Ethical Individualism and Individual Altruism
Must I sacrifice myself in order to help others?
Many, especially those between the ages 18 and 28, ask whether
self-determination is related to the will to help. Are individual needs
such as having a family, an appropriate profession, earning money, finding
one’s self, compatible with the human desire to help others, an
ideal like environmental protection, development aid, helping one’s neighbor,
Often volunteers who work in the Favela Monte Azul [i] and in other poor areas are moved by this question. Must I sacrifice myself in order to help others? But can I really be content when every day I learn about how other people must fight for survival in refugee camps or in the Calcutta slums, in the flood areas of Mozambique, in mine infested Angola? Isn’t the search for the meaning of my life a luxury when thousands of young people cannot even entertain thoughts of an individual life because they barely manage to exist on garbage dumps or in gangs?
This and similar questions always come up in discussions with young people who, for example, work for one year in the Favela Monte Azul. As such doubts also plagued me as a student, I often tell them about how in my own life this gap “I or the other” gradually, during the adult development phase, closes, and how self-realization and helping others must finally come together.
I recently came across a book: “Kinder der Freiheit” (Children of Freedom), edited by Ulrich Beck, containing the results of research in the United States, whose inhabitants are considered to be individualistic, success oriented and freedom loving, but half of whom also do volunteer work.
I can’t go here into all the biographical and statistical information that Beck reveals in order to prove his assertion that: “Despite all the talk about the I-Generation and the amassing of money, most Americans recognize the reality of mutual care and act accordingly. …Americans like Jack Casey (whose life as a volunteer fireman is described in the book - U.C.) can arrange their lives in a way that enables them to care for others and be individualistic at the same time.”
If this assumption is true, the following rule should apply: the stronger a person’s altruistic attitude, the more individualistic is that person. “Those people who have the strongest individualistic attitude are those who attach the greatest value to helping others.”
That is Beck’s definition of altruistic individualism, an attitude that seeks the equilibrium between one’s own pretensions and those of others, even to the extent of seeing in the value of helping others what gives life its full meaning. “Whereas in the old value system, the ‘I’ had to be subservient to the ‘we’, in the context of the new orientation something like an altruistic individualism appears. What appears to be contradictory – to think of yourself and to be there for others – is revealed as being more profoundly meaningful. Whoever lives for himself must live socially.”
Increasing individualization does not diminish solidarity, rather it creates a new kind of solidarity. It is freely given and depends less on a sense of duty.
…I or the other…
Isn’t this similar to the “Maxim of the free man” in Rudolf Steiner’s book The Philosophy of Freedom? “Live in love of your actions and let live in understanding of the other’s will.”
Acting out of love – not out of duty! And: “understanding of the other’s will” – not judge, but understand! This attitude can be observed more and more in the younger generation. With what tolerance they work with the handicapped, and with what honesty they admit prejudices and are willing to set them aside. A young girl volunteer who works with children in the Favela said: “Every day brings new surprises: I have to set aside certainties learned in childhood. For example, it’s no longer so matter-of-fact to sit at the table for supper. I was recently invited for supper in a shack, but there were only enough chairs for a third of the family. The children sat on the floor with their plates of rice and beans clamped between their legs. Are they less than me for that? No!”
Accepting or, rather, understanding differences is becoming a basic attitude of youth, and this allows them to give help without being arrogant and know-it-alls – with the outlook: When I help I have the feeling that I am helping myself. The gap “I and the other” is closing.
These young people are trying to realize their unconscious ideals, which Rudolf Steiner described in his lecture “How the angel acts in our astral body”: “…In the future no one be content as long as others are unhappy.” … “The angels pursue the goal that every person see a hidden divinity in every other person through the images that they impress on the astral body.”
The endeavor to understand the spiritual through the realities of life and one’s one thinking is related to this. And it will only be possible by taking one’s own individuality seriously.
Thus we observe that in many people today the individual search for meaning and the striving for responsible actions for the world complement each other: ethical individualism and individual altruism.
[i] A slum in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where Ute Cramer has been active for many years doing social and educational work. Her fascinating memoir, Favela Children, is available as a SouthernCross Review e-book.
This article originally appeared in “Das Goetheanum” 23-24/2001, Switzerland. Translation: FTS