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Re-Establishing Altruism As A Viable Social Norm

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Psychology & Altruism

In a world of plenty, man's struggle is not for survival but for meaning. As shown by the rise in volunteer work worldwide, people want to help other people. Altruists point the way to a new future, where people are not focused on what they can get from others but what they can contribute to their lives.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

The pioneering philosopher and psychologist Abraham Maslow developed the ‘hierarchy of needs’ model in the 1960's that has become very influential in modern psychology. This pictures human behaviour as subject to a set of fundamental drives. It explains human behaviour as driven by a set of needs which influence our behaviour in hierarchical fashion as shown (above). 

People try to satisfy them in order:- Firstly their basic needs for survival (food and shelter), secondly they satisfy their need for security, and so on. Although this results in selfish behaviour when people are operating at the lower levels (competition for food and water), those who have overcome the basic struggle to survive behave differently as they draw strength from loving relationships and begin to seek higher goals such as a sense of belonging and a purpose in their lives.

For citizens in some parts of the world their physical satisfaction is sufficiently assured for spiritual satisfaction to assume greater personal significance, opening the door to altruistic help of others, even strangers.

One of the main problems of capitalism is that it assumes that people behave utterly selfishly, which is demonstrably untrue for societies in which almost everyone's physical needs are met. To ignore the social element and disregard issues such as purpose, relationships and self-esteem is to deny something essential to human psychology. Mechanistic production and rapacious consumption do not contribute to a fulfilling life, far less substitute for one. Treating people as "human resources" - i.e. as tools for making money - is resulting in widespread stress, depression and meaninglessness amongst both rich and poor in the so-called 'developed' countries.

In many richer countries this new mentality is visible through the products on offer. They are proud to be ‘kinder to the environment’ or 'fairly traded', appealing to altruistically-minded customers who like the idea that in buying them they are helping and not hurting others, even others who are far away and live different lives in different countries.

People are generally keen to promote well-being of others, and a new generation is working as volunteers far more than their parents ever did. Their mentality has shifted from scarcity to abundance in accordance with changing circumstances; feeding themselves and their families is not such a struggle for them as it was for their parents. Young people have higher aims than just maximizing their income; the world is full of needs unmet by 'market forces' - for example, the needs of the financially poor. A new generation is discovering the tremendous value of making a real contribution to the lives of others.

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