I have been in a few debates with friends recently, where we have questioned what makes us humans altruistic.
Is alturism something innate in us? Are we are programmed to help others as a natural consequence of being alive? Or is it, that in order to function in a civil society, that we have learnt to help others?
I believe that we are social creatures. That we have evolved to have an natural predisposition to recognise need in others, and to respond where possible to help to meet that need.
However, I also feel that in day to day life, and in a progressively self-centred, stressful, and overwhelming society, we have programmed ourselves to ignore need in others. To justify our reticence to help, or perhaps as individuals we don’t feel that we can possibly affect any positive change.
These are ideas that I want to explore fully, and there are many examples that back up these thoughts. However, I’d like to start with this passage by George Gilbert Aimé Murray from ‘Man as a Social Animal’, which helps to reinforce my feelings.
“The whole supposition that a system of violent and intense rewards and punishments is necessary to induce human beings to perform acts for the good of others is based on a false psychology which starts from the individual isolated man instead of man the social animal. Man is an integral member of his group. Among his natural instincts there are those which aim at group-preservation as well as self-preservation; at the good of aurui as well as of moi. Even among animals, a cow, a tigress, a hen pheasant, does not need a promise of future rewards to induce her to risk her life to save her young from harm. The male bison or gorilla needs no reward before fighting devotedly for his females and children. They all instinctively care for autrui. And it would be a mistake to imagine that this devotion only shows itself in the form of fighting, or in dangerous crises. It is part of the daily life of any natural group or herd; the strong members help the weak, the weak run for protection to the strong. In man even in his primitive state these instincts are much more highly developed that in the gregarious animals; with the process of civilisation they increase in range, in reasonablenes, in sublimity. In the late war, how many thousands of men – not particularly selected or highminded men – risked their lives eagerly to save a companion wounded in No Man’s Land? The did not ask or know why they did it. Some may have alleged motives of religion, or motives of ambition in the form of medals or promotions. But the basic motive was probably more or less the same all through; that instinctively they could not see a mate lying there wounded and not try and help him”