Does Altruism Exist? Student Reflection on Motivations for Service

Alisa is pictured with the young Thai students at Yaowawit, a school built following the 2004 tsunami in southern Thailand.  One of the philosophical questions that service such as this raises is to what degree student motivations can be said to be altruistic, for students frequently say they “received more than they gave.” 

“The central question—central for the survival and well-being of our world—is
how we can make the wonderful developments of science into something that
offers altruistic and compassionate service for the needs of humanity and the
other sentient beings with whom we share this earth.”

–  Dalai Lama

Service learning provides a real-life laboratory for students to explore not only the world outside the classroom, but to reflect personally on their own inner lives.  Engagement in a service experience, especially one that affects students on an emotional level, provides much self-introspection.  For examples, students frequently question their own motives when they participate in service activities.  Can something that makes one so happy be inconsistent with the message to give of yourself to others?  Are mixed motives to be morally condemned or should they be accepted as part of the human condition?  Does altruism exist?

The 2009 Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology contains a useful and insightful chapter entitled “Empathy and Altruism.”  The authors define altruism as “a specific form of motivation for benefiting another.  To the degree that one’s ultimate goal in benefiting another is to increase the other’s welfare, the motivation is altruistic.  To the degree that the ultimate goal is to increase one’s own welfare, the motivation is egoistic” (p. 417).

I asked students in my service learning classes whether they felt that their service experiences exhibited the trait of altruism or should all of their service be considered egoistic.  Students, especially those who had recently gone on a trip to an orphanage in southern China, had much to say about this topic.  In fact, approximately 80% of students believed that altruism does exist within them or their peers.  The articulate minority, usually introspective male students, argued that even our finest actions are nothing but a cloak hiding self-interest.

The primary value of this exercise is for student to peer deeply into their motivations for the service work that they are engaged in.  This introspection helps them to simultaneously understand their own identity better while exploring deeper and more universal questions about the essential goodness or depravity of the human condition. These reflections help determine a philosophy of life that can undergird future community engagement.


Batson, C.D., Ahmad, N., & Lishner, D.A. (2009). Handbook of Positive Psychology. “Empathy and Altruism,” 417-426. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Other useful resources:

Altruism: Towards a psychobiosocial conceptualization,” Zygon, 42, 1, 25-47.Kristof, N.D.

A basic human pleasure.” NY Times, January 18, 2010.

March, J. “The Limits of David Brooks’ ‘Limits of Empathy.” Greater Good blog, October 4, 2011.

Mattieu Ricard has published an 800-page book on Altruism. Here is a short blog reflection on this theme.


About martinschmidtinasia

I have served as a humanities teacher at Hong Kong International School since 1990, teaching history, English, and religion courses. Since the mid-1990's I have also come to assume responsibility for many of the school's service learning initiatives. My position also included human care ministry with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in Hong Kong, southern China, and others parts of Asia from 1999-2014. Bringing my affluent students into contact with people served by the LCMS in Asia has proved to be beneficial to students and our community partners alike. Through these experience I have become committed to social conscience education, which gives students the opportunity to find their place in society in the context of challenging global realities.
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3 Responses to Does Altruism Exist? Student Reflection on Motivations for Service

  1. Vivian says:

    I think altruism and egoistic can happen simultaneously. It is always the case that we want other to be well while also satisfying own inner need. Probably the egoistic gain serves as a reinforcement for the altruistic behaviors.

  2. Vivian, the students all agree that our motives are a mix of altruism and egoism. However, the real question is whether at any point altruism really exists? Back to the authors’ definition of altruism: “A specific form of motivation for benefiting another. To the degree that one’s ultimate goal in benefiting another is to increase the other’s welfare, the motivation is altruistic. To the degree that the ultimate goal is to increase one’s own welfare, the motivation is egoistic.” So, of course you receive lots of personal benefits (job satisfaction, social status, a salary, meaningful relationships) from the wonderful work you do, but is your ultimate goal in choosing this profession the benefit of the kids or yourself? If that’s too difficult to answer, think of your play therapy sessions with the students. Is the ultimate goal of those therapy sessions to increase your own welfare or to increase the welfare of your students?

    • Vivian says:

      When you asked about the play therapy sessions, It is for the benefits of the kids. However, the career as a social worker is more of a egoistic thing. I guess that means what i am doing is to satisfy the egoistic need more so than an altruistic act. May be when I am helping the kids as a volunteer rather than as a paid social worker, It would more more sense to claim that as an altruistic act. Of course, even a volunteer may serve out of egoistic intention.

      Being said that, i do believe there are people who are truly altruistic. Just wondering if a mother’s care to her child can be counted as altruism. I think it is part of the human nature to be altruistic at some occassion. Evolutionarily, such behavior must have it’s value. I remember reading some classic psychology experiments that there are altruistic behaviors in animals (primates?). As human is also animal, i do think this behavior still exists.

      Blending the chinese philosophy into this discussion, I believe a balance of altruistic and egoistic is more suitable for one’s survival. In Chinese culture or buddhist teaching, they always talk about the middle-way. Seeing things in dichotomy may not work that well in the reality.

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