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Reflections on Altruism
Mar 1, 2016

Nobody can doubt that altruism is a watchword of modern ethics. A standard dictionary definition of the word “altruism” – derived from the Latin “alteri,” meaning, "other people" or "somebody else" – is “unselfish concern for the welfare of others as opposed to egoism.”

Speaking about altruism, Ronald M. Green, a professor of religion, said, “Humility and selflessness, we know, are the very center of the moral life.” [1] According to James Ozinga, a professor of Political Science at Oakland University, altruism is, “Simply doing for others at some cost to oneself, and selfishness is doing for oneself at some cost to others.”[2]

In this article we will not embark upon complex debates whether altruism itself is a self-consistent concept, or if the very readiness to give away is an indicator of impossibly pure altruism (for “altruism,” by definition, ought to be totally about “other people,” and extend not an iota’s weight of importance to the “I-ness” of a person). It is clear from the viewpoint of pure logics, though, that we have to identify ourselves as independent agents in order to grasp the meaning of anything, as it is precisely this that distinguishes us from animals who are unaware of themselves and, thus, unable to think. Nor will we consider the problem of the performer of the altruistic act deriving out of it some intrinsic pleasure, thus flouting his initial “other-regarding” impetus, the idea that the famous English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was ever eager to accentuate. For Hobbes, if you relieve a beggar, you do it to relieve yourself of the distress at seeing the beggar’s distress.[3] It is enough to adhere to the aforementioned definition of “altruism” in order to check these kinds of debates. Thus, the aim of this article will be to shed light on the religious understanding of altruism in conformity with the definition of altruism as “doing for others at some cost to oneself,” as well as to find out whether secular and religious approaches to the issue are mutually exclusive or not.

The founding father of the term “altruism” was Auguste Comte (1798-1857), the initiator of modern positivism and, thus, one of the leading figures of modern science. In fact, he was the first to coin the term “altruism” itself. As he wrote, “the being, whether man or animal, who loves nothing outside himself, and really lives for himself alone, is by that very fact condemned to spend his life in a miserable alternation of ignoble torpor and uncontrolled excitement.” [4]

“Altruism” was part of his grand project of a completely new-fangled worldview. He envisioned this as “the Religion of the Great Being, Humanity,” whereby the principle of human rationality was asserted to be sufficient enough to invest humanity with all possible material progress and physical strength, but with no recourse whatsoever to the centuries-revered religious institutions. According to him, the Church’s institutions were irrelevant as far as meeting humanity’s real needs were concerned. Moreover, religion in any of its manifestations, and as the most authentic philosophy of life, had grown out-of-date, and would eventually be supplanted by positivistic science, with the rationalistic ethics being the culmination. Society, he believed, cannot be without ethics, and ethics cannot be without holding selfish instincts in check, thus tempering one’s egoistic personality with a desire to live for others. Regretfully enough, by tolerating no sense of individualism, Comte was extreme, the dictum of social duties in his philosophy being always prioritized over any particular and quite natural considerations pertaining to each and every person.

Another prominent philosopher of that age, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), came up with his own notion of altruistic relationships, which was close to the Comtean one. Although he did not use the term “altruism” in his treatment of the issue, for him the most important fact about the moral nature of man was the so-called “Moral Law,” which, similar to the Comtean philosophy, was determined solely by human minds and was autonomous from God or any religious tradition. The Law was, or is, universal in its nature and perfectly reasonable, though somewhat strained as far as its practicability was concerned. Kant wrote that, “I ought never to act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law.”[5]

He thought that humans can govern themselves merely by the power of intelligence, and thus be held fully responsible for all actions, including any indulgences in animalistic or all-to-human inclinations – things the ultimate source of which are not, Kant believed, our intelligence. To make it clearer, the formulation of the same Law can be described as, to “act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.”[6]

According to this, before undertaking any course of action regarding another person, we have to deliberate what would happen if the action were implemented unto the whole of humanity. If our conscience assures us of the action being equally beneficent in both cases, then it conforms with the Moral Law and is morally acceptable; if it does not, it is denuded of any virtue. Say, for example, that we have to produce evidence against our own brother in a court. The radical rottenness of human nature could easily induce us to tell a lie in order to release our brother. But if we are decent enough to remember Kant’s Law at such a critical moment, we will understand that telling a lie can inflict definite harm on our brother’s plaintiffs, and that acting here as a false witness will be a means to achieve some further goal; namely, the welfare of the brother, but not the end-in-itself, which is – as far as this case is concerned – the confirmation of truth.

