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 talk about it as if it is something that’s desirable as a feature of everyday life and interaction on a regular basis. That’s not coherent because I would define altruism not just as selflessness but as self-sacrifice.

It is important to make this distinction between selflessness and self-sacrifice. You can be selfless when you are, for example, chairing a meeting, and you put yourself out of the picture. You are trying to get all those other people to have space to speak and reach a decision. That’s something that’s fairly common and important in life. But altruism is about a bit more than that. It’s about actually sacrificing yourself for the sake of someone else. We talk about that too lightly. It’s a very important thing but it’s also a rare and noble and heroic thing, and we ought to be more parsimonious about the way we use the word.

You talk about altruism as a heroic, self-sacrificing act that should be extraordinary or exceptional somehow. But isn’t there still a point to the more everyday sense of altruism as a habitual ethical practice, not just in what we do but in how we think about others?

That’s certainly how it’s been used. But I’ve noticed that those who are very keen on extolling people’s altruism are usually those in the most privileged positions in society. It’s easy to find middle-class white men saying that altruism’s very important and we’re losing it and we need it. Of course they are the ones who are least likely to show such altruism because they are the ones that are taking up the most resources. Over time, that has made me suspicious of altruism. It is often a way in which powerful people – often unconsciously – commend self-sacrifice on the part of other people, even though it’s not something that is a feature of their own lives.

In addition, the idea of altruism is used very commonly in Christianity. If you look historically, it has been used to keep down women, children, lower classes, and other races. Altruism is a very dangerous tool when used as an everyday feature of life because it makes it very hard for oppressed people to resist their oppression. As soon as they start claiming their own rights, they’re told: “Oh, that’s not very loving. That’s not very altruistic. That’s very selfish of you claiming your own rights.” Eventually, this has made me realise that we need to be much more careful about how we use this idea of altruism.

Of course all everyday life involves selflessness. Life involves give and take. In a relationship there is give and take. Sometimes you’re giving and being selfless, and sometimes you’re taking – that’s part of everyday interaction, that’s part of ordinary life. But in the case of self-sacrifice, I don’t think you can commend something that’s heroic and I’m not sure that you should do either.

Let’s take Christ’s parable of the woman in the temple who gives her last coin away. Is altruism here being used to celebrate her poverty and maintain the status quo?

That’s the danger. There’s a very interesting contrast between Judaism and Christianity because they have very different views on this. Christians argue that the woman was right to giver away her last coin. But Jews disagree. They argue that God gave us a duty to care for ourselves – if you are completely destitute you can’t do any good for the world and you’re going against the duty to care for yourself.

Christians believe that eating the fruit was the original sin because it was an act of disobedience and selfishness. But Jews interpret it differently and think that we have an impulse to good and an impulse to evil and they are both necessary. God intends them both and what you have to do is keep them in balance. Even though I am a Christian, I’m more in favour of this Jewish approach. The Christian conception of altruism gives the  oppressed no tools by which to better themselves.

What is the moral value of the self-interest that you think should be maintained on a basic level?

There are very well documented tendencies in Christianity for women to be anorexic, for example. Starving yourself to death was not that uncommon and was seen as a spiritual practice, because it’s a logical – if extreme – conclusion of altruism. You don’t even feed yourself.

Philosopher Simone Weil starved herself to death in the Second World War. Medieval mystics starved themselves to death. This is certainly not something we should be commending, but actually I kind of admire those women because they are taking the teaching to its logical extreme. If other people are starving then what right do you have to eat? So Simone Weil gave up her food to other people. There is a heroic logic to that, but I don’t think that’s really the basis for an everyday ethic.

So how do we justify that self-interest that you think should be maintained on a basic level? Is it really just about our practical ability to make a change in the world?

It’s often very hard to disentangle what is self-interest from what is not. We might think that a father who sacrifices himself on behalf of his children or a mother who throws herself in front of a car to save her child is being altruistic. But you can argue that it is their own family so that’s not true altruism. It’s often hard to disentangle the idea of self-interest if you’re defining the concept of “yourself” in broader terms that might include, for example, your family.

