On Altruism and the Meaning of Life

This article has a great introduction which acted as a hook and reeled me in, amused. I wasn’t expecting to find the meaning of life, but I wanted to know what this author’s perspective was.

By the time I’d finished reading the article, I was reminded that I had meant to write something on the notion of altruism.

Why are some people more altruistic than others? Some of the people which Joe refers to are examples of this; they felt so strongly that, dammit, something needed to be done and that they would be the ones to do something about it. They had the power, they did something, and were probably pleasantly surprised by just how many people responded positively to their efforts and asked if and how they could join in and help.

Strength of feeling draws attention from people generally, and it can lead to the kind of actions which then draw the attention of the media. Once the media have shed light on it, and if the actions are interesting enough or carry on long enough to mean that the media then re-publish the story, then suddenly the story comes to the attention of a much wider audience and the likelihood of like-minded people seeing that story and wanting to become involved increases; this makes that initial act of altruism all the more poignant and out of the ordinary.

What did these people imagine to be the meaning of their lives? Is altruism the meaning of all of our lives? Is our purpose, beyond sowing the seeds of our genetic selves, to leave the legacy of a better world for everybody to live in?

If that is the case, then the most positive thing that I feel I could do for the world would be either to increase awareness within the world, in whatever measure, or perhaps to enable others to achieve their goals. I could be proud of that.

Nevertheless, there are still two questions to answer here; what is altruism all about, and what is the meaning of life?

Altruism is acting in the interest of others, without regard to self. I believe that people are driven to this by strength of feeling, but is there an underlying evolutionary explanation for this strength of feeling? There might be after all. What if we consider that feelings come from an animal part of our brain, and are the result of a subconscious calculation of our circumstances as we perceive them with our limited senses? So be it. Then what has our subconscious calculated? If we save the life of a person in danger for example, on instinct, without thinking, then what is the purpose of that drive?

Perhaps it is not down to one reason. It might be down to the animal brain recognising the human need to reciprocate as a societal norm of our species. It might be that we are simply driven to save as many of our species as we can, because we are wired to do so (unless self-preservation or nurture overrides this aspect of our nature). What of charity, of volunteering, of activism? Lives might not necessarily be in immediate danger, so why engage in these activities? Maybe those activities are rooted in the same biological feelings, after all, when engaging in these activities we are doing them because we want to, or tell ourselves that we have to. That strength of feeling overrides apathy or laziness, drives us to action. Perhaps it is simply that we are all individuals in this respect, and we all find different ways to provide benefit to others by some measure in our own fashion, in our own time; because we are part of a community and in the back of our minds we all want to do our bit to contribute to the great tribal group that is this planetary population. Remember, being in a group has advantages for the individual.

So we are individuals when it comes to altruism. What of the meaning of life? I propose that the meaning of life is individual to everybody as well. For Joe, it is about altruism, but for others, it might be as objective as continuing our line. There again, surely whatever meaning there is to our lives is what we bring to it ourselves? Why should we need others to consign meaning to our lives? People can bring meaning to our lives by way of context or purpose, yes, but I wouldn’t agree with the idea of somebody handing me a sealed envelope and saying “this is the meaning of your life, read it carefully and then go out into the world and make it happen” (although that might be interesting as an intellectual exercise).

No, I think that life is what you make of it. Some of us have an easier start than others, and better chances in life than others in this world, but it still doesn’t change the fact that we are capable of giving meaning to our own lives as we see fit within the constraints or freedoms afforded by the circumstances we find ourselves in.

When it comes to the meaning of life, it’s all in our heads anyway.

JOE DIMECK _________________

Your innate curiosity brought you here.  Even though you’re probably skeptical, you still want to see if some stranger on the internet has finally found what you’re looking for: the meaning of life.  Well, read on and let yourself decide whether or not the following meets your requirements for an adequate and acceptable meaning.

The other night, a few friends and I were sitting around arguing passionately about politics, life, and all that goes with it.  This led my buddy Taylor to say, “I don’t know what my purpose is.  I feel as though I need to be contributing some greater good to the world, but I don’t know how I can do that.  If life is just about going to school, getting a degree, and then working and paying off debt until you retire or die, what’s the fucking point?”

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About TheImaginator

35 year old sciolist living in Tokyo. I like swing dancing, Twitter word games, writing, using Stumbleupon.com, reading, and watching movies. I write stuff on my blog occasionally.
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2 Responses to On Altruism and the Meaning of Life

  1. guymax says:

    “In the Foundation of Morality, Schopenhauer asks the question: How is it that a human being can so participate in the pain and danger of another that, forgetting his own self-protection, he moves spontaneously to the other’s rescue? How is it that what we think of as the first law of nature – self-protection – is suddenly dissolved and another law asserts itself spontaneously? Schopenhauer answers: this is the breakthrough of a metaphysical truth – that you and other are one, and that separateness is a secondary effect of the way our minds experience the world in the frame of time and space. At the metaphysical level, we are all manifestations of that consciousness and energy which is the consciousness and energy of life. This is Schopenhauer:

    “The experience that dissolves the distinction between the I and the Not I … underlies the mystery of compassion, and stands, in fact, for the reality of which compassion is the prime expression. That experience, therefore, must be the metaphysical ground of ethics and consist simply in this: that one individual should recognise in another, himself in his own true being … Which is the recognition for which the basic formula is the standard Sanskrit expression, ‘Thou art that’, tat tvam asi.”

    John Mathews
    Joseph Campbell and the Grail Myth
    in At the Table of the Grail,
    Ed. John Mathews

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