Why We Need Both Altruism and Puritanism

Why We Need Both Altruism and Puritanism August 29, 2022

Both altruism and puritanism attempt to achieve goodness, but the outcomes are wildly different. One leads to wide-ranging restrictions. The other sparks an internal flame that burns for goodness. Does the end justify the means? Do we need both? Why are they so different?

Puritanism = Restrictions

Puritanism attempts to rein in our animal nature. All the world’s wisdom traditions include some form of restrictions. Even secular nations have restrictive laws. Religious scholar, Huston Smith, explained it this way:

“Jealousies, hatreds, and revenge can lead to violence that, unless checked, rips communities to pieces. Murder instigates blood feuds that drag on indefinitely. Sex, if it violates certain restraints, can rouse passions so intense as to destroy entire communities. Similarly with theft and prevarication. We can imagine societies in which people do exactly as they please on these counts, but none have been found and anthropologists have now covered the globe. Apparently, if total permissiveness has ever been tried, its inventors have not survived for anthropologists to study.”

No one has tried total permissiveness.

If they have, it hasn’t worked.

Nevertheless, it’s important to understand that puritanism is the morality of NO. The message is, “Don’t do this, don’t do that,” or “Thou shalt not.” Exalted puritans don’t allow themselves any sensual (sensory) pleasure.

When restrictive morality goes too far, some feel like rejecting restrictions altogether. But—at the risk of sounding like a broken record—history has shown us that it doesn’t work. If you doubt it, do this little thought experiment. Think about your life and your society. What would it look like without any restrictions?

Altruism = Aspirations

Altruism comes from a different belief: that we have seeds of goodness within us that need nurturing to bloom. This belief is also found in all the wisdom traditions. The key is to nurture the seeds.

Think of it this way. If the mind is like a garden, it can be overtaken by weeds without attention, care and vigilance. We must nurture the seeds of love, compassion, care, and selflessness for them to grow. Once attained, they need to be maintained.

The possible outcome is enticing. According to the Buddha:

“As a well-trained horse needs no whip, a well-trained mind needs no prodding from the world to be good.”

This means there is no need for external restrictions if altruism is achieved.

Sadly, some people get ahead of themselves and remove restrictions before the state of altruism is attained. It is a way of thinking that pops up in everything from religion and politics to education and child-rearing.

Easy to Go to Extremes

The possibilities of extremes are evident to any observer. Puritanism can become too restrictive and altruism too permissive. Historically, the wisdom traditions put more of an emphasis on restrictions. Still, there is an attempt to strike a balance, even in early guidelines, such as the Yamas and Niyamas in Hinduism and the Ten Commandments in Christianity and Judaism.

The five Yamas urge restrictions such as nonviolence, non-stealing, non-greed, and non-excess, whereas the Niyamas urge aspirations such as purity, contentment, self-discipline, self-study, and surrender.

In comparison, the Ten Commandments are primarily restrictive. They tell us not to have other gods or make graven images, not murder, not commit adultery, not steal, not bear false witness, and not covet other people’s possessions, but they also include two aspirational values; honoring your parents and keeping the Sabbath holy.

Delicate Balance

Today, people want to focus more on aspirational values than restrictive rules. Future guidelines may look more altruistic than ancient ones. Yet, the wisdom traditions have taught us that both are needed. If we are able to avoid extremes, we need to create a delicate balance between the two and maintain it.

Gudjon Bergmann
Author and Mindfulness Teacher
Amazon Author Profile

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Picture: CC0 License

 


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