Altruism and Empathy

From the Headmaster's Desk, February 6, 2019

Science and spirituality is the theme in spiritual assembly this term, and this morning I wanted to share some of my own reflections on the topic.

Biology teaches us that animals are fundamentally selfish. The theory of natural selection makes it obvious – the genes of animals are interested in surviving and reproducing. This means that, fundamentally, they will only do selfish things that contribute to their genes reproducing.

I want to tell a story that challenges that assumption:

About 15 years ago, I got a red fox Labrador puppy. He was quite small for a puppy; he was the runt of the litter, very sweet and cuddly and we called him Sebastian. Sebastian, as a Labrador Retriever, was very good at retrieving things; he would chase a tennis ball for hours and hours, even as a puppy. As he grew up, we worked out that he was afraid of water. Now, this is quite curious because Labradors actually have webbed feet; I am sure that many of you will have seen Labradors jumping joyfully into the Thames, or a lake or a pool, especially to retrieve a beloved tennis ball, but Sebastian would run up to the edge of a lake or pool, stop short and stare at the ball. At the time, I lived in Windsor and one of our neighbours had a big, black Labrador called Buster. Buster was a lot older than Sebastian, so old that he had grey whiskers on his face. Sebastian would regularly harass Buster, chewing on his ears and jumping on him as he was sleeping. Buster spent more time growling at Sebastian and pushing him away than showing any affection for him.

One summer, at my neighbour’s house, we were sitting by the pool and decided we should teach Sebastian to swim, or prove to him that he could swim by throwing him into the pool! So we threw a tennis ball into the pool, followed by Sebastian. He didn’t like it, but began to do doggy paddle and was able to swim towards the side of the pool. Buster, however, panicked; he ran back and forth alongside the pool, yelping and shouting, looking at us as though we were some kind of mad torturers. He also reached into the pool and tried to grab Sebastian by the scruff of the neck and drag him out. At this point, we intervened and pulled Sebastian out of the water.  Sebastian went on to become a very good swimmer and spent the rest of his life happily jumping into pools, lakes and the Thames, chasing after things. Buster reverted to his grumpy relationship with Sebastian, but I have never forgotten that moment: when Buster thought Sebastian was in danger, he acted with compassion and tried to rescue him.

So, some animals can act in an altruistic manner.

Altruism: a big word, but one of my favourite concepts in the world. Altruism is a voluntary, costly behaviour (in time, energy or resources), motivated by the desire to help another person.

So altruism goes against the biology that says we should care only for our survival. Humans regularly do things that come at a personal cost in order to benefit others.  One example of this is that in the UK almost 10 billion pounds was given to charity last year, with more than 60% of the population donating money to a cause that they believe in.

The human capacity to care for others is unique among animals.  Dogs can show kindness, but humans have the capacity to do this on a whole other level. Humans are unique in that they experience compassion, and this drives altruism.

Of course some people never engage in altruism. At the extreme, these people are called psychopaths – people who show no interest in helping other people. Their personality is cold and uncaring, and they have a tendency to engage in anti-social, sometimes violent, behaviour.

Brain scans show that psychopaths are poor at recognising other people’s fear. Usually seeing fear in someone else’s face causes humans to reply with compassion. Psychopaths are under-reactive to pain and suffering in the faces of others.

The reason for this is that they lack empathy. Empathy is one of my other favourite words. Empathy is when you understand and share the feelings of someone else. In practical terms, it means putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.

Normal people who engage in altruism are those, unlike psychopaths, who recognise when others are fearful or upset. Humans are very good at feeling empathy. Compassion is part of the human experience. In fact, it is fundamental to all moral behaviour – we usually know the right thing to do in any situation, as the wrong thing would cause harm to others.

Of course, it is most natural to feel compassion and empathy for the people you love the most – your immediate family, your close friends, your girlfriend or boyfriend.

But it is also natural to feel empathy or practise altruism for your neighbours – those with whom you come into regular contact. It is certainly part of what makes Blue Coat special. This is a community where people show care, courtesy and consideration for each other.

I think altruism, empathy and compassion are important at this time of year. January is known as the most depressing month of the year. It’s when you pay the credit card bills for all the fun you had over the Christmas holidays. It’s dark. It’s cold. For many of your parents, tax self-assessment and additional payments to HMRC were due last week.

As the weather is inclement, more of you are inside, and I know the common rooms can be crowded and people can get frustrated.  The three-day weekend was a nice break, but we are still not out of the darkest time of year.

So, this week, let’s all make the point of showing empathy and altruism to other members of the school community. It is not hard – in the most simple of terms, it is just being nice to each other. As in my story of the Labs – if dogs can look after each other, then I’m sure all of you can do the same.

Have a lovely week.

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