By Abhik Roy
April 8, 2018
The word “altruism” is derived from the Latin word alter, which means “other.” Auguste Comte, who is regarded as the father of positivism in Western philosophy, used the word “altruism” for the first time in the 19th century.
According to Comte, altruism involves the “elimination of selfish desire and of egocentrism, as well as leading a life devoted to the well-being of others.” More recently, the American philosopher, Thomas Nagel, has explained altruism as “a willingness to act in consideration of the interests of the other person without the need of ulterior motive.”
Other philosophers who believe in the human potential for altruism and compassion go further than Nagel. For example, Stephen Post defines altruistic love as “unselfish delight in the well-being of others, and engagement in acts of care and service on their behalf. Unlimited love extends this love to all others without exception, in an enduring and constant way.”
Post’s explanation of altruistic love is very much akin to agape in Christianity, which is unconditional love for all other human beings, and the Buddhist concepts of maitri and karuna, which is unconditional love for all sentient beings, both human and nonhuman.
In Strength to Love, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. explains in detail the nature of altruism, which is founded on the Christian principles of agape. He shares the story of the Samaritan who went beyond the call of duty to rescue a man, who, on his way to Jericho, got robbed and was mercilessly beaten by robbers and was left half dead by the roadside.
When others saw the half-dying man by the roadside and didn’t stop to help, the Samaritan, who was moved with compassion, offered first aid while helping the half-dying man to get medical assistance.
For Rev. King, the Samaritan possessed three kinds of altruism ~ universal altruism, dangerous altruism, and excessive altruism. When the Samaritan saw the half-dying man, he didn’t ask for his race, creed, nationality, or class. He helped the half dying man unconditionally.
This is an example of universal altruism where there are no conditions attached. One just helps the person in need without thinking twice about it.
The Samaritan also possessed the capacity for dangerous altruism, which implies that the Samaritan was willing to help even if it was dangerous to do so.
Lastly, the Samaritan possessed excessive altruism, which suggests that true help is much more than pity. It is the capacity to feel genuine sympathy and feel the strong desire to help mitigate the suffering of the other person.
Rev. King exhorts us to embrace all the three kinds of altruism, which were exhibited by the Samaritan. For Rev. King, practising these three kinds of altruism makes us a complete human being. Rev. King tells us that it is in the act of altruistic giving lies the expression of our aliveness.
In dealing with altruism, two concepts, maitri and karuna, play a huge role in Buddhist teachings. While maitri is the ability to bring joy and peace to the person you love, karuna is compassion or altruism. This is not only the desire to ease the pain of another person but the ability to do so.
Buddhism defines altruistic love as “the wish that all beings find happiness and the causes of happiness.” By “happiness,” Buddhism does not mean a temporary state of wellbeing or pleasant sensation but rather a way of being that is based on qualities such as altruism, compassion, inner freedom and inner strength, among others.
In Buddhism, altruistic love is always accompanied by a steady readiness and availability to assist others with the strong determination to do everything in one’s power to provide succour to the person who is suffering in order to help him/her attain happiness.
According to the Dalai Lama, altruistic acts are not limited to “providing food, shelter and so forth but includes relieving the basic causes of suffering and providing the basic causes of happiness.”
Scientific research indicates that altruism is something that is innate in humans. Research also demonstrates that babies have neural connections that are built on love and care.
And as adults it is quite natural for us to feel empathy for those who suffer. In A Theory of Justice, John Rawls has provided a detailed account of how loving kindness that one experiences in family can ultimately develop into altruism, forming the basis for a just society.
For Rawls, the basic principle that operates is reciprocity ~ the giving and receiving of love and care for people. In addition to Rawls, who underscored the importance of compassion and altruism in a just society, Matthieu Ricard explains in his magnum opus, Altruism, that if an 18-month-old sees a man drop a clothespin she will move to pick it up and hand it back to him within five seconds, about the same amount of time it takes an adult to offer assistance. If you reward a baby with a gift for being kind, the propensity to help will decrease in some studies by up to 40 per cent.
However, when we propagate the capitalist ideology that is based on hard core economic principles, which assumes that people are basically selfish and there needs to be some kind of an incentive to engage in altruism, the natural predisposition in humans to be loving, kind, and altruistic gets totally crushed.
Now, in many societies we witness a distinct shift from a love-ethic oriented society to one that is based on economic motivation. Under this new value system where accumulation of money, ruthless competition and conspicuous consumption become the order of the day, people become objects that can be used, discarded and disposed of at will.
As the eminent feminist scholar Bell Hooks points out, a value system that worships money erodes the moral values that encourage us to care and engage in altruistic acts for others. It also destroys the spirit of connectedness in communities that are built on loving kindness, compassion, and altruism.
Despite all the spiritual teachings that many of us in India have been privy to concerning the importance of compassion and altruism in our daily life, many have chosen a “me” culture where we consume and consume with no thought of others. Greed and exploitation seem to have become the norm.
It is indeed sad to witness that this kind of dehumanising ideology has even spread to the field of education. Numerous academic institutions have sprung up in India where students get an education that promises them a lucrative career and an affluent life down the road.
There’s not much of an opportunity for these students to learn about ethics or philosophy, which may teach them a thing or two about living a life that is based on higher moral principles such as empathy, compassion, altruism, and more.
When we embrace a financial incentive, we are inclined to view things through the narrowly defined economic lens. Instead of following our natural tendency to be compassionate and altruistic, we engage in selfish cost-benefit calculation.
Before we practise any kind of altruism, we are tempted to ask: “What’s in this for me?” When we accept this kind of an economic motivation, the outcome is likely to be bad.
Just imagine what would happen to a marriage or a friendship if both parties were looking to get more out of the relationship than they had put in. I don’t think the prospects of such relationship would be very promising.
Just like a marriage or friendship where we are willing to sacrifice and are ready to come to the aid of the other who needs help, we need to incorporate this kind of a commitment in our civic life.
As a good citizen, we may want to engage in altruistic acts to help people who are suffering. After all, a healthy, strong and thriving community is one where, in Rev. King’s words, “All men [and women] are caught in an escapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
Sadly, we see academic, political, social, and business institutions that used to be based on strong moral and ethical foundations have withered away. Now, economic, utilitarian thinking has become the norm.
We seem to have established a society that is less kind, less loving and less compassionate. When we normalise selfishness and prioritize our life based on selfish goals, the culture as a whole becomes selfish.
Perhaps it’s not too late to embrace the teachings of Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda, Tagore, and Sri Aurobindo, to name a few, to help build our communities that harness our natural inclinations to engage in altruism.
Abhik Roy is Professor of Communication Studies at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles