Even among freethinkers, intellectual trends ebb and flow. For a historical example, consider the idea that the universe has existed eternally. Physicist/science historian Taner Edis noted in The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief that “unbelievers . . . typically identified with the philosophical tradition of an eternal universe.” Late nineteenth-century agnostic Robert Green Ingersoll surely did so; he declared in his lecture “Why I Am an Agnostic” that “Matter and force were not created. They have existed from eternity.”
Nineteenth- and early to mid twentieth-century unbelievers embraced the theory of an eternal universe in part because it contradicted the creation story of Genesis and its point when everything began. In those days, it remained an open question in science whether or not our universe had a beginning. When the Big Bang theory emerged in the 1930s, atheists and other freethinkers tended to be dismissive. (It didn’t help that the theory was pioneered by Georges Lemaître, a physicist who was also a Catholic priest.) British astronomer Fred Hoyle, an atheist, thought the “Big Bang”—a term of derision he coined in a BBC interview—smacked of mysticism. Numerous unbelievers embraced Hoyle’s doomed steady state theory rather than accept a “Let there be light!” moment. But after Arno Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson announced their accidental detection of the cosmic microwave background radiation in 1964, the Big Bang had to be taken as fact. Whether it superficially resembled Genesis or not, unbelievers would have to deal with it.
And deal with it we did—so thoroughly that contemporary freethinkers are often astonished to learn that less than sixty years ago, no small number of us desperately wanted the Big Bang theory to be false.
From this example, we see that given the right circumstances, commonplace intellectual certainties can change relatively quickly, quietly, and sometimes so completely that only two generations later, popular consensus can scarcely believe that things used to be as they truly were.
I think our movement is nearing the end of another such transition. This time has to do with the acceptance of altruism, the human tendency to behave so as to increase the fitness of another while decreasing one’s own. Younger humanists and atheists may find this hard to believe, but only a quarter-century ago there was bitter controversy within our movement over whether altruism existed and whether it was a good thing. On one side of that controversy stood Free Inquiry founder Paul Kurtz, a believer in altruism. In his aspirational “Affirmations of Humanism” (1980), which continues to appear in selected issues of this magazine (including the inside back cover of this one), Kurtz wrote: “We believe in the common moral decencies: altruism, integrity, honesty, truthfulness, responsibility.” Many Free Inquiry readers welcomed a list of moral decencies that, boldly by the standards of the time, began with altruism. Many others did not. “As a reasonable man, the most decadent and cannibalistic concept I have ever encountered is altruism,” protested one letter-to-the-editor writer in 1987.
So heated did this debate become that then-editor Timothy Madigan opened a Readers’ Forum on the topic (FI, Winter 1989/90). “The word ‘altruism’ offends me,” Mary Lou Wright opined. “Caring for others without due respect for the self does not make a better world; unless we understand our own needs we cannot know the needs of others.” Maribel Montgomery wrote, “My first objection to altruism is that it is a logical impossibility for both parties to a social transaction to be altruistic.” At Free Inquiry’s national conference in November 1990, a panel on altruism featured three egoists (anti-altruists) against one altruism advocate. That lopsidedness reflected the difficulty faced by conference organizers (myself among them) in finding presenters prepared to defend altruism; ultimately we had to reach outside the movement, recruiting the independent scholar and author Alfie Kohn to face off against secular humanists Joe Barnhart and Joan Kennedy Taylor and libertarian Jan Narveson.
This dispute is nothing if not longstanding. Since Plato’s time, philosophers and divines have disagreed about altruism’s nature. Some viewed it as the supreme moral quality or even the highest manifestation of divine grace. Thomas Hobbes disagreed, bluntly calling altruism a hoax. He argued in Leviathan (1651) that people are selfish; whenever someone acts so as to benefit another, we may be sure that person is actually driven by selfish motives, not altruism. If I give money to a beggar, I do it because doing so makes me feel good. Among later thinkers, Jeremy Bentham said the wellspring of human behavior lay in the individual’s maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain, a powerful license for selfishness. Nietzsche contended that valuing others above oneself debased the self and hampered one’s personal development. According to science writer Sam Kean, “Darwin considered the trait [altruism] one of the gravest threats to his history of natural selection.”* Outdoing Darwin, Herbert Spencer painted natural selection as an unforgiving contest in which creatures must value themselves (and just perhaps their mates and offspring) above all others. From such soil, how could altruism grow?
The view that it could not was widely adopted among freethinkers, especially the harder-headed among them. Few were harder of head than Woolsey Teller, the flinty (and, truth be told, virulently racist and eugenicist) associate editor of the freethought periodical The Truth Seeker from 1936 to 1954. Teller could have been channeling Hobbes when he wrote that “altruism is a delusion. All men are egoists, whether they know it or not, and they do things for their own gratification rather than for a love of others. . . . There are, therefore, no altruists.”
