My dictionary defines “altruism” as “unselfish concern for the welfare of others; selflessness.” I have always found it a slippery concept.
Quite recently I had a brush with altruism that has caused me to ponder it afresh. This post describes this incident, provides some quick background on how biologists deal with the concept, explores my misgivings about the prevailing explanations, and—via another incident—tiptoes into the murky realm of pseudo-karma. At the end you’ll get to weigh in on an ethical quandary.
I was bike riding with a pal in the Berkeley hills the other evening, and we came upon another cyclist standing on the side of the road with his bike. My pal asked, “You got everything?” A pause, and then the guy gave a tentative, Doppler-shifted response: “Uh, actually, no.” We stopped.
It’s an unwritten rule that if you ask “You got everything?” you have to be willing to stop and help. (Riding on and calling back, “Sucks to be you!” is simply not done.) The help you provide is usually really straightforward: putting a chain back on, showing a guy how to get his tire off, etc. (One time I asked a guy, “Got everything?” and he said, “Yeah,” but I stopped anyway. He was trying to remove his tire and tube without removing his wheel. I was able to fix his bike, but the guy’s tendency toward delusion is somebody else’s problem.)
I don’t always ask if a stopped rider needs help. Often, I have a limited window of time to ride, and I’m not willing to be late getting back. Sure, it’s a bummer to be stranded on the side of the road, but it’s a bigger bummer for my daughter to be waiting around a park after soccer practice wondering where her dad is. Besides, the places I ride are well populated with cyclists. Probably that stranded person I ignore will get help from someone else.
That said, I offer help when I can. After all, I myself have been helped out a number of times. I once broke my chain on the Golden Gate Bridge and some anonymous cyclist pushed me for five miles, all the way back to my San Francisco apartment. Another time I broke a spoke about nine miles out, and, astonishingly, my bike wouldn’t even roll. Within minutes a friendly motorist picked me up and drove me all the way home.
Back to my recent episode: the guy announced, “I have a flat tire. I’m a total novice and don’t have a spare tube or pump or anything.” He had a brand-new, decent quality road bike. I asked him if he’d hit a bump. He asked why that mattered. “If you bottom out the tire, you can get a pinch flat, which can’t be patched,” I explained. “I’m perfectly happy to patch your tube, but I’m a lot less happy to give you my spare.” By this time I had his wheel and tire off and was running my fingers along the inside of the tire, checking for an embedded thorn or shard of glass.
The guy said he hadn’t hit anything. That boded well, but on the other hand I wasn’t finding anything in the tire. My pal was inspecting the tube but couldn’t get any air in it. “Uh-oh,” he said, “looks like the valve.” The valve was separating from the tube—probably due to being jerked sideways when the guy (or the shop) pulled the pump chuck off. The tube was toast. Thus my dilemma.
My friend was off the hook, because he was riding sew-ups and didn’t have a spare tube. But I did: a Vittoria Evo 55g. It’s about a $12 tube, is light enough to be mailed with two stamps, and is virtually seamless, and these things matter to a gearhead like me. Plus, its valve is 42mm long: exactly the right length for my slightly deep-dish rim. (Other tubes have valves that are either too short, making it hard to pump them up, or too long, which is an aesthetic blight: the valve looks aroused, almost lewd.) Moreover, I can’t find Vittoria Evo 55g tubes anymore. This was almost the last one I had in my stash. It seemed a shame to waste it on this dorky stock Fuji.
And don’t even get me started on the rider. What kind of irresponsible person goes out on a ride so totally unprepared—not just lacking a tube and some tools, but not even having a phone? If he’d been a teenager, that would be another story—teens’ brains aren’t fully wired yet and I have a soft spot for young fools. But this guy had to be at least twenty: an adult, supposedly. If he were a well-equipped rider who had just had really bad luck—two pinch flats, say, or a spare tube that was defective—I’d feel more generous. But why should I give up a tube just because this guy is lame?
Then there was the matter of his brand-new bike: why hadn’t he bought the accessories he’d clearly need? This particularly rankles me given my bike shop background. Shops barely make any money on new bikes, because the markup is low to begin with, and by the time they’ve assembled the thing, talked a customer into buying it (which can take multiple efforts, as customers frequently take half an hour of Q&A before saying, “I have to test ride like twenty other bikes from five other shops before I decide”), and done the two free tune-ups, the shop is lucky if they’ve broken even. The only reason to even sell a bike is the hope that the customer will buy some accessories for it. To pass up the accessories is practically like robbing the shop. Surely the salesman recommended these items; how did this guy respond? “Naw, I’m good”?
I weighed these considerations against my original snap judgment that giving up my tube was obviously the right thing to do. Of course I had an airtight justification for holding out: if I gave away my tube, I’d be at risk of subsequently getting a pinch flat and being stranded myself. But of course this was just rationalization; in all likelihood I wouldn’t get a pinch flat and I knew it.
