Everyone reaches the point in their moral development when they begin to ask “why” certain behaviors are right or wrong. Regarding small matters, this is easy to observe in children. For example they are curious about what parents are doing on the stove top and naturally they want to climb up and see. So as parents we have to tell them to stop because we do not want them to get hurt. We don’t usually think of curiosity about the stove as a matter of morality, but as we progress into adulthood our morals are shaped in much the same way.
When our morality is maturing as adults, the desire to ask for the reasons behind the “do’s and don’ts” of life becomes stronger. This is easy in the case of the stove. Don’t put your hand on the stove, why?—because you will get burned. There are harder lessons to learn as children. Why do we need to share? If we don’t share the people around us will be less likely to want to spend time with us and we will end up alone. Why should we tell the truth? If we lie to people they will not trust us and we will end up alone. The reasons are the same for hurting people and stealing from them. Here is where altruism–the selfless concern for the well-being of others– begins to form in humans. Ultimately we do not want to be alone.
Of course we also do not lie, steal, and hurt because it causes others pain. Since humans do not like to experience pain, most people do their best to keep from hurting others. This is the foundation of the “Golden Rule”— “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.” Here altruism moves to a higher level. Our actions become more selfless because of our ability to perceive the pain our behaviors may cause in the people we care about, but still our morality has an element of self-preservation. By treating others kindly, we hope we will be treated kindly in return. The perception that justice will be experienced by everyone is the basis for a stable society and is why people group together with those they trust and care about. Unfortunately this also carries the possibility that justice will not viewed in the same way by different people and so conflict is generated.
We are happy to show kindness to others as long as we are confident the kindness will be reciprocated. At this point, the moral behaviors we exhibit toward others are not fully altruistic since we expect a secure environment in return for our kindness. It is only when our perception and understanding toward the pain others experience is sharpened that we can show the same kindness to people who we do not care about. The selfless nature of our actions towards others reaches its pinnacle when the kindness we show to other people can in no way benefit us and/or may actually have the potential to harm us. This is why Christ’s teaching, “Love your enemy” is so profound. It requires altruism unattainable by most people; including those who follow Christ. If we truly reach this level of selflessness we can begin to call all people “friend” and will commit acts of love, or perhaps better stated as charity, even if it requires us to sacrifice personal comfort. Therefore sacrificial love becomes altruism par excellence and is why Christ said, “Greater love has no one as this, than to lay down one’s life for their friends.”