Self or all?
Selfishness or altruism?

In 2018 it has become more obvious than ever that if our planet is to have a viable future humanity must behave in ways that consider the whole biosphere rather than ways that aim simply to look after the individual, the family, the tribe, the community or the nation.

We must place a higher priority on the good of all, rather than looking after just ourselves. The Dalai Lama, a man I greatly admire, often uses the word 'compassion' in his writings and he is right to do so; more compassion for those with whom we share the planet is needed.

This page written 2018/04/30, last edited 2021/01/28
Contact: David K. Clarke – ©

The Clare hills, South Australia
Clare panorama
With climate change, how long will this scene remain as it is?
Photo taken 2005/09/27

Are people basically selfish or altruistic?

This question probably doesn't have a simple answer.

On one hand politicians know very well that a great many people decide who to vote for based on selfishness; "What's in it for me?" is one of the questions that people ask when they are deciding what party to vote for at an election. Questions such as "What is best for the nation?" or "What is fairest for the most people?" or "What is best for the future of the planet and coming generations?" are given a much lower priority by most voters.


Thought, 2019/09/22

Two days ago there was a school kids' strike for climate action. These kids were being selfish; they wanted to have a world that was not greatly damaged by climate change to live in when they grow up.

People like Rupert Murdoch, who is 88 years old, don't have anything to fear from climate change, chances are they won't live long enough for climate change to impact their luxurious ways of life. They, with their dishonest opposition to action on climate change are also being selfish.

Of course the kids, and all those who want to see action on climate change, are also being altruistic; they know that what is going to be good for them will also be good for all life on Earth.

Very much in my personal experience I've found that the proposal to build a nearby wind farm brings out the selfish side of a great many people. Few seem to consider, "Is the good this thing will do in reducing greenhouse emissions more important than whether I want wind turbines near me or not?" They are more likely to think "I don't want these big industrial towers near me." or "This development might reduce the resale value of my property."

On the other hand, many people volunteer a great deal of their time for things like emergency fire services, ambulance services, local community groups, school committees, country show societies and service clubs.

Think of all the people who have written articles for Wikipedia; they are not paid, generally their names are not even made known to the people who read the articles that they write. Most of these people have specialist knowledge that they share freely. They must, in many cases, when the article is on a contentious subject, go to considerable trouble to check that it is not corrupted by more dishonest people. Wikipedia, it seems to me, is one of mankind's greatest and most unsung recent achievements.

On a personal level, I can think of many of my Facebook friends, who I have often chosen because they tend far more to altruism than selfishness.

Examples of selfish as against altruistic behaviour

Personal scale
Our vehiclesChoose a noisy motorbike or modify a car to make its exhaust noisy because you like the sound Choose a quiet vehicle because you don't want to annoy all the people who will hear it
Throw rubbish out of the car window onto the roadside because that is the easiest thing to do Dispose of your rubbish responsibly
Travel Whatever is easiest Consider the environmental implications of you actions: walk, ride a bike or use public transport when practical to minimise your environmental impact.
Consumption Buy anything you like with no consideration for how long it will last or its environmental impacts during production or disposal. Consider where the things you buy were made, how they were made, how long they will last and how they will be disposed of at the end of their useful lives. Consider the lifetime environmental implications of the things you buy.
Your spare time Enjoy yourself; have fun; play a sport. Do voluntary work for a charity; work in a community park or garden; join a service club (and actively work for the community, don't just go to meetings); become politically active and press for a better world in one way or another; do what your abilities and limitations allow you to do for your community.
Take away coffee Get a throwaway coffee cup because it is the easiest thing to do Buy yourself a 'keepcup' and get that filled when you want a coffee (see Responsible Mid-North) so that you don't add to the amount of rubbish going to landfill.
A wind farm is proposed nearby Object because you don't want to have to see nearby turbines or sometimes hear them (an example is below). Support the project because it will displace electricity generated by burning fossil fuels, it will provide local employment, work for local contractors and businesses, income for the turbine-hosting farmers and a generous community enhancement fund.
Election Vote for the party that promises you the most: the biggest tax cuts, the best services. In Australia at least, selfish people would tend to vote for parties other than the Greens. Vote for the party that you feel looks after everyone fairly and considers the future (of the planet and coming generations of people). In Australia at least, altruists would tend to vote for the Greens.

