Altruism: Is It A Dirty Word?

Altruism: Is It A Dirty Word? March 30, 2019
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Altruism refers to those situations where people presumably pursue the well-being of others freely and selflessly. This notion flies in the face of those who believe natural selection and the survival of the fittest explains fully all human behavior.[1] On the latter view, purportedly selfless acts are at their source self-serving drives that benefit the individual and their kin or larger group’s survival.

E.O. Wilson, for example, argues that Mother Theresa’s noble acts of charity for the poor and leprous were not ultimately selfless but the result of her hoped-for eternal reward or church’s immortality.[2] Without knowing more about Mother Theresa’s explicit aims, I must look elsewhere to respond. Martin Luther King, Jr. asserted that his aim in loving his enemy who sought to harm and even kill King, his loved ones and people was to win his opponent over to friendship and inclusion in the beloved community of agape love. Here’s King in a Christmas sermon just months before his death:

I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many sheriffs, too many white citizens’ councilors, and too many Klansmen of the South to want to hate, myself; and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up before our most bitter opponents and say: “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, and so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country, and make it appear that we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, and we’ll still love you. But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.”[3]

In addition to King’s vision of beloved community involving altruism and agape love for one’s enemies, the Apostle Paul went so far as to claim that if it were at all divinely possible he would rather be accursed and not receive eternal life if his countrymen who vehemently opposed, despised and wanted him dead could be saved (See Romans 9:1-5). One cannot explain away such acts and aspirations according to tribalistic drives of natural selection.

Dawkins and Wilson debate the merits of kin vs. group or multi-level selection theories of natural selection. And yet, both maintain that ultimately self-serving aims rather than altruism drive us, whether for the self, kin, or larger group.[4] While I take issue with the notion that altruism is a dirty word and that it can be explained away by natural selection (in fact, Darwin himself urged that we need to consider cooperative tendencies alongside natural selection[5]), I don’t have difficulty with the claim that altruism and cooperation may have a biological basis.[6] Take, for example, Patricia Churchland’s fascination with oxytocin. A mother will produce oxytocin to care for their newly born offspring. There may be other occasions where oxytocin is produced organically, even synthetically.[7]

Certainly, oxytocin is a vitally important aspect of our humanity. It helps make the world go around. Even so, consideration of oxytocin’s merits does not ultimately suggest that we should be caring or even altruistic toward others, especially those beyond our kin or group. An ethical claim, David Hume reminds us, requires that we go beyond consideration of what is the case biologically to address what “should” be the case.[8] Ethics deals ultimately with prescriptions, not predictions of what humans or humanity will do based on biological emotive states (known as emotivism, which is a perspective championed by Wilson[9]).

Without wishing to minimize Churchland’s position, my colleague Derrick Peterson has claimed that Churchland’s desire to see oxytocin as the foundation of morals does not actually answer the question about how we come to see this or that action/state of affairs as ethical or unethical. To be sure, oxytocin plays a role in reinforcing broader ethical considerations, but oxytocin cannot by itself explain why it is associated with certain situations and not others. In other words, Churchland has identified a chemical mechanism that helps reinforce moral norms and judgments, but not the source of moral norms and judgments themselves. To think otherwise, Peterson argues, would rather be like saying the meaning of Shakespeare can be divined from the chemical composition of the ink used, or the style of calligraphy used to shape the words. While not unrelated to the vehicles it uses for expression, the semantic content of Shakespeare has an integrity of its own not reducible to or deducible from its material forms.

Beyond Peterson’s helpful observation, what’s lost if altruism is a dirty word?[10] What is lost is a fuller explanation of what makes us tick than simply natural selection and the survival of the fittest. Human society and metaphysical frameworks provide feedback loops that bear upon natural selection. Biology is certainly foundational, but it is not exhaustive of our humanity. It should not be taken to dictate human ideals since it cannot ground the better angels of our nature that lead us beyond kin and group or multi-level selection to Christian Scripture’s celebration of agape and embrace of enemy love (which the quotation from King above illustrated so beautifully). Reductionism’s only recourse is to try and explain away such ideals. Far from being a dirty word, altruism and agape are purifying and perfecting words.

In closing, it is worth illustrating further the countercultural inbreaking of Christian love in human society, in particular, in the ancient world. The authors of Twelve Theories of Human Nature claim that for Aristotle love is limited (to one’s friends) and conditional (based on the apparent merit and virtue of the other person) whereas for Christianity love is universal and unconditional. In a statement that bears critical import for kin and group or multi-level selection, they write of Christian Scripture’s exposition of love:

The ideal it puts before us is first that we should be loving or compassionate to all our fellow human beings, regardless of sex, race, class, ethnicity, or nationality. And, second, that our love or compassion should not depend on good behavior or individual talents, so that a change of heart and forgiveness should always be seen as possible. This twin ideal is almost impossibly demanding on our frail human nature. But we may feel that there is something missing from an ethic that does not even set it before us.[11]

In view of what is missing without such an ideal, let us not treat altruism or agape as a dirty word. Rather, may such words refine our vocabulary and elevate our humanity.


