Don’t be to tempted to force people to be altruistic.

Don’t be  to tempted to force people to be altruistic.

It is quite likely that altruism was one of the human traits which allowed our species to develop and progress. It is possible that this ability to behave in a way which is to the benefit of others, while being at our own expense, underpinned our development as a social animal.

Some scientists have proposed that “cooperative breeding” is at the core of this issue .

Humans are generally highly cooperative and often impressively altruistic, quicker than any other animal species to help out strangers in need. A new study suggests that our lineage got that way by adopting so-called cooperative breeding: the caring for infants not just by the mother, but also by other members of the family and sometimes even unrelated adults. In addition to helping us get along with others, the advance led to the development of language and complex civilizations,” (1)

Although cooperative breeding is not unique to humans, 10% of birds act in this way, it seems that we are the only group of primates which act in this manner. Whether is was cooperative breeding which initiated this change or not it has long been recognised that altruism is an important human characteristic and possibly the defining human characteristic.

Even before the evolutionary scientists and psychologists started to think about altruism the great thinkers had already considered it as an intrinsic and defining aspect of human nature. Indeed Adam Smith opening his major work with the following sentence :-

“No matter how selfish we suppose man to be, there is obviously something in his nature that makes him interested in the fortunes of others and makes their happiness necessary to him, even if he derives nothing from it other than the pleasure of seeing it.” (2)

We, as individuals in our species, gain pleasure from helping our fellows. Smith believed that this combination, of having a drive to look after oneself (self-interest) combined with the experience of deriving pleasure from making others happy (altruism), allowed us to develop a trading and commercial society where everyone looked after their own interests while at the same time promoting the common good. This type of society, capitalism, has allowed us as a species to greatly expand our wealth(3), reduce poverty (4),  extend health and longevity over the globe (5) and even, possibly, reduce the likelihood of wars (6).  It may even reduce the rates of materialism and consumerism (7).

However, we need to be careful and be clear what altruism actually is. There is a danger that, if we neglect the nature of altruism and clumsily try and promote good behaviour, we might actually damage on of  the most valuable aspects of our behaviour. Altrusim is defined as :-

“Disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others”:(8)

Its synonyms include charity, humanitarianism, generosity, benevolence, self-sacrifice and goodwill. At the core of this definition is that something is done by someone which is either not to their benefit, or possibly to their disadvantage, and it is done purely for the pleasure of making the other person’s life better in some way. There is no aspect of altruism which weighs up the potential future benefit the the giver, the altruistic action is performed simply for the pleasure of the other person. One doesn’t pay good wages altruistically, one pays good wages to ensure better staff. It is not altruistic if one undertakes an act in the hope that the consequences will benefit you in the future. If one is altruistic one doesn’t give money to the poor because you hope it will make your life more secure by reducing the likelihood that he will rob your house. It is not altruistic to donate money to a medical charity trying to find cures for the illness that troubles your sick child. These may be wise steps but they are not signs of your altruism.

People are altruistic as it is in their nature, it gives pleasure in its own right. If we try and force good behaviour on people, in the hope that this will promote altruism we will be mistaken. There is pleasure to be had from looking after a sick relative, positive feelings will also be felt when we give money to the poor, and we will feel good, and possibly pride when we place ourselves at risk to defend a friend or fellow from attack. These positive feelings allow us to know we have behaved well. They have their counterpoints in the shame we feel we don’t intervene to tackle an injustice, the regret when we missed an opportunity to help an ailing family member and the guilt we might feel if we judge ourselves to have been greedy while there are still people in need. We need to feel these emotions to guide our development as people. If we are to become better people we need to have some idea of what constitutes a “good“man or woman. We need to know this in order to allow ourselves to become better.

If altruism is replaced by state compulsion this is lost. When I arrange for for a sitter for my relative it is a chore. When my taxes go to help some group in need, there is no pleasure, I have no relationship with the good which occurs. If I am conscripted to defend my fellows I will do my duty but there will be no pride. None of these things allow me to choose my intervention, to experience the decision and to feel the consequence of goodwill to my fellows. In all of these I am no better, or worse, than anyone else. I do not get the opportunity to expand my moral development, to think about benevolence and charity, and how I might become a better person. Indeed with time, I will start to think that it is not my role to help others, I am just an individual after all, it is the role of government, the authorities, the state, certainly somebody else to make sure good works occur.

This is dangerous. There is evidence that, as welfare states expand, the amount of charitable activity and charitable giving reduces (8). We take away the individuals connection to altruism while doing nothing to alter their feelings driving them to self-interest. This is a recipe for decreasing the effectiveness of our market economies in spreading wealth more equitably.

