Foundational Principle for this Lesson:
To explore the concept of serving others without
expectation or regret.
Definition: Altruism – A behavior in which one organism
provides a benefit to another organism without expecting
any payment or compensation.
STUDENT: Is altruism the same as unconditional
LEWIS: One might say altruism is a form of love,
but in most cases it is definitely not unconditional.
To begin with, it is almost impossible to be altruistic unless
one has a surplus of good will. If your essential needs are
not being met there is not much left to offer others. That is a
condition right there – that you have abundance in some form.
STUDENT: Is the concept of pure altruism realistic?
LEWIS: Those of Christian belief hold to the idea
that Jesus’ Crucifixion on the Cross was the
ultimate altruistic act. Whether a person accepts
this template for human action greatly defines how he
or she will live in the world. For those who are simply doing
the best they can and do not choose the concept of absolute
perfection as a working model, altruism that is done with the
idea that one will receive good will in return is a useful model
to work with (see the Lesson: Reciprocal Altruism).
STUDENT: Is altruism a Christian concept?
LEWIS: No. Many altruists feel that it is a duty to serve
others and do so without expectation. This concept exists in
many faiths and cultural belief systems and can be found
throughout Asia under different names. In certain Hindu
based traditions it is known by the Sanskrit term “Karma Yoga”
and is considered one of the four pillars of yoga (see the Lesson:
Yoga). In certain Buddhist traditions it is known as Buddhi Yoga
or the “discipline of action.”
STUDENT: What define this practice?
LEWIS: It is defined by the intention of an individual to act
out of need and duty rather than from want while having no
attachment to the reward (see the Lesson: The Dharma).
STUDENT: Could one describe karma yoga as
completely selfless action?
LEWIS: Not really since, in a religious context, there is
some benefit in that one might believe that he or she might
gain salvation by unselfishly performing actions, all for the
pleasure of some supreme being.
STUDENT: I have heard of the word Karma.I always
thought it meant cause and effect. Why is this form of altruism
called “karma yoga”?
LEWIS: The word Karma is derived from the Sanskrit “Kri” to
act or to do. The word “Yoga” translates to union. The literal
translation of karma yoga means “union by way of action.” In
essence, one acts because of how one needs to act. It is action
as natural law. It is very similar to the Taoist concept of Wu Wei
(see the Lesson: The Law of Attraction).
STUDENT: What is the benefit of karma yoga?
LEWIS: In certain schools of Eastern thought it is taught
that the practice of karma yoga is a path to mental purification;
while in others it is a road to love and compassion
STUDENT: How would an individual avoid being
exploited by those who benefit from altruistic acts
but refuse to reciprocate?
LEWIS: If you are purely altruistic it doesn’t matter
since you do not want anything in return for you
STUDENT: Please speak of the role of the emotions
in creating or preventing altruistic behavior.
LEWIS: When we have an emotional connection to
another person we are more likely to act altruistically
towards them, and even towards a group they are part of.
Emotional rapport motivates us towards altruistic behavior.
STUDENT: Please speak of the role of morality in
creating or preventing altruistic behavior.
LEWIS: The question of morality is quite complex.
Different religious traditions and political persuasions have
different definitions of what is moral and what isn’t. Essentially,
most experts would agree that morality is the study of what
makes actions right and wrong. Thus, in the realm of altruistic
behavior, there are those who not only act morally but feel a
responsibility to convince those who cheat to be accountable
for cheating behavior.
STUDENT: How does sympathy and generosity
influence altruistic behavior?
LEWIS: To be sympathetic one must be aware of
the plight of another. With such awareness one may
choose to be generous towards that individual, expecting
nothing in return.
STUDENT: Why is altruism so important?
LEWIS: Acts of altruism naturally lead to a sense
of connection. They make one person feel closer to another.
Often this will lead to feelings of friendship, which then
often leads to reciprocity.
STUDENT: This sounds like an expression of the
old saying, "do unto others as you would have them
do unto you".
