Spectrum One: Individualism vs. Altruism
Individuals are not 100 percent self-interested. Undeniable examples
of altruism exist among families (in a strong form) and among communities
(in a weaker form). Evolutionary theory gives an excellent explanation
for their rise, and the Bible commands God's followers to practice both
forms as well. In truth, however, people practice altruism most cheerfully
only among those in their own class; they resent giving or sacrificing
for other classes, either higher or lower.
Many conservatives and libertarians believe that individuals are
100 percent self-interested. If they do anything for the common good, or
participate in any type of group behavior, it is only because they ultimately
have their own interest at heart. The only reason why individuals serve
customers at work is because a paycheck eventually rewards their altruism.
Even volunteer work and gifts to charity are for selfish reasons, they
believe; such work often wins the praise, admiration and gratitude of others.
Sometimes helping others involves nothing more than a sense of superiority,
a feeling that "I can help you because I have more of this trait or
resource than you."
But are humans really pure individualists? The question is important,
because many (though not all) conservatives and libertarians base their
economic theories on such an assumption.
In fact, there is powerful evidence that humans are not pure individualists.
Romantic and sexual attraction, as well as paternal and maternal instincts,
are genetically inherited traits that all work together to form that all-important
social unit known as the family. And families are deeply altruistic; both
mothers and fathers sacrifice unselfishly to ensure the welfare of their
children. This sacrifice manifests itself in the following forms:
If altruism can exist so powerfully in humans when it comes to family,
is it possible in other areas as well, such as social relations? There
are many examples of such altruism:
- The debilitating, sometimes fatal, diseases or complications of
sex and pregnancy.
- The extra workload of supporting a child.
- Consuming a smaller personal share of available resources.
- The sacrifice of life and limb to protect the family.
- The surrender of independence and freedom in taking on parental
Individualists might argue that the above examples produce emotional
rewards within the individual, so individuals have selfish reasons to perform
them. Though true, this does not detract from the fact that the act
itself is for altruistic ends, not selfish ones. It still involves a material
cost to the individual that is not repaid in any direct, immediate or apparent
fashion. A person earning $30,000 a year can live a richer lifestyle by
choosing to remain single instead of marrying, yet marries anyway. And
in the case of sacrificing one's life to defend one's family, nation or
ethnic group, there is obviously no hope of reward at all. So what explains
- Giving one's life for one's nation, church, community, ethnic group,
- Charitable donations.
- Volunteer work.
- The natural desire to help someone who is struggling.
- Doing a friend a favor.
- Loaning money or items. (Although the loan is repaid, there is an
additional cost in the inconvenience of the loan, and the lack of personal
use of the item while it is loaned out. Interest was invented to compensate
for this cost, but a vast number of informal loans do not charge interest.)
Below are two very different explanations, one rooted in evolution,
the other in the Bible. What is fascinating about these explanations is
that, despite the usual antagonism between evolutionists and Christians,
the following explanations arrive at the same conclusion. This is almost certainly
not a coincidence.
THE EVOLUTIONARY EXPLANATION
According to the theory of natural selection, it isn't individuals
who are 100 percent selfish; it's their genes. The primary function of
natural selection is the transmission of genetic information to the next generation. In other
words, genetic information lives on indefinitely; their human carriers, only briefly.
Parents who sacrifice to make sure their children are well-protected,
nourished, and provided-for are going to see higher survival rates for
those children. That increases the likelihood that the children themselves
will survive long enough to breed. As a result, parental altruism is rewarded
by greater reproductive success, and will become an enhanced trait over
generations. Those that lack this trait will eventually drop from the gene
Interestingly, biologists have discovered that siblings also have such
altruistic instincts towards their nephews and nieces. That's because your
brother or sister shares at least half your genes, and their reproductive
success is also your genetic success. Therefore, humans sacrifice not only
for their nuclear family, but their extended family as well. This effect
can also be seen quite clearly in other species. Worker bees, ants and
wasps are sterile, but help the queen to reproduce, often at the expense
of their lives. Since the queen is the mother of the hive, this is a perhaps
our most extreme example of familial altruism.
Family sacrifice is a very strong form of genetic altruism. Non-familial
sacrifice is a weaker but still substantial form. For a time, many scientists were mystified
as to how such a trait could get passed on. After all, individuals who
freely give away their resources to other people are going to suffer lower
survival rates. Logically, it would seem that these people would eventually
disappear from the population.
But there is in fact an excellent survival reason behind non-familial
altruism. Call it reciprocal altruism. This is quite different from
direct exchange, in which, for example, one person trades furs for another
person's food. Reciprocal altruism means helping someone out who needs
it, with the understanding that the favor may be returned at some
distant, unspecified date in the future, whenever the altruist happens
to need it. The return favor may not even come from the original recipient,
but someone else entirely. It's just a general practice that promotes group
This trait was probably crucial in early hunting/gathering
societies. Not even the best hunter could count on bringing home the largest
prey day after day. Changing conditions and sheer luck in the fields would
have resulted in considerable variation in the amount of food brought home.
