Altruism - What Is It?

Re-Establishing Altruism As A Viable Social Norm

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What Is Altruism?

1. Loving others as oneself. 2. Behaviour that promotes the survival chances of others at a cost to ones own. 3. Self-sacrifice for the benefit of others [Italian: altrui others]  

French philosopher Auguste Comte coined the word altruisme (with meaning 3) in 1851, and two years later it entered the English language as altruism. Many considered his ethical system - in which the only moral acts were those intended to promote the happiness of others - rather extreme, so meaning 1 evolved. Now universal in evolutionary theory, meaning 2 was coined by scientists exploring how unselfish behaviour could have evolved. It is applied not only to people (psychological altruism), but also to animals and even plants.

Altruists choose to align their well-being with others - so they are happy when others thrive, sad when others are suffering. Essential in establishing strong relationships, most societies acknowledge the importance of altruism within the family. By motivating cooperation rather than conflict, it promotes harmony within communities of any size. Of course, peace within communities does not necessarily herald peace between communities, and the two may even be inversely related - witness for example, the way in which social strife tends to decrease within countries at war.

Altruists broaden their perspectives in an effort to overcome the artificial categories that break up the complex web of life. Altruism is the abdication of claims of power over others. To state that "None of us are worth more and none are worth less than anyone else" is almost a truism, but modern technology has given a new urgency to all such appeals for altruism. Life on earth is being destroyed at an alarming rate, and evidence is mounting of impending disasters such ecological collapse and climate change that threaten us all. Until a fundamental shift of consciousness occurs, such disasters can only get worse. Communications technology - and WWW in particular - is boosting altruism and establishing a global consciousness. It is encouraging to see how easily individual acts of altruism can have a global impact (e.g. Wikipedia, free software, or give away websites). In spite of massive investment by the corporate world, a mentality shift in the IT sphere is well underway from scarcity to abundance.

The most effective counter to the spread of altruism is the modern money system, since it is responsible for an unnatural transactional mentality. The inherent conflict in conventional money establishes zero-sum (competitive) relationships between people and organizations - so that those who help others necessarily disadvantage themselves. Such a system places a destructive overemphasis on self which erodes true society, fuelling consumerism and accompanying depression. Our main project is therefore to help develop an alternative to centralised money. If resistant to selfish attack, an internet-wide gift economy will act as a breeding ground for altruism. Many people would love a chance to ignore money and concentrate instead on helping others. A decentralised global gift economy system would do just that. By uniting altruists everywhere, coordinating local acts of altruism in a coherent fashion, the world could finally understand the power of getting back to our altruistic roots and escaping from Win-Lose thinking.

Everything that makes it possible and enjoyable to live is a free gift. For almost all of history, humans never saw the need to buy and sell things, or even to barter. Altruism is its own reward. Positive relationships with others have always been a more natural basis for self-esteem than either material objects or illusions about money or power over others.

"There is a power in love that our world has not discovered yet. Jesus discovered it centuries ago. Mahatma Gandhi of India discovered it a few years ago, but most men and most women never discover it. For they believe in hitting for hitting; they believe in an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth; they believe in hating for hating; but Jesus comes to us and says, "This isn’t the way." And this morning, I think of the fact that our world is in transition now. Our whole world is facing a revolution."     Martin Luther King, Jr.

FURTHER READING » Altruistic Economics
» The Idea of Altruism
» Psychology & Altruism
» Problems of the Money System
» Consumerism & Altruism

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