Altruism and agency

Let’s not sugar coat it: these are tough times for many of us. Maybe you’re personally struggling; if not you, I can just about guarantee that someone close to you is doing it tough right now. There’s a lot of it going around.

Right about now, you’re probably thinking that you know where this blog is going. “In these troubled times, we all have to look out for one another”, and all that. Which we do, of course, but that’s not exactly my point. Let’s talk about what’s happening when you are indeed looking out for others, i.e. behaving altruistically and unselfishly.

There is an established Western intellectual tradition that argues that humans are fundamentally selfish creatures, and that altruistic behaviour is essentially unnatural and diametrically opposed to our natural inclinations. Altruism in the animal kingdom represents an explanatory problem for the theory of natural selection. Classical economics, similarly, takes human selfishness for granted, and builds that assumption into complex and far-reaching models.

If all this were true, then altruism would be unsustainable at best, and self-defeating at worst. I believe it is none of those things. Altruism is empowering. It brings joy and meaning into your life, and makes you a stronger, more resilient person.

I can think of two mechanisms for this effect: there are probably others. The first, and most obvious, is that behaving altruistically demands that we suspend or at least reduce our ruminations on our own petty problems. As we focus on someone else’s welfare, our own concerns are thrown into perspective and no longer seem as urgent and insurmountable as they may have seemed previously.

Ageing affords similar perspectives. It is a truism that as we look back several years into our past, the issues that vexed us so much at the time no longer seem to matter. But ageing takes time, and, to put it gently, is not without its drawbacks. Altruism’s benefits are almost immediate, and make the world a better place in the process.

The second mechanism has to do with neuroplasticity. As Vanessa Bennett has observed, neuroplasticity can strengthen our tendencies for both good or ill, depending on our propensities. If we are cultivating fear and anxiety, neuroplasticity will exacerbate those tendencies. Altruism, in contrast, brings a calming perspective, and inherently reminds us of our agency, our capacity to act and bring about change.

Let me bring this latter point out more. Being in a position to dispense kindness and care to another person – and proving the point by doing so – reinforces the understanding that we can act, that we are not helpless victims of circumstance, and that our immediate concerns pale into comparison of the problems faced by many others. Altruistic acts remind us of our strength and our comparative good fortune, and, over time, neuroplasticity embeds those attitudes via enhanced neural pathways.

What does healing look like?

On a final note, let’s talk about the application of these ideas, especially in the context of the social and economic dislocation we’ve been living with since early 2020.

There is a widespread perception in our society that addressing emotional issues should involve a significant period of introspection, perhaps accompanied by counselling or psychotherapy. This Facebook meme exemplifies this outlook:

Dear men,

You, too, are allowed to take time

To process, to heal, to rebuild

Whatever they left broken inside

You. You too, are allowed to just

Let yourself feel whatever it is you

Need to feel, and then let it go.

You are not weak. You, too, are

Allowed to be human.

Now, this approach may well be appropriate in many cases, I’m not disputing that. But I humbly suggest that altruism can have a very real healing potency, whose capabilities are worthy of further exploration.

Everything I’ve said here is consonant with the things I’ve learned from being coached by Next Evolution Performance. Framed differently, but the things I’ve learned through this process have greatly enhanced my mental “toolbox” to get more out of life.

Recommended reading

I can enthusiastically recommend Rutger Bregman’s Humankind for anyone who wishes to explore these ideas further. Though a large book, it’s an engaging read, and may just change the way you view humanity, and with it, your view of humanity’s future prospects. You’ll also find some similar ideas in this New York Times op-ed from 2016.

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Andrew Westcombe PhD CHIA  has an extensive career in digital health communications, with a current focus on cyber security awareness. He insists that studying philosophy – when it is done well – is a thoroughly practical pursuit.