Human Nature


When I was in my early twenties (a long time ago), I had a conversation with my mother and my sister-in-law about human nature. My sister-in-law claimed that there was no such thing as altruism; she believed that any human act of generosity or kindness was always motivated by self-interest, even if it was nothing more than wanting to feel good about what one was doing. I strongly disagreed; I argued that sometimes people commit acts of altruism for no other reason than simply because of an urge to do something for others, without selfish intent or a desire for personal reward. My mother agreed with me; as a parent, she knew all too well that sometimes parents do things for their children--well, just because.

I had heard this sort of argument about altruism, before, back when I was in college; some aficionados of Ayn Rand that I knew had similarly argued that there was no such thing as altruism. However, unlike those with a more religious bent, the Ayn Rand crowd actually thought that selfishness was a virtue, so they were saying that this alleged lack of human altruism was a good thing. In either case, though, the point remained the same--that ostensibly altruistic acts were really motivated, at best, by a desire to feel good about them, or at worst by more insidious motives. Whence comes this desire to feel good was never clarified; if humans were really so selfish, it is hard to see how anyone would feel good about these ostensibly altruistic acts. And more importantly, this line of reasoning confuses cause and effect; the proponents of this point of view fail to understand that feeling good can be an effect, rather than a cause, of the act in question.

Although I never really took this cynical view of human nature very seriously, the fact that it has had a following in certain circles has always bothered me a great deal. I think that in some ways, it is a deeply injurious view of humanity. If you have such a negative view of other people, that cannot help but color one's attitudes in other ways. The fact that it is also found in certain Christian circles is deeply unfortunate. It seems to be integral to some kinds of theological dogma, such that to question this view of human nature would throw the dogmas into serious question. In my view,however, the negative consequences for theology seem apparent.

Altruism is, I believe, an expression of unselfish love. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13,

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Rather than denying that humans are capable of unselfish love, I would much rather have a faith that sought to cultivate the possibilities of love that lie within us all. Sometimes those possibilities may lie dormant; sometimes the worst of our natures come out; sometimes we even commit evil acts. But the possibility of unselfish love lies within us. Love is just as much a part of the universe as selfishness is. Let us celebrate and expand upon human love, rather than deny that it truly exists.


Mark Wickens said...

Those Ayn Rand aficionados don't sound too informed. Rand certainly believed altruism exists as a motive behind actions. She wouldn't have spent so much time railing against it as evil otherwise.

Mystical Seeker said...

Good point. I think that some people may confuse the idea that selfishness is a virtue, and the idea that all behavior is really selfish anyway (psychological egoism).

Mike L. said...

I have a slightly different view that I think narrows the gap between your view and the opposing view of your sister-in-law. Try this on for size and see how it fits...

What if those instances of altruism which you observe and characterize as more "pure" but she views as actually selfish would be better described as moments when people realized that whatever it is that is their "self" doesn't end where their flesh stops? What if being selfish is actually a good thing but being altruistic is a byproduct of recognizing others as part of you? Or maybe seeing you in them. If we no longer have such a narrow definition of "self" then we don't have to fight being selfish.

This concept of "oneness" is a way to open our eyes to something that no longer makes alturism, love, etc. unnatural. What if the world is actually "me" and my goal is to just go on being selfish and seek my own survival?

Maybe what we need is not a change of character but a reshaped definition of self. Somehow this is is central to a spiritual awakening of sorts.

Matthew said...

I think that the human will is nonexistent or extremely limited, so I have to acknowledge that altruism isn't terribly admirable or unexpected. Most of the time, if I do something nice for someone else, it's because - for whatever reason - I wanted to do the nice thing for them.

But I've never been able to carry determinism very far into my everyday life, and so I suspect that as long as we don't underestimate the hidden environmental forces that are at work, praising a person's actions as "altruistic" is a perfectly good use of language.