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: 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 unselfish behavior?

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.


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 pool.

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 survival.

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 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 keeper?"

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 the poor.)

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 basket."

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 Christian Church:

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 had need."

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 giver."

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 created.


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 members.

Examples of reciprocal altruism in the private sector include charity and insurance.

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 lost.

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 class.

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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 million47,432 16,602-65%1.7 - 3.3
Over $1 million207,089 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.