unedited notes on:
Altruism & Ethical Theory
Contemporary ethics views altruism as an important tool in understanding the dynamics of ethical systems. However, there are problems with structuring ethics around altruism. Altruism begs the question of a God; it questions why your mother loves you; and questions the many elements of charity and kindness. This approach possibly can work to build a theory of evolutionary ethics it has the tendency to ask more questions than it answers.1 Moreover, when arguments are presented they tend to be superficial and simplistically structured, lacking a depth of reasoning necessary to lead to substantial conclusions. Many would disagree, but a substantial case can be made illustrating such deficiencies that are outside the scope of this paper at the present time.
Perhaps the best case that can be made for integrating altruism into ethical theory is the idea that over a billion years of genetic development, individual biological systems that cooperate with other biological systems, have survived better than systems that have acted for self-serving purposes. The fact that a mother will sacrifice her well-being for her children, or a soldiers will fall on an exploding hand grenade to protect other people reflects an inherent biological principle that such actions give a system (i.e. animal, insect, or human systems) a competitive edge over competing ones. Thus, over vast spans of time, altruism becomes a practical and functional part of a biological system.2
Altruism can act as a catalyst for ethical change in a society. There is an inspirational quality to altruism. To act for seemingly higher purposes has the effect of giving hope and purpose to life, in a world that is not always kind and giving. Altruists are often motivated to sacrifice their income and worldly pleasures in the hope that someday the world will be a much better place. The altruistic act fulfills one person's life and inspires another in the process. One needs to consider the fact that perhaps the altruist, is fully paid, for the acts of selflessness they perform, on terms they understand, appreciate and are acceptable. An outside observe may not believe that a sacrificing mother has been compensated for the care and attention she has given her children, but that observer is not privy to all of the intimate details of the her life that would probably show some rewards have been experienced for all the selfless effort.
So much is speculated about altruism but so little information is sought from those who are searching for answers. Not everyone takes the route of maximizing their own self interest. Instead, some find meaning in life by adopting an identity that is giving of others at their own expense. If one were to get into the mind of a altruist they might see that his or her meaningful connection to the world is experienced in terms of doing something for others. If dying for others to make their lives better is meaningful, it is probably worth the cost to the altruist. Extreme forms of altruism probably evolve from the many satisfactions that come from helping other people. To the altruist it is a way of life that pays its way. As the involvements with the well-being of other people grow there is likely a tipping point, or point of no return, in which the meaningful connections to others have grown to such a proportion that an altruist will inevitably sacrifice their lives, even if losing their life gives life to another person. The fact that we live in a world where one person will give up their life for the well being of a stranger is an extraordinarily moralizing event. It is a circumstance that adds spirit and support to those who might otherwise liver on the verge of a hopeless existence. Self sacrifice, thus, fulfills the altruist while at the same time inspiring others in the world to go forward into the darkness of certain times and find their own meaningful existence. Altruism works in a positive and effective way to help the human species survive in a hostile world of other biological competitors. It is not so important, therefore, that philosophers dwell on altruism as a key component of a theory of evolutionary ethics. There are other, more relevant aspects of ethical theory to be considered.
1. The virtues of the simplified argument, see Occam's Razor, "Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate."
2. Efficient actions as well as the highest of ideals are forced into play in a world of fiercely competing biological systems. Ideals serve much like the coordinates that are entered into an airplane's autopilot. Ideals keep the society on course much as the mathematical coordinates in an airplane keep it on course. To have these ideals reaffirmed by sacrifice, large and small, repeatedly throughout the course of history, affirms humanity's sense of confidence in making it to some useful end. One cannot minimize the effects of fierce competition for survival in the world when contemplating the nature, utility and value of altruism in surviving the species. Biological systems that are less responsive to goals lose a certain degree of efficiency because they cannot focus energies on their long term survival and are instead distracted by satisfying their immediate wishes. Altruism promotes highly functional behavior that assures the survival of individuals and societies, whether the nobel sacrifice is parents going into debt to send their children to college, or a soldier in battle falling on a grenade to protect his or her comrades. All such actions serve the singular purpose of enabling the survival of the human species.