States have always urged us to be altruistic. Early religions promoted the ideas of self-sacrifice for the common good, later nations promoted the need for us all to pull together, or tighten our belts, for the good of us all. But as they have removed our individual right in this process they have damaged altruism. If I have no choice, I am not acting well, I never chose to pay taxes for armaments for whatever war  was deeded necessary. Indeed often I feel my taxes are used for morally questionable interventions (Though at least I have no personal responsibility for these either). No-one can force someone else to be altruistic. While the altruistic soldier can volunteer for the suicide raid, the soldier sent by order on a suicidal mission does not die altruistically. Our rulers compel us to make donations, pay taxes, for good causes. These good causes help maintain the state that those in power run. Thus, they benefit directly from this action. There is no altruism on their part, simple self-interest and maintenance of the systems of power is their motive.

We need to bring benevolence and good will back to the individual so that we may benefit from its positive effects. We need to wrest it out of the hands of the state, despite any dire warnings of the tragedies which might befall us. If we really want these good works to continue, and I am sure most of us wish to look after our communities and our fellow, we will voluntarily contribute for them. This would also have the beneficial effect of allowing us to play a part in determining what we feel we wish to promote. I would guess that the call for voluntary payments to support the bombing of some distant upstart country might fall of deaf ears, and that would be a good thing.

Prompted by the Daily Prompt : Tempted“>Tempted



My final Christmas

new_year_03It is with a tinge of sadness that I have realised that this is the last time I will celebrate Christmas. The decision came to me while I sat in church having taken my father-in-law to the Christmas Eve service. We sat in a nearly empty church while a handful of elderly people tried to celebrate a central tenet of their faith. It was at odds with everything outside. Inside they spoke about love and charity while outside we had watched people rushing, as I had been, to buy last minute presents and prepare for a few days of festive, feasting and excess. As I watched this I realised I don’t want to participate in this any longer.

When I was a young man with children I enjoyed Christmas. I enjoyed the rituals and the traditions and enjoyed spending money so that I might see the pleasure on my childrens’ faces when they opened their presents. But over recent years I have found myself increasing estranged from the event. Little of the event now relates to the original Christian traditions; cards rarely mention it, songs likewise and there is little spoken about what it actually being celebrated. If anything at all is being celebrated.

Cast adrift from its roots in faith, Christmas now rides the waves of a sea of ennui and dyspepsia as we all try to maximise our pleasure by eating, drinking and buying. Like many others, I now live a reasonably comfortable life and any gifts I give or receive tend to be small luxuries as, thankfully, none of my friends or family live under hardship. Winter festivals, including those that predated Christmas,  were important in times of scarcity while we awaited spring. They were a chance to lighten our spirits, to kindle hope that the future will be positive and to allow ourselves a bit of comfort in a bleak period. In a post-scarcity world there is little need for this. The things we buy are are no longer important bridges to help us through to better times but simple luxuries, often completely useless items, we hope will temporarily heighten our pleasure. I am too old to believe in Santa Claus and  I am jumping off this treadmill of gift-giving.

I tried  purchasing charity gifts for all as a way to circumvent these problems but realised I had made an error. In doing so I had not enabled the gift receiver to give to charity. They had no choice and thus took no part in the decision to donate. I had not really given to charity either, as I had used money I was gifting to someone else for this. So, in essence, I had given nothing of my own to charity, someone else had not chosen to give to my charity freely, and I had advertised the fact that I had donated. These acts of virtue signalling allow everyone to lose a little of their dignity and I doubt engender much future charitable giving. In hindsight it seems a lose-lose scenario. (I will continue to give presents to my grandchildren at this time of year but simply because I love them and enjoy seeing their happiness.)

I hope my stopping celebrating Christmas will help me find something I fear I am loosing. I will still want and need a way to express the ideas of faith, hope and charity through the winter months. But this will be much easier if I don’t have to  participate in Christmas. I have faith that humanity is good. This faith may at times be tested by the actions of a miserable abnormal few, but there are more times when humanity impresses me with its benevolence. Because of this faith, I have hope that we will continue to make the world a better place for all who live in it and I personally hope that I will play my part in doing this.This leaves charity, the most important  aspect. I need to be more charitable and will use this time of the year to remind myself of this. I may be comfortable but some of my fellows are not, I need to do more to assist them. I can use the year’s bacchannalia as a paradoxical reminder to work harder in charitable actions.

via Daily Prompt: Festive



Volunteering : Why do we do it ?

Volunteering : Why do we do it ?

via Daily Prompt: Volunteer

When I moved to my present home, and shifted from an urban to a rural community, I became more aware of the role that volunteering played in my and my neighbours’ lives. It is not that there is any more or less volunteering in either site but rather that the structures of community organisations, and the role these play in day to day life, are much more visible in the rural setting. It is easier to see what is going on among a few people than it is amongst very large groups.

It is clear that many people volunteer regularly to provide services to our own community and for those further afield who are in need. Obviously, as this is volunteering, it is done with no thought of payment or recompense. Indeed, the cost to volunteers in terms of  time, money, and energy is often quite considerable.  For example, one neighbour drives daily to the old peoples’ home at her own expense and spends an hour talking to elderly people who might otherwise be lonely.

