Thursday, 23 November 2006

Selfish Altruism?


I feel quite ambivalent about altruism. On the one hand I find it the most attractive facet of the human race. But on the other hand I can't reconcile the fact that 'true' altruism simply cannot exist.

I've labelled two posts so far in this blog with 'altruism'; Ubuntu and Google Image Labeller. But when I think back, perhaps the word altruistic is an inaccurate description for what people are doing with free and open source software etc. Lets say I create a new computer program that people love. I give it away for free under the GNU. Is this a truly altruistic action? Most probably not as I'm likely to get a lot of publicity and accolades from others, and a possible job offer from Microsoft.

A definition for the word is "Altruism is unselfish concern for the welfare of others. It is a traditional virtue in many cultures, and central to many religious traditions."

Now, I'm no Professor of Philosophy, neither am I particularly well read in this area. But it strikes me that it's even more difficult to be truly altruistic if you're religious. Particularly if you have an omnipotent god who watches and ultimately judges your actions in life. So, if you selflessly help some one and you're religious I guess this should be called 'duty' as opposed to true altruism?

What lifts my spirits, is that I don't think it really matters. As long as the human race continues to share and collaborates in ways that look altruistic, but in truth are not, we're still in net gain. So I think I'll continue to misuse the word.

For a much more insightful and knowledgeable debate about this check out this mornings 'In our time' (Radio 4 programme). I'm not sure how long the podcast will be available. So, apologies in advance for a dead link.

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