A Few Philosophical Snippets about the Paradox of Altruism

As you would now know from my essays, I tend to read a lot. I don’t read much fiction however. It’s not that I don’t like fiction – I do. Fictional tales can be exciting, moving and very entertaining in many and various ways. Some, using allegorical devices, can also be quite meaningful and didactic.


It’s just that I have this abiding need to know more. Consequently my bookshelves are crammed with non-fiction books about spirituality, psychology, history and human behaviour. But it’s not that I believe that the knowledge that is essential to me can always be directly learnt. Indeed I believe the opposite. The most important truths seem only to be able to be approached indirectly. Hence myths, allegories and metaphors inform my understanding at least as much as facts do.


It is quite evident to me that gnosis and intuition can sometimes provide a more reliable pathway to spiritual understanding than resorting to scriptures and dogma. The molecular biologist and author Darryl Reaney, called this “another way of knowing”. One of Reaney’s strongest beliefs was that consciousness survives the physical death of the body.


My own cosmological viewpoint, which I have shared with my readers on many previous occasions, is that the essential “stuff” of the universe, is not matter as the materialists would have us believe, but consciousness. We each in some form or other share some of that “collective consciousness” which in itself (unlike our bodies) is indestructible and eternal. But more of that anon.


Time seems to me to be a mechanism that distorts our notion of consciousness or perhaps constrains our notion of consciousness to meet the limits of our sensory perception and inevitably raises the spectre of death.


Buddhism showed us the way, more than two and a half millennia ago on how to deal with time. It exhorted us not to dwell on the past or the future but to live in the “eternal now”. It thus encouraged us to heighten our awareness to enhance the experience of “living in the present”.


European philosophers took a long time to catch up with the Eastern Masters.


The Austrian-British philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein eventually wrote in the early twentieth century:


Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end in the way our visual field has no limits.


As you might imagine from the above quote, Wittgenstein deconstructed the concept of time. After the notion of consciousness, time is the most puzzling phenomenon that humans must confront. And no doubt they are both inextricably linked. (But that might need to be the subject of another essay.)


[However the notion of time is not easily dismissed. I was surprised recently to read a very good journalist with deep religious convictions suggest that time only exists because God ventured out of eternity to create an historical event resulting in the coming of Jesus!]


Now these are weighty matters for consideration, but philosophers also have their lighter moments.

Wittgenstein (quoted above) once said that:


A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes.


You might start such a work with some of the quotes from the legendary American baseball player and coach, Yogi Berra who seemed to specialise in enigmatic quotes. For example in talking about a St Louis restaurant he reputedly said:


Nobody goes there anymore – it’s too crowded.


But even serious philosophers are interested in paradox. Bertrand Russell for example created the Barber Paradox.


In a town where the sole barber, a man, shaves all the male citizens of the town who do not shave themselves, does the barber shave himself?


But if you are truly interested in philosophy, the paradox that will test you most is not Russell’s Barber Paradox, but the intensely human paradox of altruism.


At first sight, signing on to Darwin’s theory of evolution relating to the survival of the fittest might have us believe that selfishness, not altruism, should be the dominant motive of our lives. But religious history contradicted this.


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 and responsibilities to 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!


But the Rule of Reciprocity implies that we should have empathy for others. But at first glance at Darwin’s theory many would jump to the conclusion that the notion of the “survival of the fittest” would best be pursued by asserting our self-interest.


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 provides an evolutionary advantage.


But Darwin (and Trivers for that matter) misunderstood the true nature 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 in return. Recent work by evolutionary psychologists indicates that altruism is not consciously concerned for what we might get in return.


Many would probably echo the thoughts of the American Psychologist and Philosopher, Joshua Greene, who wrote:


Our moral heartstrings were designed to be tugged, but not from very far away. But it’s not because it’s morally good for us to be that way. It’s because caring about ourselves and our little tribal group helped us survive, and caring about the other groups – the competition – didn’t help us survive. If anything we should have negative attitudes towards them. We’re competing with them for resources.


Then along came Richard Dawkins and his book, The Selfish Gene. In this book Dawkins posited that it wasn’t the survival of the individual that powered evolution but the survival of his genes. We have all seen documentaries of male animals competing for access to females where the males often risk death to do so.  Hence the individual is prepared to risk his life in the attempt to propagate his genes. Moreover the individual would be predisposed to put his own life at risk to preserve the lives of others who shared his genes, and the more genes they shared the more likely he would be to make that sacrifice.


As the evolutionary scientist and genetic biologist, J B S Haldane dryly put it:


I would lay down my life for two brothers …….or eight cousins!


But we know of many instances where people have risked their lives to try to save perfect strangers. There is no hint of reciprocal altruism there.


There are many philanthropists who donate money for causes from which they will get no material benefits. There are many too who give anonymously with no thought of recognition for their selfless acts. And this is not restricted to wealthy families. Many ordinary people contribute to such causes as World Vision or the Smith Family helping people who are worse off than they are, even if they don’t have much to spare themselves. The beneficiaries of their altruism are people they do not know and are unlikely to meet. Such people display an empathetic concern for their fellow humans and their altruism is not inspired by any thought of reciprocity. If I sponsor a child in Vietnam I surely have no expectation that I will get anything back.


Altruism is a double-edged sword. As the Dalai Lama has said:


If you want others to be happy, be altruistic; if you want to be happy, be altruistic!


In both my personal and professional life I have had to deal with people suffering depression. Now one of the reasons that people suffer from depression is that they are self-obsessed. Not in a narcissistic way, of course, but they can’t stop thinking about their supposed deficiencies and their debilitating worries.


But if you ask people (including those with depression) to talk about their happiest times, they never instance times when their thoughts were dominated by their problems but when their attention was on something else, and more often than not on someone else.


