Altruism refers to the selfless acts that an individual does for the wellness or the safety of others without seeking any personal benefits. Donating money to needy people or the NGOs, blood donation, helping strangers tackle their problems, and other similar acts that do not involve any self-benefits are examples of altruism. Now, the question arises what is pure altruism? Well, pure altruism or true altruism refers to altruistic acts that the person does for others without seeking any cognitive or materialistic awards even when the act can cost a lot to the helper. For example, saving the life of the other individual at the risk of our own life is an optimum example of pure altruism. In this article, we’ll learn about the various other examples of pure altruism, and try to understand whether pure altruism does exist in reality or not. So, let’s get started.
Examples of Pure Altruism
1. Manchester Terrorist Attack, 2017
It’s an incident of 22 May 2017, when an Islamist terrorist group attacked the Manchester Arena after the singing concert of the pop star Ariana Grande. During this attack, a terrorist exploded a homemade suicidal bomb. In this attack, 23 people got killed including some of the attackers too, and 1017 got injured, most of them were children. Amidst this horrific attack that questioned the existence of humanity, there were also some stories of the brave, kind and selfless acts of some people that strengthened the belief in humanity. A doctor who was off-duty and leaving the venue came back to help the victims. There were many teenagers at the concert, they were confused and panicked. A lady saw this and guided them to a safe area, she also shared her number on social media to make it easy for the parents to contact her and pick up their children. The taxi drivers of the city shut off their fare meters that day, and they helped the people near the attacked area to reach a safe area. The following statement was given by a person who witnessed this attack,
There was an unbelievable amount of people doing what they could to help. I saw people pulling together in a way I have never seen before. The thing I will remember more than any other is the humanity that was on display. People were catching each other’s eye, asking if they were okay, touching shoulders, looking out for one another.”
2. London Street Incident, 2015
Several examples show people indulging in acts of altruism in emergencies. One such incident happened on London street in 2015. A cyclist got stuck under the wheels of a bus and was unable to come out. Out of the crowd, nearly 100 people came for the help of cyclists, they coordinated together and lifted the heavy bus. In this way, they managed to free the cyclist.
3. Chile Highway Incident, 2009
On 9 February 2009, someone posted a video of a dog helping another dog who got injured in an accident on the Chile highway, and this video was shared by millions of people and everyone was amazed by the altruistic acts of the helper dog. Presumably, this video was recorded on the surveillance cameras of the highway. In this video, a dog was crossing the crowded highway, and suddenly it was hit by a car. The dog fell on the highway right after the accident. All the other vehicles were crossing near the injured dog and nobody bothered to help it. A few moments later, another dog who was passing near that highway saw the injured dog, and he went near to that dog. The dog dragged the injured dog from the highway to the safer side of the road having less traffic. This altruistic action of the dog was praised by millions of viewers. The helper dog itself was at risk of being hit by the vehicles as the highway was heavily crowded but still, it dared to drag the injured dog.
4. Charlie Kees’s Act of Pure Altruism
Saving the life of the other person at the cost of risking our own life is no doubt an act of pure altruism. A person named Charles kees also performed a similar act of pure altruism to save the life of an athlete Yukiko Marth. One morning in September 1999, Yukiko woke up and realized that her legs were swollen and she faced difficulty in walking. She thought that it could be because she was practising continuously for her volleyball match for the last few days. But, when the pain did not stop, she consulted the doctor and underwent certain tests upon the doctor’s recommendation. Little did she know that she was a patient with acute glomerulonephritis, and her kidneys were only 15 per cent operating. Yukiko went on dialysis just in a few days, and her health was deteriorating day by day. She was only left with the one last option that could save her life which was a kidney transplant. However, the problem was that the cadaverous kidney transplant (kidney transplant using the kidney from a dead body) is a time-consuming process and it could take up to three years in Yukiko Marth’s case. Marth lost all her hopes of surviving. Then, Charlie Kees, with whom Marth used to play volleyball sometimes came as a hope for Yukiko. Charlie said that he has seen the passion that Yukiko has for his sport, and this motivated him to donate his kidney to her. Fortunately, the reports of both the Yukiko and Kees were okay, and their blood types were a perfect match for the kidney transplant. Doctors conducted a safe kidney transplant on 28 June 2001, and Marth got relief from the unbearable pain of the dialysis. Kees and Marth recovered very soon after the transplant. A month after the surgery, Marth was able to join the court. Marth even won the gold in United States Transplant Games, 2002.
