Fireman dashes into burning house to rescue small child. But why? What is the impulse to risk all for the sake of another, the phenomenon Auguste Comte named "altruism"? The watching crowd may applaud such selfless bravery, but not so the man with a clipboard who has "Health and Safety" inscribed on the back of his orange fluorescent jacket. John 15:13 is no part of his creed - "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." In any strictly utilitarian or consequentialist philosophy, altruism makes no sense. If we don't step in and stop it, who knows who may sue?
Comte correctly discerned that altruism did exist, and that it was a challenge to the Positivist world view he was constructing - a system that was part philosophy, part secular religion. He was an heir of the Enlightenment, one of many who rejoiced that the power of the Catholic Church in ancien regime France had been broken, but who was uneasily aware that this had created something of an ideological vacuum. Comte's intellectual descendants took up the challenge to make sense of altruism - not as the highest expression of Christian love, as in the above quote from the New Testament, but as the product of strictly biological evolutionary processes.The question for the secular biologist, narrowly, was how could altruism emerge from natural selection, when it necessarily involved impairing one's own chances of survival in order to improve someone else's? The broader but largely unspoken problem was that the existence of altruism seemed to suggest a set of moral ideals that came from outside the evolutionary process, indeed from outside science itself, and therefore represented a chink through which religion could re-enter. Hence Professor Dawkins's delight when his evolutionary biologist friend, the late Bill Hamilton, finally solved it. Altruism found its place in evolution, and there was no need for religion.
For believers of many religions, altruism is less of an intellectual problem: to put it at its crudest, if this is not the only life we have and our state in the next one depends on our behaviour in this, altruism, even of the most self-sacrificing kind, becomes another form of self interest. Not that that makes dying easy, even for a believer. But it makes altruism rational, even to an individualist.
Neuro-science also acknowledges it. The brain scans of people contemplating an altruistic act, for instance thinking about our dashing fireman, indicate something akin to spontaneous gratification, as from sex or food. We are evidently hard-wired to admire altruism. It is a particular case of the broad range of feelings and thoughts that define the human species as essentially a social animal, whose nature it is to exist and thrive, draw its identity, shape its personality and character, love and be loved, not as an isolated individual but in a community.
This takes us back to that moment when the mediaeval world-view, was first shattered by the French Enlightenment, leaving humanity to be crushed in the coils of an individualism that was not part of its nature. The effect was most extreme where Protestant individualism had already prepared the ground and where laissez faire capitalism - individualism turned into the profit motive - supplied the missing ideology, namely the so-called Anglo-Saxon states of Britain and America.
But the story of altruism has another leg to it, and it has found unexpected reinforcement in the brain research already mentioned. Pre-Revolutionary French Catholic culture may have been riddled with arid scholasticism, but what it had not quite lost sight of was the heritage of the ancient Greeks, as absorbed into Christianity by St Augustine and the Fathers, and most of all by St Thomas Aquinas. Thomas saw that the human being was above all relational. Individualism was an aberration, contrary to human nature.
All the fundamental moral questions arise therefore in connection with our relationships, and our fundamental allegiance is to the family the group, our community, indeed the entire race. The good of that entire community is called the common good, in which we all share.
Altruism is no longer a puzzle in need of explanation at individual level; it fits very neatly into “the common good”. It requires the virtue of solidarity and indeed other virtues too. The common good is currently the subject of intense interest, witness this year's Michael Sandel’s Reith Lectures on BBC Radio, and it has also emerged as the dominant theme in Catholic Social Teaching, witness Pope Benedict XVI's latest encyclical Caritas in Veritate. The failure of capitalism and the emptiness of freedom-for-its-own-sake both leave space for it.
In the common good, the tension between selfishness and unselfishness is dissolved, as all contributions to the common good do ultimately benefit members of the community - even those which involve the ultimate sacrifice. So altruism then becomes not something extreme demanding explanation; it is the normal state of our being. No wonder our brains light up as they would with sex or food. It is as basic an impulse as they are. And just as they are, designed-in.