Tuesday, December 16, 2014

What is altruism?

Throughout human history, we have been balanced between two opposing instincts or drives: the self-preservation instinct and the social or altruistic instinct.  The first tells us to eat, sleep, take care of ourselves -- and the second forces us to fast, keep vigil, look out for others.  As social creatures, we truly need this impulse to function.  Something deep in our natures tells us we are lion meat without our tribe, that we'd better look out for it even before ourselves.

A psychologist could probably tell you more about how the human brain is programmed for altruism; all I know is that we do feel happy when we do something for someone else, and feel distressed when someone close to us suffers.  The uber-strong empathy of the highly sensitive person is usually described as being highly conscientious, but it isn't in the sense of being better or more moral than others -- simply of experiencing more distress when someone is harmed, and more guilt when we feel we're to blame.

Christians call this impulse charity; the Greeks called it agape; the Romans called it pietas.   Whatever you call it, it's universal to every culture -- an understanding that it is praiseworthy to sacrifice your personal benefit for the good of others.  Every culture's heroes have this trait.

I've been writing historical fantasy lately.  It's a challenge really getting into the heads of people living in the Iron Age.  But one thing that becomes clear is that in an age of great danger and few resources, the sacrifice required of individuals is correspondingly higher.  Most people didn't choose their life's work; someone needed to be the blacksmith, here you are already knowledgeable as the last blacksmith's son -- boom, it's you, whether or not you like smithing.  You'd like to be a farmer, but your older brother got the land?  Too bad for you.  There was no birth control, so your choices were to have lots of babies (and quite possibly die giving birth) or abstain entirely.  In many cultures the standard was to have women who weren't allowed to marry -- either a younger daughter, or perhaps a lower-class woman -- to take care of other women's children. 

It's hard to write a love story in this atmosphere.  Our modern impulse is about throwing off the shackles of cultural demands and following our heart -- but back then, if you did that, someone else would probably suffer for it.  (That's why Brave is the only princess movie that's remotely realistic.)

Nowadays there are plentiful resources and correspondingly a great deal of freedom.  We tell people to find their bliss, to take care of themselves.  And perhaps we don't realize that this is a luxury of our age.  I don't think it's a bad thing -- our cultural standard for the amount of altruism required of a person has shifted in response to our need for it.  But perhaps in all this freedom we lose track of just how vital it is.

But sometimes, especially when I'm feeling resentful about my life, how many things I have to do to get to one thing I want to do, when it seems that everybody else is living more of the dream than I am, I think of what would happen if I didn't.  If I threw off the shackles of duty and followed my bliss in every moment.  Others would suffer enormously if I did that, of course, and that's why I don't -- even before you get to the part where sooner or later I would need some kind of job or something.

Love makes the world go round is a truism; and like all truisms it doesn't seem that wise.  But if I say altruism allows society to function, I'm saying exactly the same thing.  We would not survive, none of us would, unless we all were willing at least sometimes to put the good of others above ourselves.  When someone is really struggling for survival, either physically or emotionally, they are not generally capable of much altruism because self-preservation kicks in.  So when we find a person in that state and altruistically help them out of it, we set off a chain reaction where they, too, are able to build up the greater whole.

Altruism is more than an instinct, it's also a set of cultural instructions.  From it is sweet and fitting to die for one's country to love thy neighbor as thyself, we have many little bits of cultural data instructing us to put ourselves last.  Our mothers teach us to take the smallest piece when we're sharing something.  If we borrow something from someone else, we feel uneasy until we're able to return the favor.  We all make a huge deal over a soldier who falls on a grenade to save his comrades, because as a society we want to encourage this.  We know if the whole squad had run, they all would have died instead of only the one brave one.

I think that Christ showed us the meaning of altruism more clearly than anyone else ever has.  He spread the circle outward from our own tribe to everyone (love your enemies) and demanded we take it further than before (turn the other cheek).  And he founded a Church to keep teaching the same sort of thing forever after, so that now it's pretty much understood that we should get along with people who are different from us and let bygones be bygones rather than taking revenge.  People don't appreciate Christianity because by now its chief doctrines are truisms -- they don't realize just how radical they were at the time.  When Jesus came to earth, the Romans were exposing unwanted infants, the Celts were offering human sacrifices, and all over the world it was accepted that the poor would starve to death in the street and that was just an unfortunate fact of life.  If we hadn't gotten over that -- if we hadn't adopted such a radical altruism, the sort that led to exiling oneself to a leper colony to serve those there (like Damien of Molokai) or picking up dying people on the street to wash and feed them before they died (like Mother Teresa) or founding schools for the worst of delinquent children (like St. John Bosco), I can't imagine the world would have made the tremendous leap it has in 2000 years in terms of human flourishing and equality.

In any event, setting Christianity aside for the moment, we can see that altruism will always be necessary to humans.  Children require it; they can't give back, and it does not benefit us to help them, but the species is benefited when we make personal sacrifices to care for children.  And in order to cooperate in great ventures like we do -- governments, markets, corporations, organizations of any kind -- we all need at times to sacrifice what is personally beneficial for the good of the whole.

Which is why I find ideologies like capitalism (not the economic system called capitalism, but the quasi-religion of capitalism) or objectivism so toxic.  They teach that if we only ignore everyone else and pursue our own self-interest, everyone will benefit -- but that is simply not true.  There are small ways in which it's true -- yes, when a storekeeper and a customer with money bargain together for the price of butter, even if they each pursue their own self-interest, they can come up with a price satisfactory to both.  But if you expand that out to the whole of human experience, it's not true.  The poor dying in the streets are not benefited by you looking out for your own benefit first.  Your children aren't.  The elderly aren't.  The disabled aren't.

Of course self-sacrifice must be balanced with self-preservation; we can't pour ourselves out entirely if there is no one around to take care of us in turn.  But I do think that we should pour ourselves out just a little bit more than is comfortable for us, because everyone benefits when we do.

Nothing I've said here has been particularly novel or wise, and I'm wondering if it's even worth posting, but I think I'll let it stand.  I find this idea inspiring, because my life like every life requires some sacrifice, and sacrifice is always a little easier if we realize it has meaning.  And I think there is no meaning as vital and profound as this:  No greater love hath any man than this, than to give up his life for his friends.

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