I knew where she had been as an athlete, and I was watching her body become deteriorated and emaciated and constantly tethered to a machine. And my only thought was if there was any way I could help her get back to where she had been, I wanted to do it. It just felt like something I was supposed to do. It felt like it was my purpose to help.”- Charlie Kees
5. Helping the Jews
In human history, the Jewish holocaust is considered one of the most brutal incidents. Nearly two-thirds of the total population of Jews in Europe were killed in this holocaust. The orders were passed by Nazi Germany that nobody was permitted to retaliate against the holocaust or help the Jewish else strict actions would be taken against them. However, even after such strict rules and laws some people still dared to help the Jewish by providing them with necessities and shelter. This act of helping others by risking their own life can be considered an ideal example of pure altruism.
6. London Bridge Incident, 2019
Darry Frost, a civil servant, gained popularity in the media after displaying an altruistic and brave act that saved the lives of thousands of civilians. It was an incident in 2019 when the attacker Britson Usman Khan started attacking people attending a seminar at Fishmongers Hall, London. He was carrying the Knives and also wearing a suicide vest. This scared the people and even some of the police officers, out of fear nobody dared to chase the attacker. However, Frost intervened even when he was not carrying any weapons for his defence. He took the narwhal tusk presented on the nearby wall to use it as a weapon and ran after the Khan. The attacker was then shot by the police on the London Bridge. Frost was aware that the attacker was carrying the knives and also wearing the suicide vest still he risked his life for the safety of the others, no doubt its an act of pure altruism.
7. Helping the Enemy
Pure altruism involves performing the helping acts solely for the purpose of the other’s wellness or safety without hoping for anything in return. A similar act was displayed by a military doctor towards a troop of the enemy nation. It’s an incident of the Battle of Bulge between the United States and Germany; The United States Army sergeant, Iowan Elmer was leading the troops of his team. However, he was attacked by the German troops, and he got a bullet shot in his stomach. The German troops captured him and took him to their camp, where a German doctor named Ludwig Gruber who was treating the german soldiers injured in the war, saw Elmor’s condition and couldn’t control himself from helping him. While he was doing Elmer’s treatment, the commander of the military hospital saw this and told Gruber for not treating the enemy soldier. Gruber did not pay attention to what the commander said, and he begin Elmer’s treatment. While Elmer was still under the treatment of the Germans, the army captain of the United States arrived at the German camp to negotiate with the German captain. After some hours of discussion both agreed to stop the bombing. Unfortunately, Elmer died within a week due to serious injuries, but the compassionate and altruistic act of Dr Gruber was one of the other important factors that forced the United States officers to go for the negotiate with the German officers and arrived at a decision that was beneficial for both the parties.
8. Wesley Autrey: Subway Hero
Wesley Autrey, a New York construction worker and a Navy Veteran who gained popularity in the media in 2007 for displaying an act of pure altruism towards a stranger. It’s an incident of 2 January 2007, when Wesley Autrey along with his two daughters was waiting for his subway at the Manhattan subway station. Autrey noticed that a man, Cameron Hollopeter, suffered from a seizure. Without wasting any time, Autrey ran for the help of Hollopeter and he borrowed a pen from someone to keep his jaws Hollopeter open, which is a first-aid step of the seizure. While Autrey was still doing the first-aid, Hollopeter stumbled and fall onto the subway tracks. While Hollopeter was lying on the tracks, Autrey observed the lights of a train approaching the Hollopeter. Autrey tried to drag Hollopeter out of the tracks but he didn’t have enough time. Then he suddenly dragged Hollopeter to the trench between the subway tracks and held him firmly there for the moment the train passed from the track near them. Wesley risked his life to save Hollopeter’s life, due to this act Wesley is popular with the various heroic names such as The Hero of Harlem, Subway Superman, and Subway Samaritan in the media. He also got featured in the list of ‘Time 100 most influential people in the world’ 2007 edition; Donald Trump wrote the paragraph about him in the Time Magazine.
