2014 : WHAT SCIENTIFIC IDEA IS READY FOR RETIREMENT?

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Science Writer; Consultant; Lecturer, Copenhagen; Author, The Generous Man
Altruism

The concept of altruism is ready for retirement.

Not that the phenomenon of helping others and doing good to other people is about to go away, not at all. On the contrary, the appreciation of the importance of bonds between individuals is on the rise in the modern understanding animal and human societies.

What needs to go away is the basic idea behind the concept of altruism: the idea that there is a conflict of interest between helping yourself and helping others.

The word altruism was coined in the 1850s by the great French sociologist Auguste Comte. What is means is that you do something for other people (the Old French altrui from the Latin alter), not just for yourself. Thus, it opposes egoism or selfishness.

But then this concept is rooted in the notion that human beings (and animals) are really dominated by selfishness and egoism so that you need a concept to explain why they sometimes behave unselfish and kind to others.

But the reality is different: Humans are deeply bound to other humans and most actions are really reciprocal and in the interest of both parties (or, in he case of hatred, in the disinterest of both). The starting point is neither selfishness nor altruism, but the state of being bound together. It is an illusion to believe that you can be happy when no one else is. Or that other people will not be affected by your unhappiness.

Behavioral science and neurobiology has shown how intimately we are bound: Phenomena like mimicry, emotional contagion, empathy, sympathy, compassion and prosocial behavior are evident in humans and animals. We are influenced by the well-being of others in more ways than we normally care to think of. Therefore a simple rules applies: Everyone feels better when you are well. You feel better when everyone is well.

This correlated state is the real one. The ideas of egoism and hence its opposite concept altruism are second-order concepts, shadows or even illusions.

This applies also to the immediate psychological level: If helping others fills you with a warm and rewarding feeling of glow, as it is called in experimental economics, is it not also in your own interest to help others? Are you not, then, helping yourself in helping others? Is it not in your own interest to help? Being kind to others means that you are being kind to yourself.

Likewise, if you feel better and make more money when you are generous and contribute to the wellbeing and resources of other people—like in the welfare societies like my own Denmark that became very rich through sharing and equality—then the person who wants to keep everything for himself, with no gift-giving, no tax-paying and no openness, is just an amateur egoist. Real egoists share.

Therefore, it is not altruistic to be an altruist. Just wise.

Helping others is in your own interest, so we do not need a concept to explain that behavior. Auguste Comte's concept is therefore ready for retirement.

And we can all just help each other without wondering why.