Altruism // is a concern for the welfare of others. It is a traditional virtue in many cultures, and a core aspect of various religious traditions, though the concept of 'others' toward whom concern should be directed can vary among cultures and religions. Altruism is the opposite of selfishness.
Altruism can be distinguished from feelings of loyalty and duty. Altruism is a motivation to provide something of value to a party who must be anyone but the self, while duty focuses on a moral obligation towards a specific individual (for example, a god, a king), or collective (for example, a government). Some individuals may feel both altruism and duty, while others may not. Pure altruism consists of giving something of value (a reward or benefit) with no expectation of any compensation or benefits, either direct, or indirect (for instance from recognition of the giving).
The notion of altruism
The concept has a long history in philosophical and ethical thought. The term was originally coined in the 19th century by the founding sociologist and philosopher of science, Auguste Comte, and has become a major topic for psychologists (especially evolutionary psychology researchers), evolutionary biologists, and ethologists. While ideas about altruism from one field can have an impact on the other fields, the different methods and focuses of these fields lead to different perspectives on altruism.
Marcel Mauss's book The Gift contains a passage: "Note on alms". This note describes the evolution of the notion of alms (and by extension of altruism) from the notion of sacrifice.
Alms are the fruits of a moral notion of the gift and of fortune on the one hand, and of a notion of sacrifice, on the other. Generosity is an obligation, because Nemesis avenges the poor and the gods for the superabundance of happiness and wealth of certain people who should rid themselves of it. This is the ancient morality of the gift, which has become a principle of justice. The gods and the spirits accept that the share of wealth and happiness that has been offered to them and had been hitherto destroyed in useless sacrifices should serve the poor and children.
- Compare Altruism (ethics) – perception of altruism as self-sacrifice.
- Compare explanation of alms in various scriptures.
In the science of ethology (the study of animal behaviour), and more generally in the study of social evolution, altruism refers to behaviour by an individual that increases the fitness of another individual while decreasing the fitness of the actor. Researchers on altruistic behaviours among animals have been ideologically opposed to the sociological social Darwinist concept of the "survival of the fittest", under the name of "survival of the nicest"—not to be confused with the biological concept of Darwin's theory of evolution. Insistence on such cooperative behaviors between animals was first exposed by the Russian zoologist and anarchist Peter Kropotkin in his 1902 book, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution.
Theories of apparently altruistic behavior were accelerated by the need to produce theories compatible with evolutionary origins. Two related strands of research on altruism have emerged out of traditional evolutionary analyses, and from game theory respectively.
Some of the proposed mechanisms are:
- Reciprocal altruism
- Selective investment theory – a theoretical proposal for the evolution of long-term, high-cost altruism
- Sexual selection, in particular, the handicap principle
- Kin selection
- Group selection
The study of altruism was the initial impetus behind George R. Price's development of the Price equation, which is a mathematical equation used to study genetic evolution. An interesting example of altruism is found in the cellular slime moulds, such as Dictyostelium mucoroides. These protists live as individual amoebae until starved, at which point they aggregate and form a multicellular fruiting body in which some cells sacrifice themselves to promote the survival of other cells in the fruiting body. Social behavior and altruism share many similarities to the interactions between the many parts (cells, genes) of an organism, but are distinguished by the ability of each individual to reproduce indefinitely without an absolute requirement for its neighbors.
Jorge Moll and Jordan Grafman, neuroscientists at the National Institutes of Health and LABS-D'Or Hospital Network (J.M.) provided the first evidence for the neural bases of altruistic giving in normal healthy volunteers, using functional magnetic resonance imaging. In their research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA in October, 2006, they showed that both pure monetary rewards and charitable donations activated the mesolimbic reward pathway, a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food and sex. However, when volunteers generously placed the interests of others before their own by making charitable donations, another brain circuit was selectively activated: the subgenual cortex/septal region. These structures are intimately related to social attachment and bonding in other species. Altruism, the experiment suggested, was not a superior moral faculty that suppresses basic selfish urges but rather was basic to the brain, hard-wired and pleasurable.