9. Air Florida Incident, 1982
Air Florida Flight 90, a domestic flight of the United States was scheduled from Washington National Airport to the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on 13 January 1982. But on its way, it crashed into 14th Steet Bridge constructed over the Potomac River. During this crash, the plane hit 7 vehicles running over the bridge and destroyed the guard rail. During the crash, there were 5 crew members and 74 passengers on the plane, out of which only 4 passengers and 1 crew member survived. While the rescue helicopter was helping the passengers, a passenger, Arland Williams showed an amazing act of pure altruism. He was in better health condition than the other passenger, hence he could easily get himself attached to the rope attached to the rescue helicopter and could have reached the safety first. Instead, he helped the others injured passengers to reach safety first. When the rescue helicopter came to help the Williams he was already drowned in the water of the Potomac River. Arland Williams gave his life while helping the other passengers, hence this is surely an example of pure altruism.
10. Professor Liviu Librescu’s Act of Altruism
Liviu Librescu was a Romanian-American engineer and scientist. He is popularly known for displaying a brave and altruistic act during the Virginia Tech shooting. He hold the door of his classroom which gave enough time for his students to escape from the window of the classroom and protected themselves from the gunshots of Seun-Hui Cho. But, unfortunately, Librescu himself got died from the bullet of Seung-Hui Cho while rescuing the students and other professors. For this altruistic act, Librescu was posthumously rewarded with Romania’s highest civilian honour, the Order of the Star of Romania.
11. Donating Vacation Time for Colleagues
It was an August 1999 incident of a person named David Hutmacher, who worked in an organization in Roswell, Georgia. One day he experiences a stomach ache and went for a checkup. He got to know that he is suffering from an inflammatory disease, diverticulitis. The problem was so severe that Hutmacher underwent two surgeries, and he was admitted to the hospital for three months. He ran out of all his paid sick leaves and vacation time by December 1999. In that month, the company gave him only 10 per cent of his net paycheck. Hutmacher’s wife was working in a school and her paycheque was not sufficient to manage the cost of the Hutmacher’s treatment and the upbringing of their two daughters. Christmas was near, and Hutmacher knew that it was impossible to join the office before mid-January considering his health condition. Then a miracle happened, Hutmacher received the full paycheque for the next month and also the money that was missing from his last paycheque. Hutmacher was surprised to see that, and he called his company to ask about it. The controller told Hutmacher that all the employees of the organization has donated their vacation time to him. Hutmacher was grateful for this kind act of his co-workers. Hutmacher also got to know that it was Davis’s (controller of the organization) idea that encouraged all the employees to donate their vacation time. One of the close colleagues of Hutmacher, went to Davis to donate his vacation time and then Davis thought it is a great way to help Hutmacher manage his financial problem. Davis drafted a mail to all the employees in which he mentioned the surgeries of the Hutmacher and also the financial problems he was facing. Davis deliberately mentioned in the mail that he had also donated his vacation time to motivate the other employees to donate their vacation time too. This idea of Davis worked and Hutmacher received 24 vacation days sufficient for his health recovery.
It’s absolutely the greatest gift I’ve ever gotten. I love my family. I love my children. But my colleagues’ generosity has touched me more than anything else, because it was so unexpected and so freely given. That Christmas was one of the best I’ve ever had.” – David Hutmacher
Understanding Motivation Behind the Pure Altruism
You have read several examples above, that show the existence of pure altruism. But, the question arises as that why do people indulge in pure altruism. The question that why people get ready to help others even at the risk of their own lives has been a most talked about question among psychologists and philosophers for years. If we consider the perspective of Charles Darwin, human beings are naturally selfish, and they aim for the survival of their own species. Hence, according to this view, we can understand why do we tend to help those who are genetically close to us, for example, our family members or close relatives. When we show an act of pure altruism towards genetically closer individuals, it may seem like a sacrifice but eventually, it helps our gene pool. This behaviour of helping the closely related species can also be understood in animals, through the kin selection theory. According to the kin selection approach, the survival of species is more crucial than the survival of an individual. This is why certain species sacrifices their life to ensure the safety and wellness of their species. For example, Cellular slime moulds are low-level species that are a cluster of cells, that all lives as individuals until the shortage of food, and then they all combined to formulate a multicellular organism. At this moment, some of the cells self-sacrifice to ensure the existence of the other cells in the multicellular organism.
