The principles of Judeo- Christianity, Islam (see Helium article “I Want to Get a Better Understanding of Islam. What can you tell me?), and indeed many other religious faiths, urge followers to give help and support to others less fortunate, without looking for anything for themselves in return. In other words, to practice altruism, http://www.cambridge.org/uk/psychology/…/052180146x007_p172-175.pdf, and to follow an ethical and moral law that it is morally right to take action, “if the consequences of that action are more favorable than unfavorable to everyone except the agent.” http://www.iep.edu./e/ethics.htm. This means, in other words, that with altruism, our actions are driven by a regard for others above ourselves, that we operate from the standpoint of total unselfishness. But do we?
The question is complicated by having religious, ethical, philosophical, and psychological concepts interlinked, with theories, rules, and norms driving the issue. It is difficult to separate them, and even more difficult to imagine that all individuals could be motivated to be totally unselfish, no matter what values or beliefs they hold dear. Take for example, the person who acts for the benefit of others, expecting nothing in return. They may seem to be altruistic, but if they are believers in any of the major world faiths, or indeed, many of the minor belief systems, it is accepted that good deeds in this world will bring a heavenly, or other-life reward.
Ethics are personal codes, often dictated by, or absorbed from family, community or society. So the person who chooses to put others’ needs before their own, may in fact be conforming to the rules of their peers. They may be recognized and rewarded for their goodness.
Few are the people who never seek such recognition; perhaps Mother Theresa http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel.prizes/peace/laureates/…/theresa-bio.html and Dr. Martin Luther King demonstrated real altruism. http://www.martinlutherking.org/. They fought long and hard for the rights and welfare of others, for their beliefs and from an ethical standpoint. Whether they liked it or wanted it, they were rewarded. Nobody can truly know another’s motives, but actions they take can lead to interpretations and generalizations, though there are no clear answers possible.
Psychological altruism is a theory that considers human action to be motivated by and centered on what benefits others, not the self. The mother of small, helpless children could be considered altruistic in every action she takes in caring, protecting, and nurturing. She appears selfless and devoted. Yet her motives are not easily identified or explained, so how can she be really described as altruistic? On a subconscious level, she may be acting to preserve her own genes for future generations, or fulfilling society’s expectations regarding good mothering.
The concept of altruism and the application of this could be said to be a philosophy of life that has so many influences, motivations, and actions that it cannot be completely untangled. If altruism is what drives someone, then that is the way they will attempt to live their life. As to whether they truly, honestly seek only the best for others and nothing for themselves, well, without being able to see into the heart and mind of any individual, who can tell? Some of us would strive to be altruistic, but in reality, we can only try – if we believe we should – for whatever reason. The answer to the question, “does altruism exist?” is more likely to be “no” than “yes.” As far as anyone can tell.