Another experiment funded by the National Institutes of Health and conducted in 2007 at the Duke University in Durham, North Carolina suggests a different view, "that altruistic behavior may originate from how people view the world rather than how they act in it". In the study published in the February 2007 print issue of Nature Neuroscience, researchers have found a part of the brain that behaves differently for altruistic and selfish people.
The researchers invited 45 volunteers to play a computer game and also to watch the computer play the game. In some rounds, the game resulted in the volunteers winning money for themselves, and in others it resulted in money being donated to a charity of the volunteer's choice. During these activities, the researchers took functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of the participants' brains and were "surprised by the results". Although they "were expecting to see activity in the brain's reward centers", based on the idea that "people perform altruistic acts because they feel good about it", what they found was that "another part of the brain was also involved, and it was quite sensitive to the difference between doing something for personal gain and doing it for someone else's gain". That part of the brain is called the posterior superior temporal cortex (pSTC).
In the next stage, the scientists asked the participants some questions about type and frequency of their altruistic or helping behaviours. They then analysed the responses to generate an estimate of a person's tendency to act altruistically and compared each person's level of altruism against their fMRI brain scan. The results showed that pSTC activity rose in proportion to a person's self-reported level of altruism. According to the researchers, the results suggest that altruistic behavior may originate from how people view the world rather than how they act in it. "We believe that the ability to perceive other people's actions as meaningful is critical for altruism", said lead study investigator Dharol Tankersley.
Most, if not all, of the world's religions promote altruism as a very important moral value. Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism and Sikhism, etc., place particular emphasis on altruistic morality.
Altruism figures prominently in Buddhism. Love and compassion are components of all forms of Buddhism, and both are focused on all beings equally: the wish that all beings be happy (love) and the wish that all beings be free from suffering (compassion). "Many illnesses can be cured by the one medicine of love and compassion. These qualities are the ultimate source of human happiness, and the need for them lies at the very core of our being" (Dalai Lama).
Since "all beings" includes the individual, love and compassion in Buddhism are outside the opposition between self and other. It is even said that the very distinction between self and other is part of the root cause of our suffering. In practical terms, however, because of the spontaneous self-centeredness of most of us, Buddhism encourages us to focus love and compassion on others, and thus can be characterized as "altruistic." Many would agree with the Dalai Lama that Buddhism as a religion is kindness toward others.
Still, the very notion of altruism is modified in such a world-view, since the belief is that such a practice promotes our own happiness: "The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater our own sense of well-being becomes" (Dalai Lama).
In the context of larger ethical discussions on moral action and judgment, Buddhism is characterized by the belief that negative (unhappy) consequences of our actions derive not from punishment or correction based on moral judgment, but on the law of karma, which functions like a natural law of cause and effect. One simple illustration of such cause and effect would be the case of experiencing the effects of what I myself cause: if I cause suffering, I will as a natural consequence experience suffering; if I cause happiness, I will as a natural consequence experience happiness.
In Buddhism, karma (Pāli kamma) is strictly distinguished from vipāka, meaning "fruit" or "result". Karma is categorized within the group or groups of cause (Pāli hetu) in the chain of cause and effect, where it comprises the elements of "volitional activities" (Pali sankhara) and "action" (Pali bhava). Any action is understood to create "seeds" in the mind that will sprout into the appropriate result (Pāli vipaka) when they meet with the right conditions. Most types of karmas, with good or bad results, will keep one within the wheel of samsāra; others will liberate one to nirvāna.
Buddhism relates karma directly to motives behind an action. Motivation usually makes the difference between "good" and "bad", but included in the motivation is also the aspect of ignorance; so a well-intended action from an ignorant mind can easily be "bad" in the sense that it creates unpleasant results for the "actor".
In Buddhism, karma is not the only cause of everything that happens. The commentarial tradition classified causal mechanisms governing the universe as taught in the early texts in five categories, known as Niyama Dhammas:
- Kamma Niyama — Consequences of one's actions
- Utu Niyama — Seasonal changes and climate
- Biija Niyama — Laws of heredity
- Citta Niyama — Will of mind
- Dhamma Niyama — Nature's tendency to produce a perfect type
The fundamental principles of Jainism revolve around the concept of altruism, not only for humans but for all sentient beings. This religion preaches the view of Ahimsa – to live and let live, thereby not harming sentient beings, i.e. uncompromising reverence for all life. Jainism considers all living things to be equal. The first Thirthankar, Rishabh introduced the concept of altruism for all living beings, from extending knowledge and experience to others to donation, giving oneself up for others, non-violence and compassion for all living things.
