Digest of terms

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 central figures in religious traditions and exemplified by the ideal of care for the poor, the sick, or the socially disadvantaged, all the object of particular concern in Jewish, Christian and Muslim ethics. 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 a form of egoism. It 'gives a buzz', even though it may seem to be prioritizing other people's interests rather than one's own. One response to that is that it's the helping that counts, all else is side effect - maybe pleasurable, but an incidental bi-product. That care for others may also be a self-rewarding activity psychologically does not diminish its worth. People typically act from mixed motives,and it is not implausible to think that altruism may be prompted by a combination of egoism, the application of rational ethical principle, and deep-seated altruistic emotions. Experiments in animal behaviour do seem to show that at times not only altruism to one's neighbours (kin altruism), or in mutually beneficial exchanges (reciprocal altruism), but involving elements of self-sacrifice have been programmed into us by evolution and are a part of human nature. A modern Aristotelian would find that to be a welcome contribution to the development of a contemporary eudaimonism. (See too modes of moral thinking, natural and unnatural). Debates about these issues in Western philosophy (egoism) were paralleled in China (Mohism). Further parallels are to be found in relation to ideas of heaven and hell, which critics argue unintentionally subvert religious morality by turning ethical into prudential thinking through encouraging a focus on personal rewards and punishments. In response emphasis is placed on the importance of purity of motive.

There is, arguably, a tacit general understanding that there are morally legitimate limits to altruism - it is not only others' interests that matter, but also one's own. In normal circumstances complete disregard for the latter, e.g. a compulsive altruist who starved themselves to death through giving everything to charity, would be regarded as guilty of moral fanaticism. Still, where, in individual cases, the proper balance lies between self-concern and self-sacrifice will remain a matter of personal judgment (or, some would say, intuition) and of controversy. See Concept Scenarios

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