Is Altruism on the rise due to the pandemic – will it endure?
People are saying that the enforced lockdown of citizens to protect themselves and each other from a deadly virus has changed our behaviour in a positive way. Is this behaviour, once learned, something that will come naturally to us all once we are released from confinement?
People are saying that the enforced lockdown of citizens to protect themselves and each other from a deadly virus has positively changed our behaviour. Is this behaviour, once learned, something that will come naturally to us all once we are released from confinement?
Covid-19 has changed our social behaviour dramatically and has affirmed the need for us to be more kind to our fellow citizens, friends and families. Our concern for each other’s health and well-being is more sincere, due to our own vulnerability to the spread of the disease from careless behaviour by those around us. The motivator for kinder behaviour might be dismissed as self-interest, but a high degree of altruism and genuine concern for others has also been exhibited.
Before the current situation, in April 2020, there was much debate as to whether people were really capable of altruistic behaviour. Some might argue that it is being forced on us by the government. But what of the neighbours willingly shopping for the elderly, and more vulnerable citizens? One definition of ‘altruism’ is that of ‘behaviour intended to benefit someone other than ourselves’. Of course, some can argue that doing good for others makes us feel good, so, therefore, we are benefitting ourselves, but I tend to see this as an unforeseen side-effect rather than the initial cause of the behaviour. Even anonymously given altruistic favours can result in pleasure for the giver. A local council in Australia has even taken to advertising to promote this behaviour.
The pandemic has changed many governments’ typical partisan approach by forcing them to adopt Utilitarian practices. Utilitarianism, as stated by John Stuart Mill, can be summarised as ‘an action is right in so far as it tends to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number’. As applied to COVID-19, it is apparent that staying virus-free equates to the greatest happiness in this instance. So, the core concept for both altruism and utilitarianism is happiness and the actions that promote and detract from it. It is hard to discover genuinely unselfish altruistic behaviour because of the self-satisfaction element. This can be countered by anecdotal evidence that the gratification people feel when performing altruistic acts is often something that surprises them after the act has been performed. Especially if it is the first time that they have consciously acted that way. I will give them the benefit of the doubt. After all, I would hate to discourage some of our more generous philanthropists by labelling their motives as selfish!
Utilitarianism is more complicated than altruism, as it can quickly degenerate into a totalitarian state and also to some very unsavoury behaviour with the ends justifying the means. For example, mob rule, looting and corporal punishment. Medical staff in hospitals inundated with Covid-19 patients have been forced to make chilling life and death decisions due to shortages of respirators to treat the sick and dying and enable the majority to be protected. Triaging patients has always been part of the emergency ward process, but the immediacy of their decisions during this pandemic takes on a distinct battlefield flavour. Medical ethics guidelines may help them, but these doctors and nurses should be pitied for being forced to make decisions that may haunt them for years to come.
Altruistic acts are intrinsically kind; and encouraging kindness in children is a way to ensure they are capable of this behaviour. It is hard to associate utilitarianism with kindness as it is a pragmatic type of behaviour that is wholly determined by the prevailing circumstances. Seeking the majority view and following it can often lead to the best results and the happiest outcomes. But can also often lead to members of minorities being disenfranchised. Altruism tends to result in happiness for all of the parties involved.
The featured cartoon depicts a Moral Dilemma featuring the topic of ‘kindness’ and is suitable for use with primary school aged children. It is available as a Free PDF with appropriate discussion questions and a worksheet to develop the concepts. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for your FREE pdf’s.