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Altruism Its Nature and Varieties

Its Nature and Varieties
Title: Altruism Its Nature and Varieties
Release Date: 2018-08-23
Type book: Text
Copyright Status: Public domain in the USA.
Date added: 27 March 2019
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NEW YORK  ❦ ❦ ❦ ❦  1919

Copyright, 1919, by
Published January, 1919

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The Elias P. Ely Lectureship wasfounded by Mr. Zebulon Stiles Ely, May8, 1865. The deed of gift contains thefollowing paragraphs:

“The undersigned gives the sum of ten thousanddollars to the Union Theological Seminary of theCity of New York to found a Lectureship in thesame, the title of which shall be the ‘Elias P. ElyLectures on the Evidences of Christianity,’ on thefollowing conditions:

“The course of lectures given on this foundationis to comprise any topics that serve to establishthe proposition that Christianity is a religion fromGod, or that it is the perfect and final form of religionfor man. Among the subjects discussed maybe the nature and need of a revelation; the characterand influence of Christ and His apostles; theauthenticity and credibility of the Scriptures, miracles,and prophecy; the diffusion and benefits ofChristianity; the philosophy of religion in its relationto the Christian system.”

Under date of May 24, 1879, Mr. Elyaddressed a communication to the Directorsviof the Seminary in which the conditionsof the Lectureship are amplified asfollows:

“The conditions of the foundation of the EliasP. Ely Lectureship, dated May 8, 1865, are herebymodified, so that the course of public lectures thereinprovided for, may not only be on ‘The Evidencesof Christianity,’ but on such other subjects as theFaculty and Directors, in concurrence with theundersigned, while living, may deem for the goodof man.”



I here present the substance of eightEly Lectures delivered in the spring of1918 at Union Theological Seminary inNew York. They were spoken withoutmanuscript. In writing them out fromthe stenographer’s notes I have condensedthem considerably. In these belligerentdays publishers are disposed to economizepaper and print, and readers to prize brevityin everything except newspapers. Suchrestrictions force on us loquacious bookmakersgreater regard for compactnessand lucidity, and are thus not altogetheran injury.

The book seeks to call attention to asection of ethics in regard to which thepublic mind greatly needs clarifying. Altruismand egoism, socialism and individualism,are in our time sentimentally arrayedagainst one another as independent andantagonistic agencies, each having its partisans.A careful examination will show,viiiI think, that the one has meaning onlywhen in company with its supposed rival.I have thought to make this clearest bytracing three stages through which thealtruistic impulse passes in every-day life,exhibiting their varying degrees of dignityand the helpful presence in all of them ofegoistic balance. If through my notionof a conjunct self I have made this curiouspartnership plain I shall count it no meancontribution to our generous, sacrificial,self-assertive, and perplexed time.

George Herbert Palmer.

Cambridge, October 21, 1918.



I. Introduction 1
II. Manners 13
III. Gifts 32
IV. Defects of Giving 56
V. Mutuality 75
VI. Love 91
VII. Justice 110
VIII. Conclusion 126




I have been moving about lately throughdifferent parts of our country, sitting downto dinner in many homes, and I haveeverywhere found the family eating breadmade of Indian meal, rye, barley, or oatmeal.When I have asked, “Are you especiallyfond of this sort of food?” I havepretty generally received the answer, “Why,no! We all like wheat bread better. Butwe are not eating it now, for other nationsneed it.”

That is altruism, one of the most fundamental,familiar, and mysterious of all thevirtues. This course of lectures will bedevoted to elucidating it. To a recognitionof it the Western mind has risen slowly.The Greeks attached little importance toit; for though philanthropy, regard for2man as man, is a Greek word, it is not aGreek idea. Plato does not include itamong his four virtues nor anywhere laystress on its practice. In Aristotle’s Ethics,it is true, there are magnificent chapterson friendship, and friendship plays a greatpart in the teaching of the Epicureans andStoics. But all alike speak of attachmentto another person chiefly as a means ofstrength for oneself. The thought ofwhole-hearted giving without correspondentpersonal gain would have puzzled a Greek.

When we turn to the other branch ofour civilization and examine what we havederived from the Hebrews, we find anearer approach to modern ideas. Commonlyenough the Hebrews speak of mercyand grace, and pair these off against justiceand truth. Apparently when theseterms are applied to God’s dealings withus, the second pair indicates his exact returnfor what we have done for him; butthe first pair points to something over andabove, a surplusage of generosity, lyingoutside the field of equal pay. God is conceivedas altruistic and we are summonedto imitate him in this. Jesus develops thethought to such a degree that love becomes3the centre of his teaching. We aretold that without it all other excellence isworthless. We must love as God loves,letting our sun shine on the evil and on thegood. Indeed, we must love even our enemies.

While modern nations have allowed suchprecepts to stand as counsels of perfectionand have been ready to see in occasionalacts an embodiment of them, parallel withthem they have always recognized a contraryand more powerful tendency, namely,the disposition to seek one’s own. Thisthey have believed to be essential for carryingon the daily affairs of life. At thesame time altruistic conduct has ever beenthought “superior,” “higher”; egoistic, ascontaining nothing to call forth admiration.