I silently decided I’d let the guy use my cell phone, and only if he couldn’t reach anybody would I give him my tube. On his second try, he got somebody. His end of the conversation was suggestive: “C’mon, man, I’m totally stranded! You could be here in like 15 minutes!” I pictured his roommate back home on the couch, groaning at the prospect of bailing him out. Finally the guy gave me back my phone and said help was on the way. My friend and I took off, leaving the guy behind with his wheel off his bike and his tire off his wheel, his useless tube lying in the grass like a dead snake.
What is altruism?
At least I helped the guy get home. But had I behaved altruistically? I don’t think so, because my assistance hadn’t really cost me anything. But as I said before, altruism is a tricky concept.
The first time I came across this term was in a textbook, in sixth or seventh grade. The text on this subject was accompanied by a photo of a fireman carrying a child out of a burning building. I was immediately confused; after all, a fireman rescuing somebody from fire isn’t behaving selflessly—he’s doing his job. Imagine if he told the fire chief, “I’ve decided not to go in there—I could get hurt or killed!” He’d be out of job.
Far greater minds than mine have struggled with the idea of altruism. Charles Darwin worried that it would contradict his theory of natural selection. As described in a recent “New Yorker” article, a satisfying explanation of altruism didn’t come about until 1964, when a British grad student named William Hamilton came up with a mathematical formula: rB > C, which stated, “genes for altruism could evolve if the benefit (B) of an action exceeded the cost (C) to the individual once relatedness (r) was taken into account.”
E.O. Wilson, a respected entomologist, began promoting this idea a year later and it was gradually embraced by the scientific community. It became known as “inclusive fitness,” as it “expanded the Darwinian definition of ‘fitness’—how many offspring an individual manages to have—to include the offspring of surviving relatives.” In other words, selfless behavior can be explained by the instinct to help your genes survive, even at your individual expense.
But what about altruism outside of your family line? People sometimes help out complete strangers who aren’t going to perpetuate their gene. I was intrigued to learn, from the same article, that in the last few years Wilson has turned against his original position on inclusive fitness, calling it “a ‘useless gyration’ characterized by a tendency to ‘theorize without precision.’” (The scientific community is royally pissed off by Wilson’s reversal, by the way.) Wilson’s new tack follows an early theory of Darwin’s that helping others in your tribe helps your chances of prevailing over enemy tribes. Most evolutionary biologists dismiss this because “the benefits of generosity are much less tangible than the benefits of selfishness.” Wilson refutes this neatly: “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.”
I’m still not satisfied with these explanations for altruism because the scientists seem to focus too much on the idea of survival. Sure, for most animals, and for most of the history of the human race, the stakes were high—literally life and death. But as humans have gotten more organized and society has evolved, the decisions we make are almost never a matter of life and death, and usually don’t even remotely affect our chances of survival. I could give small change to literally every homeless person I see and I still wouldn’t lose my home. As we move up Maslow’s need hierarchy, the ways we expend our resources have less and less to do with mere survival.
So, especially when we focus on humans, the idea of “cost” gets complicated. The equation rB > C is hard to apply across all of humanity because a legitimate cost to one person is trivial to another. If I donate $500 to a charity, that’s a significant outlay. But that were all Bill Gates gave to charity, he’d be scorned. Now, say I give fifty cents to a homeless guy. No sweat. But for Bill Gates to incur the same relative cost that I just did (i.e., the same percentage of his net worth), he’d have to buy that homeless guy a car. No sweat—to Bill Gates. Meanwhile, based on that homeless guy’s net worth, if he gave away fifty cents, that would be the equivalent of Bill Gates giving away 300 Learjets.
The B in the equation is even trickier. The original equation depends on notion of relatedness, r, to confer benefit. But I’ve already rejected r. This leaves B > C, which looks too simplistic even if C were a simple matter. And doesn’t the conventional notion of altruism involve selflessness—which requires that no benefit accrue from helping?
This is where I start to doubt the very existence of pure altruism. Why? Because whenever we commit a selfless act, we’re bound to feel good about it—and isn’t feeling good a solid benefit? Think of those MasterCard commercials, comparing tangible prices of things to a feeling that is priceless.
Sometimes I think that the pleasure of simple generosity isn’t even the whole story. Consider this scenario: you see a homeless guy sitting outside a sandwich shop. You offer to buy him a sandwich. He says, “Wow, that would be great.” You find out what he’d like, go buy it, and give it to him. Without a word he tears off the paper and starting chowing down. As you walk away, you can’t help but notice he didn’t even say thanks, but you decide that’s just because he was so dang hungry. So you’re feeling good. But then the guy yells, “Damn it, man, I wanted Havarti with dill! Not provolone!” Suddenly you don’t feel so contented.
