What Is An Altruist??

I am going to put on my teacher’s hat now.  Although I have never been an official teacher I have taught at several seminars in both the professional arena and the religious arena. So here is a lesson about altruism.

On the right side of my blog I proudly proclaim that I am a passionate altruist. But what does that really mean? As usual there are varying definitions of the term. Here is what Dictionary.com defines as an altruist:

altruism  (ˈæltruːˌɪzəm) 1. the principle or practice of unselfish concern for the welfare of others

2. the philosophical doctrine that right action is that which produces the greatest benefit to others

While this short answer gives you an idea of what altruism is let’s look at Wikipedia for a longer explanation.

Altruism /ˈæltruːɪzəm/ is a concern for the welfare of others. It is a traditional virtue in many cultures, and a core aspect of various religious traditions, though the concept of ‘others’ toward whom concern should be directed can vary among cultures and religions. Altruism is the opposite of selfishness.

Altruism was central to the teachings of Jesus found in the Gospel especially in the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain.

Some Christian denominations use altruism as the very foundation of their beliefs. Quakers are one example of that and Catholics to one degree or another. Other Christian denominations very much downplay altruism and instead favor personal salvation, human unworthiness and helplessness as their foundation. From personal experience I believe Lutherans are part of that group but they are by no means the only ones in that category.

It may surprise some of you to learn that in Buddhism altruism is also a foundational item. Here is Wikipedia again on that topic:

Altruism figures prominently in Buddhism. Love and compassion are components of all forms of Buddhism, and both are focused on all beings equally: the wish that all beings be happy (love) and the wish that all beings be free from suffering (compassion). “Many illnesses can be cured by the one medicine of love and compassion. These qualities are the ultimate source of human happiness, and the need for them lies at the very core of our being” (Dalai Lama).

So to be an altruist is to care about others as much or even more than you care about yourself. I’m not sure that a person can learn to be an altruist. I think maybe you have to have that in your soul or at least your DNA 🙂 . Here is a study about the neurological origins of altruism/selfishness.

An experiment funded by the National Institutes of Health and conducted in 2007 at the Duke University in Durham, North Carolina suggests a different view, “that altruistic behavior may originate from how people view the world rather than how they act in it”. In the study published in the February 2007 print issue of Nature Neuroscience, researchers have found a part of the brain that behaves differently for altruistic and selfish people.

Why some have it and others don’t is a mystery to me. As mentioned above the opposite of altruism is selfishness. It is not hard to find examples of selfishness almost anywhere you look. The current political arena is gushing with it.

Are you also and altruist? If so have you always been one or did some life event push you in that direction?