[It is worth reminding you of the good Dr Phil’s recipe for psychological maturity:


Know yourself; accept yourself; and then forget yourself.


(Perhaps the meaning becomes clearer if you in fact interpret yourself as your self.)]


The cynics, however, will argue that someone indulges in altruism because it makes me feel good! Thus there is an element of self-gratification in my altruistic act as indeed the Dalai Lama implied above.


Whenever this argument is proposed I remember a presentation from Matthieu Ricard I attended. Ricard is a French geneticist that left his scientific vocation and retreated to the Himalayas to study Buddhism. He has worked for the Dalai Lama as his French translator and also wrote several books, one of which was titled Altruism.


A member of the audience posed a question to him that went something like this:


Can I believe I am truly altruistic if being kind to others gives me personal satisfaction?


Ricard replied something to this effect:


Suppose you are a farmer and you decide to plant wheat. When the wheat matures and you harvest it you also get chaff which you can use to feed your stock. What is wrong with that? The wheat is still of high quality even though you have a secondary product of usefulness. Your intention was to grow your wheat, which you did, why should you resile from taking a secondary benefit as well?


If you can help another being and take joy from it then things are as they should be.


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:


Humans’ 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’.


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.


Now all these arguments supporting altruism might make good sense, but they unfortunately ignore a most salient point. Altruism is the natural empathetic response of one human being to another when we put aside our separateness. This is an expression of “love” in its highest form. So to my mind the only question is how broadly are we prepared to demonstrate this love? In essence this is dependent on how extensively we can perceive our “Oneness”. Joshua Greene, whom I quoted above, seemed to believe that we can only extend our love to those who were either genetically close to us or were socially close to us.


But we know some of us are far better than that! They are prepared to risk their lives for strangers. We have seen, for example, in recent years members of the public being prepared to confront terrorist attackers or come to the aid of the victims of such attacks, with little concern for their own welfare. This is a far more noble response than the evolutionary biologists would have us believe. This cannot in any way be labelled as reciprocal altruism. It comes from an innate understanding that the more enlightened have that we are all “as One”.


One of the tragedies of modern Western society is the fact that instead of reinforcing our “Oneness”, identity politics is magnifying our separateness. The tribes that were once ubiquitous in the hunter/gatherer societies of our ancestors are now being replaced by tribes based on race, gender, nationality and politics.


The fabulous Alan Watts understood the dilemma involved in ego and separation. He wrote:

We suffer from a hallucination, from a false and distorted sensation of our own existence as living organisms. Most of us have the sensation that “I myself” is a separate center of feeling and action, living inside and bounded by the physical body — a center which “confronts” an “external” world of people and things, making contact through the senses with a universe both alien and strange. Everyday figures of speech reflect this illusion. “I came into this world.” “You must face reality.” “The conquest of nature.”

This feeling of being lonely and very temporary visitors in the universe is in flat contradiction to everything known about man (and all other living organisms) in the sciences. We do not “come into” this world; we come”outof it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves,” the universe “peoples.” Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe. This fact is rarely, if ever, experienced by most individuals. Even those who know it to be true in theory do not sense or feel it, but continue to be aware of themselves as isolated “egos” inside bags of skin.


So in the end altruism is not a paradox. It is not a perverse action of someone acting at the expense of their own self-interest. It is a natural action for anyone who has awakened to the realisation of the shared consciousness they experience with all others which is in itself eternal and from which the physical universe has emanated.


2 Replies to “A Few Philosophical Snippets about the Paradox of Altruism”

  1. Hi Ted, you are very engrossed in all these topics, and morality, but you don’t (seemingly) spare a thought for non human animals (i.e. being a consumer of factory farming products). Is it that you position them significantly below humans and therefore feel unaffected by their suffering? No altruism afforded, just cruelty exploitation for self benefit?

    1. Well, as you intimate Matt, I do in fact prioritise human wellbeing over the wellbeing of other species. The human condition seems to me to be unique among the animal species. Why that might be so is illustrated by the folloing quote from our little book The Myth of Nine to Five.

      The next level in the human makeup is the level we have in common with other animals. Not only do we have a body and perform actions, but we also have a mind, and in that mind we experience thoughts and
      emotions, and make decisions in relation to our environment.

      Phil relates the following: ‘If my wife and I call the dog at the same time, it goes to her — she feeds it more often!’ It makes a decision on the basis of past reinforced learning. This decision is not necessarily free — it is simply a learned way of reacting to its environment. It has learned what actions most likely lead to the satisfaction of its needs and this memory is ‘hard-wired’, so to speak, into its mental functioning. Because the dog has the capacity to be aware of its environment (and its own body) and has found security and satisfaction as part of a social grouping,1 it has the drive, not only to fulfil its physical needs, but to fulfil its social needs as well.

      Yet, here we come to an interesting point that marks the divide between animals and humans. It would seem that, although the dog has the capacity to be aware of, and make responses to, its physical and social environments, it is not aware of its own thoughts and decisions. This self-conscious capacity seems to be unique to human beings and introduces a whole new level of life with all its positive and negative potential.

      As a human being, I not only have the animal like capacity to be aware of, and make responses to, my environment, my body, and my social world, but I also have the capacity to be aware of my own thinking. I have self-consciousness. This capacity changes the whole ballgame, for, although it introduces the possibility of making a real choice in relation to narcissistic love of-self versus the unconditional love-of-another, it also introduces all the problems related to the human ego and the defence of the ‘self’ as briefly discussed in earlier chapters.

      Now of course this does not mean I have no concern for the welfare of other animals. I do. We should do what we can to minimise the suffering of other animals. But of course I would nevertheless prioritise the saving of the the life of a child in Rwanda to spending my money on promoting the cause of free range chickens.

Comments are closed.