Altruism is an element of courage: doing for another without regard for or at a cost to the self. It is a natural product of evolution in relation to kin and can be cultivated in relation to all living beings.
The anticipation of being a free woman proved almost too much for my weak frame. The excitement stimulated me, and at the same time bewildered me. I made busy preparations for my journey, and for my son to follow me. I resolved to have an interview with him before I went, that I might give him cautions and advice, and tell him how anxiously I should be waiting for him at the north. Grandmother stole up to me as often as possible to whisper words of counsel. She insisted upon my writing to Dr. Flint, as soon as I arrived in the Free States, and asking him to sell me to her. She said she would sacrifice her house, and all she had in the world, for the sake of having me safe with my children in any part of the world. If she could only live to know that she could die in peace. I promised the dear old faithful friend that I would write to her as soon as I arrived, and put the letter in a safe way to reach her; but in my own mind I resolved that not another cent of her hard earnings should be spent to pay rapacious slaveholders for what they called their property. And even if I had not been unwilling to buy what I had already a right to possess, common humanity would have prevented me from accepting the generous offer, at the expense of turning my aged relative out of house and home, when she was trembling on the brink of the grave. [Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), Chapter XXIX, Preparations for Escape.]
Personal narratives on altruism:
- Rachel Cusk, A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother (Picador, 2002): “Her focus on the psychological and social changes that occur in the transition from woman to mother is what distinguishes this book.”
Histories of organ donation:
- Katrina Bramstedt and Rena Dowd, The Organ Donor Experience: Good Samaritans and the Meaning of Altruism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011).
- Reg Green, The Gift that Heals: Stories of Hope, Renewal and Transformation through Organ and Tissue Donation (AuthorHouse, 2008).
- Thomas E. Starzl, The People Puzzle: Memoirs of a Transplant Surgeon (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992).
- Susan E. Lederer, Flesh and Blood: Organ Transplantation and Blood Transfusion in Twentieth-Century America (Oxford University Press, 2008).
- "60 Lives, 30 Kidneys, All Linked," The New York Times, February 19, 2012.
Technical and Analytical Readings
- Vincent Jeffries, The Palgrave Handbook of Altruism, Morality, and Social Solidarity: A Field of Study (Palgrave MacMillan, 2014).
- Martin A. Nowak, SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed (Free Press, 2011): a case that “most of the great evolutionary innovations . . . are due to cooperation.”
- Helena Cronin,The Ant and the Peacock: Altruism and Sexual Selection from Darwin to Today (Cambridge University Press, 1992).
- Robert W. Sussman and C. Robert Cloninger, eds., Origins of Altruismand Cooperation (Springer, 2011). “. . . there is more to cooperation and generosity in both human and nonhuman group-living animals than an investment in one’s own nepotistic patch of DNA.” [Introduction, Sussman and Cloninger, “Cooperation and Altruism,” p. 3.]
- Daniel Batson, A Scientific Search for Altruism: Do We Only Care About Ourselves? (Oxford University Press, 2018).
- Daniel Batson,Altruism in Humans (Oxford University Press, 2011).
- Stephen G. Post, Lynn G. Underwood, Jeffrey P. Schloss and William B. Hurlbut, eds.,Altruism and Altruistic Love: Science, Philosophy and Religion in Dialogue (Oxford University Press, 2002).
- Jacob Neusner and Bruce Chilton, eds.,Altruism in World Religions (Georgetown University Press).
- David Sloan Wilson,Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes and the Welfare of Others (Yale University Press, 2015).
- Stephen G. Post,Altruism and Health: Perspectives from Empirical Research (Oxford University Press, 2007).
- Peter Singer,The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas about Living Ethically (Yale University Press, 2015).
- Carolyn Zahn-Waxler, E. Mark Cummings and Ronald J. Iannotti, eds., Altruism and Aggression: Social and Biological Origins (Cambridge University Press, 1991).
- Philip Lieberman, Uniquely Human: The Evolution of Speech, Thought, and Selfless Behavior (Harvard University Press, 1991).
- Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014): the authors “show you, through many amazing vignettes matched with serious evidence, that you can make a difference to the lives of people trapped in misery. Those lives may be very different from yours, but the people leading them feel much the way you would if you were in their position. With a little effort you can help them enormously, but why should you bother?”
- Norman Rockwell, A Scout Is Helpful (1941)
Film and Stage
- High and Low: The kidnappers have taken the chauffeur’s child. Does the wealthy industrialist ransom him anyway?
- Ashani Sanket (Distant Thunder), exploring the limits of altruism: a man who has set up a school in an area ravaged by famine “manages to survive for a while by exchanging his teaching services for food, but the devastation around him soon becomes so desperate that his altruism overcomes his instinct for self-preservation”
- Only Angels Have Wings: pilots facing death, finally for sure
- The Sacrifice: on what people say they would be willing to do to avert war
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Brahms’ chamber works for strings, especially the quartets, quintets and sextets, are at their core about cohesion. The quintets, with the addition of a second viola, and the sextets, with the addition of a second cello, sound a tone of warmth that is not present in such abundance in the quartets. This warmth, coupled with Brahms’ characteristic romanticism, suggest the fellow-feeling that characterizes heartfelt altruism.
