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 we all must behave in ways that consider the whole biosphere rather than ways that aim simply to look after ourselves, our families, our tribes, our communities or our nations.

We must place a higher priority on the good of all, including those who will come after us, rather than looking after just ourselves and those close to us. 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, both human and non-human, is needed.

It is also obvious that a great many people, probably a large majority, are making no effort to minimise, or even reduce, their personal greenhouse emissions or their impact on the environment.

This page written 2018/04/30, last edited 2024/02/17
Contact: David K. Clarke – ©

The Clare hills, South Australia
Clare panorama
With climate change, how long will this beautiful 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. In one way 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 in regard to climate change 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, charity goodwill stores, 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 as Facebook friends because they tend far more to altruism than selfishness.

Personal scale
Our vehicles Chose a big fuel guzzler because either:
you might need it sometimes,
or it gives you a feeling of power
Choose a vehicle that will minimise your greenhouse emissions as far as possible
Choose 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.

Several more examples of selfish and altruistic behaviour

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.

Private jetty
The sign on this jetty in Mandurah reads "PRIVATE JETTY KEEP OFF.
Would it harm the jetty or the owners if other people were to use it? Surely it is unlikely.

Similarly, when I took part in a Regent parot survey on the Murray River in South Australia I noticed launching ramps that were chained off to stop the general public from using them.


Remarkable Wikipedia, an exercise in altruism

The English language edition of Wikipedia had more than six million articles in 2020. Most of the writers are unpaid. Perhaps the most amazing fact about Wikipedia is that anyone can edit an article, yet, in my experience, it is highly reliable.
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.

On a similar scale of selfishness to rubbishing the roadsides is the modification of cars to make the exhaust more noisy. It may please the owner, but will annoy almost everyone else.

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.

To act in ways that do not consider the needs of future generations, both human and non-human, is selfish in the extreme, but is typical of human behaviour in the early 21st century.

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

A poll on electricity supply priorities and what it tells us about selfishness or altruism

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

In Australia the One Nation is the most right-wing, Liberal/National coalition next, the Greens most left leaning, and Labor somewhere in between coalition and Greens. I would expect similar results from other nations.

Looking at the percentages of voters in each group
Total percentage of all voters
made up by these parties
Coalition votersLabor votersGreens votersOne Nation voters
These figure were taken from Wikipedia, they suggest that quite a small percentage of the
Australian voters place a high priority on our environment.

Wikipedia describes ideological groupings of right or left as:

"Generally, the left-wing is characterized by an emphasis on "ideas such as freedom, equality, fraternity, rights, progress, reform and internationalism" while the right-wing is characterized by an emphasis on "notions such as authority, hierarchy, order, duty, tradition, reaction and nationalism"."

From the results of the electricity poll above it seems plain that left-leaning people are the more altruistic, right-leaning people the most selfish. I wonder what would be the effect of labelling them selfish instead of right and altruistic instead of left?

An afterthought

It could be stupidity and/or ignorance rather than selfishness. I could well believe that One Nation voters are too stupid or too ill-informed to understand the disastrous potential of climate change for example.

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 in Mid North South Australia. 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. In July 2018 I was waiting on a decision by the state government to either allow or disallow the building of the Energy Park that, if built, will combine a wind farm, a solar farm, a 'big battery' and possibly a hydrogen generating facility.

Unfortunately there was 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!

Wind power opposition has been based on selfishness, misinformation and lies; some people simply don't want nearby wind turbines. It is interesting to compare opposition to wind power developments to opposition to coal mining, which is mostly honest, well informed, altruistic, very well justified and based on good ethical principles.

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.

This section added

Humanity or all life?

Philosopher Peter Singer promotes the philosophically sound idea that we should care as much for a child on the other side of the world as we do for one much nearer home.

Buddhist leader the Dalai Lama teaches about compassion for all of humanity. A noble and good aim.

Where I disagree with both is how far our compassion should extend.

In regard to Singer's idea, why should we place a child on the other side of the world ahead of an endangered creature anywhere on the planet? In regard to the Dalai Lama's idea, why should we have more compassion for humans than for other sentient beings - or for that matter non-sentient beings? Why should humans have more rights and be better looked after than animals?

It seems to me that our greatest efforts should be trying to preserve the whole biosphere in as good a condition as possible. I see no philosophical or justifiable reason for placing humans above other life forms.

This section added

Weeds in public places

Onion weed hoed out
On a part of the path running alongside the Len Howard Conservation Park, 2022/06/13
Strap weed, false onion weed (Trachyandra divaricata, the fleshy leafed plant in the image on the right) is a serious invasive weed in coastal south-west Western Australia.

I've dug out the plants in the image. They were adjacent a shared-use (walking and cycling) path adjacent to the Len Howard Conservation Park near where I live. Had they been left the weed could easily have invaded the park.

In another reserve area, against the coast, there were about 50 of these plants adjacent to a 300 metre section of path through what I believe is otherwise mostly native bush. They could be removed in an hour or so. (I have often removed 200 in less than an hour). Dozens of people would walk past these weeds every day.

Does the fact that no one bothers removing these particular plants say something about how little the great majority of people care for our shared environment? Or would the main problem be ignorance?

Give some time and effort to our community

So many people look after their own gardens with great care, yet do nothing at all for the parks and paths in their communities. I find this mystifying.

This section added

Will humanity ever put the environment first?

If we destroy our environment we destroy ourselves.

If our children and grandchildren are to have a planet to live on that is not greatly inferior to the one that we enjoy we must place the good of our environment first.

