What Is Altruism, and Why Is It Important? | Teachers College Columbia University

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What Is Altruism, and Why Is It Important?

Commentary by faculty member Elizabeth Midlarsky

“Giving is more joyous than receiving, not because it is a deprivation, but because
in the act of giving lies the expression of my aliveness.” — ERICH FROMM

THE 20TH CENTURY WAS REPLETE with wars and genocides. Rape, domestic abuse, school violence and elder abuse captured our attention. In the face of all this terror, how has our species been able to survive?
Philosophers, ethologists and evolutionary biologists argue for an “altruistic gene” and speculate that a species marked more by altruism than by aggression has a better chance to survive because altruism is an important part of what Darwin meant by “fitness.” From a psychological perspective, in addition to any genetic predisposition that may be present, phenomena such as nurturance and courageous compassion are prosocial (altruistic) behaviors that can be taught and developed in the home and in the school.

Among the Holocaust-era non-Jewish rescuers whom I studied, those who survived the war emerged with less material wealth, but also less psychopathology and a greater sense of having done “the right thing.” They sought no recognition but felt what some described as a “warm glow” in late life. The relatively healthy older adults (ages 65–110) whom I study seem to become more altruistic with increasing age, are energized by their own helpful actions and feel that their lives matter to others. In Western society, parents are taught that each child must get his or her needs met and be protected from “adult” responsibility. However, children who have caregiver roles in the family often do well in school and may become the altruists of their generation—the compassionate nurses, firefighters, doctors and social workers.

Education in school and at home must transcend the acquisition solely of facts, skills and “proper” behavior. Students must be taught in an environment filled with encouragement and justice, in which each student is seen as a lovable human being, not only as a vessel to be filled. When each student feels that he or she is important and worthwhile, while being helped to learn, then our world will be a better place.

ELIZABETH MIDLARSKY is Professor of Psychology and Education

Published Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011


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