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Altruism Now

Educator Dave Green shares his thoughts on the true nature of altruism in a post-COVID society - what it is and what it isn't. Part of our INSET Junction project.

This blog was inspired by a quote from George Eliot:

“The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts.”[1]

Beautiful in its simplicity, stark in its truth for us at this moment in time, and with that non-word, unhistoric, it has a quirkiness too.  The kind of quote I’d want to outlive me.  And this is where we are, in the world right now, thinking about mortality, what will outlive us?  And what are our values?  This matters, because we care again, we volunteer, even for a state proven to be incompetent, late with equipment,  a state that talks about ‘herd immunity’ and then hopes we will forget. 

So this is about how we might change.  We are surrounded by human constructs, systems we have embedded so successfully into our existence, that we assume that it is not possible to take them apart and rebuild them.  And yet:

“Claiming that there is no alternative to the world in which we live demonstrates the brittle and ultimately self-destructive nature of our elite.”[2]

There is a body of research which approximates a kind of standard parabolic curve of altruism, stating that:

“…around 20% of people are altruists who bear the fortunes of future generations in mind…  around 60% of people will follow prevailing trends and opinion leaders (conditional operators)… the final 20% are not inclined to cooperate and want more than anything to take advantage of all the opportunities available to them.”[3]

This presents us both with opportunities and dilemmas.

Clearly this is a time where the 60% of us, the biddable majority, the representative, amorphous body that voted for change in 1945, have travelled into the arms of the altruists during this pandemic.

The 20% are still there, with their spare rooms a logjam of quilted Andrex, their pleasure trips out in the car sacrosanct.  But they are squeezed, marginalised, just as, over the last decade, they have marginalised all those other minority groups they did not like.  But can they be squeezed further?  That is surely the hope of most of us. 

But there is a hard edge to this new altruism.

Altruism is a shade away from pity, even from distress. Altruism is about action, decisions, doing the best you can for others under the circumstances, whether that’s maintaining the two metre gap, leaving stuff on the shelves for the workers and the vulnerable, volunteering, leading from the front, staying in when it’s sunny, or being kind to someone who deserves a punch in the face. Altruism starts with empathy, but doesn’t allow empathy to become hand-wringing distress. Altruism is mixed with compassion, but not overwhelmed by it. 

This is because pity is egocentric in isolation, and leads us on a path down to condescension, commiseration, and unmotivated despair.

People are instinctively facing up to this, showing their fear (into the valley of death), taking practical steps, sorting out the mess that austerity has landed this country in. In a world where individualism is often appreciated as a strength – to the point of narcissism – there is a growing realisation that this doesn’t necessarily foster an optimal way to run our society.

This is another thing not to forget. 

I’ve been fortunate to work in a Muslim community school in recent months. I was thankful to be welcomed to share in Ramadan with them, and speak at the local Mosque about my experiences.  And the Iftar meals were the best I’ve ever eaten.  I don’t profess to speak for their faith, but I am struck by the words of writer Karen Armstrong on that subject:

“Faith is not about belief but practice. It is a moral aesthetic, an ethical alchemy. If you behave in a certain way, you will be transformed.”[4]

My Muslim colleagues and friends would surely attest to this, because Islam is a faith of action, written constantly into their sacred text.  I mention this, as we are a so-called Christian nation, without knowing what that is. And if we don’t know what it means, maybe we cannot act in its name.

On the other hand, like my Muslim friends, we can just act anyway. We can be altruistic because it is right, because our faith is steeped in it, or because everyone else seems to be doing so.

Loving your neighbour could really catch on.

I’ve started online tuition for some of the students I used to work with, keeping their critical faculties going, surreptitiously checking they are OK. I’m doing it for free, because they probably can’t afford to pay, and this doesn’t seem to be the right time to monetise our skills. 

History teaches us that revolutions do not begin with one person offering a coherent programme for building a new world to come. Revolutions happen when enough people want change, when enough people follow the brave, the heroic, when they challenge what is wrong, when they pursue something new. Exegesis as Karen Armstrong calls it.

We should carry out all the promises we are now making for ourselves, our families and out communities in these harrowing times. Because if we don’t, we will be doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. [ITL]

Dave Green is an educator, senior leader, Chair of SEC, and Affiliated Partner for PAGS®. He can be contacted on


[1] Cited in ‘Emily Tennyson: The Poet’s Wife’, Ann Thwaite, Faber and Faber, xvi

[2] ‘Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourselves and the World’, Matthieu Ricard, Little Brown, 395

[3] Ibid, 631, citing Robert Kurzban and Danial Houser

[4] ‘The Spiral Staircase’, Karen Armstrong, Harper Collins, 304

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