Now, what is it that motivates the individuals to help the ones who are not genetically related to them? Various theories have been proposed by the theorists to explain this behaviour. Even some of the theorists suggest that pure altruism does not even exist. They claim that we only help strangers if there exist some self-benefits in that helping act. For example, if not materialistic, cognitive benefits like feeling happy, content, and appreciated after performing an altruistic act could be the reason that motivates an individual to help strangers. Some theorists even suggest that an investment strategy, i.e., reciprocal altruism may also be the motivation behind the individuals to indulge in the acts of pure altruism. According to reciprocal altruism, people perform good actions for the welfare or safety of others because they think that they will also receive the favour from the others when they themselves will face any problem in future.
Although we can not deny that the factors like kin selection, cognitive benefits, and reciprocal altruism may be the reasons that encourage people to show pure altruism, many acts of helping that are only encouraged by the empathy of the person can be considered as pure altruism acts. We can say that the idea of pure altruism is influenced by the empathy of the people. Empathy refers to the ability of the person to see and feel the situation from the perspective of the one who is suffering or in distress. It includes feeling the exact emotions and the feelings that the other person is experiencing in a bad situation. Due to empathy, a person automatically indulges in acts of compassion and altruism. When we sense the distress of the other person, we also feel bad, and to avoid that bad feeling we involve in altruistic acts.
Does Pure Altruism Exist?
As we have read in the article above true altruism refers to the acts that an individual does for others without any hope of getting anything in return. However, the idea of true altruism is countered by the psychological egoism theory. According to the psychological egoism theory, people feel motivated to indulge in the acts of helping only when it involves any self-interest. Some claim that every conscious act of helping may be influenced by any one of the two reasons. The person involved in the helping actions only if it gives positive feelings to the one who helps or the person wants to get rid of the negative feelings of not helping. Whatever the case is, the individual is getting the benefit in some or the other way.
Let’s consider an example of a person who joins the military. Joining the military is considered an incredible and noble act. The person who joins the military undergoes strict training and never takes a step back from risking his/her life for the sake of his/her nation. The military persons stay away from their families during the mission and are always at the risk of losing their lives in battles. One can say that it’s an act of pure altruism. But, let’s view it from a different perspective. Although the costs of joining the military are high, there are still benefits involved in joining the military. For example, personal pride, the feeling of serving the nation and the personal satisfaction of patriotic feelings, monetary benefits and retirement plans can be considered as some benefits that a person receives after joining the military. If we consider these personal benefits, we can not say that joining the military is an act of pure altruism.
Now, let us understand another example of ‘blood donation.’ Blood donation can be considered an act of pure altruism because people spent a lot of hours and experience discomfort while donating their blood hoping that their blood will save someone’s life. Well, it may seem that the blood donation does not give anything in return to the donor, but the cognitive rewards can be considered as the motivation behind the people to donate their blood. Let us try to understand this through an example of the Las Vegas Shooting incident that happened on 1 October 2017. Some people were attending a music festival on Las Vegas Strip, Nevada, and then suddenly an old man named Stephen Paddock, aged 64 years opened fire on the crowd from his balcony on the 32 floors of the Mandalay Bay hotel. Reportedly, he shot over the 1000 bullets leading to the death of 60 people and 867 people injured. The motive of this open firing is not yet determined officially because Paddock was found dead in his hotel room due to the willful bullet shot wound. The people of Nevada were shocked after hearing about this horrible incident and wanted to help the injured people in any way they could. Many people donated their blood to the injured people to get relieved from the pain and the guilt of not helping them. By donating their blood, they experienced the positive feelings that they are doing something for the wellness of the sufferers, hence the experience of the positive feelings about oneself can be considered as the motivation to donate blood.
Like these two examples, there are many more similar examples where the altruistic act leads to some level of satisfaction or benefits to the one who performed that act. Some claims that one can not say how an act is a true altruism even if it involves a small degree of benefit. So according to the definition, we can say that pure altruism does not exist. Also, most altruistic acts can be explained through the theory of kin selection and reciprocal altruism. Kin selection theory claims that individuals help others the ensure the survival or wellness of their species, and reciprocal altruism theory claims that people help others with the hope that others will return the favour in future. But, it does not mean that people are selfish and always look for some benefits in each act of helping that they do. Some people do help others because they feel empathy and compassion for the sufferer. As we have read various examples in this article some people even risked their lives for the other’s safety. It would be wrong to say that they did those acts for some self-benefits as it seems logically invalid to believe that people will indulge in the certain acts for some self-benefits that will cost them their life. It’s hard to describe whether true altruism exists or not, but we can say that any act that costs the helper more than the self-benefits involved in that act of helping can be considered an act of true altruism.