Thinking Through My Altruism

A Philosophy dissertation by a young friend, Roger Thisdell, has challenged me to think more deeply and broadly about how thought effects behaviour.  Roger’s essay was about “The Ethical Impact of Thoughts1.”   He acknowledges the utilitarian concern for outcomes (‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’), as formulated by the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832),  but takes a different tact.  Thisdell’s approach is rooted in ancient India, but watered by present-day neurological science and other contemporary research – a familiar and welcome approach in SNS circles.  I’m not presenting a précis of his dissertation, but drawing elements from it to make my own points.  I’m grateful for his goad to thinking through my own altruism, and revisioning others.

Bentham and his Utilitarians advocated a moral calculus: the good or “utility” by which our actions are evaluated is defined as the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain on those it touches, with a recognition of the different qualities of “high” and “low” pleasures.  It’s worth noting that utilitarian ethics is all about the consequence of our actions.  Our happiness might be included in the calculation, but it becomes pretty insignificant if what we do touches dozens, hundreds or thousands of people.  Gifford Pinchot (1865-1946), who pioneered the United States Forestry Commission, expanded the catch phrase of Bentham’s ethics by adding the dimension of time in his advocacy of conservation:”…the greatest good of the greatest number for the longest time.” This emphasises the effect that just one act can have.

Personally, I welcome this kind of calculation, as it speaks to the need for “evidence based decisions” with the investments meant to make a positive social change – a relevant corrective for private charitable giving as well as government-funded initiatives controlled by (and sometimes for) the few.  It calls us away from self-satisfying (or “sexy”)  projects which don’t really make a significant or lasting difference.  Perhaps in Bentham’s time it challenged – and sometimes corrected – the social, political and religious elites who felt a God-given right to determine what was “good” and what was not. For me this is  a pointed and helpful reminder to include a feedback and assessment loop (as objective as possible) to guide my own subjective evaluation of my service and support “for others”.

Roger Thisdell’s essay provides a helpful complement to Bentham and his followers by turning the spotlight from the outward effects of our actions to the nature of our intentions:

“Utilitarianism is often portrayed as only being concerned with after-the-fact outcomes, such as body count.  As a form of consequentialism, utilitarianism tends to downplay the  importance of intentions and focuses mainly on physical, outward acts.  However, by arguing for the moral significance of thoughts under the guise of utilitarianism, the case can be made that intentions still matter.”

He begins with the utilitarian thesis that morality consists of “actions/behaviours that maximises well-being for sentient creatures”.   Well-being is presented as a broad concept, containing such descriptors as happiness, contentment, fulfillment, satisfaction, welfare, and desirable/congenial mental states (“etc.”).  He places them all in the container of “a purely psychological conception” – “in which what matters is the states of our minds, not the states of the world.”  He cites Robert Nozick’s concept of an experience machine2 that we could hook up to provide us with maximum pleasure – our most desired experiences.  But, Nozick contends, we’d choose the real world instead.  “…If, say, our most desired experiences include being with loved ones… we would want to know we are actually in contact with those people, not a simulacrum of them.” Thisdell counters that those concerned with the welfare of others, do so only because this makes them happy.

This, rings true of my experience of self and others.  A life-time of professional association with a variety of do-gooders (so many inspiring and a privilege to know), seeing them through the lens of my self-knowledge, I do sense that we seek others’ welfare because it does lead to positive feelings.  For some the emphasis might be on fulfilling a duty or obligation to be of service.  To abandon altruistic behaviours would lead to guilty self-condemnation.  Others use the helping profession (or community service groups) because it prompts praise and even opens up opportunities for calculated exploitation, as horror stories from some churches and charitable groups are revealing.  But one hopes that most of us exercise our altruistic genes with a healthier motivation. And yet, perhaps, with the theoretical exception of some ‘saints’, most of us do good because it makes us feel good.