Thus, an excellent hunter/gatherer might bring home more food on average,
but there was no guarantee of doing so every day. Reciprocal altruism
would have smoothed over the uncertainty of finding food. A hunter that
had a particularly good day might share it with his friends, knowing that
the favor would be returned whenever he had a bad day. Others would take
care of a sick friend, knowing that the favor would be returned anytime
they grew sick. The survival of such a group would be enhanced, and its
individual members would enjoy greater reproductive success.
Critics might argue that such group behavior is impossible, or that it
could never get started. But there is actually a good explanation: such
altruism would maximize a group's numbers. There is strength in numbers,
which is why group behavior exists in the first place. One way to maximize
numbers is to have more children. But the land has only a certain carrying
capacity, and populations that grow too large for their resources have
typically practiced infanticide. The best survival strategy is to keep the
population as large as possible within the land's carrying capacity. Now,
in a tribe that does not practice altruism, a member that
falls sick or wounded would die for lack of assistance. This would
reduce the tribe's numbers, and make survival more difficult for everyone. Raising a
child to replace the lost member is not a viable strategy, because it
takes at least 5 to 10 years to raise a hunter/gatherer of even minimal
skill. Therefore, it costs much less for the tribe to just help the sick
person, and see his quick return to action. Helping one's
fellow hunter survive through low times would directly and immediately
increase each member's chances for survival, since it would keep the group's
numbers, and the strength derived from those numbers, as high as possible.
Humans are not the only specie that practices non-familial altruim; biologists
know of many others as well. It is common for non-related animals in the same group to share
food, help provide for another's young, defend others against predators,
and give alarm calls when a predator appears. All these acts enhance the
survival of the group, but it often reduces that of the altruist.
THE BIBLICAL EXPLANATION
The Bible does not so much explain where altruism came from as
it relates stories that establish it as a social norm. It also lists commandments
that require the people to practice it.
Genesis 2:18 tells of God deciding that it is not good for man to be
alone; therefore he creates woman and describes her as his "helper."
In Genesis 1:28, God tells Adam and Eve: "Be fruitful and multiply."
(The ancient Jews would consider child-bearing the sacred obligation of
every married couple.)
Genesis 4:8-10 describes God cursing Cain for killing his brother.
There is implicit disapproval of Cain's question: "Am I my brother's
In Exodus 22:25, God says: "If you lend money to one of my people
among you who is needy, do not be like a moneylender; charge him no interest."
(In other words, the loans were to be repaid, but the other, intangible
costs of the loan were to be absorbed by the lender.)
In Leviticus 23:22, God says: "When you reap the harvest of your
land, do not reap to the very edges of your land or gather the gleanings
[fallen fruit] of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and needy."
In Leviticus 25:25, God says: "If one of your countrymen becomes
poor and sells some of his property, his nearest relative is to come and
redeem what his countryman has sold."
In Leviticus 25:35,37, God says: "If one of your countrymen becomes
poor and is unable to support himself among you, help him as you would
an alien or a temporary resident, so he can continue to live among you…
You must not lend him money at interest or sell him food at a profit."
In Deuteronomy 15:1, God orders Israel, "At the end of every seven
years, you must cancel debts." (This is an especially remarkable example
of altruism, one that essentially redistributed wealth from the rich to
In Deuteronomy 15:7-8, God says: "If there is a poor man among
your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the Lord your God is
giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother.
Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs."
In Deuteronomy 15:11, God says: "There will always be poor people
in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers
and toward the poor and needy in your land."
In Deuteronomy 22:1,2, God says: "If you see your brother's ox
or sheep straying, do not ignore it but be sure to take it back to him.
If the brother does not live near you or if you do not know who he is,
take it home with you and keep it until he comes looking for it. Then give
it back to him."
In Deuteronomy 23:24,25, God says: "If you enter your neighbor's
vineyard, you may eat all the grapes you want, but do not put any in your
However, the Old Testament had nothing on the New Testament when it
came to altruism. It would be difficult to find any religion, legal code
or philosophy anywhere in the world that took it to the extreme of early
In Matthew 5:42, Jesus said, "Give to the one who asks you, and
do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you."
In Matthew 6:2,3, Jesus said, "So when you give to the needy,
do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do… when you give to
the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing."
In Matthew 19:21, Jesus said, "If you would be perfect, go, sell
what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven."
In Matthew 22:39, Jesus said, "Love your neighbor as yourself."
In Matthew 7:12, Jesus said, "So in everything, do to others as
you would have them do to you."
In Luke 14:13,14, Jesus said, "But when you give a banquet, invite
the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although
they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."