National scale
Australia has huge resources in both coal and renewable energy The coal industry is well established, is supported by monied interests, and brings in export income. A government also supporting it seems to be the best option for the short term (so long as they don't look at the long term, the international or environmental implications). A government looking after only itself will not concern itself much with any consequences of its actions that will come after its term in office. Urgently develop renewable energy to replace the coal industry because the latter is one of the main causes of climate change, ocean acidification and causes a huge number of deaths and illnesses due to the air pollution resulting from the burning of fossil fuels.
Climate change President Trump took the USA out of the Paris Accord (which aims to limit climate changing emissions) because he saw that as being in the short-term financial interest of the country. Almost all other nations that joined in the Paris Accord have remained in because of the recognised need for serious action on climate change.
Australia's Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments have done their best to slow the development of renewable energy; apparently because that was in the interest of the big mining businesses that funded the governing parties, the Liberal/National Coalition Supporting the fastest possible growth of renewable energy and speeding the closing of coal mines and coal fired power stations would be the best course for the long-term advantage of Australia and for the future of the planet.
Together with the above governments some very wealthy in influential people are trying to discredit climate scientists for their own purposes. It has been reported that Gina Rinehart, who has billions of dollars invested in coal mining, has donated millions of dollars to the anti-renewable energy Australian Institute of Public Affairs. Rupert Murdoch, leader of the News empire, has encouraged the employees of News Limited to undermine the need for climate action for years. These people, together with the others mentioned above, deserve being ranked among the greatest criminals in the history of mankind for the harm that they are doing to the planet and future generations. Those who are fighting to spread the truth about the need for action on climate change are at the other end of the spectrum from the criminals. They often have very little to gain personally, but see and are working for the greater good.

A poll on electricity supply priorities

A Fairfax/Ipsos poll was carried out on 1,200 Australians from 14-17th November 2018. The poll's main aim was looking into the relative positions of the Australian Labor party and the Liberal/National coalition, but I found the results of a question on energy policy to be particularly interesting in relation to the subject of this page: selfishness or altruism.

The question was: "When thinking about energy policy, which of the following do you think should be the main priority for the Federal Government?"

Below is the result as it was displayed on the Ipsos Internet page.

When thinking about energy policy, which of the following do you think should be the main priority for the Federal Government?
(%)All votersCoalition votersLabor votersGreens votersOne Nation voters
Reducting household bills47%58%36%23%80%
Reducting carbon emissions39%22%53%74%9%
Reducing the risk of power blackouts13%20%11%1%11%
Don't know1%1%0%2%0%

It is interesting to translate the results into selfish and altruistic answers. Reducing household bills and reducing the risk of power blackouts are both primarily self-centred aims; a person thinking only of themselves would give these aims a high priority. Reducing emissions is much more an altruistic aim; a person thinking of the future of the earth and all life on the earth would give this a high priority.

In the table below I have ignored the answers of 'other' and 'don't know'.

Splitting the votes between selfish and altruistic
Ordered from least to most altruistic
 All votersOne Nation votersCoalition votersLabor votersGreens voters

Opposition to a proposed wind farm and other examples of destructive selfishness

Turbine and fog
Fog streaming between turbines during construction of Snowtown Wind Farm
At different times between 2010 and 2018 two wind farms have been proposed near my Crystal Brook home. Both have met with significant opposition while the Snowtown Wind Farm (a small part of which is shown in the photo on the right), 40 km to the south, had very little local opposition.

The Crystal Brook Energy Park if built, will reduce Australia's greenhouse gas emissions by about 600,000 tonnes per year.

The opposition has been based on selfishness; some people simply don't want nearby wind turbines.

The opposition to something like a nearby wind farm seems to be contagious; I suspect that people think "well my neighbour is opposing this, if it's OK for him to be selfish it is OK for me to be selfish". I suspect that if more people were outspoken in voicing the desperate need for renewable energy the selfish people would be less likely to publicly display their selfishness.

Barnaby Joyce, previously Deputy Prime Minister of Australia, has much the same attitude. He says that Australia produces only a small percentage of the world's greenhouse emissions so why should we stop building coal-fired power stations? He ignores the relevant facts: Australia ranks 53rd in the world in population, but sixth in the world in the CO2 produced by its electricity industry; it has 0.3% of the world's population, but produces 1.2% of the world's greenhouse gasses; it is well up among the worst greenhouse polluters on the planet. Mr Joyce wants Australians to look after the short-term interests of Australia and ignore climate change and the future of the planet; if all, or even if many, world leaders thought selfishly like Mr Joyce we would get no action on climate change.

Other selfishness

Everyone knows that executive pay is out of proportion to the income of the great majority. Executives demand obscene rates of pay because they are selfish and because they can get them.

Investors and executives in the fossil fuel industries rubbish renewable energy because it is a risk to their financial position; they are being selfish.

Many people throw rubbish onto roadsides. It's easy to do, it's selfish, it harms the world in a number of ways.

We must change away from burning the fossil fuels that are causing climate change, ocean acidification, sea level rise and air pollution that is killing millions of people each year. If a nearby wind farm is proposed we can be selfish and oppose it or we can take a wider, more altruistic, view and support it for the good of the planet.

When selfishness is destroying the world it's not OK to be selfish.


