Creative Altruism and the Prospects for a Common Humanity in the Age of Globalization
"This essay examines some of the ways in which applied sociology can contribute to the repertoire of responses that are available to those seeking to maximize the social benefits and minimize the social costs associated with the phenomenon commonly referred to as "globalization." Based on the later work of Pitirim A. Sorokin – founder and first Chair of the Department of Sociology at Harvard University, we propose to revitalize the concept of creative altruism and to promote its widespread adoption as a tool of planned sociocultural change. In the course of this discussion, we focus on the relationship between altruism and "coming to species consciousness," as understood by classical philosophers and the earliest sociologists, by Sorokin himself, and by contemporary researchers – especially Kristin Renwick Monroe. We conclude that the ideal of one world at peace can be achieved – and, indeed must be achieved when the alternatives are considered – through the conscientious application of altruistic thought and practice."
"For better or worse, humanity is now becoming a unitary whole in an important and unprecedented way.
Many names have been given to this process; and because names create realities, it matters very much which one we use. Some, beginning with the sociologist Harold Innes and his student Marshall McLuhan, see it as a movement toward a global village. Architect and futurist Buckminster Fuller referred to the Spaceship Earth. Now current in many quarters is the term globalization. Some, with good reason, speak of capitalist imperialism. Others say modernization, Westernization, Postmodernization, or internationalization. Sociologist George Ritzer has influenced many with his evocative term, McDonaldization.
For the purposes of this discussion, we have chosen an alternative formulation, one that might help us to avoid some of the unwanted connotations that "globalization" and the other terms carry. This is the process of coming to species consciousness. The phrase characterizes an evolutionary movement toward a state in which every member of the species Homo sapiens is aware that – beyond all secular differences – a common humanity exists and demands to be treated as one."
"Highlights in the History of the Idea The idea of species consciousness has been expressed in many different cultures and historical eras. One of its most powerful statements is found in the Ethics, written in 1677 by the Dutch-born philosopher Baruch (Benedict de) Spinoza. According to Spinoza, underlying all of the diversity that characterizes the various nations and ethnicities of the world, there is a fundamental "harmony." He believed that this harmony could be understood if we think clearly about the nature of humanity, and that it would be realized if and when people act reasonably toward one another. "Nothing can be in more harmony with the nature of any given thing than other individuals of the same species," Spinoza wrote. "Therefore for man in the preservation of his being and the enjoyment of the rational life there is nothing more useful than his fellow-man who is led by reason" (Ethics Part IV, Appendix: proposition IX).
Spinoza and those who embrace his viewpoint believe that a species consciousness is possible; in fact, they assume that it is inherent in human nature. They also realize, however, that it is not automatic. For there are many forces arrayed against it, including habit, superstition, and prevailing public opinion, that must be overcome before we can understand ourselves "under the form of eternity."1 This is an important point to remember as we consider the possible outcomes of the rapid sociocultural changes now underway. That is, if we are going to achieve species consciousness, something must be done: a program must be created and implemented to bring it about.
Spinoza chose to emphasize a program that involved a turn toward what he called "reason." This concept suggests that if one thinks about the human condition in a clear and orderly way it becomes apparent that every individual person is part of a larger, effective whole. To paraphrase the words of the poet John Donne: No one is an island. No one stands alone. Unfortunately, from a contemporary standpoint, "reason" is an outmoded term that now can mean just about anything one chooses. For example, it can be argued that it is reasonable for a person or group to commit genocide, provided that the deed is planned clearly and systematically (logically).2 Today, the program that will help us realize our common humanity must give directives that are far more specific than "be rational," even if we do understand what Spinoza really meant in his arguments against irrational philosophies and theologies.
The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (who lived during the era of the American and French Revolutions) was not the first writer to attempt to improve upon Spinoza's program, but he is certainly among the best remembered and most widely read. Kant believed that there exist certain moral standards - rules of right and wrong – that allow people to understand themselves "under the form of eternity." These rules are absolute, or "categorical," in that they are valid everywhere and always. In addition, such rules are expressed in the form of a command, as an "imperative," because one cannot avoid acting in the way(s) they stipulate and still be considered an ethical person.
In recognizing the importance of eternal, moral rules in the movement toward a species consciousness, Kant goes beyond the assertion that "reason" is all that is required to understand and achieve a common humanity."
"Comte coined the terms whereby we still refer to these contrasting modes of action: altruism and egoism. Using Comte's word, then, the Golden Rule and the categorical imperative counsel altruism. Thus the essential connection was made between altruism, on one hand, and the movement toward species consciousness."
- "Comte considered altruism and egoism to be two distinct motives within the individual. He did not deny the existence of self-serving motives, even for helping; the impulse to seek self-benefit and self-gratification he called egoism. But Comte believed that some social behavior was an expression of an unselfish desire to "live for others." It was this second type of motivation to benefit others that he called altruism."
"The concept of a common humanity with a consciousness of itself is very old and widely discussed. In fact, for many centuries in Western and Eastern philosophy the idea was believed to be self evident to anyone who could reason properly. Ultimately, such beliefs were dismissed as too vague and/or ambiguous.
