Defining Altruism

There are a couple of different definitions of altruism. One is for humans and one is for animals.

The philosophical definition for humans characterizes an action as altruistic if it is done with the selfless and conscious intention of benefiting another human’s well-being. The biological definition for animals is slightly but crucially less demanding. It does not involve moral highness nor is it concerned with the altruistic actor’s intentions. Instead, it is the consequences of the action alone that determine whether that action is altruistic.

Specifically, altruistic acts in the animal kingdom must increase the reproductive fitness of the species. In other words, it is a means by which individual animals can increase the success of their own genes by furthering the prosperity of their own species. It may be selfless of the animal or it may not be. It does not matter what the animal’s intention is. Other animals are not going to call them out on social media for having selfish intentions disguised as selfless acts. To act altruistically, an animal simply needs to do something that will increase the success of their genes and of their species. In biology, that is enough.

I believe we should be less demanding when it comes to judging human actions of altruism as well. We are animals, after all. We should judge actions less on intentions and more on results. We should ask what the impact of people’s actions are on other people, not what their intentions are in doing it. Setting a lower, more reasonable, and more objectively possible bar for altruistic action should theoretically increase the frequency of its occurrence. People would be less concerned with being judged negatively for trying to do something good. As a result, they would do good things more often.

People are judged negatively for trying to do good all of the time. I worked at the local Boys & Girls Club during the second semester of my senior year as part of a capstone program from my major in human and organizational development. My boss at the time opened my eyes to an unfortunate phenomonen that existed in the non-profit world. There is a great TED talk on the topic by Dan Pallotta. The short version is that non-profit employees do not get paid enough. The longer version is that they do not get paid enough because their organizations are judged heavily (and counterproductively) by the percentage of total donated funds that go directly to the cause as opposed to administration and overhead. Paying people less draws lower quality talent. This is intuitive. Yet we expect non-profit employees not only to do good through their work but also to take a pay cut on what they could earn elsewhere in order to do it. That seems unreasonable to me. We should judge non-profits on their total impact, not on what percentage of the money they raise goes directly to the cause. Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the former CEO of Save the Children, was paid $309,524.12 in 2018. People working in finance, tech, and many other industries can earn higher salaries than that before they turn 30. If anything, we should be paying non-profit employees more than they could earn in other industries. That way, we would incentivize the smartest people in the world to work on solving the biggest problems in the world and helping the people who need it most.

Yesterday, The New York Times reported on the story of Shake Shack returning a $10 million loan that it received from the recently enacted federal Paycheck Protection Program. In his public announcement regarding this return, Shake Shack’s CEO wrote about why they applied for the loan and how Shake Shack is burning $1.5 million per week. After applying for the forgivable loan, they were able to raise $150 million through a public stock offering. As a result, they have decided they are now financially comfortable enough to return the loan so that it can go to businesses that need it more than they do. Now, instead of money, Shake Shack gets good press, or at least less bad press, and that translates to more customers buying more burgers, and in the end, it is all money. Because of this, few will look at their latest action as altruistic. Still, they were awarded the $10 million and chose to return it after their circumstances changed. That $10 million will go on to help another struggling business or more likely several of them. It was not perfect philosophical altruism, but the positive impact makes it a positive action from my perspective, and altruistic in terms of the animal standard.

Unlike Shake Shack, many companies did not apply for the PPP loans. They may not have done so for a variety of reasons. They might have shared publicly why they did not apply for it or they might have kept it totally a secret. The ones who share publicly could be accused of not applying for the same reason that Shake Shack could be accused of returning the money, to gain good press, goodwill, and money in the end. It is harder to criticize the companies that did not apply and kept that fact a secret but they might have had their own reasons for their actions as well, and who is to say what their exact intentions were. At the very least, the leaders of those companies probably feel good about what they did. Is that alone too selfish to make it an act of altruism?

Analyses of intentions and accusations of self-benefits seem irrelevant and counterproductive. I do not care how some person or organization benefits from doing good. I am just glad they are doing it. In fact, I would argue that similarly to the low pay problem in non-profits, limiting the benefits that the people and organizations doing the good can experience limits the amount of good that they can do. In the above example for instance, the company that keeps their non-application a secret seems more altruistic than the one that shares why they did what they did, but the latter may encourage other businesses that are less in need to do the same, whereas the former could not multiply their impact by staying silent.

Often times, we get out what we put in and we benefit from doing good. Forget about pure altruism. It can always be questioned and critiqued. Let us accept the biological definition of altruism instead. Let us focus more on results than intentions. Let us applaud those who do things that benefit the human race and let us encourage others to do the same. Let us do those things ourselves without worrying what others will think. If we all do good for each other, does it really matter why?