[1]Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene: 40th Anniversary Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[2]Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature, with a new preface (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), pages 164-165.

[3]Martin Luther King, Jr., “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” December 24, 1967; (accessed on 3/30/3019).

[4]Chris Johnston, “Biological Warfare Flares Up Again Between E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins,” The Guardian (November 6, 2014). (accessed on 3/27/2019). Wilson writes of multi-level selection: “In a group, selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals. But, groups of altruistic individuals beat groups of selfish individuals.” E.O. Wilson, “Evolution for the Good of the Group,” American Scientist, 96 no.5 (2008): 380-389.

[5]See John Hedley Brooke, “’Ready to Aid One Another’: Darwin on Nature, God, and Cooperation,” in Martin A. Nowak and Sarah Coakley, eds., Evolution, Games, and God: The Principle of Cooperation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), pages 37-59.

[6]See the essays in Nowak and Coakley which make this case from a variety of angles.

[7]Refer to Christopher Shea, “Rulebreaker: When It Comes to Morality the Philosopher Patricia Churchland Refuses to Stand on Principle,” The Chronicle Review, June 12, 2011; (accessed on 3/27/2019). According to Shea, “Oxytocin’s primary purpose appears to be in solidifying the bond between mother and infant, but Churchland argues—drawing on the work of biologists—that there are significant spillover effects: Bonds of empathy lubricated by oxytocin expand to include, first, more distant kin and then other members of one’s in-group. (Another neurochemical, aregenine vasopressin, plays a related role, as do endogenous opiates, which reinforce the appeal of cooperation by making it feel good.) The biological picture contains other elements, of course, notably our large prefrontal cortexes, which help us to take stock of situations in ways that lower animals, driven by “fight or flight” impulses, cannot. But oxytocin and its cousin-compounds ground the human capacity for empathy. (When she learned of oxytocin’s power, Churchland writes in Braintrust, she thought: “This, perhaps, Hume might accept as the germ of ‘moral sentiment.’”)” See Patricia S. Churchland’s work, Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality, with a new preface (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018). In Braintrust, she takes peptide oxytocin and associated neurochemicals into the realm of ethics. Regarding Churchland’s reference to Hume, it is worth noting that for Hume reason, at best, can only direct the passions. However, reason is not generative of moral positions. Only passions select ends, and intentional actions are the direct and immediate result of passions. And though reason plays a part, interpreters are divided as to what extent and in what way reason functions in Hume. Hume is often read as claiming that the passions and actions arising from those passions are neither reasonable nor unreasonable, but the acts of judgment associated with them are. It is also worth noting that a few commentators read Hume in a purely emotivist direction where reason ultimately plays no role or is only a false justification for what is an otherwise contentless emotional choice. Refer to the following article: Rachel Cohon, “Hume’s Moral Philosophy,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>. (Accessed on 3/29/2019). Churchland’s position on ethics reflects a certain subjectivist trait that may signify a striking similarity to Hume. For a critique of Churchland’s ethical framework, see Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, “For Moral Guidance, Look to Religion—Not Neuroscience,” HuffPost, July 21, 2011 (updated September 20, 2011); (accessed on 3/29/2019).

[8]See for example the discussion of the distinction involving “is” and “ought” or natural and ethical in Leslie Stevenson, David L. Haberman and Peter Matthews Wright, Twelve Theories of Human Nature, sixth edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), pages 254-255. See also David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, edited by Ernest C. Mossner, Penguin Classics (London: Penguin Books, 1969), page 521.

[9]See Whitley Kaufman, “The Evolutionary Ethics of E. O. Wilson,” The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology & Society, Number 38 (Winter/Spring 2013): 144-145.

[10]For evolutionary biologist and Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences and Anthropology at Binghamton University David Sloan Wilson, altruism is not a dirty word. He defines altruism as “a concern for the welfare of others.” See this definition and the following explanation of altruism in Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes and the Welfare of Others (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), page 1. Wilson provides nuanced evolutionary arguments in support of the claim that humans engage altruistically, and in ways that go beyond kin bonding within family structures. Wilson is not a reductionist and models a positive view of religion. It is also worth noting that his earlier word Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003) offered a compelling antidote to E.O. Wilson’s sociobiology. I am grateful for the editorial input of Robert Lyman Potter, M.D., Ph.D., in this post.

[11]Stevenson, Twelve Theories of Human Nature, pages 113-114.

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