Altruism (in its common usage) is immune to criticism and beyond reproach because it’s meant to be about selflessness and considering other peoples’ interests before our own. But like Nietzsche, I believe this definition is demeaning. More particularly, it’s unrealistic because it is the kind of purity no one can keep up. We are survivors and therefore have to be selfish thinkers and self-interested. We love to look after our own first and others afterwards. If we now have to consciously reappraise this notion, it is because it is timely to consider the plain common sense of a relative altruism; one that we can enjoy unashamedly because it feels good to be doing something for others whilst doing something good for ourselves. There’s a lot of giving-out needed today; yet we shouldn’t have to pretend to neglect our own interests to get our reward; because if we are brutally honest with ourselves, it’s the reward we think about. The reward is like incoming energy. It seems opposite to altruism which is always giving energy away. So, at its heart, altruism must be self rewarding. If it isn’t, why deplete yourself for it? Doing good without getting some recognition back, makes us become resentful. It’s only natural to expect something back. We give a birthday present, we expect a thank you. And if it doesn’t appear, we notice that. We’re less inclined to bother next birthday.
Whatever we do, even if it’s a paid job, we need something extra, a different kind of reward, a recognition, because it’s the lubrication and is vital. It makes what we do run smoother, which makes us want to give our all. This is much better than being pinched into giving the bare minimum expected. We need to feel energetic and energised by what we do. We all like the feeling of giving quality to our jobs and giving quality to our relationships. And if we try but get ignored, it hurts. But if recognition is there, we have energy. There’s an exchange. If we deny the importance of the element of reward, altruism won’t work. It will wither and we’ll revert to a catch-what-you-can mentality. We need so little back. But we do need some, because we don’t come free. Our engines need just a touch of this good grease - a mere smile of recognition, even just a glance. There’s not much more we need to do other than recognise another’s existence. This is altruism at its most subtle and yet most powerful. It stimulates us to act for the greater good.
We are capable of being content with very little, not because we’re good (for having such strength of character) but because in this way we won’t run up gratitude debts. It means if we haven’t got much to give, it’s okay - small is no less effective. We aren’t building with bricks here, this is merely a spell we’re casting to conjure up a better world.
That world already has a working model. It’s here and in very ordinary ways it’s happening all the time in unselfconscious ways. Those altruistic things we do needn’t have any significance unless it’s in our approach to them. A cat is sitting on a mat, so when I stroke the cat she starts purring. She shows satisfaction. Maybe she purrs to get more affection. Maybe her own purring feeds relaxation back into her own system. This sound-vibration (about the most reassuring sound a cat can make) is important and satisfying to her and it also affects me beneficially. The satisfaction is mutual. A contented human stroking a contented cat - neither is being entirely selfish nor selfless.
These moments are times when all’s right with the world, just by being in a state of familiar satisfaction - at home. However, the significance of being with a beloved cat or a child we’re close to, is that it is a valued experience, but these home values may be carried outside the home, even to the big end of town. We can employ the satisfaction of altruism in any issue-deciding situation.
Altruism, in whatever form it takes, has a magnetic quality. It stands out. People see it even though they don’t mention it. So what is altruism? Is it a method of making others feel good? Not entirely. Even the purest altruism is going to attract attention. There’s always going to be the "do-gooder" who does good to feel better about his/herself and so however we describe human altruism, it always has a certain cachet that makes it attractive to others. It’s noticed. It gets us noticed and it feels pure too - that’s hardly selflessness. So perhaps pure altruism doesn’t exist because it is contaminated by our own desire. But so what? The main thing is that we are inspired by what is already practised by almost everyone, but largely unselfconsciously. Surely, this is the beauty of innocence or at least the unselfconsciousness of remaining uninformed.
Some of us, however, are not willing to remain uninformed and have become disciplined enough to start things off. We need to make a spark. Not much more is needed - altruism takes over. When we acknowledge someone else even by saying just “Hi” in passing, or giving them a glance of "at-one-ness", or if we retrieve a cat stuck up a tree. Any action big or small, is making a statement about how things could be and probably should be. We initiate altruistic acts and know each act counts. It is as if each one is a blow for freedom, defying a tendency we all have for self absorption. These acts of altruism, whilst not needing to mean much at all, oil the wheels of our involvement with other people. Obviously, if we did them merely for the sake of doing them, we’d become oily and disingenuous. But in a modest way each of us can do important things and do them well: like being affectionate or being useful. We are capable of being altruistic in any social setting by showing we care about others and we can almost draw the future into the present, by sketching the shape for a new type of humanity.
