Altruism and Identity

I have often written about the tensions we face as human beings, to on the one hand assert our specialness and separateness but on the other hand, because we are social animals, to want to belong. Out of this tension our egos have conspired to manufacture identity politics which is built about the notion that I can achieve my specialness by belonging to a “special” group, be that associated with my nationality, politics, religion, gender or whatever. I then need to champion and defend that group because it meets some important ego needs.


This phenomenon distorts our judgment in strange ways.


In his marvellous book Happiness, French geneticist and Buddhist adept, Matthieu Ricard told of research that showed how someone lying beside a path, seemingly in distress, attracted the attention of only 15% of passersby. But once he put on the jersey of the local football side 85% stopped to help. The research concluded that people are much more inclined to come to the assistance of someone with whom they believed they had something in common. And yet, we might wonder how little in common supporting the local football team added to the huge commonality of being human.


My thesis in this essay is that we have so much in common with our fellow humans that the things to which we cling to feel some sort of specialness through identity are relatively minor. We shall also see that empathy and altruism come naturally to us, albeit as suggested above, constrained by our notions of identity.


As I have observed in other blogs, we are often caught in the tension that ego creates, because ego is always wanting to highlight our separateness, our specialness. Yet our humanity is built on a huge foundation of commonality. Our DNA confirms the genetic commonality we share with each other and our primal ancestors.


Many traditions attest that the very essence of our humanity, our consciousness, is in fact shared. Despite what we might believe, our commonality is far greater than our differences.


George E Vaillant, in Spiritual Evolution wrote:


…both biological and cultural evolution have brought non-relatives – not just siblings – together to help each other and help transform a dangerous tribal, clannish world into a safer, more unitary hive.


The discussion below might help you understand why that is in fact the case.


Vaillant’s statement is an indication of a growing appreciation of our commonality. And from this comes marvellous benefits. We call them kindness and empathy. To be in the presence of another person who accepts us as we are, gives us the benefit of the doubt, cares what we think, and assumes we will act generously is an immensely gratifying experience. But unfortunately, as per Matthieu Ricard’s example above, such empathy is only demonstrated if we pull on the right jersey of identification and the failure to do so renders us invisible to those who are already in the garb of their preferred identity.


Despite the terrible things we sometimes do to each other, compassion is pervasive and sometimes is able to escape the strait jacket of identity.


Hardly any of us is unmoved by the separation cry of an infant.


Who of my age can forget the image of a naked little girl running and screaming along a Vietnamese street covered in napalm during the Vietnam War. Some say this might have had more impact than anything else on the ending of that terrible conflagration.


And is it any wonder that all the great religions of the world espouse compassion? (Some may argue that Islam does not, certainly as exemplified by the Islamist radicals. But Islam, not unlike the Old Testament, is riddled with contradictions. But most Muslims espouse the reciprocal rule that Christians call the “golden rule” and accept an obligation to help those worse off than themselves.) Despite the fact that they emanated from very different geographical and cultural backgrounds, all the major religions espouse compassion. There is something in most of us that can rise above ego and recognize our commonality as human beings.


The Dalai Lama has observed that “Basic Human Nature is compassionate.”


Our egos strive to differentiate us, but at the essential essence of our being we have more in common than we believe. The truly human of us know that you don’t need to wear my football team’s jersey, don’t have to be of my race, don’t have to be of my nationality, don’t have to be of my religion to share your humanity with me.


Our sense of empathy for others is heightened by our consciousness. Consciousness provides us with a theatre of mind. My consciousness provides me with the subjective experience of what it is to be me. From my experience I believe, but cannot prove, that you must have some similar experience of what it must be like to be like you. (I have provided insights into this phenomenon in previous essays. In one such essay I quoted from philosopher, Thomas Nagel’s famous essay What is it Like to be a Bat. If you haven’t read it might I suggest you google it for a bit of extra reading.)


Because I am able to imagine what it might be like to be you when you are in distress, my empathy for you is triggered.


Matthieu Ricard wrote:


The ability of an organism to become aware of its identity and its aspirations goes hand in hand with a corresponding ability to become aware that the other also has its own identity and aspirations, from this empathy is born.


Now some selves are so constrained that they can only align emotionally with those closest to them. They draw a tight circle around themselves in defence of their egos. They choose, out of fear, to restrict concerns for the emotional and physical well-being of others to those groups they rely on for a sense of identity – those of their family, religion, politics gender, race , or even as in Matthieu Ricard’s example, supporters of their preferred football team! As they become more enlightened the circle widens to accommodate more and more of humanity. Now love is overcoming fear.


For many years evolutionary biologist were puzzled about empathy and altruism. The popular catchcry of the early evolutionary scientists was that evolution was progressed by “the survival of the fittest”. It was not obvious then how altruism advanced the prospects of survival; in fact it could be argued that devoting resources to the care of another was actually an impediment to survival.


But then along came Richard Dawkins. In his 1976 book The Selfish Gene Dawkins argued that evolution was not so much focussed on the survival of an individual organism but that of its genes. If this was the case an individual would be prepared to make sacrifices to guarantee the survival or the well-being of those with which they shared the highest genetic similarities.


And of course this explains some of our altruism. We are more likely to risk our lives to save one of our offspring than a complete stranger. And yet there are still many of us who do just that – risk our lives to save complete strangers. Dawkins thesis throws little light on this phenomenon.