But why not? Is the homeless guy’s need any less just because he’s a prick? Suddenly, it matters very much to you exactly how bad off this guy is. But should it? Don’t you have a nice house and car, and isn’t he still a beggar? Is your good feeling dependant on feeling that your action wasn’t only generous, but also just? And maybe it’s not only justice that motivates you; maybe it’s your own ability to dispense justice. In the sandwich scenario you have the strange sense of being duped somehow, and it rankles. In this light, the good feeling you’d initially had—that you’d bought, essentially—starts to look almost petty. Not much like the lofty ideal of altruism.
Earlier I mentioned that I’d much rather surrender my spare inner tube to a responsible, well-equipped cyclist who merely had some really bad luck. Why? Because in my mind, the well-equipped cyclist is more deserving, as his plight isn’t his fault. If a better equation could be developed to explain human altruism, one of its components might be d, the discretion I enjoy (as a human vs. a mere an army ant) in allocating my largesse. Giving is an exercise of power.
Meanwhile, if I give a tube to the irresponsible guy, maybe my satisfaction would be soured by the fear that I’m an enabler, teaching this guy that it’s okay to mooch off others instead of having his act together. As a stranger, I can’t exactly lecture the guy on being responsible, but the person who drives out and picks him up can. (Or maybe this is self-deception—maybe I’m actually judging the dude for his wheel reflectors, or for the brand of bike that tells me he went with a mail-order outfit instead of a proper bike shop, or for the fact that he’s tucked his damn jersey into his shorts.)
Two days after the inner tube incident, this same friend and I are ten miles into an ambitious ride on a glorious morning. Everything is just peachy until—BLAM! My friend’s front tire explodes. He manages to stop the bike without crashing, but inspection reveals that his tire—a brand-new $80 Continental 4000 4-Season—is shot. Our plan for the day is ruined. The first word out of my friend’s mouth is the same one that’s already in my head: karma.
“You should’ve given that guy your tube, and this is what we get,” he continues. I can’t deny it: ever since leaving that hapless newbie on the side of the road, I’ve felt guilty. Sure, I can tell myself it’s not right to be an enabler, and remind myself that I needed that tube in case I pinch-flatted, but the fact is, it all came down to the cost of parting with my Evo 55g, which was more important to me than the benefit of doing the right thing. At least, it was at the time.
I tell my friend that the only problem with his karma theory is that his tire blew, not mine. Not missing a beat, he says, “No, I’m being punished for my complicity.” And it’s true: I’d been on the fence, so had my friend simply said, “Dude, give him your tube,” I certainly would have. Of course we’re not talking about karma in the true sense of our behavior in this life affecting our next incarnation; we’re using the popular connotation (karma-lite, you might call it) of “what goes around comes around.” Taken one step further, I might say my friend had a case of second-hand bad karma. I’d love to know what E.O. Wilson would make of this concept.
Whether or not we choose to acknowledge the fanciful notion of karma-lite, the fact remains I’m still thinking about the spare tube incident, and still second-guessing my choice of action. What bothers me isn’t the plight of the guy on the Fuji (in fact, I’m beginning to resent him), but the disconnect between my head and my heart. No matter what I tell myself about pinch flats and enablers, my heart knows I should have given him my tube—but I didn’t. Is it okay for the brain to trump the heart? Should the brain trump the heart?
A final thing to acknowledge is the cost of not helping. If the benefit of helping is emotional, the cost of not helping is as well. Altruism, at least the human flavor of it, has a whiff of moral imperative about it. I’ve talked to my wife and two friends about Tubegate, and so far I haven’t been excoriated, but all three had conflicting feelings about it. (My wife posed this question: if the cyclist had been a young female hottie, would I have given her my tube? That was an easy one: no, because I’d have figured the hottie had slyly saved money on accessories by counting on her looks to solve all her problems. You know, playing the damsel-in-distress card.)
One friend contends that the issue of my culpability hinges on being straight with the stranded cyclist. Because I told the guy “you can’t have my tube,” I’m fine. But if I’d lied and said, “Sorry, I wish I could help but I don’t have a tube,” then I’d be clearly in the wrong. This distinction hadn’t occurred to me.
Questions for the reader
Perhaps you’ve been forming your own opinions as you’ve read this. I’m interested in your answers to the following questions:
- Do we have a moral imperative to help another person, if we can do so without much sacrifice?
- Would you have given that guy your tube?
- Should I have given that guy my tube?
- Should my friend have exhorted me to give that guy my tube?
- Is safeguarding myself against being stranded a legitimate reason to keep my tube?
- Does it matter that the guy was irresponsible and ill-equipped vs. a responsible rider who ran into very bad luck?
- What’s worse: helping people while judging them, or not helping them at all?
- Suppose the guy was on a crappy old bike: does that change anything?
- Do you believe in karma, quasi-karma, and/or second-hand quasi-karma?
- Does true altruism exist, or do we always get some benefit from helping others?
You can respond anonymously, in mere minutes, by clicking here to launch a simple online survey. You may answer any or all of the questions. If I get enough responses, I’ll share them in a separate post.