Maybe a cat is not conscious of any of this when she purrs. And maybe we shouldn’t be conscious of it either or get too egotistical about our Boy Scout good deeds. But we should never ignore the greater significance of altruism, and the power of it, when we go into the outside world to meet social and political challenges.
Importantly, altruism is a central ideal for the future. When we start observing it in our own private lives and then start to apply it in the service of some great cause, it becomes integral to everything we do (for that cause). It adds something important to the image and reputation (of that cause). It is the very mode of our repair work. Activists and advocates of all major causes who understand the importance of non-violence, should also be strong on altruism.
The old way of winning campaigns is finished. That was where we gained power and clobbered the opponent so hard he/she conceded. Maybe today we have learnt to consider both sides of any argument, come to a conclusion based on the greater good and stick with it until something better comes along. Whatever we do, we must make a stand against violence and put self interest behind us. This isn’t easy or straightforward and yet this is the kind of approach Ghandi describes as "soul-force" - using the soul part of us to deal with major problems by way of non-violence and unselfishness.
Many people believe the world is doomed. They say we’re caught up in our own misdeeds and must atone for them. For many others though, it’s a matter of holding out for better ideas. Looking forward to a better world, dreaming of better things to come. And yet, is it because it is "just a dream" that we don’t really believe it will happen or see how it could happen?
In our minds we, as individuals, don’t see that we have any direct power to slow today’s destruction and we don’t know how to acquire the resources to directly repair the damage that’s been done already. We can’t see past our present society whose structures seem so set in concrete. Nor can we feel excited by the promises given by our leaders, because of their obvious self interest. Cynicism and pessimism block our optimism. And yet without a hopeful, realistic future-vision nothing much can happen. Without some sort of blueprint we can neither repair nor rebuild the structures that need changing. To jolt us out of our black dog view of the world, we need to transform the way we think.
To be altruistic and forward-looking without being evangelistic about it, is altruism without the moral baggage. This idea comes with a different kind of motivation. We come back to reward as the driver and motivator. Ideally the reward is coming from actually wanting to do things for others. It doesn’t have to be that special to attract us, it just has to be creative enough to allow for the unexpected and any reward is that much richer because of it.
Perhaps we have to re-examine what motivates us. By helping human nature turn around for the better, our pessimism automatically weakens. By thinking optimistically we weaken our focus on personal safety and security, putting greater faith in altruism. The more we dare to trust in it the more we’ll see what it can do; just by putting ourselves at the service of others and being graceful about it, enough to accept any positivity someone else might be directing towards us. If the world were a more altruistic place, we wouldn’t be so much thrilled by the notion of being altruistic, we’d be thrilled instead by the climate of unselfconscious altruism around us and the little need we’d have for any sense of an expected reciprocation. But we have a long way to go. In our present world things aren’t like that.
Altruism usually means getting something going, putting in at least the first spark. With the initial energy and effort needed at the outset we probably need to put in effort and put up with some inconvenience. But what we put out will come back to serve us if we move away from the demeaning type of moral altruism and move towards a more relative altruism. It is just a matter of putting it into practice: being impartially and randomly altruistic and for it to become as unconscious as breathing fresh air. It mustn’t be too carefully planned or so casual that it goes unnoticed. It has to be performed in such a way that the 'cards may fall where they will'. If we choose to unselfishly act in the best interests of our own child, then that’s the way we should do everything. When making our next decision, say finding an ant in the sink; it’s up to us to decide its fate. Perhaps we don’t want it there, perhaps we don’t like ants, perhaps we think to drown it; but in resisting the temptation to turn on the tap, we switch from self interest to the interest of the insect. We save it and learn to deal with the situation another way. Through that choice we don’t so much solve a problem (of the ant in the sink) we take it as a lesson in acting non-violently. Every situation that might tempt us into making a selfish decision is a chance for opposite-thinking, of not taking the line of least resistance. If choosing to take the altruistic route means treating the ant with the same consideration as we show the child, we draw closer to the ant’s world. We do it not only to be kind to the ant, but also for our own sake. It opens our imagination, it gets us closer to the "other universe" and the ant’s own world. It brings us closer to an unknown world which needs to remain outside our own understanding for its own reasons.
