• Mack James


Covid has made Zoomers and Whatsappers out of all of us, even we creaking Luddites. As a result, I have spent the weekend thinking about altruism, because an altruism question was posed on our family whatsapp. Here it is:

Is it possible to stand up for the “little guy” if you fall into the same camp or would benefit from said actions?

And further:

A person can only be seen to be standing up for the under represented if they have nothing to gain from the result.

Good question from the western cohort, and there has been some response: is altruism even necessary? Does it exist? It reminded me of philosophy 101 back in the day.

Ordinarily, Whatsapp is mostly for joking and frivolity, but this question was of a more serious tone, so I wanted to attempt a response in kind. And in a different format than whatsapp because you can only use one finger at a time on your phone and here you can use them all. It’s faster.

Let me try a two pronged approach.

Prong 1: The cultural milieu we find ourselves in. The air we breathe. The water we swim in. To discuss altruism, or anything else for that matter, we have to have some idea of the context in which we are discussing. The assumptions through with, or with which, we see. Our culture.

This causes me despair. Who among us has any awareness of the antiquities that formed us? Who knows (or cares) what Plato was about, or Aristotle, or Descartes, or Locke, or Hume, or Freud, or Augustine? Almost nobody. But these guys, and many more like them, shaped the ideas with which we think. How about the tension between being and becoming, between the individual and the collective? When it comes time to deal with a question like altruism, which is rooted in the larger questions, what tools do we bring to the task? How can we see our culture with our culture?

Not that I want to hold myself up as an exception. I am not. I do have a smattering of awareness picked up along the way, perhaps just enough to know that ideas have origins and they have consequences; we are ignorant of them at our peril.

And I think that’s all I want to say on this point. We all are ignorant of history, for the most part; ignorant of the history of thought, and of the ideas that underlie our responses to the world. When a question of substance arises, such as altruism, or other social or moral questions, we are ill-equipped, susceptible to propaganda and manipulation. We’re all lost sheep to a degree ( I hasten to include myself), google-wise but history blind. I think this realization is critical.

If that’s too bleak for you, let me try prong 2, the practical side.

Taking a slightly different tack than Ryan, let us imagine ourselves as passengers on a bus. I am remembering when I went to Jasper from Grande Prairie on a ski trip bus with Megan’s school. You’ve been there I’m sure.

Something goes wrong with the bus. In our case he ran it out of fuel—on a winter night, on a hill, in the middle of nowhere -- but it could be a flat tire or anything else. And you, you little individual, are sitting in the stalled bus, and you can fix it. If the tire is flat, you have wrenches and a jack in your back pocket. If it is out of fuel, you know enough to take the fuel filters off and fill them before you try to start it (which happened to us). So there you are, sitting with the other fifty people in the cold and dark, and are you thinking, Should I just save myself? Should I share my knowledge and abilities with these other people? Will I get paid? Will I be recognized? And what about that damned driver? Isn’t it his job to handle this? And if I help these people with my knowledge and abilities, won’t they just be competition for me when we get back to town? Won’t they drive the price of houses up, and clog up the streets, and otherwise get in my way? Why don’t I just leave them all here and hitch hike home? I gotta take care of myself, after all, (and oh yeah, Megan, because she’s my daughter). Or is there some moral imperative that I should extend myself in a situation like this?

Assuredly, you are thinking none of the above, and nor would anybody else. You are out of that bus and doing your damnedest to get it going. If you know something that driver doesn’t (this one knew nothing), then you tell him. You get out there and flag down the first pickup that comes by with a tidy tank in his box. You take your belt off, spin the filters off, and fill them with fuel. There is no philosophy going on.

In the end, you just do what is right because you know what is right and you know that not doing it would be reprehensible. A sin. And almost the whole human race would do likewise in the same situation. They would not be doing a moral analysis because most of them are incapable of doing that; they would just do what is right because they know what is right. They would not be heroes; they would just be normal.

So to the question, ie can advocating for a group be altruistic if you stand to benefit from doing so, I propose two answers.

First, I think the cultural water we swim in always needs examining. The assumptions of the primacy of the individual, man as the measure of all things, morality as a social construct, to name a few, are all so much a part of our environment that they remain uncontested. We live with the consequences of these ideas, but generally speaking we don’t know what they are or where they came from (unless your last name is CS Lewis and you can write books like The Abolition of Man). Hence all the questions downstream, like altruism for instance, become cloudy.

Second, in spite of the fact that few of us are professional scholars, we are all full time human beings. Because of that, I think we already know all we need to know. It’s in our DNA.

Back to our stalled ski bus. Was anybody wondering if these people were worth helping, or if some were worth more than others? No. Our humanity compels us to recognize their intrinsic worth. Was anybody thinking about the individual vs the collective, or the nature of altruism? No. Being human, we know that “no man is an island”. We didn’t need John Donne or Martin Buber to tell us that. Is there anybody who would have refused to help in that situation, even if they believed that humans are a blight on the earth and their numbers ought to be reduced? No. Their humanity would have demanded that they help, regardless of what philosophic positions they had adopted. Nobody needed to be told right from wrong, or if there even is such a thing as right and wrong. Everybody knows that, just as surely as we know the law of gravity.

Of course, there are exceptions to this, but they are exceptions. Hitler might have pushed the bus into the river if he knew it was full of Jews, or Stalin if he knew it was full of Ukrainians, but most people are not like that, and if they are, they are justly censured, first by their own conscience and then by their contemporaries. Think of Captain Schettino on the Costa Concordia.

“We know the law; we break it. This is the basis of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in”. Which doesn’t directly address the issue of altruism, but it does deal with some of the substructure underneath it.

Ya. So that’s a bit of what I think. How about you? Feel free to respond. In the meanwhile, a few pertinent quotes:

He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother Hollies

To see through everything is the same as not to see at all CS Lewis

We’re addicted to hate Paul Simon

Each man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind

John Donne

You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours Romeo to Juliet (or not?)

People are hell Jean Paul Sartre

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