It is quite likely that altruism was one of the human traits which allowed our species to develop and progress. It is possible that this ability to behave in a way which is to the benefit of others, while being at our own expense, underpinned our development as a social animal.
Some scientists have proposed that “cooperative breeding” is at the core of this issue .
“Humans are generally highly cooperative and often impressively altruistic, quicker than any other animal species to help out strangers in need. A new study suggests that our lineage got that way by adopting so-called cooperative breeding: the caring for infants not just by the mother, but also by other members of the family and sometimes even unrelated adults. In addition to helping us get along with others, the advance led to the development of language and complex civilizations,” (1)
Although cooperative breeding is not unique to humans, 10% of birds act in this way, it seems that we are the only group of primates which act in this manner. Whether is was cooperative breeding which initiated this change or not it has long been recognised that altruism is an important human characteristic and possibly the defining human characteristic.
Even before the evolutionary scientists and psychologists started to think about altruism the great thinkers had already considered it as an intrinsic and defining aspect of human nature. Indeed Adam Smith opening his major work with the following sentence :-
“No matter how selfish we suppose man to be, there is obviously something in his nature that makes him interested in the fortunes of others and makes their happiness necessary to him, even if he derives nothing from it other than the pleasure of seeing it.” (2)
We, as individuals in our species, gain pleasure from helping our fellows. Smith believed that this combination, of having a drive to look after oneself (self-interest) combined with the experience of deriving pleasure from making others happy (altruism), allowed us to develop a trading and commercial society where everyone looked after their own interests while at the same time promoting the common good. This type of society, capitalism, has allowed us as a species to greatly expand our wealth(3), reduce poverty (4), extend health and longevity over the globe (5) and even, possibly, reduce the likelihood of wars (6). It may even reduce the rates of materialism and consumerism (7).
However, we need to be careful and be clear what altruism actually is. There is a danger that, if we neglect the nature of altruism and clumsily try and promote good behaviour, we might actually damage on of the most valuable aspects of our behaviour. Altrusim is defined as :-
“Disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others”:(8)
Its synonyms include charity, humanitarianism, generosity, benevolence, self-sacrifice and goodwill. At the core of this definition is that something is done by someone which is either not to their benefit, or possibly to their disadvantage, and it is done purely for the pleasure of making the other person’s life better in some way. There is no aspect of altruism which weighs up the potential future benefit the the giver, the altruistic action is performed simply for the pleasure of the other person. One doesn’t pay good wages altruistically, one pays good wages to ensure better staff. It is not altruistic if one undertakes an act in the hope that the consequences will benefit you in the future. If one is altruistic one doesn’t give money to the poor because you hope it will make your life more secure by reducing the likelihood that he will rob your house. It is not altruistic to donate money to a medical charity trying to find cures for the illness that troubles your sick child. These may be wise steps but they are not signs of your altruism.
People are altruistic as it is in their nature, it gives pleasure in its own right. If we try and force good behaviour on people, in the hope that this will promote altruism we will be mistaken. There is pleasure to be had from looking after a sick relative, positive feelings will also be felt when we give money to the poor, and we will feel good, and possibly pride when we place ourselves at risk to defend a friend or fellow from attack. These positive feelings allow us to know we have behaved well. They have their counterpoints in the shame we feel we don’t intervene to tackle an injustice, the regret when we missed an opportunity to help an ailing family member and the guilt we might feel if we judge ourselves to have been greedy while there are still people in need. We need to feel these emotions to guide our development as people. If we are to become better people we need to have some idea of what constitutes a “good“man or woman. We need to know this in order to allow ourselves to become better.
If altruism is replaced by state compulsion this is lost. When I arrange for for a sitter for my relative it is a chore. When my taxes go to help some group in need, there is no pleasure, I have no relationship with the good which occurs. If I am conscripted to defend my fellows I will do my duty but there will be no pride. None of these things allow me to choose my intervention, to experience the decision and to feel the consequence of goodwill to my fellows. In all of these I am no better, or worse, than anyone else. I do not get the opportunity to expand my moral development, to think about benevolence and charity, and how I might become a better person. Indeed with time, I will start to think that it is not my role to help others, I am just an individual after all, it is the role of government, the authorities, the state, certainly somebody else to make sure good works occur.
This is dangerous. There is evidence that, as welfare states expand, the amount of charitable activity and charitable giving reduces (8). We take away the individuals connection to altruism while doing nothing to alter their feelings driving them to self-interest. This is a recipe for decreasing the effectiveness of our market economies in spreading wealth more equitably.
States have always urged us to be altruistic. Early religions promoted the ideas of self-sacrifice for the common good, later nations promoted the need for us all to pull together, or tighten our belts, for the good of us all. But as they have removed our individual right in this process they have damaged altruism. If I have no choice, I am not acting well, I never chose to pay taxes for armaments for whatever war was deeded necessary. Indeed often I feel my taxes are used for morally questionable interventions (Though at least I have no personal responsibility for these either). No-one can force someone else to be altruistic. While the altruistic soldier can volunteer for the suicide raid, the soldier sent by order on a suicidal mission does not die altruistically. Our rulers compel us to make donations, pay taxes, for good causes. These good causes help maintain the state that those in power run. Thus, they benefit directly from this action. There is no altruism on their part, simple self-interest and maintenance of the systems of power is their motive.
We need to bring benevolence and good will back to the individual so that we may benefit from its positive effects. We need to wrest it out of the hands of the state, despite any dire warnings of the tragedies which might befall us. If we really want these good works to continue, and I am sure most of us wish to look after our communities and our fellow, we will voluntarily contribute for them. This would also have the beneficial effect of allowing us to play a part in determining what we feel we wish to promote. I would guess that the call for voluntary payments to support the bombing of some distant upstart country might fall of deaf ears, and that would be a good thing.
Prompted by the Daily Prompt : Tempted“>Tempted