Living within a partially unknowable universe, we do the best we can although there is essentially nothing to do nor anything to achieve, except perhaps to foster affection. The only way to be sure it’s the right way is by acting on instinct, according to what each situation suggests.
Intuitively we know life is not only about doing good, it’s about optimising our best opportunities. By making choices which are selfish but none the less intelligent and non-harmful we’re doing what comes naturally. These are the sorts of decisions we’re making every day, which we don’t mark up as ideals but as ordinary things; the things grown ups do for the sake of the kids.
Altruism is the maturing agent for people who are in the process of learning, particularly if they’re learning through parenting. A child screams for attention and the parent comes to the rescue, goes into action, using altruism to help them make the best decision for the child as well as their own sanity. Altruism is always the reference point, especially when parents have to draw a line between indulging the child and denying the child. Each decision can be an altruistic one. It’s the same thing with the ant in the sink. Altruism can’t be partial and obviously never violent or harm-causing. In fact one might say that non-violence and harmlessness can never be anything but altruistic!
When we need to bring order to chaos, we need to know why we do it the way we do. When pulling out weeds to make room for a sapling, we want to avoid destruction. We consider the greater good. It’s a dilemma and a challenge. Our decision might not resolve everything to our perfect satisfaction, but then relative altruism is really all about compromise.
It isn’t about the ideal, it’s simply about doing a job that needs to be done, urgently and thoroughly. Perhaps it involves nothing more than smiling into the eyes of someone or no less than a rescue bid for both planet and human nature. If we can restructure our own nature we can re-balance the earth. And if that’s obvious, why are we waiting? Do we procrastinate? Are we still star gazing?
When we look up at the stars in the sky (which presents no problem for us at all, it’s like watching the cat sitting on the mat - it’s there, it’s alright) and we feel a yearning, part of that is a frustration of seeing something we can’t reach. We may gaze at stars but we always have to return to the here and now, to appreciate what we have at home. We have our own star, the sun, we have our own planet and our own companions. We are very lucky. We look up at the stars. They shine down on us just as they shine on their own orbiting planets, and that reminds us of our future, which we cannot possibly see because it hasn’t happened yet. But we can project probabilities by referring to the past. We can listen to the stories which have made us what we are and moulded our social attitudes. This is where we find out what has happened and perhaps learn things about human history that we’d rather not know about. Like the many humans who have been exploited and the many lives wasted. The age of the machines has arrived and machine minds are responsible for a lot of damage. But repairs can be made.
Repairing the earth means repairing ourselves as well. The most productive way is by learning to put ourselves out a bit. But we need to learn from our collective past mistakes. Now, since we can’t know what is up ahead (any more than we can reach out to the stars) we have to actively bring the future into present reality by finding significance in past events. At first we see the mistakes, then we see the simplicity of (probable) solutions. Maybe we see one simple sparkling idea that stands out from the rest, which can re-route our synapses, to allow us to think differently. As soon as we change our thought patterns, we change our whole nature, no longer constrained by the tight confines of self interest. Now we want for ourselves what we want for others. This might be the greatest value to come out of a war torn twentieth century.
By looking at the extraordinary events of the mid 1940s, we see human nature in all its extremes. We see bravery, altruism, waste and cruelty, all the big lessons from which to build a future. When I was just a twinkle in my dad’s eye, three near-simultaneous events took place. First there was a war grinding to a halt, millions of humans dead, millions of humans dying of starvation, and in the middle of it all a man who scared the living daylights out of people (and when he shot himself, it gave my parents and many others the confidence to enlarge their families). Next, some hundred days later, an atom-splitting device exploded over a Japanese city. That showed how we could kill a whole planet by just pressing a button if we desired. These two events marking the close of one war gave rise to another war. A war of fear, a precursor of what could happen one day.
The third significant event around this period didn’t get much publicity at the time, but later it was to become the very symbol of non-altruism. Perhaps it grew naturally out of the first two. Certainly it was a forecaster of what was to come. A new grim reaper had appeared in the form of a mindlessness combined with a clever idea. It came proclaiming: “the cage man cometh”.
