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Altruism

Duration:
45 minutes
First broadcast:
Thursday 23 November 2006

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss altruism. The term altruism was coined by the 19th century sociologist Auguste Comte and is derived from the Latin “alteri” or "the others”. It describes an unselfish attention to the needs of others. Comte declared that man had a moral duty to “serve humanity, whose we are entirely.” The idea of altruism is central to the main religions: Jesus declared “you shall love your neighbour as yourself” and Mohammed said “none of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself”. Buddhism too advocates “seeking for others the happiness one desires for oneself.”

Philosophers throughout time have debated whether such benevolence towards others is rooted in our natural inclinations or is a virtue we must impose on our nature through duty, religious or otherwise. Then in 1859 Darwin’s ideas about competition and natural selection exploded onto the scene. His theories outlined in the Origin of Species painted a world “red in tooth and claw” as every organism struggles for ascendancy.

So how does this square with altruism? If both mankind and the natural world are selfishly seeking to promote their own survival and advancement, how can we explain being kind to others, sometimes at our own expense? How have philosophical ideas about altruism responded to evolutionary theory? And paradoxically, is it possible that altruism can, in fact, be selfish?

With Miranda Fricker, Senior Lecturer in the School of Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London; Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist and the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University; John Dupré, Professor of Philosophy of Science at Exeter University and director of Egenis, the ESRC Centre for Genomics in Society.

  • Further Reading

    Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford University Press, 2006 – first edition 1976)

    Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Bantam Press, 2006)

    Matt Ridley, The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation (Penguin, 1998)

    Some Suggested Readings in Moral Philosophy:
    David Hume and Immanuel Kant

    Hume’s ‘negative phase’ (reason cannot motivate action; morality based in sentiment)
    David Hume: Treatise Bk.II Part III §3;
    and (as argument for subjectivism) Bk.III Part I §1 (1739)

    J. L. Mackie, Hume’s Moral Theory chs.3-4 (1980)

    James Baillie, Hume on Morality (2000) chs.3&4

    Hume’s ‘positive phase’ (the origins of different sorts of moral virtues)
    For natural virtues, D. Hume Treatise Bk. III Part III, and Enquiry Concerning The Principles of Morals ch. 2, and chs. 6-8
    For artificial virtues, D. Hume Treatise Bk. III Part II (esp. sects.1-2 on justice), and
    Enquiry Concerning The Principle of Morals sects. 3-5, Appendix 3

    James Baillie, Hume on Morality (2000) ch.6

    J. L. Mackie, Hume’s Moral Theory chs.6-7 (1980)

    Kant’s deontology (morality as grounded in pure reason)

    Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals
    [Recommended: Mary Gregor ed. with v.clear introduction by Christine Korsgaard]

    Stephen Darwall, Philosophical Ethics chs.14-15 (1998)

    Richard Norman, The Moral Philosophers ch.6 (1998)

    Piers Benn: Ethics (1998);

    J. L. Mackie’s Ethics—Inventing Right and Wrong (1977)

Credits

Presenter
Melvyn BRAGG
Producer
Elaine LESTER

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