When men, however, began to thinkseriously about ethics it became impossibleto allow two such springs of action to remainin permanent discord. Attempts weremade to bring them into harmony by showingthat the one is only a disguised form ofthe other. Hobbes, for example (1588–1679),the first in his great book, Leviathan,to stir the English mind to ethical reflection,maintains that altruism is strictly impossible.4Each of us seeks self-preservationand acts through a passion for power.This necessarily brings us into conflict withour neighbors and makes of society a strifeof each with all. Such universal war is soonseen to bring damage to every one andsocial compacts arise, compromises, underwhich I concede to others the right of actingin certain ways on condition of theirallowing my action in certain others. Whilethis involves large sacrifice of one’s owndesires for the sake of other people, it isendured because it pays, pays egoistically.We gain by it the largest scope for actionour crowded world permits. But there isnothing disinterested about it. Genuinealtruism is nowhere operative. A mancannot escape from himself and feel another’spleasure as his own. As well mightI profess to feel your toothache morekeenly than my own as to declare myselfmore interested in your welfare than inthat of myself. Fundamentally, each ofus must be egoistic; but we can be successfullyso only by taking others into the account.

This attempt of Hobbes to resolve altruisminto a larger form of egoism naturally5shocked England, and a century was spentby the English moralists in trying to provethat the benevolent feelings are equallyoriginal with the self-seeking. Cumberland,Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Butler, eagerlydemonstrated benevolence to be aconstant and independent factor of humanlife; but when they attempted to show therelation in which this stands to its seemingopposite, they became vague. Apparentlythere are two rival forces within us. Nowone acts, now the other.

A few of the attempts that have beenmade to effect a junction of the two, and toshow how we cross from our egoistic toaltruistic desires, deserve notice. Hartley(1705–1757) proposed an ingenious one.The two passions become fused throughassociation. We are all familiar with theman who begins to accumulate money inorder to supply his daily wants and thenby degrees withdraws his attention fromthose wants and fixes it upon money itself.What was originally a means becomes anend. In just this way Hartley thought ouregoistic desires become transformed. Toreach satisfaction they usually require assistancefrom other people. Conscious at6first of our dependence on others for aid,we become by degrees interested in othersfor their own sake, and finally seek to aidthem rather than have them aid us. Ourself-regarding powers and our extra-regardingpowers are thus by associationblurred into one. An important school ofethical writers, among whom the two Millsare the most notable, have held this view.

An interesting variation was adopted byJeremy Bentham (1748–1832). It mightbe called the quantitative view. The onething desired by us all is happiness. Weseek to produce as much of it as possible,paying little attention to the one on whomit falls. Of course our primary desire lookstoward ourselves. But in seeking to increasethat bulk of happiness from whichwe draw, egoism largely disappears in thesearch after the greatest happiness of thegreatest number. This formula must alwaysbe convenient and valuable in ademocratic state.

One of the most curious of these methodsof extracting altruistic gold from abaser metal is that of Bishop Paley (1743–1805).According to him we have none ofus an interest in our fellows’ happiness and7should never of ourselves seek it. But weread in our Bibles the command to love ourneighbor and are told that we shall fallinto eternal misery if we do not. Withhis customary audacious clearness Paleystates the matter thus: “The greatest virtueis doing good to mankind, in obedienceto the will of God, and for the sake of everlastinghappiness.” That is, the one thingof importance is altruistic endeavor. Butthis is so alien to our disposition that itcan be brought about only through divineinterposition, making it a condition of ourown permanent enjoyment.

A subtler doctrine, and one much closerto the facts of human nature, is that ofAdam Smith (1723–1790). He has observedhow large a part sympathy playsin our ordinary affairs. If I am near aperson when he is moved by any feeling,that feeling tends to jump across and tobecome mine also. Such identification ofmyself and him gives pleasure to us both.We all have experienced how sympathyheightens enjoyment and diminishes distress.In sympathy two sets of feelingsbecome so nearly identified that the resultcan be called neither egoistic nor altruistic.

8Now I do not propose in these lecturesto combat or defend any of these theories.No one of them seems to me to be withoutweight, all deserve consideration, and somethinglike the operation of each I trace inpeople around me. The one with which Iam in largest agreement is the last, whereAdam Smith would identify the two moralaims. But all the theories are vitiated bya false start, which in these lectures I wishto avoid.

Each of them looks upon man in hisoriginal estate as a self-centred being, adistinct ego. By degrees this single persondiscovers other persons about him andlearns that he must have relations withthem. The relations may be altruistic oregoistic, but they are subsequent and supplemental.In himself he is separate anddetached. Now, I hold that this conceptionis altogether erroneous. There is nosuch solitary person. One person is noperson. The smallest known unit of personalityis three, father, mother, child.None of us came into the world in separateness,nor have separately remained here.Relations have encompassed us from birth.Through them we are what we are, social9beings, members of a whole. While it istrue that the ties of parentage loosen asthe child matures, these drop

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