Jainism prescribes a path of non-violence to progress the soul to this ultimate goal. Jains believe that to attain enlightenment and ultimately liberation, one must practice the following ethical principles (major vows) in thought, speech and action. The degree to which these principles are practiced is different for householders and monks. They are:
- Non-violence (Ahimsa)
- Truthfulness (Satya)
- Non-stealing (Asteya)
- Celibacy (Brahmacharya)
- Non-possession or non-materialism (Aparigraha)
A major characteristic of Jain belief is the emphasis on the consequences of not only physical but also mental behaviors. One's unconquered mind with anger, pride (ego), deceit, greed and uncontrolled sense organs are the powerful enemies of humans. Anger spoils good relations, pride destroys humility, deceit destroys peace and greed destroys everything. Jainism recommends conquering anger by forgiveness, pride (ego) by humility, deceit by straight-forwardness and greed by contentment.
The principle of non-violence seeks to minimize karmas which limit the capabilities of the soul. Jainism views every soul as worthy of respect because it has the potential to become Siddha (Param-atma – "highest soul"). Because all living beings possess a soul, great care and awareness is essential in one's actions. Jainism emphasizes the equality of all life, advocating harmlessness towards all, whether the creatures are great or small. This policy extends even to microscopic organisms. Jainism acknowledges that every person has different capabilities and capacities to practice and therefore accepts different levels of compliance for ascetics and householders. The "great vows" (mahavrata) are prescribed for monks and "limited vows" (anuvrata) are prescribed for householders. In other words, the house-holders are encouraged to practice the five cardinal principles of non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, celibacy and non-possessiveness with their current practical limitations while the monks have to observe them very strictly. With consistent practice, it will be possible to overcome the limitations gradually, accelerating the spiritual progress.
Altruism was central to the teachings of Jesus found in the Gospel especially in the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain. From biblical to medieval Christian traditions, tensions between self-affirmation and other-regard were sometimes discussed under the heading of "disinterested love," as in the Pauline phrase "love seeks not its own interests." In his book Indoctrination and Self-deception, Roderick Hindery tries to shed light on these tensions by contrasting them with impostors of authentic self-affirmation and altruism, by analysis of other-regard within creative individuation of the self, and by contrasting love for the few with love for the many. Love confirms others in their freedom, shuns propagandas and masks, assures others of its presence, and is ultimately confirmed not by mere declarations from others, but by each person's experience and practice from within. As in practical arts, the presence and meaning of love becomes validated and grasped not by words and reflections alone, but in the making of the connection.
Though it might seem obvious that altruism is central to the teachings of Jesus, one important and influential strand of Christianity would qualify this. St Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica, II:II Quaestio 25, Article 4 states that we should love ourselves more than our neighbour. His interpretation of the Pauline phrase is that we should seek the common good more than the private good but this is because the common good is a more desirable good for the individual. 'You should love your neighbour as yourself' from Leviticus 19 and Matthew 22 is interpreted by St Thomas as meaning that love for ourselves is the exemplar of love for others. He does think though, that we should love God more than ourselves and our neighbour, taken as an entirety, more than our bodily life, since the ultimate purpose of love of our neighbour is to share in eternal beatitude, a more desirable thing than bodily well being. Comte was probably opposing this Thomistic doctrine, which is present in some theological schools within Catholicism, in coining the word Altruism, as stated above.
Many biblical authors draw a strong connection between love of others and love of God. In 1 John 4 it is stated that for one to love God one must love his fellowman, and that hatred of one's fellowman is the same as hatred of God.
Thomas Jay Oord has argued in several books that altruism is but one possible form of love. An altruistic action is not always a loving action. Oord defines altruism as acting for the good of the other, and he agrees with feminists who note that sometimes love requires acting for one's own good when the demands of the other undermine overall well-being.
