This month, Templeton Foundation Press publishes The Altruistic Species: Scientific, Philosophical, and Religious Perspectives of Human Benevolence by Andrew Michael Flescher and Daniel L. Worthen. This book stemmed from the honors-level course the authors developed and teach at California State University, Chico.
Through the authors’ analysis of established religious, philosophical, and scientific theories of altruism as well as the incorporation of real-life anecdotes and hypothetical examples, a new, comprehensive definition of altruism emerges. One of the coauthors, Andrew Michael Flescher, answered some questions that relate to the content of The Altruistic Species.
TFP Editor: How did you become interested in studying altruism?
Flescher: My interest in altruism began with my explorations of the writings of a political saint and a religious philosopher, both of whom expressed the same, somewhat radical idea. They were the American civil rights activist, Martin Luther King Jr., and the French Judaic thinker, Emmanuel Levinas, and their idea is that we are “born in the red.” We are already, in our very inception, answerable to other human beings worse off than we are. In this idea I saw a profound challenge to two of the most taken for granted assumptions in American contemporary society, namely, the assumption that morality is primarily about the avoidance of wrongdoing and the related assumption that our individual and civil liberties are goods to be prized above all others. In these two assumptions I am essentially free to do as I wish as long I do not act in violation of others. According to King and Levinas, morality is, by contrast, a more proactive, demanding enterprise whereby I must always try to build virtue into my life. For these two, as opposed to those who subscribe to the prevailing wisdom, altruism, not the avoidance of wrongdoing, is the kernel of the good life; we are not “morally in the clear” unless we are vigilant and introspective, making sure that we go out of our way, whenever we can, to seek out and assist the suffering everywhere. As I read King and Levinas, and then began to interview altruists themselves, I was struck by the degree to which they all claimed of altruism that it is not a “praiseworthy” activity but a non-spectacular one that, as such, we can realistically expect to be performed on a regular basis by ordinary people. Taking this testimony at face value I was led to ponder: is altruism akin to a God-given talent, as the standard view suggests? Or is it, rather, a learnable skill, one available to be cultivated by most in society? If the latter, then the vast majority of us are capable of becoming altruistic to a greater degree than our legal system compels us to be.