In Acts 2:44-45, the economy of the Early Christian Church was entirely
communistic: "All the believers were together and had everything in
common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he
Acts 4:32,34,35 elaborates on their communism: "All the believers
were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions
was his own, but they shared everything they had… There were no needy persons
among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold
them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles' feet,
and it was distributed to anyone as he had need."
In 1 Timothy 6:17,18, Paul says, "Command those who are rich in
this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth,
which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides
us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich
in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share."
In 2 Corinthians 8:13,14, Paul says, "Our desire is not that others
might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality.
At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in
turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality."
In 2 Corinthians 9:6,7, Paul says, "Remember this: Whoever sows
sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also
reap generously. Each man should give what he has decided in his heart
to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful
Many conservatives love to quote 2 Thessalonians 3:10, which says,
"If a man will not work, he shall not eat." However, it is entirely
reasonable to assume that this excluded those that wanted to work
but were prevented somehow, whether by illness, deformity, age (including
the too young as well as the too old), or broader economic circumstance,
like a depression. In fact, many of the above texts promote just such charity
to the sick, the blind, the temporarily poor, etc.
Why does Biblical law and evolutionary theory agree on this point?
Evolutionists may claim that the writers of the Bible, being the product
of natural selection themselves, simply articulated concepts of human nature
that are found the world over. Some Christians who believe that God used
evolution to create the world may claim that biologists have simply discovered
the very genetic altruism that God created. Creationists, on the other
hand, might explain the similarity of evolutionary theory as yet another
scientific rationalization or re-interpretation of how humans were actually
POLITICAL IMPLICATIONS OF ALTRUISM
Modern welfare programs are an excellent example of reciprocal
altruism. Designed to help those who are temporarily or permanently down
on their luck, they do not call for a one-on-one exchange between the giver
and the recipient. Nor do they require recipients to repay exactly those
individuals who helped them out. It is a general, indeterminate practice
that keeps society and the economy running as smoothly as possible, preventing
unnecessary disruptions caused by the premature deaths of its individual
Examples of reciprocal altruism in the private sector include charity
Unfortunately, altruism tends to be horizontal, not vertical. That
is, you are far more likely to help a member of your own class than someone
in a higher or lower class, and you will feel more resentment towards them
if you do. In fact, the greater the gap between classes, the greater the
resentment. During the 80s, as the rich grew richer, the average hourly
worker's wage fell from $7.78 to $7.41 in real dollars. (1) As this inequality
grew, the rich slashed their contributions to charity by 65 percent between
1980 and 1988. (2) They also lobbied Congress for reductions in welfare,
which reduced individual family AFDC payments from $350 to 261 per month
in real dollars between 1980 and 1993. (3) To compensate for all this disappearing
income, both earned and altruistic, the poor increased their charitable
donations 62 percent, which actually resulted in a total rise in charity
collections. (2) However, it wasn't enough to compensate for everything
Meanwhile, the hostility of the rich towards helping the poor sharply
increased; Reagan demonized welfare recipients as "welfare queens"
driving "welfare Cadillacs." Yet the rich increased their altruism
among themselves. This partially took the form of charitable donations
to wealthy organizations like art galleries, symphonies, dance troupes,
etc. Other forms included lobbying, political favors, business favors,
free meals, cronyism, insider trading, market collaboration, price gouging,
etc., all of which reached record levels in the 80s.
It may seem obvious, but reducing class inequality would reduce class
warfare and class resentment -- in both directions.
There is another implication to this fact as well. If the rich are
doing less to help out the poor, then the poor have less ability to help
themselves. Clearly, they do not have the resources that the rich have
to tide each other over during the rough times. Which means that if the
poor try to restore the missing altruism of the rich by recreating it themselves,
they see even less of their paychecks than under ordinary circumstances,
which deepens their overall poverty. In other words, the costs of deeper
poverty are still there, they are just shared by more members of the lower
Return to Overview
1. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Series ID: eeu00500049.
Charitable donations in the 80s
| Income|| 1980|| 1988|| Percent change|| Percent of 88 income|
|$25,000-30,000||$665|| $1,075||+62%||3.6 - 4.3%|
|$500,000-$1 million||47,432|| 16,602||-65%||1.7 - 3.3|
|Over $1 million||207,089|| 72,784||-65%||*|
(Source: Internal Revenue Service data of Adjusted Gross Incomes for
itemized reductions. Cited by Business Week, "Look Who's Being
Tightfisted," November 5, 1990, p. 29.)
* Dividing $72,784 by $1 million seriously skewers the percentage because
of the open-endedness of this income group, which includes multi-millionaires
and billionaires. In 1990, the poorest income group -- under $10,000 --
actually gave the highest share to charity: 5.5 percent. (Source: Survey
by Gallup Organization and Independent Sector, cited by Boston Globe, "U.S.
Charities See Increase in Gifts," December 16, 1990.)
3. AFDC figures from U.S. Social Security Administration. Current dollars
converted to constant 82-84 dollars from CPI-U.