According to Kant, people are too clever to engage themselves in self-contradictory enterprises, which can do harm to nobody but themselves. Thus, the Moral Law – when deployed before any action as a heuristic devise – divests us of fallacious predilections that affect us due to our base humanity; it also reveals to us the ideally impartial and fair state of human interactions. Our intelligence and ability to reach these conclusions enables us to transcend our base humanity.

General and abstract as the nature of the law is (it is to be filled with concrete schemata of actions in each and every case of its real-life implementation), it is of great avail in the sense that it helps us distance ourselves from evil commands of our self-indulgence, which may go unnoticed, and allows us to assume both a proactive and beneficent course of action towards others.[7] In other words, it should be the well-being of others, as shown to us by the impartial judgments of the Law, that drives our actions, not our self-interest.

However, the surrounding people’s whims and fashions, ages-old traditions and the shortage of certitude in our philosophy of life may well distract us from that rationalistic predisposition of ours to be compassionate and altruistic. Moreover, not all human beings can be motivated to be altruistic by reason alone; it is obvious that a great majority of people may need to pass through a long process of moral self-cultivation, constantly performing good deeds and listening to good advice, in order to become attuned to Kant’s mode of action. Also, many people would not adhere to the results of their sound reasoning to be altruistic; after all, practically, we know that humanity’s crooked nature is not conductive to an impartial attitude towards everyone; even if we can be altruistic to people dear to our heart, it does not mean that we will be equally good to everyone. Also, would self-sacrifıcing for others have any limits, whereby one could duly stop and give free reins to his egoistic pursuits? Do we not need some degree of self-prosperity, and, thus, a healthy deal of self-regard?[8] The American political philosopher, Jean Hampton, said, “If we are so ‘altruistic’ that we become unable to develop and express ourselves properly, we become unable to give to others what they may want more than anything else.”[9] These ideas of the philosophers of the Renaissance and Enlightenment mirrored the then-popular and almost unimpeded belief in human abilities to succeed in all possible enterprises solely by the means of their intelligence and personal initiative, as opposed to the total submission of the Medieval European human’s mind and heart to the dictates of Church organizations and traditional ways of living.    

Needless to say, as a founder of the “positivistic” scientific worldview, Comte has played and is playing a great role in the way we perceive things today. The same goes for Kant, who – in his various interpretations - was and still is the main proponent of the agnostic attitude of many Western people as far as belief in God is concerned. But was humanity truly oblivious to the acute necessity of altruism, all the way from antiquity through Comte’s epoch? Surely it wasn’t. And the reason why people didn’t think of altruism until the Renaissance was simple: the absence of the notion of egoism! The religious frame of mind so characteristic to the pre-modern epochs was the main reason behind the proliferation of selfless individuals and communities – at least within common cultural boundaries. Thus, it was the notion of “egoism,” as elaborated by Thomas Hobbes, which triggered a powerful reaction in other rationalistic and not-too-religious thinkers. This “reaction” led to the widespread adoption of the secular notion of “selflessness” or “anti-egoism,” eventually leading to the term “altruism.”

Yes, this drastic division between the good (altruistic) and bad (egoistic) dispositions of human nature was drawn in a full-fledged manner for the first time by Hobbes, who tried to show that egoism and altruism are conflicting parts of one and the same human being. In his Leviathan, he maintained that altruism is impossible at all because, by nature, humans are possessors of a strong bend towards assertiveness. Hobbes believed that human nature is “essentially individual, non-social, competitive, and aggressive.”[10] As opposed to an altruistic society, Hobbes saw a daunting chasm, across which nothing could be handed, gaping between human nature and human benevolence. It is this chasm that has led to power struggles that then engulf the whole of society. It is only out of this inauspicious state of things that the necessity for social pacts and conventions arise; they are finally agreed upon by nothing better than formidable state machinery. Hobbes believed that this was the only way the intrinsically self-regarding nature of man could be persuaded to live in a mutually beneficial state of coexistence with others. Through the suppression of individual desires, man can attain a degree of security and welfare, thus fulfilling some of his egoistic desires. As Hobbes put it, “We gain by it the largest scope for action our crowded world permits.” [11]