So now we are in the cage age, or rather in a time where we are so cost effective that we use cages to entomb and enslave animals. The first was the egg-laying bird. The hen was to become the complete victim of her own menstrual cycle. In order to mass produce her powerful protein package for humans to eat, flock numbers were greatly increased and each individual animal was locked into a tiny cage, from which she would lay as many eggs as any free ranging hen could. This cunning idea was about to revolutionise food production techniques.
The cage became an essential component in the application of industrial mechanised processes to the treatment of animals. By caging birds, the cage itself came to represent one of the most cynical suspensions of compassion ever contemplated by humans. In order to guarantee food supply, we decided to become thoroughly pragmatic. The caging system was an emergency measure at a time when many other horrible things were happening. Its introduction was barely noticed.
By the end of the war, "battery farms" were already established. The system was based on the idea of having batteries of cages in rows, tier upon tier, with these cages promising life-imprisonment for each bird. The hen had been reduced to a biological function; far from caring for the welfare of these long time friends of humans, they were abandoned to their fate, as machines working for the egg industry. This deliberately created hell hole environment was forced on one species to benefit another. This caging system is perhaps the most anti-altruistic thing humans have ever done and it has given rise to the concept of "speciesism".
The man who came up with the idea of imprisoning hens in fetid, sunless sheds, set a trend. He and others invented and then developed the caging system. They were pioneers of pragmatism and many of them were also builders of similar prisons for other animals. It came to be known as the "factory farming" process. Perhaps it was all inspired by the Nazi holocaust, since it too came from a death-camp mentality. This may be a clue to the main weakness in humans - our ability to turn a blind eye for the sake of convenience and to be able to dodge ethics when it suits us.
By associating with anti-altruism, we show an acceptance of cruelty and then learn to appreciate the concomitant benefits of that cruelty. The significance of this trend, particularly in the treatment of domesticated animals, is opposite to the central tenet of altruism - empathy. It shows how easily humans can go along with what is supposedly being done 'for the best', knowing it to be fundamentally ethically flawed. Take eggs for instance. Scarce during the hungry times of the second world war, but now plentiful. When we allowed the cage to be used as an emergency means of feeding hungry people, we neglected to write in a twilight clause - so it continued. Now eggs are mass produced. They’re cheap, people are hooked on them and like so many other animal products, we buy them because we like the taste of them. We didn’t see the danger in allowing factory farming to happen, perhaps because it could have proven too inconvenient for us personally, so it continued as a means of supplying cheap food. The animal industries have always known how to cater for the consumer and we consumers have always been dazzled by improvements to our lifestyle and particularly those attractive tasting food experiences. If animals have to suffer for that, too bad!! Today, nearly all humans ignore animal suffering, they believe they’re going to get away with it. They think they’ve got the whole thing wrapped up. Humans rule nature. We’ve perfected the enslaving of animals. It’s humans one: animals zero.
This crude, human-advantaged world wasn’t what my mother and father wanted when the war ended. They saw a golden future for their family in a world which had surely learnt its lesson. But it was never going to be that simple. That war, that bomb, that cage - each had to come into being to so revolt us that we’d have to find a better way. Specifically, there had to be another way to handle the food supply problem. But that lesson still isn’t learned, in fact over the succeeding sixty years since the war ended, things have become decidedly worse. One has to ask why we haven’t found a creative way to supply food without causing chaos and misery to so many sentient beings? Perhaps it’s because we refuse to look at the most obvious answer which has always been staring us in the face - a plant-based diet which solves most health problems and ethical problems in one hit. But most people say they aren’t ready for that! And you can see why. Peoples’ attention has been powerfully redirected elsewhere. Towards other matters. We are focused on anything but animals in slavery.
The latest fear is climate change. It makes us sit up and take notice. But not much more. We still believe in serendipity and again it seems we talk a lot and toy with our problems. But we will probably never do as much as we could because we lack motivation and energy. We almost know we won’t get it together because it will inconvenience our own lifestyles and personal relationships and threaten our habits. We almost know we are still too selfishly motivated to act for the greater good. We’re especially reluctant to make changes in our own lives when similar changes aren’t being made by everyone else.