- String Quintet 1 in F major, Op. 88
- String Quintet 2 in G major, Op. 111
- String Sextet 1in B flat major, Op. 18
- String Sextet 2 in G major, Op. 36
Feel for the wrongs to universal ken
Daily exposed, woe that unshrouded lies;
And seek the Sufferer in his darkest den,
Whether conducted to the spot by sighs
And moanings, or he dwells (as if the wren
Taught him concealment) hidden from all eyes
In silence and the awful modesties
Of sorrow; feel for all, as brother Men!
Rest not in hope want's icy chain to thaw
By casual boons and formal charities;
Learn to be just, just through impartial law;
Far as ye may, erect and equalise;
And, what ye cannot reach by statute, draw
Each from his fountain of self-sacrifice!
[William Wordsworth, Sonnet III, 1842]
- Robert Frost, “In Equal Sacrifice”
This was the second place of captivity which he had seen. In his youth, in what had been for him the beginning of his life, and later on, quite recently again, he had beheld another,--a frightful place, a terrible place, whose severities had always appeared to him the iniquity of justice, and the crime of the law. Now, after the galleys, he saw the cloister; and when he meditated how he had formed a part of the galleys, and that he now, so to speak, was a spectator of the cloister, he confronted the two in his own mind with anxiety. Sometimes he crossed his arms and leaned on his hoe, and slowly descended the endless spirals of revery. He recalled his former companions: how wretched they were; they rose at dawn, and toiled until night; hardly were they permitted to sleep; they lay on camp beds, where nothing was tolerated but mattresses two inches thick, in rooms which were heated only in the very harshest months of the year; they were clothed in frightful red blouses; they were allowed, as a great favor, linen trousers in the hottest weather, and a woollen carter's blouse on their backs when it was very cold; they drank no wine, and ate no meat, except when they went on "fatigue duty." They lived nameless, designated only by numbers, and converted, after a manner, into ciphers themselves, with downcast eyes, with lowered voices, with shorn heads, beneath the cudgel and in disgrace. Then his mind reverted to the beings whom he had under his eyes. These beings also lived with shorn heads, with downcast eyes, with lowered voices, not in disgrace, but amid the scoffs of the world, not with their backs bruised with the cudgel, but with their shoulders lacerated with their discipline. Their names, also, had vanished from among men; they no longer existed except under austere appellations. They never ate meat and they never drank wine; they often remained until evening without food; they were attired, not in a red blouse, but in a black shroud, of woollen, which was heavy in summer and thin in winter, without the power to add or subtract anything from it; without having even, according to the season, the resource of the linen garment or the woollen cloak; and for six months in the year they wore serge chemises which gave them fever. They dwelt, not in rooms warmed only during rigorous cold, but in cells where no fire was ever lighted; they slept, not on mattresses two inches thick, but on straw. And finally, they were not even allowed their sleep; every night, after a day of toil, they were obliged, in the weariness of their first slumber, at the moment when they were falling sound asleep and beginning to get warm, to rouse themselves, to rise and to go and pray in an ice-cold and gloomy chapel, with their knees on the stones. On certain days each of these beings in turn had to remain for twelve successive hours in a kneeling posture, or prostrate, with face upon the pavement, and arms outstretched in the form of a cross. The others were men; these were women. What had those men done? They had stolen, violated, pillaged, murdered, assassinated. They were bandits, counterfeiters, poisoners, incendiaries, murderers, parricides. What had these women done? They had done nothing whatever. On the one hand, highway robbery, fraud, deceit, violence, sensuality, homicide, all sorts of sacrilege, every variety of crime; on the other, one thing only, innocence. Perfect innocence, almost caught up into heaven in a mysterious assumption, attached to the earth by virtue, already possessing something of heaven through holiness. On the one hand, confidences over crimes, which are exchanged in whispers; on the other, the confession of faults made aloud. And what crimes! And what faults! On the one hand, miasms; on the other, an ineffable perfume. On the one hand, a moral pest, guarded from sight, penned up under the range of cannon, and literally devouring its plague-stricken victims; on the other, the chaste flame of all souls on the same hearth. There, darkness; here, the shadow; but a shadow filled with gleams of light, and of gleams full of radiance. Two strongholds of slavery; but in the first, deliverance possible, a legal limit always in sight, and then, escape. In the second, perpetuity; the sole hope, at the distant extremity of the future, that faint light of liberty which men call death. In the first, men are bound only with chains; in the other, chained by faith. What flowed from the first? An immense curse, the gnashing of teeth, hatred, desperate viciousness, a cry of rage against human society, a sarcasm against heaven. What results flowed from the second? Blessings and love. [Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862), Volume II – Cosette; Book Eighth – Cemeteries Take That Which Is Committed Them, Chapter IX, Cloistered.]
- Bill Clinton and James Patterson, The President Is Missing: A Novel (Alfred A. Knopf, 2018): “It realistically depicts the selfless and often nameless people who work in government — and are willing to lose their lives — because they are compelled to serve their nation.”
- Jennie Offill, Weather: A Novel (Knopf, 2020): “. . . Offill is interested in the things we can save and the things we cannot. Lizzie calls Mr. Jimmy for rides to work because he’s threatened by the Lyfts and Ubers of the world; she thinks she can help him and his disabled son.”