Following my post yesterday, someone asked if there were any expert opinions about altruistic behavior in the living world. It seems a fascinating question, and led to such a long response on my part that I am posting it here, with the hope that there may be others who can broaden my own musings on the subject.
There are, of course, theories of redemption offered by various religious theologies. I won’t elaborate on them.
In terms of science, there are several theories in psychology which do suggest that we go beyond basic survival and self-seeking pleasure, although none of them deal with altruistic behavior specifically and insofar as they suggest it, it is something which develops with maturity, and that you would not expect to find in a child, and certainly not in any other species outside of us humans.
Eric Erikson’s 8th stage – the last one – is wisdom vs despair which while not exactly explaining altruism does suggest that we go beyond the undiluted reality of self-service. Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs also argues that we grow beyond what he called our basic deficiency needs for food and shelter, and even beyond our social needs for belonging and recognition, to “Being needs” for self-fulfillment. Lawrence Kohlberg also developed a theory of moral reasoning elaborating Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. In Kohlberg’s highest level we have grown beyond the simple reward/punishment thinking of level 1, and also beyond the social reasoning of level 2 in which we worry about what other people think. In the highest level, we are guided by universal principles such as equality and a commitment to justice for all.