|Ethics and Morality |
The Good Person
The meaning and origin of altruism is negotiable. It depends on who you ask. If altruism means anything, it means helping others. Altruism tends to be reciprocal. Helping another is attached to the expectation of being helped. The idea that altruism is selfless-giving, involving unilateral action and self-sacrifice is idealist and not realistic. Some become confused about the processes of evolution and will believe that only the strongest and most selfish individuals survived; they think that natural selection could not produce altruism. Many misunderstand the premises of evolutionary psychology.
Evolutionary biologists and psychologists are not denying altruism but are trying to understand how it works and appreciate the strengths and weakness of human cooperation. Biologists suggest that animal traits have survival value to persevere in the gene pool and that animals benefit from reciprocal altruism. They suggest that one good deed deserves and often inspires another. Mammals live in societies and individuals help each other in a variety of ways. Sometimes an individual is killed by a predator and spares the lives of his or her comrades. Often the sacrificial animal was just unlucky, sick or injured.
A good strategy of survival is to form cooperative relationships with others and form pair bonds based on the protection and nurturance of children. If your genes are going to survive, your children must survive and their children must survive. Human children require care, protection and teaching sustained over many years. Humans help each other and some people make professions out of helping others. The relationships among helpers and those who are helped are complex. If you look closely at any generous act, you will find benefit moving in both directions. There are implicit and explicit rules about gift giving, debt and obligations. Giving a gift is a generous act, but if I give you a gift, you owe me one in return. If I do you a favor, you owe a favor in return. Good acts are always mingled with bad acts and no single human is entirely consistent or entirely successful in helping others. There is constant tension between dichotic forces in humans and one of the struggles is between self-interest and generosity. Every human closely tracks the balance between giving and receiving; assets and liabilities. Each human evaluates the advantages and disadvantages of each interaction with other humans.
Naïve discussions of altruism often focus on distant heroes who represent idealistic values. When people talk about distant heroes they seem to forget everything they know about human nature and society. If you start talking about Mother Theresa, for example, who spent some of her professional life helping the poor in India and claim that she proves humans are unconditionally altruistic, you would be committing the error of not knowing anything about Mother Theresa. You have to allow Mother Theresa to be a real and complicated human. You have to let her derive pleasure and personal benefit from her work- even a sense of power and accomplishment. Perhaps she just preferred an outdoor life in India to a desk job at the Vatican. You have to let Theresa be frustrated and angry and difficult to deal with. You have to let her fail to accomplish little more than an average mother in average suburb who everyday sacrifices her own needs and desires in favor of her children.
The average mother makes endless meals and clears up endless messes and soothes many hurts - physical and emotional. Most humans are generous some of the time and some more than others. Mother Theresa is no better or worse than a hard-working mother, nurse, teacher, doctor, policeman, fire fighter, paramedic, social worker, and bus driver… the many humans who deserve recognition for their good deeds. A legion of altruistic humans is always at work in the world helping others in need. Since wealth, resources, and skill are unevenly distributed in the human world, there is always a need for redistribution. Some generosity comes from the governments of affluent countries in the form of education, loans, aid and disaster relief. The rest comes from nongovernmental organizations and individuals.
There is abundant commentary on the goals, methods and styles of redistribution of wealth. There is further need for a science of altruism that distinguishes between effective redistribution that leads to self-sustaining benefits and redistribution that either fails completely or establishes long-term dependency that is undesirable. When altruism competes with greed, greed usually wins. There is a universal tendency for more aggressive humans to accumulate wealth by exploiting the labor and goodwill of less aggressive humans.
As the human population increases, the number of problems that require solution increases. While rescue efforts to cope with disasters are always justifiable, sustainable solutions to the fundamental problems of starvation, infectious disease and genocide require local intelligence and effort. Top-down "solutions" are always temporary.
A sophisticated observer understands that the complex mesh of human tendencies cannot be simply ascribed, nor conveniently explained. The ancient roots of altruism are practical rather than idealistic and the barter principle prevails. A higher level of altruism does emerge in humans who consistently express empathy. A sophisticated and sustained intention to seek the well being of others is not an easy achievement for humans. We can aspire to compassion without being foolishly unrealistic about how humans actually are and what humans, in fact, do.