I Believe in Altruism

Altruism, selfless sacrifice for the benefit of others, is something that I keep coming back to because plays such an important role in what it means to be human. It’s easy and tempting to make the argument that everything humans do is motivated by selfishness. For example:

You push a child off the train tracks, saving her life while seriously risking your own. Was your motivation selfish? If the child wasn’t related to you then, evolutionarily speaking, your action was clearly altruistic. You reduced your chances of reproduction while increasing hers. Case closed.

Where things get more sticky is when you consider the psychological aspects of the situation. Your motive could be to avoid embarrassment or, assuming you survive, to make yourself look better to the people on the train platform. Even if you didn’t survive, you could have the motivation of assuring your legacy. If it wasn’t that, if there was no one to witness your act and the child was too young to remember it, maybe it was that you have an internal moral code that you pride yourself on following and you want to uphold it in order to have personal internal peace the next day and for the rest of your life.

If it’s so easy to explain away such a selfless seeming action, Is it possible for someone to act in such a way that isn’t primarily motivated by personal gain? Does it matter?

It matters to me because it says something about the goodness of our species. Either we live in an Ayn Rand-like world where, at our best, we constantly optimize for our own happiness, indifferent to anything outside of that selfish goal. Or if psychological altruism is possible, we could live in a much more interconnected world where true humanity means we are concerned about others, even if it means we might sometimes suffer for our consideration.

I believe in altruism. I think it’s silly to say that because doing good anonymously for other people at a cost to yourself makes you feel good, that feeling good is the strongest motive for doing good. If there’s a hierarchy of motives, feeling good about doing good fits in somewhere, but I don’t think it is always the top motive.

To return to the example of the child on the train tracks—does it not seem ridiculous to say that someone who anonymously saves the child could only do so begrudgingly, simply because they’d feel guilty later if they didn’t? I think so. I don’t think people are always so cold and calculating to the point that when we make a snap decision we always do it with selfish motives. I think that we can make concern for others our highest priority and act altruistically.

The Myth of Staying Forever Young

If anyone understood the human condition, it was Joseph Campbell. This is him in 1949 on what he calls the ‘inverted emphasis’ of staying forever young:

It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those constant human fantasies that tend to tie it back. In fact, it may well be that the very high incidence of neuroticism among ourselves follows from the decline among us of such effective spiritual aid. We remain fixated to the un­-exercised images of our infancy, and hence disinclined to the necessary passages of our adulthood. In the United States there is even a pathos of inverted emphasis: the goal is not to grow old, but to remain young; not to mature away from Mother, but to cleave to her. And so, while husbands are worshiping at their boyhood shrines, being the lawyers, merchants, or masterminds their parents wanted them to be, their wives, even after fourteen years of marriage and two fine children produced and raised, are still on the search for love—which can come to them only from the centaurs, sileni, satyrs, and other concupiscent incubi of the rout of Pan…

He is principally directing this criticism to men who refuse to grow up, but also to women for fulfilling the vacuum of finding good men by appealing to fantasy where reality comes up lacking. The youthful reluctance to pull away from the mother that he describes is very Freudian. At the end of life we are faced with another, this time Jungian, conflict:

What is difficult to leave, then, is not the womb but the phallus—unless, indeed, the life-weariness has already seized the heart, when it will be death that calls with the promise of bliss that formerly was the lure of love.

The purpose of these descriptions is to point out the place for myth in our lives. Myth and ritual help us to cease to cleave to our mothers when we are young, then to accept death when we are old. It moves us through life in a way that is sublimely, universally human. Without myth, we go through these transitions alone, clumsily. With myth, we are part of something bigger, part of the hero’s journey. As Campbell says, with his unique and chilling talent for language:

Full circle from the tomb of the womb to the womb of the tomb, we come: an ambiguous, enigmatical incursion into a world of solid matter that is soon to melt from us, like the substance of a dream. And, looking back at what had promised to be our own unique, un­predictable, and dangerous adventure, all we find in the end is such a series of standard metamorphoses as men and women have undergone in every quarter of the world, in all recorded centuries, and under every odd disguise of civilization.

That discovery, that our plight is not unique but is a “series of standard metamorphoses” should be liberating and unifying. It elevates our tribe from being the small group of people we know personally to being the human race.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces p. 10-11

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