However, in several instances, such as in Immanuel Kant's writings on morality, philosophers attempted to make the quest for a common humanity more specific. In the early 19th century, Kant in particular proposed in his moral imperative a certain kind of thought and action that would be an effective means to achieve the goal of species consciousness. At about the same time, Auguste Comte, founder of the discipline of sociology, coined the term to refer to such thought and action that is used to this day: altruism. In this way, the links between a common humanity, species consciousness, reason, moral imperatives, and altruism were forged.
In Karl Marx's revolutionary program to create a common humanity, one finds the key principle of a group in-itself. This indicates that group-consciousness, including in this context species-consciousness, is the product of common life conditions plus a shared understanding by members of the group (species) that they have common interests - that the wellbeing of each depends on the wellbeing of all. Also necessary is a common "other" against which the group (species) can identify itself. In the case of the human species, in particular, this other is nature, with which humanity as a whole can and must cooperate in order to survive and prosper. Because, it appears, the achievement of species consciousness is neither automatic nor inevitable, the need for a program to guide the quest is once more apparent."
From the Conclusion:
Altruism and the Global Village
"Popular culture and perspectives like rational choice theory would have us believe that altruism as something dangerous, impossible or, at best, of little practical value. Yet, a considerable amount of research in several fields has demonstrated that it is real and that it has an important role to play in human relations. In fact, the theories of Sorokin, Monroe, and others have suggested that altruism can mitigate if not solve many of the social problems encountered today, including such controversial issues as religious and ethnic intolerance, family crisis, health care, and homelessness. More than a century after Comte's death and decades after Sorokin's, the study of altruism is now beginning to make inroads into our educational system, while people everywhere are beginning to take altruism seriously as a behavioral option to "rational selfishness."
Sociology in general and applied sociology in particular has a major role to play in these changes. For there is obviously a close connection between prosocial behavior and the belief that all humans have common needs and interests. Moreover, the existence of a common humanity is a core belief among sociologists.
Indeed the sociological enterprise is premised on the view that as a species humanity is essentially one, but that socialization and other sociocultural forces create profound differences among us. Those who teach sociology have nothing to teach if it isn't this: Whereas there are degrees of altruism, the idea of "degrees" of humanity, from less to more, higher to lower, etc. has no scientific basis.
In this light, all of us, experts and laypersons alike, would benefit substantially from further study of Monroe's observation that perspective promotes altruism. The perception that a common humanity exists and the type of thinking related to this perception can lead to altruistic behavior. This is an especially important task because intolerance, homelessness, and many other of today's social problems are caused or intensified by egocentric, self-interested behavior and the perception of some people that others are less than human. Many problems can be solved if we follow Kant's categorical imperative. We know that people in situations of conflict often do forget that we are all human. They tend to deal with others in terms of stereotypes or as enemies. The failure to recognize our common humanity does stand in the way of effective resolution of a large proportion of the problems faced in today's society. The mission to insert into our practical work the imperative that others are no less human than ourselves is both timely and potentially effective. And it may be an important step toward improving human relations before it really is too late. Of course, as is true of other well-intended programs, this is much easier said than done. In this case, there are several obstacles to putting these sound - but not especially novel - ideas into practice. One is the tenacity of egoistical models in the social sciences and in culture generally, and the consequent failure to grant altruism a serious role in human affairs. Strong opposition to altruism exists in beliefs such as those outlined above. That is, in our type of culture altruism is understood to be deviant behavior.
"Good neighbors" and saints are deviants who rise above the level of moral conduct demanded by the official law. Their actions are "superlegal." Some of these superlegal actions do not conflict with the official law; others result in conflict between the good-neighbors and saints on the one hand, and the official law and government on the other (Sorokin 1950: 208).
Sorokin believed that the more altruistic a person is, the more likely he or she is to come in conflict with society's prevailing norms. He also thought that altruistic people are more likely to come in conflict with others who, for one reason or another, feel uncomfortable about altruistic behavior. Thus, learning about altruism also entails trying to understand why altruism is viewed as a threat. Can there be a pure and lofty altruism, not generating collision and conflict...tentatively, the answer is that there is such a way, but that it requires among other conditions, an extension of our "ingroup" feelings to all humanity; and this extension must be real, manifested not only in our speech reactions but in our entire behavior...Jesus rightly said that he brought not only peace but also the sword. So does any unselfish person or deed! (Sorokin 1950: 83-84)
As we gain a better understanding of why some people are more altruistic than others and what shapes altruistic acts may take, stereotypes will cease to limit our ability to resolve many of today's problems such as sexism or ethnic conflict. Learning about "good neighbors" as deviants may reveal much about the moral values and ethical boundaries of ordinary people. By insisting that we are all human beings, all part of one world, we may be able to be more effective actors. We would then be prepared to meet the challenges of this late sensate era and, at last, to realize the promise sensed by the first sociological students of altruism, especially Comte. That is, the promise of what Sorokin (1948: 225) called "the ennoblement of human personality."