The call for greater empathy and altruism in society has long played a major role in Western religions and political ideologies. The principal reason that it has done so, is the power to control the masses that the two concepts afford those who formulate and manage successful belief systems.
Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of others, is recognised as being one of the most important and desirable of human emotions. Any individual perceived to lack empathy is appropriately judged to be morally defective.
More altruism relative to empathy is an attractive thought, but it would probably have proved fatal for the species had altruism been adapted as our primary biological drive rather than self-interest.David Matthews
Altruism, the assistance voluntarily rendered by one human to another, usually in response to experiencing feelings of empathy, may be considered as the reason why we experience the emotion of empathy. Presumably, we feel empathy so that we will at appropriate times behave altruistically, rather than in the self-interested manner for which we are biologically programmed. We are all predominantly egoists, but we are also social animals, and this fact requires us to be capable, when it is mutually advantageous, of the supportive inter-personal social behaviour upon which the survival of both the individual and the species at times depends. Altruism serves this process.
Given the intimate connectedness of empathy and altruism, it would be reasonable to expect them to correspond approximately in terms of their respective frequencies. In fact, however, the normal person experiences feelings of empathy far more frequently than they ever perform acts of altruism. Some rare individuals are significantly altruistic in their behaviour, but most of us are clearly not. We empathise far, far more than we are ever altruistic. To be frank, normal humans are anything but altruistic towards those they do not know well.
The great disparity in application between our empathy and our altruism presumably exists for a very good reason. Namely, the individual of the species is biologically programmed to be more self-interested than altruistic in order to maximise the chances of their own survival, and an equal practice of altruism would, in heavily dissipating the individual’s resources, place their survival at risk.
Altruism is popularly perceived sentimentally. In contrast to self-interest, it is believed generally to be motivated by a benign emotion, such as that of empathy, love, sympathy, or tenderness. This sentimental interpretation is unlikely to be correct, however, in the light of its conflict with the fundamental self-interest that so clearly drives humans biologically. It is more probable that altruism is also a manifestation of self-interest, even though superficially it appears to be in contrast to it. The fact that we are far more predisposed to be altruistic to those to whom we are genetically related, and to close friends (all of whom may be considered as psychological extensions of ourselves), and are largely indifferent to the welfare of strangers, is indicative of this.
The evolutionary process has presumably calculated the most appropriate balance for humans between empathy and altruism, and this is indicated by our behaviour. More altruism relative to empathy is an attractive thought, but it would probably have proved fatal for the species had altruism been adapted as our primary biological drive rather than self-interest.
The political ideologies that seek, for their own ends, to gain control over large numbers of people have long exploited the poorly-understood relationship between empathy and altruism. They imply that people should be as altruistic as they are empathetic, and that anyone who is not, is morally deficient. Further, supposedly speaking on behalf of a superior and transcendent morality, they criticise the present state of society, calling for it to be organised primarily for the benefit of the dispossessed and downtrodden. The masses, responding positively to the ideology’s putative moral authority, and accepting its doctrine and the personal guilt always implicit in this, believe, and act in accordance with the ideology’s redemptive doctrine. And this is how their servitude is secured, and how it has always been.