Spencer’s objection, too, held its power. There seemed no getting around “the difficulty of explaining how a virtue that involves self-sacrifice for strangers could have arisen, much less thrived, in the course of evolution,” as I put it in a 1989 essay. Until late in the twentieth century, science could little account for altruism. Indeed, Christian apologists often cited altruism as evidence against evolution, arguing (shades of Spencer) that it could never have originated in the harsh crucible of natural selection; altruism exists; therefore the theory of evolution by natural selection must be wrong. So we must keep in mind that in the years before World War II—when Teller drafted his harsh recapitulation of Hobbes and, more famously, Ayn Rand formed her doctrine that altruism is the greatest human vice and selfishness the greatest virtue—there was nothing in the scientific consensus of that time to say that they were wrong.
For all of these reasons, if you were involved in organized humanism or freethought in the eighties or nineties (to say nothing of earlier decades), you almost certainly recall individuals grimly convinced that altruism was a hoax, immoral, or contrary to science—so much so that group leaders hesitated to make statements taking altruism as a given or to invite program speakers who championed it, knowing what backlash would follow. Though many egoists were libertarians or full-monty Objectivists, substantial numbers did not hail from either of these camps; they were simply atheists, agnostics, or humanists convinced that altruism was false or harmful.
Things are different now. Since around the turn of the twenty-first century, local-group leaders and bloggers have found that they can nod toward altruism with less fear of controversy. Committed libertarians and Objectivists still disparage it—as recently as 2012, libertarian Free Inquiry columnist Ti
bor R. Machan wrote that generosity “is a virtue any decent human being will practice: it asks that one reach out to deserving others in times of dire need.” In contrast, altruism “is a policy of devoting oneself to benefiting others above all. The former is admirable; the latter is suicidal.”** But aside from libertarians and Objectivists, few humanists, atheists, or other freethinkers now uphold egoism. Much as their forbears did fifty-odd years earlier in regard to the Big Bang, they’ve learned to deal with the presumption that altruism is (a) real and (b) a good thing. Why?
Once again (much as with the Big Bang), science spoke.
Beginning in the 1970s, word began to reach the public about new research identifying mechanisms by which a concern for others—particularly, others situated outside one’s own family or tribe—could arise naturally and prove evolutionarily robust. Kin-selection theory proposed mechanisms by which natural selection could preserve a tendency to aid distant relatives if that enhanced the prospects that one’s genes (instantiated in others) would survive. Somewhat more controversially, theories of group selection extended this effect to whole communities and peoples. From game theory emerged surprising insights into the power of reciprocity to impose a spontaneous moral character on seemingly mundane interpersonal transactions. Animal studies discovered that foundational aspects of morality were innately present in social canids and primates. Neuroscience revealed human mirror neurons, which seem to provide a cellular matrix for other-regarding behavior.
This is still-developing science, to be sure. Myriad details remain to be filled in. Still, by the turn of the twenty-first century, all those books by E. O. Wilson, Robert Axelrod, Frans de Waal, and scores of others had had their impact. Educated Americans grew to understand that natural selection was not solely “red in tooth and claw.” Yes, genes may be selfish, but altruism is nonetheless as legitimate as it is constructive. Its rise and spread under natural selection seems not just possible but nearly inevitable.
Because of this, altruism opposition or denial has largely vanished among secular humanists, atheists, agnostics, and other freethinkers—save, of course, for those libertarians and Objectivists whose ideology demands continued allegiance to egoism. (True confession: I was one of the altruism skeptics until that late-twentieth-century torrent of science information changed my mind.)
Perhaps most remarkable is how quietly changes of this sort can occur. Returning to our initial example, consider that at fifty-odd years’ remove it’s almost impossible to find writings that capture the interval during which so many freethinkers changed their minds about the Big Bang. The reaction of some activists and movement leaders when I tested this column’s thesis in a Facebook post suggests to me that no small number who read this op-ed—movement veterans in particular—will shake their heads and say, “Wow, grassroots hostility toward altruism has almost gone extinct. It happened in the background over twenty-odd years and I never noticed. Until now.”
It’s an intriguing social phenomenon, when a new normal becomes the present normal so completely that we can easily forget that the old normal ever was.
*Sam Kean, “The Man Who Couldn’t Stop Giving,” The Atlantic, May 2015.
**Tibor R. Machan, “Altruism Isn’t Generosity,” Free Inquiry, December 2012/January 2013.