In Praise of Altruism

The Heidelberg philosopher Karl Jaspers was something of a polymath making significant contributions not only in philosophy but also in psychiatry and theology. According to Jaspers, a broad revolution in Mankind’s spiritual development occurred over a wide geographical spread including China, India, Persia, Judea and Greece over the period 800-200BC. He called this period the Axial Age. (This revolution is illuminated with her usual scholarship in Karen Armstrong’s fine book, The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions.) During this period the foundations were laid for Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. A common thread that arose out of all these spiritual traditions was the Rule of Reciprocity which we perhaps know more commonly as the “Golden Rule”.

However differently the Sages of the Axial Age (Confucius, Mahavira, the Buddha, Socrates and the authors of the Mosaic commandments) justified their teachings, they came to similar beliefs about what constitutes religion. There was a great shift from their more primitive ancestors, who largely believed that religion was about appeasing the gods by making sacrifices or performing other rituals, to a belief that religion concerned our human relationships with one another.

As the famous Jewish Rabbi Hillel responded when asked to explain Judaism:

“What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour, that is the total Torah, while the rest is mere commentary.”

So there you are, an explanation of one of the world’s great religions with no mention of otherworldliness, transcendence or even God!

In their teachings Confucius and the Buddha (both who propounded their own versions of the Golden Rule) don’t even speculate about God or gods!

The ancients (like some of the more naïve, fundamentalist and ignorant of today) were keen to make and accentuate the division between “us” and “others” based on moral prejudice, race, religion or ethnicity. The sages of the Axial Age however, urged us not to take such boundaries so seriously but reminded us of the more important things we have in common.

(In Buddhism, for example, various exercises are recommended to extend the scope of our altruism. People are much more inclined to come to the assistance of a friend or someone with whom they have something in common –ethnicity, nationality, religion and so on, as we saw. The exercises help us draw a wider and wider circle into those we can identify with and consequently show empathy for.)

Of course another who later adopted this more encompassing stance was Jesus. In the gospels he purportedly stood up for society’s outcasts. He healed the lepers, saved the adulterous woman from being stoned, defended both prostitutes and the hated tax collectors.

Now I have placed all this in front of you not to make any religious argument but to suggest that at this time (during the Axial Age) there was a significant surge in consciousness supporting altruism. I have previously posted several blog essays on altruism. It continues to be a subject of great interest to me. A conventional reading of Darwinian evolutionary theory would tend to suggest that altruism is counter-productive in the evolutionary fight for survival. And yet it is pervasive throughout most societies.

I think I first became interested in altruism as a possible evolutionary outcome after reading The Moral Animal by Robert Wright, a book that changed my ideas about “what it is to be human” (and of course recommended to me by the good Dr Phil).Wright pointed out how Darwin had departed from his evolutionary orthodoxy in trying to explain altruism.

In The Descent of Man Darwin claimed:

“…each man would soon learn from experience that if he aided his fellow-men, he would commonly receive aid in return. From this low motive he might acquire the habit of aiding his fellows; and the habit of performing benevolent actions certainly strengthens the feeling of sympathy, which gives the first impulse to benevolent actions. Habits, moreover, followed during many generations probably tend to be inherited.”

This is of course patently false and flies in the face of Darwin’s own theory. Unlike the theory of Jean Baptiste Lamarck, which has been discredited, Darwin’s theory didn’t rely on the notion of the inheritability of acquired traits. (This outlines the importance of both the Nature and Nurture components of human behaviour.)

Without going into the detail, subsequent research relying on the then new discipline of game theory, suggested that altruism had benefits for the long-term survival of humans and probably was dependent on a likely inheritable characteristic, empathy.

The notion of altruism providing an evolutionary benefit was taken up by Robert Trivers. In 1973 he published a paper titled The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism. In the paper’s abstract he wrote that “friendship, trust, suspicion, trustworthiness, aspects of guilt and some forms of dishonesty and hypocrisy can be explained as important adaptations to regulate the altruistic system.” In recent decades there has been growing evidence that altruism is an evolutionary advantage.

But Darwin (and Trivers for that matter) misunderstood the importance of altruism. They both had in mind “reciprocal altruism” where a person’s main motive for being concerned for others was that they would in turn derive a benefit from them being concerned for the person acting altruistically. Recent work by evolutionary psychologists indicates that altruism is not consciously concerned for what we might get in return.