So why do we do this ? Some, of a religious bent, may do it as it is part of their way of practising their faith. Other may do it in recognition or thanks of previous help given. However, looking at my friends I’d suggest that most do it because they gain pleasure from helping others. In addition to pleasure it is also part of living, being a part of a community rather than a simple consumer of the benefits of society.

Every second week in our village hall committee we meet and spend hours organising events for the community and seeing to the logistics of running various societies which have their base in our society. When we meet and talk, when we interact and exchange ideas, when we choose form options for our society, we are in fact living. While we do this we are more than individual consumers, we are not solitary agents but social beings, and while we take part like this our lives become richer and fuller.

Possibly the most quoted sentence by Adam Smith  is this below :-

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.

and many people think that this suggests that selfishness was the sole key to the organisation of capitalist societies. Many portray capitalism as incompatible with altruistic actions and see the  phrase “greed is good” as one which summarises a trading society.  Many libertarians do little to counter this image.

While it is true that self-interest guides the many voluntary trades that people make everyday which allow our society to develop and grow. It is these multiple interactions  which allow us to concentrate on what we are good at, to specialise and divide labour, and to create things that would otherwise be impossible. It is through all these voluntary transactions that the spontaneous order arises which makes up our society. Billions of individuals freely interacting with billions of others give rise to the order which is the society in which we live. While this requires that the individuals look after their own interests it works because we are human and there is another side to our nature.

Unfortunately the following quote, which is the first sentence of Adam Smith’s “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” is much less frequently quoted :-

“No matter how selfish we suppose man to be, there is obviously something in his nature that makes him interested in the fortunes of others and makes their happiness necessary to him, even if he derives nothing from it other than the pleasure of seeing it”

Adam Smith believed that innately we wish to help our fellow man. Indeed he believed that the pinnacle of moral development would be “To feel much for others and little for ourselves; to restrain our selfishness and exercise our benevolent affections, constitute the perfection of human nature”. He correctly recognised it was the combination of voluntary transactions, guided by self-interest, in association with an innate tendency to care for the welfare of others which allowed capitalism to thrive and develop.

It is this innate desire to help others alongside the gaining of pleasure by doing so that I see in my community here. I am aware that this is a universal aspect of human nature seen in people from all walks of life and in all areas of the globe. It doesn’t detract from the wealth creation of trading but rather augments it as it is the glue that creates the society in which we can pursue our dreams. I am sitting using a computer and social media to create this blog, this is just one example of the multitude of sites (Flickr, Youtube, Facebook,  Freecycle, Twitter, etc) where people create things (images, stories, songs, news, goods) simply to share with our fellows with no expectation of profit. It seems further evidence of our need to share and to give.

However, I do have some concerns that the last century has seen a change in how we view such activities as volunteering and charity. Alongside the growth of the welfare state it is possible that we have started to feel that we no longer need to undertake these activities.  Certainly the amount we give to charity has dropped from an average 10% of a middle class family’s income in  1895 to around 1% today. Friendly societies which used to provide much of the welfare that people received prior to the war when it was estimated that over three-quarters of the working population were registered with such a society were destroyed by the introduction of National Insurance. A model which was based on local planning, voluntary choice and democratic decisions when local people got together to form groups to look after themselves was swept away by Lloyd George’s changes. In their place, an unaccountable, impersonal and inefficient centrally organised state system took over.

The change to state organisation funded by taxation has had a further change which has an impact on charitable activities. As James Bartholomew said “People have changed from being team members in mutual support groups to being state dependants who feel no particular responsibility to act decently. “. It is important to feel that one is helping others, as said before it is an innate desire and part of what lifts us above other species of animal. When we organise our welfare services by taxation it removes us as individuals from the care of our neighbours. It becomes anonymous and faceless, it breaks the link between the two individuals helping each other. It removes our option to be compassionate and good as we can’t really think of ourselves as good when we have no choice over our actions.

We will always need to provide welfare for our societies and will always want to do so. We need to encourage voluntary arrangements which allow this to be done in a human, individual and engaged manner and we need to wrest welfare back from the state. We need to bring it back from the central state and back to local societies and the individuals amongst them

I think Dominic Frisby summarised this well in his “Life after the State” :-

“The giver goes unconsidered in the process of state care. Taxes are taken and that is it. But the giver too has needs. Sometimes the giver needs to be anonymous – sometimes he needs recognition. Sometimes he or she likes to be involved with the recipient in some way, sometimes not. The forced giving that is taxation destroys the satisfaction that altruistic people get from giving voluntarily. To share with others is part of humanity. In a world in which the government takes care of the poor and needy, compassion is removed from life. As a result, the state now has a monopoly on compassion! In fact it is even more bizarrely specific than that: the pro-welfare left wing has a monopoly on compassion. Anyone who doesn’t agree with the concept of a large, generous welfare state is deemed heartless and selfish.”


Wealth of Nations
Theory of Moral Sentiments
The Welfare State we are In
Life after the State
David Green, Working-class Patients and the Medical Establishment (Gower, 1985).