Several more examples

Donating blood plasma
Donating plasma

A small altruistic act

Donating blood or plasma (photo on the right) is altruistic. At the time I took the photo I was told that only one in thirty Australians donate blood or blood products, yet it is easy, takes only an hour or so and is practically painless. (I have written more on donating blood elsewhere on this site.)

Why are so few people willing to make this very small contribution to their community?

Climate change action or power bills

In mid 2018 the federal Liberal Coalition government would have us believe that Australian people don't care about renewable energy and climate change, they apparently think that the Australian people are selfish and care far more about their electricity bills than the future of the world. Are they right?

Of course, in their opposition to sustainable energy they are ignoring the fact that we can have all three: lower power prices, renewable energy, and action on climate change. We can be altruistic and act for the good of all at the same time as looking after ourselves in this case.

In the insect world

When bees sting to protect their community they are giving their lives in what is probably the ultimate act of altruism.

Even bacteria

In the book A Crack in Creation by Jennifer A. Doudna and Samuel H. Sternberg, the authors write:
"Bacterial cells have even developed methods to sense an oncoming infection (by bacteriophages) and commit suicide before it can progress – a selfless way of protecting the greater bacterial community."

The other extreme, a very selfish act

As mentioned above, my wife and I have a home in Crystal Brook in the Mid North region of South Australia. In July 2018 we are waiting on a decision by the state government to either allow or disallow the building of an Energy Park that, if built, will combine a wind farm, a solar farm, a 'big battery' and possibly a hydrogen generating facility.

Unfortunately there is a vocal and dishonest opposition group. Should the opponents manage to stop the development:

  • they will be able to tell their grandchildren that their efforts increased the amount of carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere by 600,000 tonnes per year more than it needed to be;
  • they’ll be able to say they stopped a project that would have had great advantages to the community, the region, the state, the nation and the world;
  • they should tell their grandchildren that they were motivated by selfishness;
  • and they could admit that the methods they used were deceit, misinformation, exaggeration and downright lies.
Perhaps the best thing I've ever done is to make a sustained effort to provide the facts and debunk and expose the lies about wind power. I fear that my efforts have had only limited success in my own home town!


The Greens parties of the world favour looking after:
  • The environment;
  • The welfare of future generations (limiting climate change);
  • The welfare of disadvantaged minorities;
  • Domestic and wild animals.
The major and right-wing parties appeal to people who put themselves first:
  • People who want to pay less tax rather than accepting that more tax will allow the government to better look after disadvantaged people;
  • People who want to stop refugees finding refuge;
  • People who want lower power prices with little care for how their power is generated;
Surely the ideals of the Greens are much the same as the aims of an altruistic person.

About 10% of Australian people vote for the Greens, I'd guess that the world-wide figure would be much the same. If 90% of people are selfish and only 10% altruistic, can we wonder at the mess the world is in?

This impression of the altruism of greens voters compared to the selfishness of others (particularly coalition and One Nation) is supported by the results from a poll on electricity supply priorities elsewhere on this page.



Religion is delusional, but all the main world religions encourage altruism rather than selfishness. Is the decline in religion connected to the apparent increase in selfishness that we are seeing?

Was the fear of eternal damnation or being reincarnated as a cockroach enough to make people think a bit less about themselves and more of others? Is human nature such that many of us will behave selfishly unless we are convinced that it is in our own interests to consider the desires and welfare of others?

I suggest that if philosophy and ethics was taught in schools it might make up to some extent for the decline in religious belief.

Why be altruistic?

Various philosophers and psychologists have reasoned (or speculated) that true altruism does not exist; that people do acts of apparent altruism because they get something out of it:
  • Doing a favour for a neighbour will make him inclined to do something for you in the future;
  • Getting a reputation as being someone who does things for other people makes them trust and like you; which may well be to your advantage in the long term;
  • Doing something for your community or a stranger makes one feel good.
It has also been suggested that altruistic acts can be simply a display of empathy; imagining oneself in the position of someone or some animal that needs help for example.

For myself I think my main motivation is that I want to feel that I am of some value to the society (and biosphere) in which I live.

The ultimate selfish act?

In late 2020 the private company SpaceX is offering a round trip to the International Space Station, including a ten day stay, for US$55 million. See an article by Kenneth Chang in the New York Times, dated 2020/03/05 for more details.

Think of the good that could be done in this world with US$55 million!

Wikipedia reports that over three billion of the world's people live on less than $2.50 a day. That is $912 a year. So 60,000 people could live on $55 million dollars for a year!

Related pages

A number of related pages are linked to in the text.

Ashamed to be Australian?
Walking for climate change awareness: cleaning up the roadsides at the same time
Who wants renewable energy?
Why accept climate science
Why support wind power
Responsible cafes: choose to reuse
Personal contribution to society

The other end of the spectrum: for a person in a position of power to knowingly work to stop or slow action to minimise climate change; the greatest crime in the history of humanity