“…human beings are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee” — Jonathan Haidt
Does altruism exist? Defined as the selfless concern for the happiness or well-being of others, skeptics point to the fact that there is no such thing as true selflessness. Acts of supposed altruism, they argue, is often selfishly motivated behaviors that happen to benefit both parties. An example of self-oriented behavior disguised as altruism could be volunteering for an organization for the purpose of networking and hopefully gaining employment. The question of “what’s in it for me” is all-pervasive and there are no shortage of examples like this. But does this mean altruism is an impossible ideal?
I believe altruism exists despite our commonly selfish orientation, but not in the way we normally think about altruism. Rather than thinking about altruism as behavior motivated by promoting the happiness of others, I argue that altruism promotes our own happiness and is motivated by the drive to become a part of something larger than ourselves. Like the honey-bee whose primary goal is the maintenance of the hive, humans are driven by collective-goals. But rather than getting our directions from biological instincts, our goals are defined by the values and beliefs entrenched in our social group. This moral reality gives us direction in life, allowing us to gain a sense of significance through contribution to a cause beyond ourselves.
The development of religion is an example of how this altruistic drive has been satisfied throughout human history. Besides the fact that religions have often been used for selfish purposes by those in power, throughout human history religion has primarily functioned as a set of collective beliefs and practices directed toward sacred things. These beliefs and practices functioned to promote group solidarity, maintaining the integrity of group-life before the development of the state. In modern times, one’s profession can also serve this function. The collective beliefs and practices entrenched in one’s professional occupation can provide a source of meaning and purpose by its ability to integrate the individual into collective life.
Although religion and professional occupations can provide socially constructed moral realities that allow individuals to gain a sense of meaning and purpose through collective goals, these institutions often miss the mark. Institutions that fail to fulfill this role become fertile ground for dog-eat-dog individualism. Failing to feel like one is part of something larger than oneself, individuals resort to tactics of domination to preserve their sense of significance. Moral symbolism is replaced by status symbolism. Interactions are pregnant with latent hostilities, secret alliances, and selfish behaviors disguised by the cloak of apparent good-will.
The failure of altruism is a failure of society. Rather than focusing on making ourselves more altruistic, we need to focus on promoting well-integrated social institutions. Although the question of “what’s in it for me” is deeply embedded in our motivations, altruistic social institutions take some of the attention away from ourselves, connecting us with something beyond ourselves. Altruistic behaviors are not based on promoting our own happiness; our own happiness is the by-product of altruistic behaviors.
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