Altruistic Love


The dialogue between science and religion on the nature of unselfish love has the potential to increase the practical and conceptual understanding of those individuals who live lives devoted to the service of all humanity without exception. This dialogue inevitably engages scientific research on human altruism and on the emotion of love from the perspectives of evolution, human development, positive psychology, neurology, epidemiology, cultural anthropology, and sociology. This dialogue must also focus on divine love as experienced and described by human agents, as implicit in physics and cosmology, and as theologically conceptualized. Only such a comprehensive approach can legitimately engage the religious traditions and elevate the scientific range of investigation.

Pitirim A. Sorokin (1889-1968) of Harvard University pioneered this dialogue by founding the Harvard Research Center in Creative Altruism in 1948 with support from Eli Lilly. Sorokin focused on the ways in which religious rituals and practices enhance human altruistic tendencies centered on a common humanity, rather than on some fragment of the species. He asserted that religious altruism could be destructive when it is limited to in-group loyalties at the exclusion of outsiders. Sorokin posited a “supraconscious” divine love energy as an explanation for the remarkably generous lives of saints.

Altruism is a modern sociological term that was intended to include all “other-regarding” behaviors, and to supersede all theological categories for generous love. In recent years— largely under the distorting influence of evolutionary biology—the term has increasingly been narrowed to include only those actions that either result in losses to, or at best no benefits to, the agent. This interpretation precludes the many generous activities of everyday life in which agents feel fulfilled and delighted to be of service to others in ways that are psychologically beneficial. This “new” altruism requires not only a valid disinterest in reciprocation or reputational gain, but also a denial of any beneficial unintended by-products such as deeper well-being and happiness. If selfishness is defined so widely as to include such unintended satisfactions, then there is a need for more of it, rather than less. Such a broad definition of selfishness makes dialogue with religions almost impossible for, as William Scott Green has argued persuasively, all the major world religions teach that loving others unselfishly does bring happiness on earth and in eternity for the agent.

Unselfish love, rooted in naturally evolved benevolent propensities, to degrees enhanced and expanded by the grace of divine love, is always a source of fulfillment and happiness. In the Buberian shift from “I-It” relations, in which one relates to others only insofar as they contribute to one’s own agendas, to “I-Thou” relations of respect, there is still an “I”—and a more fulfilled “I.” A life of love is a blessed life, and one that does offer benefits both in this life and the next. Altruism, if defined as precluding these unintended side effects, is so contrary to the universal human quest for happiness that it cannot be taken seriously at a phenomenological level. Altruism is a useful concept if it is defined only to preclude motivations such as reciprocal or reputational gain, but not the actor’s feeling happier and more satisfied with life in the afterglow of genuine kindness—the so-called helper’s high.

John M. Templeton’s study (2000) captures the paradoxical benefits of a life lived in love with a provocative title: Pure Unlimited Love: An Eternal Creative Force and Blessing Taught by All Religions. A topic edited by Jacob Neusner and Bruce Chilton (2005) explores canonical statements of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other traditions. It concludes that while world religions all encourage benevolence, charity, compassion, and the like, the contemporary scientific notion of altruism cannot account for these values in their religious contexts. Indeed, altruism is deemed as irrelevant to, or in tension with, the major religious traditions.

Another limit of the term altruism is that altruistic actions need have nothing to do with the affective state of generous being that is commonly associated with love by the religions. Altruistic actions can be driven by an innate rescue impulse; by a dutiful sense of the special duties associated with a particular profession; or by rational appeals to a shared humanity in the Kantian sense. Religions generally emphasize an affective state of palpable love in which the existence of the other becomes at least as important and real as one’s own being, and a spiritual transformation in which the actor participates in divine love. Virtually all models of spiritual transformation involve an experience of awe shaped by a vast divine energy of love—one that resets the emotional orientation of the self toward an affirmation of others, and through which the actor discovers a deeper and more fulfilled self as an unintended by-product. Thus, dialogue between science and religion is enhanced by reference to a specific form of altruism— altruistic love.

Altruistic love is a concept coined by Soro-kin, who was keenly aware of the tension between altruism in the social sciences, and love in the religions of the world. His 1954 classic, The Ways and Power of Love (re printed 2002), remains a fundamental starting point for dialogue between science and religion.

Sorokin developed a measure of love that involves five aspects, and this construct has formed the baseline for most social-scientific measuring tools. Love that scores high in all or most aspects, he asserted, is most plausibly divinely inspired. The first aspect of love is intensity. Low-intensity love involves minor actions such as relinquishing a bus seat for another’s comfort; high-intensity love, by contrast, engages elevated levels of time, energy, and resources on the agent’s part. Sorokin did not see the range of intensity as scalar—that is, research cannot indicate “how many times greater a given intensity is than another” (Sorokin 2002, 15), but it is possible to see “which intensity is really high and which low, and sometimes even to measure it” (Sorokin 2002,15).