After all the Golden Rule is not an invitation to exploit one another. It is not meant to be delivered in its reciprocal form, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.

The norm of treating people well, regardless of their background, has long freed itself from its religious roots. Immanuel Kant took the next step forward. In its original form the Golden Rule gave us guidance about what we should not do. Kant wanted to turn this into the obverse and thus give us guidance on what we should do. He also pointed out the danger of leaving the judgment to the idiosyncratic ideals of an individual judge. He challenged us not to look at decisions on what one ought to do from the individual viewpoint but from the collective viewpoint. He counselled that we should look at such decisions from the viewpoint of a legislator.

“Act so that the maxim of thy will can always at the same time hold good as a principle of universal legislation.”

I think the evolutionary drivers are best understood by looking at the tension that exists between the survival of the individual and the survival of the group.

As the evolutionary psychologists point out, selfishness promotes the survival chances of the individual, but altruism promotes the survival chances of the group.

Stefan Klein, writing in his book The Survival of the Nicest, proposes:

“Human’s ability to be selfless developed in direct proportion to their increasing dependence on one another. From the communal concern for progeny and food in the early Stone Age to the admonition to love one’s fellow humans that emerged in the world’s religions about 500 BCE, the history of humankind has been a history of stronger and stronger altruistic norms.”

The argument has been made that in hunter/gatherer societies acceptance of a broad moral code is not so important. In such societies people lived in small groups where the aberrant behaviour of others is readily observed so that remedial action can be taken.

In the Axial Age hunter/gatherer groups were being superseded by people coming together in larger towns and cities. This was facilitated by improvements in technology which in turn was leading to the specialisation of labour and increases in wealth which enabled some citizens more leisure time which also enabled the further development of philosophy. In large communities bad behaviour was more difficult to isolate than had been the case in the camps of their hunter/gatherer predecessors and therefore the development of moral codes assumed greater importance.

When you live in a small group whilst your selfishness might pay off as a survival strategy, it is obvious to the group and probably can only be sustained by physical dominance.

When you live in a larger group, group cohesion and survival is aided by altruism. When the group is faced with a calamity like drought, famine or sustained conflict with competitors, altruism aids group survival.

There now exists a tension about how do I protect my self-interest when my self-interest is, at least in part, dependant on the welfare of the group to which I belong? Under these circumstances a degree of altruism begins to be a survival strategy. In such circumstances Rousseau’s “noble savage” evolved to be the “noble citizen”!

As I wrote in my essay Another Look at Altruism:

“It could then be argued that the genetic fitness of a human being must therefore be a consequence of both individual selection and group selection. The likelihood of survival and therefore the passing on of an individual’s genes was dependent on both the fitness of the group to which the individual belonged as well as to their individual fitness. The preferred position, with respect to evolution, would have been to be a fit member of a competent group. This theory has been called by biologists ‘eusocial evolution’”.


Now, as we saw above, because we ‘re dealing with larger groups, it is far more difficult to monitor individual behaviour. Consequently society benefits by the adoption of moral standards against which an individual can be generally more easily assessed. Under these circumstances it does not seem surprising that the Golden Rule became ubiquitous in more settled societies, with denser populations and myriads of interdependencies.

But altruism has more going for it than just improving our group survival prospects. Altruism is positively correlated with happiness. This was clearly demonstrated in a series of studies on hundreds of students by E. Diener and M. E. P. Seligman [yes Martin Seligman of Authentic Happiness fame –refer “Very Happy People,” Psychological Science 13 (2002)]. When we are happy , the feeling of self-importance is diminished and we are more open to others.

Looking at the obverse, acute depression is accompanied by difficulty in feeling and expressing love for others. Andrew Solomon in his book The Noonday Demon writes:

“Depression is the flaw in love.”

As I have written in other essays on the subject, people in the grip of depression are self-obsessed, not in a narcissistic way, but they just find it inordinately difficult not to think, indeed ruminate, about their perceived problems.

This resonates with the teachings of Buddhism which holds selfishness to be the main cause of suffering and altruism to be the antidote to that problem.

Thus Darwin and Trivers were mistaken. Altruism is not undertaken because we expect something in return (as per “reciprocal” altruism) because altruism has its own rewards. Another piece of research undertaken by Seligman gave students the opportunity of either:

  • Doing something self-indulgent, or
  • Doing something altruistic.