After Hobbes, it took a whole series of English philosophers (Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Butler, and others) nearly a century to get around to the idea that the nature of man is not that egotistic. Still, they failed to explain the dualistic (altruism vs. egotism) nature of man. Hartley (1705-1757) and Mill (1806-1873) said that the two inclinations of our souls could be fused by the way of association - we may be self-regarding when harrying for the aid of others (as Hobbes said), but, in due course, our thoughts grow to be so submersed in other people’s welfare that we start to regard them and not ourselves as a primary object of our attention and assistance.[12] Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) upheld a so-called “quantitative view.” Due to the mirroring capability of our conscience, we can see others as a huge bulk of our own emotional world; thus, the happiness of the maximum possible number of people is highly conducive to the accruing of our own happiness, the latter playing a role in Bentham’s philosophy; he believed it to be the key motive behind human behavior. Adam Smith (1723-1790) was another thinker who contributed ideas to the discussion. For him, sympathy played an enormous part in our lives; we just cannot stay uninvolved in other’s sufferings or happiness. For him, man’s ability to share feelings with others, and even to identify with others, is something agreeable, invigorating, and contributes to man’s overall well-being.[13]

The Islamic solution to altruism encourages people to see everything as reflective of a sacred, divine oneness of being. There is no reason to be egoistic, for the Divine Presence is overbearing, insofar that any claim one could lay to existing apart of that Divine Reality is moot. On the other hand, a relative degree of existence is still warrantable for man, as far as his duties before the Super-Being are concerned. The primary duty is intellectual and spritual love of the Real Source of all existence and ever-readiness to sacrifice the very idea of one’s own autonomous existence in order to comprehend His Existence unhindered by one’s ego. Man must follow, most unfailingly, His will in every passing moment. These acts are supereregatory and  are considered to be among the most important spiritual stations of the Sufic tradition of Islam – “isar,” or the “preference of others, first and foremost, God’s desires and orders, to one’s own desires.” This was eloquently described by the Islamic mystic, Rabi’ah al-‘Adawiyah (d. 801):

O Lord, if I worship You out of fear of hell, burn me in hell. If I worship You for hope of paradise, forbid it to me. And if I worship You for Your Own sake, do not deprive me of Your eternal beauty.[14]

In the Islamic world-vision, Kant’s impartial stance to others is enforced by the Sacred Law itself in such verses of the Quran, including:

“Say, each works according to his manner, but your Lord is most knowing of who is best guided in way” (17:84); “And we have certainly honored the children of Adam and carried them on the land and sea and provided for them of the good things and preferred them over much of what We have created, with definite preference” (17:70); “O, mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you different peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Aquainted” (49:19).

According to these and others, every man is a bearer of God’s spirit:

“And when I have proportioned man and breathed into him of My spirit, then (o, My angels!) fall down to him in prostration” (15:29). To accept and, eventially, love every human being as he is means exactly what the German thinker meant by his imperative “not to take any human being as a means to accomplish some further goal.” The meaning of humanism, then, finds its expression in the Islamic revelation, although it is “theocentric” – deriving its meaning from the Holy Scripture, not the human intellect.[15] Still, to follow the idea is a supererogative act, for not everyone can relinqish his egocentric desires. Our altruistic feelings will anyway stem from our initial understanding of ourselves as independent, and, therefore, egoistic or pragmatic agents.[16] We ourselves are the first baseline of our self-perception, so without self-love, we cannot understand what it means to love others. The benevolence of others unto us may well enslave us, but this is because our ego is enamored with those who do good to it. However, as the famous Islamic theologian Imam al-Ghazzali (1058–1111) put it, those whose aethetic and moral predelections are of a higher level, cease to love themselves and, as it were, become dissolved in their love for abstract kinds of beauty and benevolence.[17]

A critical verse reads, “Those who fulfill their vows in full and fear a day whose ill effects will spread afar, who feed, for His sake, the destitute, orphan, and captive, they declare: We feed you only for God’s sake; we do not desire recompense of thanks from you” (76:7-9). In this, we can see that Muslims were entreated to embody the ideal of altruism within the Islamic World through the institutions of “Waqf” – charitable trusts. This Arabic word means, “to cause a thing to withhold, to stop and or to prevent”; the word also means, "to endow the property rights of a good to the public service perpetually, and to prevent others from obtaining its property rights."[18]

Such foundations were usually open to everyone in need. Notably, 75% of such trusts in the Ottoman Empire of the 18th century devoted substantial funds to serving outside constituencies, and 18% were precisely charitable ones. “Waqf” is also defined as “the detention of an object from possession for good, by considering it God’s property, and devoting all of its conceivable favors of revenue to different kinds of charitable purposes for the benefit of the public.”[19]

Muslims founding these institutions believed that this worldly existence is a temporary one, and one needed to devote one's income for the betterment of other people’s lives, so as to make safe the blessedness of the next, eternal life.[20] All over the huge Islamic lands, from the Pacific to the Atlantic, countless amenities vital to social life have been funded and upheld through “waqfs,” some of which have even survived more than a millennium,[21] providing the penurious with basic needs such as food, shelter, education, and improvements like cemeteries, lighthouses, public baths, aqueducts, fountains, bridges, mosques, roads, and so on, augmenting amity and concord.[22]

