Altruism is a touchy-feely kind of term. Just like philanthropy, it suggests a certain disconnect from the business called life. One never knows what’s in the heart of an altruist or a philanthropist, a sense of guilt, perhaps, for things they might have done otherwise, a “symbolic” repayment of debt for past offenses, who knows?
Not that it matters, but the image that comes to mind is that of a do-gooder, an eccentric, a Daddy Warbucks type of person. It’s good enough for a start, but then again, it’s not very informative either.
If evolutionary science is to posit altruism as a viable alternative, an effective counterbalance to competition — the all-defining principle or mechanism that drives human progress — it must do better than that. It must endow it with a real-life meaning. It must make it count!
To posit selfishness vs. unselfishness won’t do. These are but character traits, nothing more. My suggestion is, endow it with functionality.
There’s nothing wrong with functionality or a functional type of explanation even though, granted, some of it verges on being circular. Take morality, for instance. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that the origins, as the term “mores” clearly implies, had more to do with the functional or the practical than the idealistic. The fact that morality had evolved in time, just as art once did, from their originally puerile and innocuous origins, grounded in practice, to approximate a standard of human behavior, or the canon, as the case may be, doesn’t negate their genesis.
Indeed, as the science of evolution would have it, things do evolve given time.
It’s no different with altruism, although here, we experience a regression of sorts. What was first conceived as having been grounded in functional relationships, based on need and mutual assistance — see Prince Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, for example –has deteriorated into something that’s altogether divorced from the original intention and meaning. It became divorced from its source, the practical need for cooperation in dire situations — in short, from a kind of quid pro quo.
I suspect that ideological considerations played no small part in effectively reducing the concern for the other, grounded as it may have been in mere practicality, to what surely comes across as a distinctive character trait.
That’s the force of ideology for you and the effects of doublespeak, and the motivation is obvious. Since mutual aid and cooperation fly in the face of competition and self-concern, by far the predominant mode of social interactions, the idea is to discredit alternative approaches by relegating them to “the idiosyncratic,” if not bizarre. Indeed, even charity, in its modern rendition, suffers by association: it connotes by and large a passive rather than a proactive stance.
Hence the task ahead of us — to restore altruism and similar such terms to their original intention and meaning!
What might that meaning be?
“Concern for the other” is as good a start as any, but I’m getting ahead of myself. We’re still at the level of functional relationships, relationships whereby mutual aid & cooperation are more or less necessary practical responses to situations in which the pulling together of resources is precisely the right thing to do.
Notice that self-interest merges here with collective interest, the interest of all. Also, notice that what’s right in this case doesn’t come down to any moral right but is defined instead by strictly practical considerations. And it’s the common good in this instance –which happens to coincide with individual self-interests.
Nothing wrong with that, I say. Practice is as good a ground as any for concept formation, especially if it’s sound practice. Besides, there’s no stronger endorsement, or reinforcement for that matter, of the desired course of action or practice other than by appeal to self-interest — Saul Alinsky’s MO. And when self-interest, as I stated, happens to coincide with collective interest, you have the best of all possible worlds.
We’re still a long way from “other-centeredness,” our final destination, since the outlined practice, or the habit of action, stems from practical, not ultimate concerns. How we get there and acquire the requisite kind of vision, apart now from whether the circumstances at hand warrant a cooperative type of response (especially if they’re no longer dire!), is a story in its own right, and it deserves a hearing.
Consider the following narrative, and I’ll be guided here by the same line of thinking which, to my mind, accounts for a kind of transition from what are essentially ground-level, rudimentary concepts anchored in the practical to their sublime, ideational form.
Just as morality had evolved from what was once a mere custom or habit governing social interactions with a mind to “the practical” into something finer, art had evolved likewise from what was predominantly a practical activity called craft. And so it was with “concern for the other.”
It, too, had come from humble beginnings.
In every instance, “form” came to be divorced from its former function. Divorced from practical activity defined by its utility or use, it had come to coalesce into an ideal — a kind of understanding whose only resemblance to the initial impulse bears the relationship of an object to its former shadow.
In morality’s case, what used to be social custom or rules for practically-minded behavior, has transcended the idea of mere practicality to become (or evolve into) absolute rules of conduct — downright contradictory at times to what’s merely practical.
In art, the selfsame process had gone through stages. First, through ornamentation — the idea of improving upon an object made strictly for use by endowing it with extraneous, mainly decorative qualities. And then, the idea had progressed to the point whereby decoration had become the sole purpose, its raison d’etre, overriding and transcending the idea of mere use. It was thus that the aesthetic impulse was born and, along with it, our appreciation for beauty and objets d’art.
“Art for art’s sake” represents the culmination of the process.
What transpired when it came to a similar, but no less radical, transition from a “mutual aid and assistance mode of being” to result in a “general concern for the other” philosophy, now with no notion of personal gain, advantage, or practicality? The first, mind you, was grounded in the strictly practical, earthly concerns whose prime object was to benefit oneself first and only secondarily, almost as if by an afterthought, the community as well. The second has become an ideal.
It’s the same old idea, I maintain, of transcending mere use to attain finer and better things. The way of the human spirit is another way of putting it.
Why do we do it? Evolution is as good a term as any!
What, of course, comes part and parcel with the general concern for the other is a kind of tacit understanding
- that our well-being is inextricable from the well-being of the community;
- that you can’t have one without the other;
- that we’re all intertwined and interconnected; and
- that no person is an island.
The general concern for the other falls thus within the general rubric of moral concern. We know all that, and yet?
In his recent book, The Neighborhood Project, David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary biologist, speaks of “prosociality,” a scientific term signifying “other-oriented” attitude and behavior. Though it falls short of the ultimate understanding, for we’re still at the level of mere impulse, nothing more than a predisposition, I won’t quarrel with that. Who am I to argue with science, or with the kind of conclusiveness that comes with scientific measurements, or operational definitions for that matter?
Perhaps it’s as good a start as any. Who knows, maybe evolution is all about impulse, the right kind of impulse, an acquired and learned impulse, an impulse we’ve learned to cultivate and cherish.