On one level, the word altruism is the empty set.  It has a definition but contains no elements.  Why no substance?  Psychological hedonism teaches that selfless concern for others gives satisfaction, which is a selfish reward.  (Nothing is completely selfless.)  To avoid circular reasoning, let us rephrase the question.  We ask merely whether an action is beneficial.  There is no need to isolate a beneficiary or to define “selfish” by distinguishing self from others.

Self-oriented passages of the Old Testament are isolationist and genocidal, separating “us” from “them” (the group level of “self” and “non-self”).  On the other hand, some passages require us to be fair to “others” whether they are called strangers, foreigners, gentiles, or aliens—especially when such people are already “among you.”  The gentler passages acknowledge some level of universal kinship that hints at equality.  Modern enlightenment goes even farther to establish human equality; we collaborate, and our progress does not separate self from others.

Self is not meaningless.  Of course there is still self-control!  Respecting others as equal to self requires a great deal of discipline.  I must distinguish between self that I control and others that I do not.  However, the same distinction is not used in dispensing benefits.  We are enriched together (all receive vicarious joy) when any one of us succeeds.

If I do not place my identity, my personhood, ahead of yours, it follows that lesser, material assets are distributed easily.  There is no motive to be more important by possessing more.  Equality prevails and jealousy is gone.

This means functional equality.  As illustration, consider that I am satisfied with single room occupancy or a tiny bungalow, while the President requires an extensive mansion because of the function it plays in his schedule.  When he no longer utilizes all the space, he is ready to return to the bungalow.  In another context, my profession requires that I have a good computer set up precisely for the work I do.  Nobody defaces the equipment or changes my settings.  However, my function does not require that I own the computer.  It can be common property assigned to my stewardship during my waking hours.  After my functional use, it is available as needed for the common good.  It is easy to have this disconnection from material things because I am disconnected from selfish possessiveness.  Control of my self enables the joy in our common advancement.

The word altruism implies a certain distinction between self and others—a distinction that is not present in the higher orders of life.  While retaining individual integrity, we share joy that does not rank discrete silos.  Benefits rest on and accrue to us in common when we rise above altruism.

Photo by Filip Sochor on Unsplash