—against egoism—focusing on sacrifices of ourselves and benefits for others. In other words, he believed we humans possess both selfish and altruistic sides, and the latter is aimed to limit our selfishness.

Is there Such a Thing as Pure Altruism?

I suppose that many good deeds are encouraged by self-interest, but as the opposite, I believe that there is also “pure” altruism. Kindness acts that the volunteers do to the war victims in the battle fields such as giving away foods, clothes, and medicines, as well as taking care of the wounded victims are considered pure altruism.

Such noble acts mentioned above allow you to feel better about yourself, resulting in the others paying you some more respect, and eventually, you may also raise your chances to get helped back in the future. However, there’s also a chance that with helping others voluntarily, your motivation is just to fulfill a desire to lessen the pain that the victims are suffering from. Sounds too impossible? Read another case below.

This morning when I was trying to heat up some left-over soup on the stove, I saw an ant clinging on the side of the saucepan. Instead of shoving it away or just ignoring it, I gently stuck my finger tip to the side, near the ant, making way for it to leave the saucepan.

Once the ant went on to my finger, I moved it to a safer side of my pantry. Afterwards, I got back to my cooking activity.

Why do you think I did such a “noble” deed? Do you think I did it in the expectation that the ant would help me back in a life-taking moment like that? Or that it would tell all of its friends what a friendly human I am? Or probably I did it just to fulfill the needs to respect the other living things? Which one sounds more sensible to you?

Sorry, but none of those is the exact answers. I think when I decided to do that simple “noble” act, I had just been moved by my empathy. I was feeling empathetic to the ant as a living being that deserved to remain alive just like I was. I tried to feel what it was like to be in its place. Therefore, I have no doubt that empathy is what leads to acts of pure altruism.

Nevertheless, empathy has always been defined as a cognitive ability to look at the world through the others’ perspectives, and I think it is too underrating it. I believe that empathy is actually far larger than that. In my point of view, all living beings in the universe—not only limited to humans—are basically interconnected through empathy.

The Conclusion: The Puzzle has Finally been Solved

If we look at ourselves through the evolutionary perspective, we are not more than just the carriers of thousands of genes who are egoistic and just want to survive themselves. Fortunately, we are gifted with the altruistic sense to balance our selfishness.

It is very human, though, if we do good acts based on the reciprocal altruism concept, in which we are expecting others to help us back. In fact, it’s actually considered as a survival method—not only for humans but also for other living things. Furthermore, we are also capable of showing our empathy at the higher level, which is based on the pure altruism, we can help the others just to put ourselves in the others’ “shoes”.

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