Why be altruistic? Because it makes you happy.

One of the nice things about Aristotelian virtue ethics over a deontological or utilitarian moral theory is that morality is considered something natural to human beings, something intrinsic rather than extrinsically imposed. The virtue of temperance towards food, for example, is not something unnatural to human beings, meaning that in order to be temperate, one would have to overcome one’s human inclinations towards food, but is rather the natural way in which human beings are supposed to relate to food—not eating too much or too little, eating a variety of foods, eating at the right time in the right place, etc. Virtue then, rather than being contrary to inclination, can be considered the perfection of inclination.

An op-ed by Nicholas Kristoff in this weekend’s NYTimes illustrates this point nicely on the topic of altruism. Drawing off the work of Jonathan Haidt, Kristoff writes,

Happiness is tied to volunteering and to giving blood, and people with religious faith tend to be happier than those without. A solid marriage is linked to happiness, as is participation in social networks. And one study found that people who focus on achieving wealth and career advancement are less happy than those who focus on good works, religion or spirituality, or friends and family.

“Human beings are in some ways like bees,” Professor Haidt said. “We evolved to live in intensely social groups, and we don’t do as well when freed from hives.” . . .

. . . Professor Haidt notes that one thing that can make a lasting difference to your contentment is to work with others on a cause larger than yourself.
I see that all the time. I interview people who were busy but reluctantly undertook some good cause because (sigh!) it was the right thing to do. Then they found that this “sacrifice” became a huge source of fulfillment and satisfaction.

Brain scans by neuroscientists confirm that altruism carries its own rewards. A team including Dr. Jorge Moll of the National Institutes of Health found that when a research subject was encouraged to think of giving money to a charity, parts of the brain lit up that are normally associated with selfish pleasures like eating or sex.
The implication is that we are hard-wired to be altruistic. To put it another way, it’s difficult for humans to be truly selfless, for generosity feels so good.

Unlike a deontological theory which says that we should give of our resources because we have an obligation to, or a utilitarian theory which says that we should give of our resources to maximize overall utility or societal contentment, it seems that empirical evidence is supporting the virtue perspective that we should give of our resources because we are inclined to do so. More specifically, human beings are created to share what they have, and doing so leads to their own happiness, in addition to the happiness of others.

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2 comments so far

  1. Invisible Mikey on

    Dear Ms. Thomist,

    Thank you for this thoughtful post. I enjoy reading an article that references philosophic terminology.

    (I write colloquially, and posted on compassion fatigue, expertise, and forgiveness lately.)

    • everydaythomist on

      Mikey,
      Thanks for commenting. Your blog looks very interesting–I’ll definitely put it on my reader. I like when op-ed writers draw on philosophy too, and especially when they make sound philosophical points in a language the “average Joe” can understand. Haidt’s work is really conducive to widespread promulgation.


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