Altruism beyond reason

(In response to the comment on Altruism: From Whence the Question? – December 23)

George Price desperately tried to disprove his theory of the instinctual nature of altruism. He asked himself: Is this what life is about? Is there not selflessness in the world? To find the answer he could have looked inward. Only a human being would ask the question that he asked because only a human being thinks about the meaning of his actions. His motivation to seek an answer already was the answer.

If altruism were only an instinct the inherent value of caring for others would be lost. If an animal has an altruistic instinct do we say “Bravo!” Good for you?!” There is no nobility in that.

If altruism is not an instinct then it must be a choice. I agree that there is a split second of choice even in a situation of risking one’s life to save the life of another.

At the same time it seems different enough from an ordinary choice to deserve a separate category. When people in this kind of situation describe how they felt they couldn’t explain why they did what they did. They felt compelled to act.

What is the texture of this kind of choice? We might suggest that if a person decided to opt into a normative system he will take upon himself to do whatever is dictated by that system.

While religious imperatives illustrate this well I’m not convinced it serves to explain heroic altruistic behavior. What if someone claims that he never opted into any system? Perhaps without realizing it he has opted into the system. He’s part of a society that holds certain values (like the preciousness of human life) dear.

But we don’t have to talk about normative systems. Earlier life choices have contributed towards this person becoming someone who would save a life if the situation ever presented itself.

In either case the person still has the choice to go against his values or to not be true to himself. But what kind of choice is that?

The act of saving a life is not a compulsive instinct; thinking is involved. He can choose not to do it. The feeling of “I am here; this person needs my help” at that moment is compelling. Just as an instinct is beneath human dignity, feeling compelled to act because it’s the only right thing to do is beyond the ordinary decision making process and is a testament to human nobility. It is a choice-beyond-reason, a choice made with one’s whole being.

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