I have only ever in my life seen TWO fictional act of pure altruism. Missy’s decision to stand with the Doctor was one of them. The other was Tony Stark in Marvel’s 2006 Civil War.
True altruism is selflessness for the good of others. Doctor Who gives us a good definition of that with this season’s definition of virtue. It doesn’t seek advantage; the truest form of goodness is when there is no hope, witness, or reward.
Backstory: My dad is an economist. I grew up knowing some shit that’s probably weird for a child to know — specifically, a passing knowledge of game theory. Game theory, in a nutshell, is the idea that in any situation where multiple people are making a decision, every decision has several potential payoffs. (One of the most famous examples is the prisoner’s dilemma, which is shown a lot in police procedurals.)
In the prisoner’s dilemma, there are multiple possibilities: Either Prisoner A betrays Prisoner B and receives the full payoff, a drastically reduced sentence (or vice versa), or Prisoner A and Prisoner B both keep their mouths shut and receive a partial payoff, a moderately reduced sentence. In the even that Prisoner A and Prisoner B both betray each other, their payoff is not in the form of a reduced sentence, since they will both serve full sentences, but instead the payoff is the instant gratification that comes with the attempt at self preservation, even though the attempt fails (I’ll touch more on that.) It’s the smallest possible payoff, and therefore the least desirable outcome for both prisoners.
The only possibility for lack of payoff in game theory is if one party never takes an action specifically, the decision itself must be attempted or started, because otherwise it is not yet put into action and cannot affect the outcome. In the prisoner dilemma, this would be like one prisoner deciding to betray the other prisoner but suffering a sudden heart attack before he could alert the police of his choice to do so: the immediate payoff of attempted self preservation never comes because it was only ever an intention and never made its way into deed, regardless of whether that deed failed or succeeded.
Following the basic ideas of game theory to their logical conclusion: there CANNOT BE a truly altruistic action, because there is always some form of payoff. That’s why there’s phrases like “tis better to give than to receive”, because after all, when you give someone a gift, they’re grateful.
This is called psychological egoism. There’s a quote in that wiki that explains it better than I can: “[Man] is either willing to get a reward from God, therefore he wanted to serve himself, or he wanted to get a reward from people, therefore, he has done that to get profit for himself, or to be mentioned and praised by people, therefore, to it is also for himself, or due to his mercy and tenderheartedness, so he has simply done that goodness to pacify these feelings and treat himself.” **
Say you give a homeless man your last dollar and you are a good person in his eyes. This cannot be true altruism, because the man has witnessed your action and you have made him think positively of you.
You give a blind man your last dollar and he has no idea who did it, no one is around to see you being a good person. Perhaps he doesn’t even realize he has an extra dollar, and so he doesn’t think that there is some mysterious good person out there. There’s no witness. But there is reward, because you have the warm fuzzy feeling of knowing that you did something to benefit another person, even if it was at great cost to yourself.
To have no hope, no witness, and no reward, you have to perform an action (or have the intention to perform an action, since according to Mark Twain there are no good deeds, only good intentions and so an attempted action brings its own immediate payoff) with no expectation that it will reflect well on you, AND with none of the personal gratification that comes from doing good things.
Example: Tony Stark acted as a villain in Civil War because it was the only way to save lives — if no one stepped up to help enforce the Superhuman Registration Act the way Tony did, sentinels would be sent out. Kill squads. Genetic experimentation. Imprisonment. He had no witness to look on him as heroic, because the public loathed him for his actions. He had no reward, because HE hated his own actions. He hated what he was doing and he hated himself for it, but he did it because it saved lives. No hope. No witness. No reward. Pure altruism can be achieved when your actions are done to help others but no one, INCLUDING YOURSELF, views your deeds as noble. Since Tony was not actually saving anyone, but instead was offering an alternative, less horrible fate, there was no payoff.
Missy had one witness: Her former regeneration. He found the action that she was trying to perform reprehensible. She never completed the action, and so was denied any form of emotional gratification by her failure. In this specific case, she was also denied payoff because she was never able to ATTEMPT the action. She made the decision to stand with the Doctor, and then was immediately struck down. This is equivalent to the situation in which the prisoner suffers the heart attack before he can follow through with his decision: No payoff. Everyone else believed that she had chosen to do something selfish, so there was no witness and so no social reward. As such, her aborted attempt to join the Doctor in itself is pure altruism. There is no payoff in this situation, and so game theory’s restrictions on altruism don’t come into effect.
Conclusion: The Doctor has no idea that Missy has achieved true altruism in a way that he himself has not, and his ignorance of this fact is what makes her deeds truly pure and altruistic.
* – keeping in mind that, though I’m working my way through the extended universe and classic who, I am primarily going off of New Who, which means this statement may very well be wrong, there might be some instance where the Doctor fulfills the requirements I’ve laid out in this post. Please don’t attack me if this is the case.
** – side note: this played havoc with younger, more religious me. I didn’t know it was an actual theory, so I assumed it was a problem with me, specifically. I just assumed that I wasn’t Good like other people are, because I was Good with the hope of getting into Heaven, or because doing bad things made me feel guilty. I was a very troubled 12 year old.