Altruism

Care for others, which is independent of care for self, sometimes involving significant elements of personal sacrifice. This is typified by the unilateral loving lived out by the central figures in religious traditions and exemplified by care for the poor, the sick, or the socially disadvantaged. There is no expectation of any material reward in return for the kindness shown. Critics argue that in spite of appearances, altruistic behaviour is deep down actually self-serving. It ‘gives a buzz’, even though it may seem to be showing priority to another. One response to that is that it’s the helping that counts, all else is side effect – maybe pleasurable, but incidental. That care for others is also a self-rewarding activity does not diminish its worth and may actually incentivise it.

Illustrative scenarios

Spur of the moment intervention

Late evening a man was fishing off the promenade on Rhode Island. It had been quite a high tide, but it had turned and was beginning to ebb. There was enough wind to create waves, but nothing really rough and violent. He heard a young couple approaching along a strand of sand that was now exposed. In the course of a few minutes they seemed to be singing, laughing and arguing. Suddenly, the noise turned into cries for help. He looked and saw they were in the water and seeming to be in difficulty. Knowing how dangerous the sea can be, but being himself a confident swimmer, he rushed to where they were and ran into the sea to help pull them out. Just then a huge wave came. It knocked him over; he was caught in the backcurrent as it surged away from the quickly shelving shingle. When he surfaced he was well out of his depth and, strong though he was, could not get back to the shore. He drowned. In the meantime someone else had thrown life-buoys to the two he’d tried to save. They were rescued.

question: though he did look before he leapt, he still came unstuck; is the lesson to be learnt from this: "better safe than altruistic"?

Long-term commitment

She was a well qualified and professionally experienced nurse in her late twenties. For several years, every time she saw reports on the news from one disaster and starvation after another, she realised how great was the need for people with nursing skills to help. She was generally content with her present working circumstances and she certainly had no illusions that there was any glamour, wealth or physical security in overseas aid work. She recognised too that it might well involve a future without marriage and children of her own. Nevertheless, she resolved that this would for her be the right thing to take on. Both her parents had died within the course of the last ten years, so she had no dependents. Moreover, she had seen how nurses and doctors educated and trained in third world countries were being attracted to the West by the promise of remuneration undreamt of in their home countries. Though there were clearly risks involved, she was determined to buck this trend and go where the extremes of need were greatest. She applied for a job as an emergency worker with an International Aid Agency and was appointed.

question: is the implication of this stance that some jobs, and some contexts in which they are done, are more morally worthwhile than others?

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