‘Do as you would be done by” is a virtuous principle which is practically universal. We are likely to phrase it in the terms of loving our neighbour as ourselves. And we are all fortunate that, despite our pessimism as we reflect on all the evil in the world, altruism appears to be a powerful attribute of the human race. St Augustine’s view of our proneness to evil seems to be matched by a proneness to good. Babies as young as eight months recognise fair or unfair behaviour, and reward or punish it. Since we do not credit them with a true moral sense based on reason, we recognise that it must in some sense be inbred.
The experts – evolutionists, sociologists and psychologists – seem to be intent on demonstrating that altruism is not a virtue. Rather, it is a fundamental instinct, bred by evolution, and motivated by the direct and indirect benefits we receive. It is ultimately selfish. It is significant that studies show that our initial positive response to an opportunity for altruism tends to be reduced if we then sit back and think about it. It would seem that when thought replaces instinct we more carefully weigh the pros and cons and temper charity with prudence.
We are familiar with the common concept of reciprocation: if I behave well to my fellows they will behave well towards me. That sounds to me like prudence rather than charity. I am well aware that if I am known to be selfish, and ever ready to gain advantage over my neighbours, then I am unlikely to get any quarter from them when they deal with me. The politicians and the marketers pay tribute to this principle by skilfully camouflaging their own motivations with the pretence that they are wholly inspired by the good they wish to do me.
While we can see the selfish benefits of reciprocation on a small scale, it does not explain why we are often altruistic in conditions where we cannot expect an equivalent return. The example, literally closer to home, is our altruism towards family. We might think of the sacrifices parents make for their children, or our readiness to lend a helping hand to siblings or cousins. For instance, my 14 grandchildren constitute a strong support group for each other; it will be a lifetime gift. The theory here is that we are bred to assist survival of our personal gene pool. This, we are told, works proportionately. Thus the evolutionist J B S Haldane neatly explained kin selection: “I would lay down my life for two brothers or eight cousins.” Since my brothers share half my genes, it requires two of them to equal my gene pool.
Yet we are aware that our altruism stretches further than our kin. We extend our benevolence to society as a whole, albeit at a level which tends to be diluted by distance. This is the basis of the theory of group benefit. The argument here is that a group whose members have a genetic profile which inclines them to cooperation will have a higher chance of survival, and thus of reproducing itself, than a group who lacks this. This tendency would have been essential in early human development when we lived in small, and often isolated, groups. We can observe the same mechanism in species such as bees or ants, where the workers’ altruism is normally rewarded not by breeding but by extinction.
It is plausible to assume that, when these small human societies merged into much larger groups, this altruistic rule of thumb, present in our genes, extended itself to the broader family of our community. And here we must take into account a related human tendency: the power of group conformity. For groups to survive, a considerable degree of conformity and shared group culture is necessary. It is this group culture which, to a large extent, defines what values constitute altruism for its members.
We can see the effects of this within our own lifetimes. To take some obvious examples, our western culture has seen changes in our attitudes towards different races or the care we have for unfortunates in our society. We have replaced the Spartan culture of exposing our young to the elements in order to weed out the weaklings with our culture of abortion to weed out the inconvenient. The recently published British Social Attitudes survey shows major changes in our sexual mores since 1983. Since this is a legacy of universal contraception, the clock is unlikely to turn back.
My description of the ultimately genetic basis for our altruism leads us into two important considerations. The first is that we should be duly grateful that the human race has developed in this way. We only need to imagine what our society, however deficient it may be, would be like without an inbuilt pull towards altruism. Altruism is a natural gift of God.
The second is to remember that explaining the biological genesis of altruism is not to explain it away. It is reductionist to think that we are no more than genetically controlled phenomena. We have our deep capacity to recognise the good, and the free will through which we choose to exercise this recognition. If it is true to say that I have a genetic tendency to benefit my neighbour, it is also true to say that I have, through grace, a spiritual motivation to love my neighbour, from my choice to embrace and extend my altruism. Altruism is a supernatural gift of God.