This is where altruism makes its mark. We need to discover if it can work for us, at first privately and then collectively. As individuals, we need to take the initiative without waiting around for others to go first. It’s up to us to bite the same bullet we accuse others of not biting. It’s up to us to find out if our initiatives are safe, then go ahead and enjoy them as we explore them. We each have to be happy taking on more than our fair share of responsibility. It’s not a matter of who does more or who is more culpable or even more capable. It’s simply a matter of going through the motion of repairing what we’ve done, as best we can. Altruism shines brightly here because it is the one thing that can transform the violence of the past and give us a different type of motivation to take us into the future and help us gear up for a different type of world. By knowing it will happen and then acting as if it is a certainty, we can promote altruism as something to be taken seriously. However, if we are to mend the damage, we need an army of advocates in support.
For each advocate there must be an energy source and a motivational force in their lives, so that they can stand up to anything thrown at them. Each of us must agitate for the greater good and, at the same time, transform the way we function as individuals. As we think, so we act, and if we are altruistically motivated, we have the capacity to cause a certain type of chain reaction, inspiring people into being creative and optimistic. Altruism should be seen as irresistible because it is a force for transformation. Of course, the danger is that we get so carried away by the idea, we forget the principle at its heart - thinking of others before, not after, we think of ourselves.
If the idea is to work and be impressive enough to swing over other people, it must first ring true to us. We must be comfortable enough with altruism to let it dissolve our value judgements of other people, to let us never get involved with violence, or to get pushy or to become righteous. If we act altruistically, the great reward is found in seeing others also acting altruistically. The more confident we become, the more we really make a difference; the more difference we make, the more others will try to make a difference too.
Do we doubt that all this could happen? Is it impossible for us to see ourselves operating in a selfless way? If so, that’s probably because we still think of altruism in terms of selflessness, moral goodness and idealism, whereas it is nothing more than realising a good business opportunity. It is an alternative form of greed, but this time it’s greed for others, greed for a fabulous future (from which we personally mightn’t be around to benefit) and a time when racism and speciesism are forgotten concepts. But could it be this way? Could it happen? Even the goal is easy to lose sight of because we have this bad habit of plunging back into gloom and self pity. We forget that altruism has already stepped into the breach and is waiting patiently in the wings for us to use it to transform ourselves. We must never forget to learn from the past, but there comes a time when we must stop regretting the horror of the bomb and the cage and get our minds focused on new ideas - like plant-based eating regimes, a world parliament or a new type of motivation. So how will altruism help?
As individuals, we actually 'do' it all the time (if we did but know it) by smiling at someone passing by, donating money anonymously, giving credit for things that are being done by others. Certainly we do it by looking out for others, as a parent does with a child. Altruism always has the potential for setting off a chain reaction. But if we fail, it might be because we’re still carrying heavy moral baggage and that means our idea of altruism is still skewed by its reputation for wowser-ism. Altruism should only be about joy. The joy of problem solving, the joy of accepting challenges, the sheer fun and exhilaration involved in making alterations to our lifestyles. When we do things without needing to get materially rewarded for doing them, we switch an important attitude. We transform our world view. As soon as this attitude becomes common, it supersedes other types of pleasure. At that point we have altruism in the bag!
Things we do voluntarily should be done because we find it difficult to stop, because it gives us pleasure. I remember my parents playing with their first grandchild. I knew they’d never get bored by her, even though in their old age the child’s energy was exhausting for them. They just loved being exhausted that way. This is what relative altruism is about - using any amount of effort to find a balance point between the selfish and the selfless, between benefiting self and being of benefit to others and always knowing that we do the best we can and that each day we’ve tried to foster a sense of altruism. We don’t need to win brownie points or pave our way to enlightenment. We just need to do things for others for the fun of it. If there’s no fun there’s no altruism.
Relative altruism guarantees us a certain sort of energy relative to that which we put out. In this way the energy of altruism is self perpetuating. It expands rather than expends. At the outset, altruism might make our lives more difficult but by its valuable lessons, our day is brighter because of it. If what we do benefits the planet then it is a bonus and if at the same time we can also withdraw our support from "the cageman", all the better! We can help put him out of business, or better still encourage him to make his living another way!
Altruism clarifies the order of things. It tells us what to avoid and what to do next. It brings us home.