The Kindness of Strangers

Why Human Beings Do Good Things

Posted Jun 06, 2015

Last week, on a main road in London, a 55 year-old cyclist was trapped under the wheel of a double decker bus. A crowd of around 100 people gathered together, and in an amazing act of co-ordinated altruism, lifted the bus so that the man could be freed. According to a paramedic who treated the man, this was a "miracle" which may have saved his life. The cyclist was in critical condition in hospital but is now out of danger. He is conscious and feels 'lucky to be alive.' 

Altruism and self-sacrifice seem to be typical human responses to crisis situations or tragic events (at least for some people). Another example took place in Scotland in November 2013, when ten people died after a helicopter crashed into a pub. Soon after the crash, residents and passers-by rushed towards the scene. Together with some of the pub's clientelle, they formed a 'human chain', passing wounded and unconscious victims inch by inch, out of the danger area and into the hands of the emergency services.

From an evolutionary point of view, such cases of altruism are slightly problematic. As Neo-Darwinists would have it, human beings are motivated by self-interest. After all, we're the "carriers" of thousands of genes, whose only aim is to survive and replicate themselves. We shouldn't really be interested in sacrificing ourselves for others, or even in helping others. It's true that, in genetic terms, it's beneficial for us to help people close to us, our relatives or distant cousins—they carry many of the same genes as us, and so helping them may help our genes to survive. But what about when we help people who have no relation to us, or even animals?

One possible explanation is that there is really no such thing as "pure" altruism. When we help strangers (or animals), there must always be some benefit to us, even if we're not aware of it. Good deeds makes us feel good about ourselves. They make other people respect us more too, or might (so far as we believe) increase our chances of getting into heaven. Or perhaps altruism is an investment strategy—we do good deeds to others in the hope that they will return the favour some day, when we are in need. (This is known as reciprocal altruism.) It could even be a way of demonstrating our resources, showing how wealthy or able we are, so that we become more attractive to the opposite sex, and have enhanced reproductive possibilities.

What these explanations have in common is that they are really attempts to explain away altruism. They remind me of my attempts to excuse my indolence when my wife comes home and finds that I haven't done the DIY jobs I promised to. They're attempts to make excuses for altruism: "Please excuse my kindness, but I was really just trying to look good in the eyes of other people." "Sorry for helping you, but it's a trait I picked up from my ancestors thousands of years ago, and I just can't seem to get rid of it."

Many acts of kindness may be motivated by self-interest. But is it naive to suggest that "pure" altruism can exist as well? An act of pure altruism may make someone feel better about themselves afterwards, and it may increase other people's respect for them, or increase their chances of being helped in return at a later point. But it's possible that, at the very moment when the act takes place, their only motivation is an impulsive unselfish desire to alleviate another person's suffering.

True altruism stems from empathy, our ability to emotionally connect with other people. This ability to empathise means that we are part of a shared network of consciousness. We feel the impulse to alleviate other people's suffering because we can sense it as if it were our own (to a greater or lesser degree, since levels of empathy obviously vary from person to person). In the words of the philosopher Schopenhauer, "My own true inner being actually exists in every living creature, as truly and immediately known as my own consciousness in myself...This is the ground of compassion upon which all true, that is to say unselfish, virtue rests, and whose expression is in every good deed."

In other words, there is no need to make excuses for altruism. Instead, we should celebrate it as a one of the highest—and at the same time most fundamental—aspects of human nature. 

Steve Taylor, Ph.D. is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University, UK. His new book The Calm Center has just been published.