I grew up with the joke about the boy scout who helped an elderly lady across the street… even though she didn’t want to go.  It’s no joke, however, when one country sends food aid judged unpalatable by its recipients in a different culture – or (as frequently happens) the aid items are chosen primarily because it supports the sender’s economic or political interests.  One can be quite cynical about altruistic efforts.  It’s not ‘about’ us (the givers), but them (the recipients).  In this perspective an unflinching evaluation by consequences is a crucial corrective to the individual or collective feel good factor.  Thisdell’s discussion is a good reminder to look deeply and comprehensively at our motivation, and correct it.  And, as I imagine he would say, at the end of the day to feel pretty good about the correction.

The older I get, the more time and attention I spend with friends and loved ones.  I like to think it’s an expression of wisdom (“No one on his death bed regrets not spending more time in the office”) and of caring for the well being of those I’m closely related to.  But honestly, it’s just that I’ve found what brings me deep satisfaction.  Second (I do hope it’s second), I want to recruit as many good wishes as I can for when I can’t get out much – and then to ensure someone will want to come to my funeral!  We’re complex animals, but behind all the trappings of civilization (including our loving service to the world) is a feel-good factor.  Once we realise it, we can correct or adjust our behaviour to suit our conscious values.

Aware of the Mindfulness of Kindness (Metta Bhavana)  meditation, Thisdell argues that fifteen minutes of well wishing leads to many more pleasant feelings than fifteen minutes of concentrated ill will.  Try it for yourself, he urges the reader – but knows that we’ll turn away from cultivating negativity because it takes us to an unpleasant experience we don’t want to endure.  Those who do major on bitterness and hatred seldom seem deeply content.  He contrasts a bomber pilot on a mission to destroy a munitions factory (with an honest desire to minimise civilian casualties) with a pilot on a mission to terrorise the populace by destroying maximum numbers of non-combatants. Both are dropping destructive ordnance, but their experience will differ.  “To be someone who purposefully intends to kill civilians, requires a lack of a certain healthy-mindedness that is incumbent for having one’s wellbeing maximised.”

The earliest teaching of Gautama, the Buddha, conceives of  “happiness” (with all its synonyms and subtleties) as the prime motivator, and that being expressed mentally with intent.  He speaks of “Right (or Appropriate) Thought” (the second of the Noble Eightfold Path)  as positive intent.  The intended mental process is not a calculating (cold) rationality, but a heart-felt response of the mind.

Citta (one of the three original Pali words for mind) has as much to do with the heart as with the head, leading one translator to render the traditional translation of “right thought” (samma samkappa) as “right resolve” and another as “perfect emotion.”  What is intended is a warm-hearted determination to seek the good of all.

After the Buddha’s death this insight was expressed in the archetypal Bodhisattva, who dedicates her life to the well-being of others, sacrificing everything to that intention.  But, of course, it’s not a real sacrifice, because the rewards are immediate: good feelings.  The ultimate in Buddhism is to escape our selfishness in two ways: first, to seek the good of all (including ourselves-but not just for ‘our own’); second, to ‘get over ourselves’  and realise we inter-are (Thich Nhat Hanh’s phrase).  Our identity is bound up with others.  To hate or harm another is to disadvantage my “self”.  Altruism is the ultimate good – it promotes the well being of all concerned.  At the end of the day and during it, selfishness gives us much less happiness than altruism does.

The altruistic urge within every human being (at least potentially) is driven by the happiness it brings us as much or more than our idealised projections of what it means to be a “good person”.  If this is so, as I am convinced it is, let’s run with it, helping to spread the greatest good, for the greatest number, for the longest time.  It’s not just for the feel-good factor, as real as that is.  Perhaps by working together to counter the undeniable threats to human flourishing, we can ensure our survival, that of other species, and even the threatened equilibrium of our ecosystem . By embracing both the broadest of issues and the minutest of needs, we can cultivate a contagious joy, accompanied by – and driving us toward – a greater effectiveness.  The best possible consequence of our actions would be to promote the multiplication of good feeling/actions by encouraging others to be kind, generous and helpful  – with benefits to all concerned.

Learn about Membership in the Spiritual Naturalist Society

The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.


  1. Submitted to Stirling University, Faculty of Arts and Humanities (Law and Philosophy) on 2 March 2018.
  2. Nozick, R. (1974) The Experience Machine, Anarchy, State and Utopia (ISBN 0-465-09720-0), p. 49.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.