ALTRUISM: concern for the natural reflection which appears to have replaced one's own

At birth we are an ego-centric pole, an expanding radial flowering, being presented with opportunities to distinguish between self and not-self by way of sensation, thoughts and emotions. Altruism is behaviour which develops when an unfurling awareness tends to identify with the not-self rather than the self. The mirror of the universe progressively reflects nature rather than the self. For most individuals, their self-awareness expands to at least encompass a socio-centric perspective provided by the circumstances of their nurture. Family, friends, sex, religion and the demands of daily living fill their existence. Some grow even further to attain a geo-centric perspective whilst only a few aspire to appreciate the entire cosmos. Human behaviour is so complex and interwoven with diverse motives of secrecy and deception however, that egotistic-altruistic preferences are not expressed with any breathtaking consistency. The hospice volunteer may spend the morning helping bedridden terminal patients, and the afternoon siphoning trust funds into a personal bank account. The soldier that decides to spare one prisoner may well execute the rest. In times of chaotic disaster, there is no shortage of helpers with a seemingly genuine desire to assist those in need, but neither is there a shortage of others prepared to exploit the situation by looting if the opportunity presents. Individuals may even render aid in one context and indulge in looting or exploiting the vulnerable in another.

As well as acts of seemingly unselfish assistance, all voluntary work could reasonably be viewed as a form of altruism. The linguistic roots of the word suggest 'the other'. As well as 'other people' this could quite comfortably be extended to include the 'other than self'... that is to say the the entire universe external to the self. Any form of behaviour therefore, that willingly provided some form of free help, support or benefit to either individuals or organisations could quite properly be called altruistic. The volunteer ecological tree-planter is just as altruistic as the unpaid aid-worker in a refugee camp.

In order to 'explain' the motivations and evolutionary significance of various actions, it might be suggested that a considerable proportion of examples of behaviour designated as altruistic could be considered as being entirely pragmatic. The mother or close relative protecting an offspring obtain the obvious benefits of genetic survival. For humans, as well as many animal species, treating unrelated others in a way which is helpful to them, is a practical way of laying the foundation of for a possible reciprocated social benefit. It smooths the pathways of everyday living and can provide a powerful basis for the strategy of ganging up and combating the aggressive influences of egotism and avarice. A public display of altruism is a very pragmatic course of action to take when knighthoods, sainthoods and martyrdom are aspired to. Much volunteer altruism is quite simply motivated by the desire for social interaction, stimulating experiences, physical exercise or political aspirations. Because of its demonstrated effectiveness in attaining an objective, a lot of altruistic behaviour is explicable in terms of straightforward motives and objectives. Put another way, egoistical motives are evident or probable in the conduct of many altruistic actions.

Whilst it is possible to plausibly 'explain away' a significant proportion of those instances of behaviour that appear 'altruistic' ... if that is your inclination... never-the-less, situations still occur where an individual appears to assist another in circumstances devoid of any form of personal benefit, or where even the life of the assisting individual is actually sacrificed. The soldier attempting to help a comrade 'above and beyond the call of duty', or the passing civilian that risks life and limb to save a child from a burning building for example. Behaviours such as these become increasingly difficult to 'explain' with respect to pragmatic or evolutionary benefits. The traditional social response to the occurrence of such acts remains the most acceptable option. 'Explanation' is replaced by 'recognition' of a highly respected personal quality... called 'courage' or 'bravery'... which is difficult to describe, but which is appreciated in a kind of vicarious manner, when the individual reflects on what their own reactions might have been if they had been placed in a similar situation. Officially minted medals or framed awards are created and conferred on those individuals whose altruistic actions exhibit an inexplicable degree of personal risk.