Unfortunately that that goes against human nature:

  • How many people walk, ride a bicycle or use public transport if they find it more convenient (and they have the money) to drive a car in order to minimise their carbon emissions?
  • How many people choose to holiday near home rather than have an overseas holiday to minimise their carbon emissions?
  • How much trouble are any of us willing to go to in order to reduce the amount of rubbish that we produce?
  • How many of us resist the temptation to buy some gadget or item of clothing in order to reduce our consumption and therefore our impact on our shared planet?
While I see little hope that humanity will do what is necessary to save our planet from environmental destruction I feel that there is always hope and that we should never stop trying.

Few people care

This section added
It is common to see people, especially on the roads, doing things that are consuming resources and producing greenhouse emission unnecessarily.

Just one example I"ve seen today was people running the engine of a car parked under shade to keep the car cool, when just having the windows open would have been comfortable.

Is it that people don't care, that they don't think, that caring for the environment is not a high enough priority to be at the top of their minds? Do they simply not consider the consequences of their actions? Any or all of the above?

I have written some notes elsewhere on these pages about the very small percentage of people in my community who use public transport. You'd think that the majority of people would know by 2023 that using public transport is much more environmentally friendly than using private cars, yet is seems that only a very small percentage (1% by this particular observation) are motivated to do so.

A small altruistic act

Donating blood plasma
Donating plasma
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? It would seem so.

Of course, in the federal liberal/National coalition's 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 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.

Our leaders

Unfortunately those people who climb to the top of the greasy poll of leadership of our organisations and nations are far more interested in ambition and power than in ethical standards. This seems to apply in democracies as well as in tyrannies such as China and North Korea. It is through exercising selfishness that they obtain their positions.

Is this the way it has to be?


Religion is delusional and religions have caused enormous harm, cruelty and killing, 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 (Judao-Christianity-Islam) or being reincarnated as a cockroach (Buddhism and Hinduism) 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.

This section added

Conspicuous consumption

Expensive impractical boat
This was one of a number of similar boats at a luxury boat show in Mandurah on the weekend of 17th and 18th of February 2024.

A boat such as this could be used for fishing, but it would be bought mostly, I would think, for the thrill of travelling over the water at high speed. And like all big and expensive boats, to impress one's friends and possibly business associates.

Obviously it would use a lot of (fossil) fuel and produce a lot of carbon dioxide. Sadly, many, perhaps most, people don't seem to care about their personal additions to the climate change problem. The typical person who would buy a boat such as this would probably produce twenty-times, or even a hundred-times, the greenhouse gasses than an average third world person (see below).

Very expensive boat
If you look at the high definition version of this photo you can see the price tag on this boat: $1.29 million. It is not a new boat, it is for sale with a number of other used boats not far from the luxury boat show mentioned above.

Unlike the boat above, this one does have interior accommodation, probably including a couple of bunks.

I've written on this point on another page previously.

Self-indulgences such as these, in a country and a world in which many people have trouble feeding their children, seems to me to be quite obscene.


Emissions per capita
The graph on the right was extracted from the World Inequality Report 2022 page 19. It is one of two that cover the major global regions.

On this graph each person in the top 10% in wealth in North America produces, an average, 73 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per annum while the bottom 50% in South and South-East Asia each produce only 1 tonne. (The second graph - not shown here - records that the bottom 50% in Sub-Saharan Africa each, on average, produce only 0.5 tonnes per annum.)

Putting this another way, a wealthy person in North America is responsible for about 73 times the emissions of a poor person in South and South-East Asia and about 150 times the emissions of a poor person in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Why be altruistic?


Altruism is best for yourself in the long run

Being altruistic will help you to respect yourself.

At the time of writing this (August 2022) I am 76 years old. In that time I have learned that the most valuable possession one can have is self respect. And for that self respect to be justified it must be well founded, if it is not well founded perhaps it is simply narcissism, self love?

So ironically being altruistic is one way of looking after yourself.

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; that is, that altruism is ultimately selfish:
  • 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 you 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 in doing anything altruistic is that I want to feel that I am of some value to the community, society and biosphere in which I live.

The ultimate selfish act?


I was wrong

Even more selfish than the damage inflicted on the environment for the sake of a short joy-ride into space is spending millions of dollars on supporting the hugely destructive fossil fuel industries and dishonestly opposing emissions reduction, as has been done by at least two Australian billionaires, Clive Palmer and Gina Rinehart.

Climbing Mount Everest

Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first to climb Mt Everest on 1953/05/29. By 2020 more than 500 attempt the climb each year and about 1% of these die in the attempt.

The typical cost of an attempt on Everest is from $30,000 to $60,000. The climb is largely a selfish act; while it does employ a number of people, particularly usefully poor Nepalese, the aim is entirely self-centred. Consider how much more good could be done with that money if it was spent with an altruistic aim elsewhere?

And we could compare, from an ethical point of view, the act of climbing Mouth Everest with the efforts of those who collect the rubbish left by climbers.

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!

Even more important than the irresponsibility of the financial self-indulgence is the consumption of resources and greenhouse emissions involved in a short space flight or a short stay in orbit. The burning of fossil fuels is widely recognised as the main cause of climate change, ocean acidification, sea level rise and ocean warming.

In mid-2021 Sir Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos are both hoping to offer very short flights that just get into space. In The Lex Column of the Australian Financial Review, 2021/07/11, Why space flights’ green credentials don’t fly, it is stated that CO2 emissions per passenger, per mile is 12 kilograms while, for comparison, another notoriously high-emissions activity, flying business class (worse in itself than flying tourist class) produces only 0.2 kilograms per person per mile.


Related pages

Related external pages

Selfish Altruism: A Win-Win?; by Jessica Exton on The Decision Lab
The man who proved that altruism is selfish; by Nicola Davis for The Guardian - about "the strange life of scientist George Price".
Is altruism selfish? poses some interesting questions that are worth thinking about

Related pages on this site

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
Wealth and the environment
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