Altruism and Society: A Brief Look
How Altruistic Behavior Helps make a Society More Sustainable
Altruism: The belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others. – Merriam Webster Online Dictionary
Many people define altruism as simply working for the well-being of others without achieving material gain for oneself in the process. If we accept this definition it can be said that many people engage in altruistic behavior. This is a good thing because altruistic behaviors are essential to the health of any society.
Communities are strengthened when members of the community collaborate to help other members in need. If, for example, one of your coworkers becomes ill and the rest of you join together in the effort to keep the coworker’s family housed and fed, the feeling of community is reinforced. If a group is shown to care about its individual members, the individuals tend to care more about the group. At work that tends to give the individual a stronger motivation to work hard for the company. Because the community as a whole engages in good deeds, individuals feel good about contributing effort to the company that hosts the community.
At the societal level the effect tends to be more fragmented, yet bonds are very often created across sub-cultural boundaries by individuals engaging in altruistic behaviors. For example, a religion may mandate its adherents to help the poor. In their quest to help the poor they may find people in need outside their religion. Whereas they may have previously looked upon the outsiders as ‘other’ and feared them, in their effort to help the poor they find that these ‘others’ are perhaps not so different after all. Both individuals benefit because their universe has expanded, and by extension both religions benefit from containing new individuals who have learned not to fear the other. Tolerance and empathy are fostered while blame and demonization are made irrelevant. Extrapolate this effect to the society at large and you can see that peace throughout the whole of society might very well be promoted as a byproduct of altruistic behavior.
Is Altruism Enough?
Could a society based solely on altruism work?
In a purely altruistic society, every able person would be selflessly serving all other people. People would go to work – not for the security of an income, but in order to serve others. Food providers would deliver food to whoever needed or wanted it. Housing would be available free of charge and no one would own it. Builders would build for the joy of knowing that some entity would occupy and make use of it. Craftspeople and factory workers alike would produce products so that they could give them to people, and no one would own the shop or factory. There would be no competition because everyone would be promoting everyone else, all the time. No one would be rewarded, because everyone would be simply doing what everyone else does.
What of aspiration, desire and the joy of accomplishment? Without them, would life be worth living? If we aspire to be more than what we are, it is for our own benefit, yet individual improvement also benefits the society as a whole. Desire manifests new things and experiences, and wonders come into being as a result of humans in pursuit of a feeling of accomplishment. I believe that without aspiration, desire and the joy of accomplishment, society could not produce the innovations and improvements we have enjoyed. Further, deprived the excitements of risk and competition – both factors that make the joy of accomplishment possible – life itself is deprived part of its beauty and meaning.
(Although, if we had not made innovations and improvements to our world, we would probably not have the problems we have today. Perhaps we would live like the animals in balance with nature, and simply be grateful to be alive on such a beautiful, pristine and unspoiled planet. Sigh. But that is a story for another day.)
My personal view is that we are here to experience the physical. We can in great measure choose our path to do so. The great variety of paths we choose is one of the many wonders of the physical existence.
Is a society that is totally dependent on altruism sustainable?
“I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers.”
- the character, Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
If a society were totally dependent on altruism, almost all innovation would need to come, free of charge, from some other society that was not wholly altruistic. Most innovation comes from an aspiration, a desire or the joy of accomplishment.
One of the chief sources of the joy of accomplishment is competition. Nothing much is more satisfying than beating a rival in fair competition. Yet it is not possible to do this altruistically. Therefore a society that is totally dependent on altruism for its survival would enjoy a perilous existence at best.
For at some point a competitive, innovative society would have to ask itself, “Why am I supporting this society?” The temptation would be to leave it to implode on its own, or, as with Blanche Dubois, take what can be taken from it.