The Jewish position would be that person is created by God and has a duty to fulfil their own potential. That’s what they’re put in this world to do. We have a primary duty to do that for ourselves because we have more control over that than we do of helping the flourishing of other people. So that’s an absolutely fundamental duty. Unless you’re fulfilling your own vocation and developing your own gifts and talents, you’re not making a positive contribution to the world.

So the Mother Theresa example where it is precisely in giving, precisely in totally effacing one’s self for the benefit of others, that’s not a flourishing?

It’s a very good question. It’s complicated by the fact that, as the critics of Mother Theresa point out, as a member of a religious order, you’re living a life that is well supported and that is fulfilling your talents to do things for other people. That is not self-sacrifice. I don’t think it’s necessarily a more demanding or costly life than being a cleaner. In fact I think it’s much less so. Because you also have status and esteem for what you’re doing. What I’m trying to say is that altruism is so important that we should use the word much more sparingly and see it as something really heroic that you don’t make an everyday demand on.

What’s happened is that we’ve flattened out our ethical vocabulary. In biology, there are simplistic debates between selfishness and altruism. But there are several thousands years of moral reflection that demonstrate the issues are more sophisticated than that. What I’m arguing against is making altruism account for everything that isn’t about being selfish. What we need is a much better differentiated vocabulary which can make distinctions between benevolence, selflessness, and genuine altruism which is rare and important.

Take the concept of αγάπη – the Christian word for love. It was a very uncommon word in Greece, so it’s distinctively Christian. There’s a 2,000 year-old debate about what love means in Christianity, but, in this context, one of the primary understandings has been ultimate self-sacrifice – giving your life for other people as Jesus died on the cross.

Christian love has always had that understanding. It was really highlighted and pushed in the 1950s and ‘60s by people like Anders Nygren who distinguished αγάπη as self-giving altruism from ἔρως, our ordinary love which is much more self-interested.

This is quite specific to Christianity. For example, Aristotle had no place for altruism at all. He thought that the ethical life is about maximising who you are. He would have had contempt for the view of Christian love. I don’t. I think this is one of the reasons why Christianity has something so substantial and enduring to offer. A religion with self-sacrifice at its heart, with the idea that you act against your own self-interest and that things are worth dying for, is incredibly powerful and important. But we domesticate it and trivialise it by saying that we should all be being altruistic all the time.

Nietzsche said that altruism is a symptom of a slave morality, that self-effacement itself is somehow cowardly. But it seems that you’re trying to restore heroism to altruism, which is precisely what Nietzsche thought was missing to this. Is that correct?

Yes, that’s a lovely way of seeing it. I’m also trying to dignify the lives of people who are genuinely poor and really have no choice. If you think about, say, women who have travelled across the world, leaving their children to do domestic work, so they can send money home to their families, that is noble and heroic and rare. We need distinctions in order to say that is something very special. Most of us are not doing that.

Is there a danger that with so much focus on the morality of self-effacement, we risk negating the other, and risk turning the ethical relationship into a transaction?

Only if you start in the wrong place. What you’re saying makes me think of Levinas and that absurd view – only a philosopher could come up with it – that you have to completely negate the self, destroy the self, in order to see the face of the other. That just makes me cross.

The most powerful contemporary ethic is a kind of eco-holistic ethic about wholeness and connection. It argues that we are all part of something larger which is not just a human community, as humanism would have said, but the whole planetary system. Therefore, ethical conduct consists in realising your minute place within that and acting in an appropriate way in harmony with everything else. That seems to be quite a good realistic ethic for everyday life – certainly much more sensible and realistic than Levinas.

But, because life is full of tragedy, there are situations in which some people have to make a choice to actually give themselves up for other people. That is incredibly noble and heroic, but it is not part of an everyday ethic that we commend our children to live by on a daily basis. That kind of altruism is a result of tragedy and contradictions. You wouldn’t have altruism in paradise.



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