Altruism is traditionally seen as the most noble of human impulses. It partly defines us as a species, and in our best moments, alive in an act of caring about others, it can redeem us. No wonder most religions promote it: selflessness, charity, mercy, sacrifice – the act of giving is nothing short of a calling to elevate humanity.And this is the season for it, of course. With its opening vowel, altruism sounds like something an angelic choirboy might sing in a sustained, clear pitch – as beautiful as the very idea of it. For many, doing something for those in need – serving turkey to the homeless, clearing an elderly neighbour’s walk, or just donating money – is central to observing the holidays.
I, too, feel that call to the soup kitchen (it comes up often these days, perhaps because my empty-nest life allows me more free time). And it turns out so do a growing number of Canadians. According to Statistics Canada’s most recent findings, 13.3 million of us volunteered in 2010, an increase of more than 800,000 since 2007. And whereas previous reports indicated that most of work was being done by a small group of “uber volunteers,” age 15 to 24, the data now suggest that base is broadening. Baby boomers and senior adults contributed more than 1 billion volunteers hours in 2010.
What explains the rising number of volunteers? Emerging research shows that giving to others increases life satisfaction. Volunteering plays a role in healthy aging, can reduce stress-related illnesses and boost self-esteem. There’s self-enhancement in being good to others, in other words. Or as Abraham Lincoln once said, “When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That’s my religion.”
Now, I have no desire to curdle your eggnog – or mine, for that matter – but that’s one jolly holiday paradox: if we give to others in order to give something to ourselves, if it’s simply a shrewd insurance policy for our own well-being, is that really altruism? Or is there something we’re missing about altruism’s beatific light?
Survival of the nicest
Skepticism about the existence of “pure” altruism is hardly new. Over centuries (times centuries) debates about giving and goodness tend to boil down to a showdown between those who believe we do good because we inherently are good and those who agree with Thomas Hobbes, the 17th-century thinker who argued that humans always act out of psychological hedonism – the impulse to please themselves. Spotted giving money to a beggar and asked why, Hobbes responded that he was simply relieving his own discomfort at seeing someone in distress.
Science has tried to find its own answer to the question of altruism. Charles Darwin puzzled over how it fits into natural selection and the survival imperative, which would seem to favour selfishness. His solution, says Elliott Sober, professor of philosophy at University Wisconsin-Madison and author of Unto Others, is the theory of “group” natural selection, which “promotes within-group niceness and between-group meanness.”
Anthropologists see two instances of “within-group” altruism: kin selection (you’re nice to your siblings to give your own genetic material a boost) and reciprocity (you will help an individual who can help you in return).
And in case you’re wondering, not only humans exhibit altruism. Rats will run across electrified grids in order to save baby rats. Ants help each other. And in some experimental settings, chimpanzees may assist other chimps if it doesn’t cost them too much.
But in groups of great apes, “we never see helpful activity with strangers,” says Joan Silk, a professor of anthropology at Arizona State University who has studied how evolution shapes altruism in primates and humans. “Humans are outliers in the frequency and scope of their altruism. We are much more endowed with the motivation and satisfaction in helping others.”
It’s that “helpful activity with strangers” that we still find so difficult to understand. Is it about ego? Empathy? Morality? Peer pressure?
Social psychologist Dan Batson, the author of Altruism in Humans and a widely acknowledged authority on the subject, has devoted 30 years of behavioural experimentation to “teasing apart” our motivations.