Those who performed an altruistic act not only derived greater joy, but their satisfaction lasted longer than those who were self-indulgent.

We can therefore promote altruism, not only because it is beneficial to the long-term ability of societies to prosper, but because it promotes the personal well-being of its perpetrators.

7 Replies to “In Praise of Altruism”

  1. Interesting concept Ted… the fittest group survives rather than just the fittest individuals. I can’t help now wonder what is the boundary of a group and how does that evolve. The village or town would have probably been the first groups when it was clearly in the interest of all inhabitants to have organised management of food stocks and the labour and skills that went to produce them. As time went on though groups became larger. State and national groups formed and I suggest are the largest groups that exist today although there are signs that we may be starting to evolve beyond national groups. One author, can’t remember who, your records are better than mine Ted, coined the phrase “the golden arches of peace” to describe the observation that no 2 countries that have McDonalds have ever gone to war with each other. I would like to think that in time this planet will evolve to be a single group and we will all think altruistically about all of our fellow man. I think we are a few centuries away from that still however.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Greg.

      Yes, the circle of altruism needs to expand to cover all humans.

      For most of us we struggle to go beyond the major divisions of my ethnicity, my religion and my nation. Still, I suppose that’s an advance over my family, my village, my tribe!

      I don’t profess to be a role model here – I find it difficult to relate to those who like rap, play soccer or dislike smoked salmon. But I am always intrigued by such sentiments as we should not export jobs overseas. Doesn’t someone in Bangladesh or Bhutan have the same need for employment as Australians. Or indeed the sentiment that we should cut foreign aid to concentrate more on the disadvantaged Australians. Sometimes spending a few dollars in support of those disadvantaged in foreign countries can provide substantially more benefits than those dollars we spend at home.

      Hey, but there I am getting all idealistic again!

  2. I think there are always definition issues when it comes to discussing altruism. Isn’t true altruism really a sacrifice? I.e. A cost to someone with no benefit in return, including, to ones happiness, wellbeing, genes , society (which ultimately will benefit self or offspring (genes)) etc. Isn’t altruism a true cost with no benefit whatsoever, except to the receiver.

    It seems it is our intelligence, and our ability to see long term that gives rise to “altruism”, which appears to simply be long term selfishness.

    1. Well, Matt, your point of view has a long history in philosophy. The question reasonably asked is that if a I get a benefit from my altruism, is it really altruism. Certainly many of a religious bent are good to others because they perceive it might provide a benefit in an after life or whatever. Well that sort of altruism seems to me to be reluctant act – almost like paying your taxes! But I think those who enjoy their altruism without concern about any reward, save the joy of seeing another prosper, are probably not only the most generous but the happiest. So why begrudge them a win-win outcome? Certainly the world is going to be a better place if we can not only be good to our fellows but take some joy from it as well!

  3. No begrudging a win-win here!

    I like your tax example. I wonder if anybody out there would volunteer paying more tax, without anybody knowing.

    Win-win and win-lose, I.e. perceived as such by the giver, I think are different kinds of altruism (if they are both altruism) that don’t operate the same.

    Also wrapped up in the definition issue is the level of analysis. A person may perform an act that benefits one but disadvantages many, or vice versa. Where is altruism in such as case?

  4. Ted,
    Altruism is really in the spiritual dimension and difficult to put into the English language.
    Let me expand. a couple of years ago the floods ripped through towns in the North Burnett. I joined a group and we went out to “fix fences”, but in that process we were doing the ultruistic thing of helping thy neighbour. However it was interesting to work with the different volunteers (many grey nomads). Some needed to be patted on the back every half hour, some just whinged the whole time, some wanted to get back to camp at 2 pm when the farmer still had many daylight hours remaining.
    What I found interesting was the farmers (despite their trauma with the flood) picked up very quickly on this spiritual dimension very quickly, and sent the guys to be well away from them, (cleaning debris off the fences etc) while they chose the “willing spirits” to be with them, to joke, to talk, to enjoy the rebuild. Everybody was doing the ultruistic thing supposedly.

    But I guess it is like love. If it is given unconditionally it is different from “conditional ” love, and spiritual people very easily pick up on this difference.

  5. Well, my readers have been truly blessed this week by a comment from the enigmatic Des Covey, no less! Thanks Des. It’s a nice story you have told and your closing statement is insightful as well. So don’t wait another five years Des – let’s see you in print more often!

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