Religion is clearly not antagonistic to altruism, even in the Comtean sense of the latter. Surveys conducted by the European Value Systems Study Group and the British Household Panel Survey reveal that churchgoers are some three times more likely to be involved in voluntary service for others than are non-churchgoers.[23] Love for humanity can be induced not only by the secularist or humanistic tendencies of modern Western civilization to exalt human beings to the highest ontological level, but also, and even primarily, by the religious injunction to love humanity as the best pattern of God’s creation. In fact, any monotheistic religion and humanism agree on this point, the difference being that the first is believed to arrive at it by virtue of a transcendent, supernatural source, and the second, by man’s independent reasoning. However, contrary to philosophical humanism, which is always open to unceasing doubts and critiques as to its intrinsic logical consistency, the religions of monotheism, resting upon articles of immutable and certain faith, have centuries-old social institutions and meditational practices which provide humanity with the priceless spiritual rationale for altruism. As the authors of the book, “The Altruistic Species,” Andrew Michael Flescher and Daniel L. Worthen concluded:

Altruism is neither a given nor an impossibility for human beings, but rather an ongoing opportunity in which to participate. Being more a matter of skill than talent, and therefore largely the result of hard work, it is something we should regard as contingent on our moral development.[24]

[1] Green. Ronald M. 1979. Religious Reason: The Rational and Moral Basis of Religious Belief. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 188.

[2] Ozinga. James R. 1999. Altruism. London: Praeger, p. xvi.

[3] Neusner, Jacob, Bruce Chilton. 2005. Altruism in World Religions, Georgetown University Press p. 50.

[4] Comte, Auguste. System of Positive Polity, Volume 1: Containing the General View of Positivism & Introductory Principles. Translated by John Henry Bridges. New York: BurtFranklin. (Original work published 1851), p. 565–56.

[5] Kant, Immanuel. 1964. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. H.J. Paton (New York: Harper and Row, p. 67.

[6] Ibid, p. 91.

[7] Hill, Thomas, Jr. 1993. “Beneficence and Self-Love: A Kantian Perspective,” in Altruism, ed. by Ellen Frankel Paul, Fred D. Miller Jr., and Jeffrey Paul, Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 13ff.

[8] Flescher, Andrew Michael, Daniel L. Worthen. 2007. The Altruistic Species: Scientific, Philosophical, and Religious Perspectives of Human Benevolence. Philadelphia and London: Templeton Foundation Press, p. 186-193.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Singer, Peter. 1981. The Expanding Circle: Ethics and Socio-biology. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, p. 50.

[11] Palmer, George Herbert. 1970. Altruism: its Nature and Varieties. Westport: Greenwood Press, p.4.

[12] Ibid, p. 6.

[13] Ibid, p. 7.

[14] Sells, Michael (ed.). 1996. Early Islamic Mysticism. Translated by Paul Losensky. New York: Paulist Press, p. 169.

[15] Kim, Heon Choul. 2009. Gülen's Dialogic Sufism: A Constructional and Constructive Factor of Dialogue. Conference proceedings. Washington D.C. pp. 520-547.

[16] Robert M. Berchman, p. 23.

[17] Çağrıcı, Mus­tafa. 1982. Gazzali'ye Göre İslâm Ahlâkı, Is­tanbul, pp. 139-143.

[18] Akgündüz, Ahmet. 1996. İslam Hukukunda ve Osmanlı Tatbikatında Vakıf Müessesesi. 2nd Ed. Istanbul: Osmanlı Araştırmaları Vakfı, p. 77.

[19] Bilmen, Ömer N. 1969. Istılahat-ı Fıkhıyye Kamusu. Vol. 4., p. 294.

[20] Yediyıldız, Bahaeddin. 1996. Place of the Waqf in Turkish Cultural System. Translated by R Acun and M Oz. Istanbul: Second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II).

[21] Çizakça, Murat. 2000. A History of Philanthropic Foundations: The Islamic World from the Seventh Century to the Present. Istanbul: Bogazici University Press.

[22] Yalawae, Asming, and Izah M. Tahir. "The Role of Islamic Institution in Achieving Equality and Human Development: Waqf or Endowment." Universiti Darul Iman Malaysia (UDM).

[23] Gill, Robin. 1999. Churchgoing and Christian Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 174-5.

[24] Flescher, Andrew Michael, Daniel L. Worthen. 2007. The Altruistic Species: Scientific, Philosophical, and Religious Perspectives of Human Benevolence. Philadelphia and London: Templeton Foundation Press, p. 239.