Altruism: from whence the question?

Having thought a lot about altruism, George Price
reasoned to himself: If there can be natural selection for Darwinian survival traits of fitness, could there not also be genes for self-sacrificing behavior? In fact we find such phenomena in the natural world. About 20% of amoebae form a rigid stalk, hoisting their comrades upward as a ball of spores that float off to greener pastures while they wither and die.

Price wondered whether this trait possibly exists in humans. He calculated the likelihood of a person saving the lives of his relatives. Such an evolutionary instinct would ensure that even if that person dies those he shares genes with will survive, effectively promoting his own life. He worked out a perfect mathematical equation demonstrating the human instinct for altruism.

He was very excited about his discovery until one fine day it struck him: If there can be evolution of traits then it’s not selfless when people seem to be doing altruistic acts. If altruism is an instinct, it can’t be kindness.

He couldn’t stand the thought of living in a world where altruism is only a selfish instinct and he set out to try to prove his own theory wrong. He befriended homeless people and gave away all of his money. He apologized profusely to his children for abandoning them. He eventually committed suicide. Evidently he did not succeed in disproving himself.

The fact is, human beings are altruistic. The Carnegie Hero Fund awards altruistic behavior. A hero is defined as a civilian does a voluntary act whereby he leaves a point of safety and risks his life to an extraordinary degree to save someone’s life. It turns out that altruism is more common than we might think. The foundation got so many nominations for heroes that they had to up the ante and make stricter requirements for what makes a hero. Some examples are a woman who climbed an electric fence to save another woman being attacked by a bull, a man who pulled three teenager out of a car engulfed in flames and a man who lay on top of another man on a train track to save him from the oncoming train.

These people were altruistic. But was their altruistic behavior instinctual?

An instinct is an inborn pattern of behavior, often in response to specific environmental stimuli. Wikipedia cites the book “Instinct” (1961) where a number of criteria distinguishing instinctual from other kinds of behavior is listed. It must be automatic, irresistible, etc.

To try to answer this question the people at radio lab wanted to know what drove these people. The “heroes” could not explain why they did what they did. Their inability to explain rationally why they did it makes it sound instinctual. But listen carefully: When faced with a stranger whose life was in danger they said: “Here’s a problem, here’s what I have to do.”

There was no choice moment. They felt compelled to act. Yet feeling compelled is not the same as having an irresistible urge or drive. They were aware that they could do something to help.
The man who saved the stranger on the train tracks heard a voice in his head saying “Don’t worry. You can do this.” A past moment from his life flashed before his eyes, of a time when a gun was put to his head and the gun didn’t go off. He had asked himself then: Why was I spared? He didn’t know why. Now seeing this man on the tracks he felt the world had prepared him for this moment. “I felt I was chosen for that” he said.

We can stand off to the side and deliberate, saying: What are the chances of this person losing his own life in the attempt to save another person’s life? Should he do it or will they perhaps both die? But for them there was no weighing of alternatives. It was either try to save the person or stand by and watch him die, and it was clear to them that they had to do it. It was only a question of courage.

Price’s calculations make sense from a scientific perspective. The problem with his theory is that altruism is not an instinct and it’s not natural in the bio-psycho-physical sense. He didn’t realize that he could have disproved his theory by his very motivation to find an answer. He said something to the effect of: “I cannot stand the thought of living in a selfish world. I cannot accept this kind of world.” Why could he not accept this kind of world?

If altruism were only a biological instinct, would he have any sentiments about it? Certainly not!

There is a nobler side of man deeper still than instinct. It is the part of George Price that cared about what kind of world he was living in. That was also the side of those heroes who saved a total stranger from certain death.

Human beings do often act out of self-interest. But not always. Human beings have the capacity to think about the meaning of what they’re doing. They can recognize values and act on them. They are conscious and responsible, and conscious of their responsibility. They are capable of love and sacrifice for the sake of something or someone they love.

In all I’ve just said in the last paragraph I’ve defined logotherapy.

This capacity is often accessed in life-or-death situations, where the choice is stark – either save the person or let him die. As the heroes said, they simply saw a problem and saw what they had to do.

Instinctual behavior knows of no reasons. Noble human behavior also knows no reasons. But there is a world of difference between them. The origin of instinct is the physical plane of existence. The origin of noble behavior, of feeling compelled by the reality one encounters is not beneath, but beyond reason.

Viktor Frankl based his approach to healing on his belief in this nobler side of human beings. He saw evidence from his experience as an inmate in four concentration camps that this nobler side of humanity could be accessed. In a way it is easier to access it in stark life-or-death situations. Logotherapists see value in helping people access their nobler side in every single life situation, where the ability to know what to do is often not very clear but still compelling.

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2 Responses to Altruism: from whence the question?

  1. mike lowy says:

    It’s a very interesting question, but I’m not sure where the answer gets us.

    If the question relates to a person who has some inner awareness, and not someone who lives life merely responding to reflexes, the first level of awareness would be the one of choice. In other words the soldier who jumps onto a grenade about to explode has in his response process a moment of a “shall-I/sha’n’t I” dilemma where he makes the choice to jump on the grenade with the intention of thus saving his comrades. It’s also possible that some of his faster-responding comrades may face the same dilemma and make a different choice, say, to save themselves, or to do nothing. As long as that self-sacrifice is made out of choice – even if its duration is no more than a brief fraction of a second, then the act is noble. If however it is made not from choice but out of habit, or worse, from a knee-jerk guilt response, then the act, though perhaps resulting in a heroic outcome, remains immature or even pathological.

  2. logogroup says:

    I wholeheartedly agree. My point was a subtle one. My sense is that the guy who jumped on the grenade to save his comrades (and I put it that way because it happened in reality) was not doing it out of a knee-jerk response, and yet it also seems somehow different from the usual choices we make in life. What I call “beyond” rational is this other kind of choice. I will, please God, elaborate in my post on December 28.

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