On Altruism


Altruism means to put someone else’s needs ahead of your own.

Are humans born altruistic?

Anyone with children will tell you that the answer is no.

Children want to possess and cling to things and parents teach them to let go and to share.
But nothing teaches you a lesson better than experiencing it yourself.

When the kid down the street rips that toy away from the child’s hand, the child feels the pain and the loss.
The child’s natural reaction is anger because they’re a child. They haven’t developed their brain yet. Their reaction is to possess even more the next time. Their only concern is survival. But if the parent is mature they explain that it’s just a toy and their need to share will be something important later in life. Over time the child develops empathy – the ability to see themselves in others shoes.

But is this just learned behaviour?

Robert Sapolsky in this free 30h class on human nature that I highly recommend talks about natural selection, kin selection and reciprocal altruism.

Reciprocal altruism means that if someone keeps giving you gifts, you naturally start to feel guilt for not reciprocating. I think we’ve all felt that before and it’s part of how we build trust. But it also means that we feel guilt for kicking someone when they’re down. Something Gandhi not only understood but was willing to die for.

So we are born selfish but we naturally start to understand that giving is a strategy for getting what we want. But you can either get what you want through control, force and fear – the same way a child would. Or you can get it through creating connections with others and getting what you want through love and generosity.

That’s why Gandhi told his followers to never fight back.

“An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.” he said.

The word blind is appropriate here because it’s an awakening that needs to take place. The child has to wake up. To shed his skin like a snake. To break free of the fear that has been placed upon them by their parents, religion and society.

A. S. Neill founder of the “freedom school” Summerville noticed that when children’s emotions are free the intellect looks after itself. That freedom to be who they are allowed them to mature and learn to love on their own.

These children realized that hate can’t beat hate. That only light can change darkness. That you can’t fight fire with fire.

But of course, I’m not just talking about children here. I’m talking about adults all around us who are sleep walking. Who choose fear over love every day.
Even the president of the most powerful country in the world is choosing fear over love right now. Imagine that ripple effect.

The problem when viewing human nature as selfish is that those views manifests themselves into your general outlook on life. In how you see, feel, act and who you attract. If you view human nature as selfish you’ll be watching your back. You’ll be locking your doors. Building bigger fences around you and not trusting anyone but your own circle. And the other thing is that you’ll be missing out on life’s diversity and the beauty love has to offer. The beauty that comes from opening up and focusing on our similarities as human beings instead of our differences.

Though it seems that at it’s core most of us do inherently do things for our own benefit and perhaps a small group of us like Gandhi can rise above it all and become so enlightened and altruistic that they’re willing to die in the name of others. But we can still learn from Gandhi. We can aim for love over fear and freedom over security. It’s up to you.

Also published on Medium.

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