How rare is the inclination to help others at expense to oneself?
I had an interesting exchange recently with a prominent scientific journalist. I raised the possibility that our western neo-liberal capitalist society might be deteriorating in one particular regard, namely in what I called 'Altruism'. I meant more or less what David Hume refers to as 'Beneficence'; acting to the benefit of others than oneself. (Benevolence is the emotion that leads to beneficence.) I was corrected. 'Altruism' (in the evolutionary context of the present discussion) refers to a behaviour that is to the benefit of another, but to the detriment of the doer. It can evolve by Darwinian selection under certain conditions, essentially if the benefited others are kin.
I therefore suggested that paying taxes could be described as altruistic in that narrow sense. But, replied my correspondent, we only pay taxes because of the force of the law; altruism, he suggested, is very rare.
Not so, I countered; except possibly in the present century, for it was not rare in the 19th and 20th centuries. In Britain in 1834, did we not pass The Poor Law Amendment Act through both Houses of Parliament? Can I not claim therefore that approximately half of the voting public voted up their own taxes because they could not bear the sight of people starving in the streets. Likewise, between 1870 and 1893 the Houses of Parliament passed the Elementary Education Acts because they saw the benefit of educating not only their own, but also their neighbour's children. And the National Health Service Act 1946 (1947 in Scotland) was surely another great testament to the power of benevolence to move the majority of the elected House of Commons to an act of charity that harmed the middle class to the benefit of the less well off.
The motives behind beneficence are complex, and no doubt include coercion, self-love, fear of contempt, as well as the sympathetic ability to feel the pain of other people. But to yield voluntarily to these promptings is beneficence, and if at a personal cost it is altruistic.
I was left wondering if something had changed in the last 30 – 40 years that had modified those subtle conditions that allowed the evolution of altruism. Perhaps greater all-round wealth and the general absence of hardship, have allowed us to forget the benefits of co-operation. Perhaps harsh climates foster egalitarian socialism, while global-warming and Mediterranean holidays nourish selfishness.