LEWIS: This is true and not bad wisdom either. This
behavior can offer an individual great advantage. Giving both
to strangers and enemies may induce friendship and create
influence. Of course, once these benefits are expected you
are no longer being altruistic. You have crossed over into a
category we would call reciprocal altruism.
STUDENT: Why do you have an interest in the
concept of altruism?
LEWIS: When I was in my first year in college I
worked as a waiter in a summer resort hotel. One
of the guests, a CEO of a large pharmaceutical company,
would engage me after dinner in long conversations on issues
concerning politics, economics, and social justice. I was pretty
radical in my views in those days, seeing most things in extremes
of black and white, and fascinated by the Marxist perspective
of how the world worked. At the time this CEO said something
to me – slightly condescending I’m sure – but with an element of
truth in it, nonetheless. What he said was, “Any college student
who is not an idealist, possibly a Marxist idealist, is a cold-hearted
bastard. And any mature working adult who is not a capitalist is
an idiot.” These are, of course, extreme terms and I’m sure he
said them the way he did to get a “rise” out of me and provoke
STUDENT: What are your present thoughts about what he said?
LEWIS: I’m not going to enter a discussion with you over whether I still think like a college student or have acquired the thinking of a mature working adult. What I will discuss with you is my personal struggle over altruism.
STUDENT: Why would you struggle over a concept like selfless service?
LEWIS: Altruism is a complex concept. If you read the writings of Karl Marx and many other utopians you will find that they tend to focus on the altruism of humanity. They preach that we are all basically good and are inclined, if given the opportunity, to divide our labors through altruistic intentions towards one another.
STUDENT: What do you mean when you say “utopian”?
LEWIS: In a utopian view everyone is kind to one another, and this natural desire to be kind transcends any need we might have to serve our own needs.
STUDENT: Does such a way of being even exist?
LEWIS: I’m sure this is true some of the time, and more so than not among most people in the most abundant of circumstances. I am not so sure this is so in times of extreme scarcity. We may be generous even in these times, but we tend to be selective on how and who we are generous with.
STUDENT: How does one decide between the intellectual mind and intuition?
LEWIS: It is not a choice of one or the other. If we chose what the mind tells us we soon find that untangling these mental knots requires more than simple deductive arguments pointing out the problems with some particular position. Instead, we must divert our attention from our philosophical problems long enough to become aware of our emotional agendas, and beneath that our inner intuitive sensibilities.
STUDENT: What do we do then?
LEWIS: Surrender to intuition. In such a situation it is our intuition that will take us in the right direction. It doesn’t matter whether or not we intellectually understand what intuition is. I understand that it makes no sense to place one’s faith in the idea that one can acquire knowledge without a clear inference or the use of reason. Yet few would doubt that we sometimes have an immediate apprehension of an object by the mind without the intervention of any reasoning process.
STUDENT: So intuition is irrational?
LEWIS: Maybe, but it is also totally logical (see A Conversation on What is Logical? What is Rational?). Intuition provides us with beliefs that we cannot necessarily justify; and yet at crucial junctures in our life we often make intuitive choices with very positive results.
STUDENT: So you are saying we use intuition without really knowing what it is?
LEWIS: No one really knows what pure intuition is or what only seems like intuition. Either way, there is this sense that gives us the ability to recognize nonverbal cues from others. When a person finely hones these intuitive senses they have the ability to know valid solutions to problems.
STUDENT: What are highly intuitive individuals capable of?
LEWIS: They can make relatively fast decisions without having to compare options. And when presented with time pressures, high risk, and a changing environment, they can use intuition to identify similar situations and choose feasible solutions.
STUDENT: Please speak about the connection between intuition and natural law.
LEWIS: For some, using their intuition is as natural as breathing. It is an effective path to simply living life with vision and intention. I call this the “Intuitive Path.” For such an individual deep introspective thought may be more of a burden than a revelation. For this individual – the seeker who is content to tap into an inner well of wisdom – simply living well is enough.
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