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
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.