The second aspect of love is extensivity: “The extensivity of love ranges from the zero point of love of oneself only, up to the love of all mankind, all living creatures, and the whole universe. Between the minimal and maximal degrees lies a vast scale of extensivities: love of one’s own family, or a few friends, or love of the groups one belongs to—one’s own clan, tribe, nationality, nation, religious, occupational, political, and other groups and associations” (Sorokin 2002, 16). Sorokin had immense respect for family love and friendships, but he clearly thought that people of great love lean outward toward all humanity without exception, and that truly great lovers inspire others to do the same. He understood human beings to have pronounced tendencies toward insular group love, and he argued that religion at its best moves agents beyond their insularities to humanity and even all life. Of course he recognized the psychological need for “special relationships” of proximity, and did not believe that that necessarily results in callousness to outsiders. A Russian Orthodox Christian, Sorokin was interested in how particular religious communities can generate love for the neediest and the distant. As an example of the widest extensivity, he offers St. Francis, who seemed to have a love of “the whole universe (and of God)” (Sorokin 2002, 16).

The third aspect of love is duration, which “may range from the shortest possible moment to years or throughout the whole life of an individual or of a group” (Sorokin 2002, 16). A noble fireman may save a comrade in a moment of heroism, but this contrasts with a family caregiver who for years provides tender care to an ill parent, spouse, or child. Romantic love, which Sorokin did not extol, is for the most part of short duration, and unreliable.

Sorokin’s fourth aspect of love is purity. Pure love is characterized as affection for another that is entirely free of egoistic motivation —even if it brings a sense of fulfillment as a by-product. Pleasure, advantage, or profit from inferior forms of motivation will result in love of short duration. Pure love, love that is truly disinterested and asks for nothing in return, even though it will paradoxically bring happiness, represents the highest form of emotion.

Last, there is the adequacy of love. There is much indulgent and dotingly unwise love in the world. Love can be deeply pure and enduring but have adverse objective consequences, as in having reared a pampered and spoiled child. Wise love includes discipline and the nurturing of noble purposes. Successful love is effective, educated, informed, and constructive—it requires elevated instrumental rationality.

For Sorokin, these five aspects of altruism formed the bases for its measurement. Sorokin held that the noblest lives of love approximate or achieve “the highest possible place, denoted by 100 in all five dimensions,” while persons “neither loving nor hating would occupy a position near zero” (Sorokin 2002, 19). He considered Gandhi’s love to be high in all aspects.

Sorokin focused on the love of figures such as Jesus, Al Hallaj, Damien the Leper, and Gandhi. He asked himself how these exemplars came to be what they were, and he believed that individuals might someday know enough about the techniques of such love to manifest it. Yet in the end, Sorokin argued that such figures point to potential human participation in a love energy that defines God. He hypothesized an inflow of love from a higher source that far exceeds that of human beings. In his view, the most probable hypothesis for them (and in a much slighter degree for a much larger group of smaller altruists and good neighbors) is that an inflow of love comes from an intangible, little-studied, possibly supra-empirical source called “God,” the “Godhead,” the “Soul of the Universe,” the “Heavenly Father.” (Sorokin 2002, 26). As evidence, Sorokin resorts to radical empiricism—the legacy of human experience. Specifically, he refers to all the martyrs of love who, when surrounded by adversity, call out to a higher presence in the universe.

Sorokin was a scientific optimist, hoping that enhanced understanding might unlock the “enormous power of creative love” (Sorokin 2002, 48). Doing so could stop aggression and enmity, contribute to vitality and longevity, curb mental illness, sustain creativity in the individual and in social movements, and provide the only sure foundation for ethical life:

If unselfish love does not extend over the whole of mankind, if it is confined within one group—a given family, tribe, nation, race, religious denomination, political party, trade union, caste, social class or any part of humanity—such in-group altruism tends to generate an out-group antagonism. And the more intense and exclusive the in-group solidarity of its members, the more unavoidable are the clashes between the group and the rest of humanity (Sorokin 2002, 459, italics in original).

In-group exclusivism has “killed more human beings and destroyed more cities and villages than all the epidemics, hurricanes, storms, floods, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions taken together. It has brought upon mankind more suffering than any other catastrophe” (Sorokin 2002, 461). What is needed, argues Sorokin, is enhanced extensivity.

Sorokin placed his faith in science: “Science can render an inestimable service to this task by inventory of the known and invention of the new effective techniques of altruistic ennoblement of individuals, social institutions, and culture. Our enormous ignorance of love’s properties, of the efficient ways of its production, accumulation, and distribution, of the efficacious ways of moral transformation has been stressed many times in this work” (Soro-kin 2002, 477). Science can guide humanity toward the supreme good of “sublime love, unbounded in its extensivity, maximal in its intensity, purity, duration and adequacy” (Sorokin 2002, 485). It is certainly right to hope, with Sorokin, that progress in knowledge about love can move humanity forward to a better future.

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