The Self and the Selfless

Does altruism even exist?

From personal acts of kindness to charitable gifts to strangers, altruism is seen as a high point of moral virtue. Yet studies suggest altruism is driven by self-interest and personal satisfaction. Does true altruism exist? Is altruism an evolved behaviour shared with animals, or can it be pure and transcendental?

Linda Woodhead is professor in the sociology of religion in the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University, and director of the AHRC Religion and Society Programme. She has been described by Matthew Taylor, head of the Royal Society of Arts, as “one of the world’s leading experts on religion”.

Here Woodhead speaks to the IAI about Levinas, Nietzsche, her trouble with Christian ethics, and the heroics of true altruism.

 

Is altruism a coherent idea? What kind of action is altruism, and does it assume a certain model of human agency?

The way we talk about altruism is not coherent because we ta

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