Paradox of the Benefactor

What is the Paradox of the Benefactor?

Imagine you help an elderly neighbor carry groceries, and you feel good for doing it. Now, there’s a tricky question here: since you felt good, does that mean you weren’t really being totally selfless? The Paradox of the Benefactor is all about this puzzle. It asks if you can truly be giving just to help others, without getting anything for yourself — even if that “something” is just a happy feeling. This idea makes us think deeply about why we do nice things for others, and whether looking for nothing in return is even possible.

The Paradox of the Benefactor comes down to two simple definitions:

  • Definition 1: It’s a question of intention. If you do something good, like donating money to a charity, but you do it because it makes you feel proud or happy, some might say your act isn’t completely selfless. The paradox is in figuring out whether any good deed can be truly free of self-benefit.

  • Definition 2: It’s also about the results. If your good action helps others, does it really matter why you did it? This part of the paradox suggests that as long as the act leads to something positive for someone else, it still counts as a good deed, even if you felt good doing it.


  • A rich person gives money to build a hospital and has a wing named after them. This is a paradox because while they helped many people, they also got recognition and maybe felt proud, which benefits them.

  • Someone volunteers at a food bank not just to help but because they enjoy meeting new people. Fun and friendship for the volunteer could be considered a personal gain, making it part of the paradox.

  • A company donates to environmental causes but also advertises their actions. They’re doing good, but the marketing advantage they get can make us wonder if the deed was entirely selfless.

  • A celebrity works with a charity and their fans admire them more for it. The admiration might make the celebrity feel good, so we might question if their charity work is part of the paradox.

  • A student helps classmates with homework but also wants to impress the teacher. By helping, they get satisfaction and possibly a good reputation, which again illustrates the paradox.

Key Arguments

This paradox has prompted many key arguments that try to understand our motives and the nature of good deeds:

  • The motive argument
  • The consequence argument
  • The inherent goodness argument
  • The psychological egoism argument

Answer or Resolution

There’s no single answer to this paradox, but some ideas have been shared:

  • One idea is that doing good is still commendable, even if you feel happy about it, as the main point is the help given to others.

  • Another thought is that pure selflessness is rare, and that most actions are a mix of different motives.

  • Some say that if you act out of duty, and not for personal gain, then feeling good about it is just a bonus, not the main reason for your action.

Major Criticism

Some critics of the paradox argue focusing on why people do good things isn’t practical or necessary. They believe that as long as the act helps, that’s all that counts. They also say that it’s almost impossible to fully know why someone else does something, which makes trying to figure out their motives not very useful.

Practical Applications

Even though this paradox is a brain-teaser, it’s useful in the real world:

  • In philosophy
  • In psychology
  • In philanthropy
  • In economic policy

Why is it Important

Understanding this paradox is essential for a few reasons. It can help us be more honest with ourselves about why we do the things we do. Whether it’s for feeling good, getting praise, or just because we think it’s the right thing to do, knowing this can make us more authentic and may even encourage us to do more good deeds.

Also, for charities and organizations that rely on donations and volunteers, understanding the paradox can help them find better ways to connect with people. They might create programs that make donors feel connected to the cause, which could lead to people giving more because it feels closer to their hearts.

For everyday people, being aware of this paradox can make us more thoughtful about how we interact with others. It can lead us to question our intentions and potentially push us to act in ways that are more genuinely focused on helping, rather than on what we get out of it.

Related Topics

  • Altruism: This is the selfless concern for the well-being of others. Understanding the Paradox of the Benefactor can deepen our conversations about whether true altruism exists in human behavior.

  • Ethical Egoism: A theory that says it’s moral to act in one’s own self-interest. It contrasts with the paradox by suggesting looking out for oneself is actually ethical.

  • Utilitarianism: The idea that the best action is the one that maximizes overall happiness or well-being. The paradox ties into this by questioning if intentions or outcomes matter more when measuring happiness.

  • Moral Psychology: This examines how and why people make moral decisions. The Paradox of the Benefactor is a real-life example of the complex factors at play in our moral choices.


The Paradox of the Benefactor invites us to explore the real reasons behind acts of kindness and charity. It isn’t about saying that doing good is bad or meaningless. Rather, it’s a tool for thinking more deeply about the nature of our actions and the complications of being selfless. This thoughtful questioning can lead to more authentic actions and a better understanding of ourselves and others. The paradox remains an ongoing discussion that shapes how we view morality and generosity in our lives.