Islam and Sufism
In Sufism, the concept of īṯār (altruism) is the notion of 'preferring others to oneself'. For Sufis, this means devotion to others through complete forgetfulness of one's own concerns. The importance lies in sacrifice for the sake of the greater good; Islam considers those practicing i'thar as abiding by the highest degree of nobility. This is similar to the notion of chivalry, but unlike the European concept there is a focus on attention to everything in existence. A constant concern for Allah results in a careful attitude towards people, animals, and other things in this world. This concept was emphasized by Sufi mystics like Rabia al-Adawiyya who paid attention to the difference in dedication to Allah and dedication to people. 13th century Turkish sufi poet Yunus Emre explained this philosophy as "Yaratılanı severiz, Yaratandan ötürü" or "We love the creature, because of The Creator". In practice, for many Muslims, i'thar is only practiced during specific Islamic holidays. However, i'thar is still an Islamic ideal, to which all Muslims should strive to adhere at all times.
Judaism defines altruism as the desired goal of creation. The famous Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook stated that love is the most important attribute in humanity. This is defined as bestowal, or giving, which is the intention of altruism. This can be altruism towards humanity that leads to altruism towards the creator or God. Kabbalah defines God as the force of giving in existence. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto in particular focused on the 'purpose of creation' and how the will of God was to bring creation into perfection and adhesion with this upper force.
Modern Kabbalah developed by Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag, in his writings about the future generation, focuses on how society could achieve an altruistic social framework. Ashlag proposed that such a framework is the purpose of creation, and everything that happens is to raise humanity to the level of altruism, love for one another. Ashlag focused on society and its relation to divinity.
Altruism is essential to the Sikh religion. In the late 17th century, Guru Gobind Singh Ji (the tenth guru in Sikhism), was in war with the Moghul rulers to protect the people of different faiths, when a fellow Sikh, Bhai Kanhaiya, attended the troops of the enemy. He gave water to both friends and foes who were wounded on the battlefield. Some of the enemy began to fight again and some Sikh warriors were annoyed by Bhai Kanhaiya as he was helping their enemy. Sikh soldiers brought Bhai Kanhaiya before Guru Gobind Singh Ji, and complained of his action that they considered counterproductive to their struggle on the battlefield. "What were you doing, and why?" asked the Guru. "I was giving water to the wounded because I saw your face in all of them," replied Bhai Kanhaiya. The Guru responded, "Then you should also give them ointment to heal their wounds. You were practicing what you were coached in the house of the Guru."
It was under the tutelage of the Guru that Bhai Kanhaiya subsequently founded a volunteer corps for altruism. This volunteer corps still to date is engaged in doing good to others and trains new volunteering recruits for doing the same.
Advaita Vedanta differs from the view that karma is a law of cause and effect but instead additionally hold that karma is mediated by the will of a personal supreme god. This view of karma is in contradiction to Buddhism, Jainism and other Indian religions that do view karma as a law of cause and effect.
Swami Sivananda, an Advaita scholar, reiterates the same views in his commentary synthesising Vedanta views on the Brahma Sutras, a Vedantic text. In his commentary on Chapter 3 of the Brahma Sutras, Sivananda notes that karma is insentient and short-lived, and ceases to exist as soon as a deed is executed. Hence, karma cannot bestow the fruits of actions at a future date according to one's merit. Furthermore, one cannot argue that karma generates apurva or punya, which gives fruit. Since apurva is non-sentient, it cannot act unless moved by an intelligent being such as a god. It cannot independently bestow reward or punishment.
- Altruism in animals
- Charity (practice)
- Charitable organization
- Family economics
- Gene-centered view of evolution
- Giving Pledge, pledge by Gates, Buffett and others to donate to charity at least half of their wealth
- Inclusive fitness
- Justice (economics)
- Group selection
- Kin selection
- Mutual aid
- The Power of Half; how a family came to decide to sell its home, so that it could donate half the proceeds to charity.
- Prosocial behavior
- Random acts of kindness
- Reciprocal altruism
- Reputation capital
- Reverse commons
- Social psychology
- Solidarity (sociology)
- Tit for tat
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