Anthropologists suggest that hunter gatherer communities indulging in shared caring of children knew intuitively that caring for members of the tribe who were not directly kin relations (although of course many of those in such closed communities would be) was beneficial to collective survival.


Initially evolutionists concentrated on the notion of reciprocal altruism. If I was good to you in your hour of need then maybe you might help me when I was in trouble. But George Williams began thinking that altruism wasn’t triggered by the hope of reciprocation at all. He maintained that altruism was often an autonomic response. In his book Adaptation and Natural Selection he wrote:


I see no reason why a conscious motive need be involved. It is necessary that help provided to others be occasionally reciprocated if it is to be favoured by natural selection. It is not necessary that the giver or the receiver be aware of this.


Simply stated, an individual who maximises his friendships and minimises his antagonisms will have an evolutionary advantage, and selection should favour those characters that promote the optimization of personal relationships.


This theme was taken up by evolutionary biologist, Robert Trivers. Trivers published a paper titled The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism. In the paper’s abstract he wrote:


…friendship, dislike, moralistic aggression, gratitude, sympathy, trust, suspicion, trustworthiness, aspects of guilt, and some forms of dishonesty and hypocrisy can be explained as important adaptations to regulate the altruistic system.


But it took more modern developments in “Game Theory” and computer modelling to allow the impacts of altruism to be modelled for its effects on populations of significant numbers. And sure enough those models showed that altruism was beneficial to the survival of such groups.


In recent times the discovery of mirror neurons in our brains gives cause to believe that evolution has altered our physical make-up to favour empathy and altruism, as you would expect it would if it was beneficial for survival.


When we look at another and see what they are experiencing, mirror neurons “fire” stimulating a similar response in our bodies to that which we believe the other is experiencing. Mirror neurons seem designed to trigger our feelings of empathy.


If we read the papers every day and turn the evening news on the television, we could be forgiven for thinking the human race is incorrigibly violent. We see pictures of the latest gun massacre in the United States, we read of the atrocities being committed by ISIS in the Middle East and we despair for the human race. But if we analyse what’s going on in the world the statistics are a lot more reassuring. In his fine book Altruism, Matthieu Ricard has assembled an impressive array of statistics to show, on a per capita basis, violence is steadily diminishing. (I won’t quote these statistics but they are available in Chapter 12 of his book The Decline of Violence.) Homicide, infanticide, torture and many other manifestations of human fear and hatred are all declining.


The figures move a bit with the years of research, but on the evidence it is fair to say the universe is a little under fifteen billion years old. The first vestiges of life on earth seemed to appear some one and a half billion years ago. Hominids have been around for less than ten million years. Consciousness, our ability to be aware of our thinking and thus a capacity to produce a theatre of mind, appears to be less than a hundred thousand years old. Indeed some researchers believe consciousness is a very recent development, maybe only a few thousand years old. Humanity as we know it is a very recent development in evolutionary time.


We are mere infants on the evolutionary stage, evolving into something more complex.


If you look at the nature of what it is to be human I think it is fair to say that most individual psychological pathology and most societal dysfunction emanate from ego. (I have written a few blog essays on the subject, my most recent was Identifying with Difference (September 24 2016).


It is ego that seeks to make us feel special. And we can’t feel special without finding significant ways to identify our specialness, how we aspire to be different to others, This is a process not of identification (you and I are essentially the same) but of differentiation (see how in this or that respect I am more wonderful then you).


Now this points to a deeper malaise.  Essentially human beings have a binary choice about how they see the world – we either see it through a lens of fear or a lens of love. (See The Myth of Nine to Five the little book I authored with my friend and mentor Dr Phil Harker.) When we see the world through a lens of love it is easy to identify with all our fellow humans. When we see the world through a lens of fear we see the world as a theatre of competition where dog eats dog, other people can only succeed at my expense, I must protect myself at any cost, and so on. Not only then do I need to feel special I need to defend that specialness. Thus was created identity politics where I could feel special by belonging to a group that not only trumpeted its specialness but found very effective strategies to defend that specialness.


In this environment fear dominates love and the promotion of separateness thwarts the call to oneness.


Listen to the words of Erwin Schroedinger. (Schroedinger was not a philosopher in the traditional sense, not a mystic – but the founder of quantum mechanics!)


Inconceivable as it seems to ordinary reason, you – and all other conscious beings as such – are all in all. Hence this life of yours which you are living is not merely a piece of the entire existence but is in a certain sense the whole.


Then, if we can stand outside the ego, there is no need to search for that element of commonality so that you might be disposed to display empathy to others. It follows naturally from the understanding of our “oneness”. We are all as one and knowing this we will naturally empathise with all our fellows irrespective of the trivial differences of politics, race, religion, gender and so on that we try to make so much of.


3 Replies to “Altruism and Identity”

  1. Not to take way from a very interesting subject and a well written blog, I was looking forward to and anticipating your comments on what is quite possibly the biggest political event of my lifetime.

    1. Good to hear from you Matt. I gave you some of my thoughts in my notification e-mail. I could perhaps elaborate more if people were interested.

  2. I’d be interested in your thoughts on Trump as a leader as well Ted. I can’t make up my mind if he is crazy or cunning, complex or simplistic.

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