Does Altruism Exist in High School Students?

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?

The 2009 Oxford Positive Psychology Textbook 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.

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.

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

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