2016 This House Believes that Altruism is Innate

Oxford-style debate at the Chicago Neuropsychoanalysis Congress, 2016

Chicago, July 8, 2016

For the motion: Lisa Ouss & Jaak Panksepp

Against the motion: Ariane Bazan & Doug Watt


1. Empathy is defined in reference to the self while altruism entails a reference to the other. Therefore, ‘true’ love begins where empathy stops.
1.1. Altruism begins where empathy stops.

Whatever the definitions of empathy, it always involves some kind of correspondence or identity: resonance, harmony, isomorphism, synchrony, attunement,…. In other words, we use our own experience for a template to understand the experience of others: even in so-called ‘benevolent’ action for others – even when at our own expense – there is still benefit for us for as far as we can identify with the other. We will help avoid harm done to others because, by identifying with them, we avoid the idea of harm done to ourselves. True benevolent action for others, arises specifically in situations where there is no empathy: we handle together, with and in favor of others we can not identify with. In other words: altruism begins where empathy ends.

1.2. Especially for human societies, and for the survival of civilization – we are induced to love and to be able to love beyond what we can be empathic with.

Indeed, the crux of civilization = living together of differences, of a dense heterogeneity of people competing for the same resources, and often mutually irritating each other. As Ruth Feldman told us yesterday, in mammals, it is the mother-infant bond and its synchronicity, which – and I cite – “initiates the infant into the social world”.

However, the 13-year old we saw probably is not continuously, and also not increasingly, in a synchronous pattern of laughter with her mother. In humans, instead of disappearing, asynchrony becomes structural in adolescence: our teeners not infrequently are cross and into conflict.
Indeed, in their teens, humans themselves become sexually and reproductively mature. However, unlike in most other mammalian societies, they then are neither ejected from the group, nor left to their own devices. Humans, at that point, have on average ten more years of biological maturing of the neocortex, this is ten more years of cognitive maturing. Therefore, they are faced with a pretty unusual and unnatural situation: the continued caretaking for individuals, who could be their reproductive partners. At that point, the mother-infant bond reveals in and by itself insufficient to initiate the child into the social world. Something else jumps in, something which is not innate – we will come back to it – and which structures the close living together of sexually mature individuals of different generations: the incest taboo. A founding prohibition enables this unnatural situation to go on, but with an unavoidable price of tensions and conflicts. There, we are faced with the challenge to keep on loving where empathy fails. A child is not empathic for the prohibitions of all kinds imposed upon him or her, a mother does not respond in resonance with the sexual needs of her child. Altruism starts where empathy stops.
2. Altruism is a civilization achievement, and therefore it is not innate.
How can a human being be induced to act with, in favor of, or along the wishes or requirements of another with whom he can not be empathic with? In other words, how do human beings come to altruism? Our potential is to become a mammal. That is not a priori given, for that you do not only need the mammalian genes, but also a nurturing environment. Genes and a good nurturing environment bring you from the pleasure to the reality principle, but the reality principle is there also in mammals: the monkey will withhold his impulse to think about a strategy to get the bananas. However, to go beyond the mammalian destiny, the intervention of something else, something extraneous, is needed.

What is needed is precisely this: the ability to submit to an extraneously imposed, arbitrary prohibition – the arbitrarity precisely implying that one can not be empathic with the prohibition.

There’s no monkey who will decide not to eat bananas to bring an offer to the arbitrary chosen banana totem. The banana totem is arbitrary because it could be just as well a pineapple totem. This is a taboo, it is unique to humans: it has no survival value: it has only a civilization value. This is what Freud shows in ‘Totem and Taboo’.

Taboos are the founding principles for laws and laws allow the regulation of the dense living together of heterogeneous people competing for the same resources. There’s no reason why we should stop at red light and go ahead at green, it could just as well be the other way around. There’s no reason a child should go to bed at 8pm, it could as well be at a quarter to 8 or past 8. There’s no survival value to that. But if we wouldn’t be able to withhold or to go along arbitrary laws and rules, there would be no civilization possible.

Taboos found the idea of not doing something just because it was so decided, for no rational reason that would have its motivation in evolutionary survival. Civilization is possible according to two founding taboos: cannibalism taboo, it is the horizontal taboo, we don’t kill each other among brothers (to eat or use each other), and the incest taboo: we don’t marry between generations, that is the vertical taboo, which regulates the succession of generations. These taboo structures are the very achievements of human history. Genes and mammalian nurturing do not necessarily bring us to that: it is the point where the determining influences turn around: history shapes our brains in a fundamental way, by inducing inhibition of action tendencies for extraneously imposed reasons, thereby enabling the human condition. This condition is never a sure destiny; it is always a civilization challenge.

3. There is one question which remains to be answered: how comes the ability to arbitrarily withhold action tendencies brings to altruism, brings to love, to welcoming otherness?

First, note that Freud already indicated precisely that: the complementary dimension of the incest prohibition is the exogamy commandment, the duty to marry outside the tribe, this is, to embrace the stranger in one’s own intimacy. More profoundly, being able to withhold action tendencies for arbitrary reasons, enables a human subject to open a space where the other can be, move and hold a position, without the prior condition that we have to understand, to share or to be empathic with the premises of the other one’s action. In short, being able to withhold action tendencies, gives credit to the other – this unconditional credit truly constituting love.

Paradoxically, empathy might induce the idea that we are able to reach some kind of immediate, this is unmediated, understanding of the other – and this could turn into some gentle form of violence. Sometimes – and alas, not infrequently – this may induce us, including us as therapists, to feel entitled to evaluate and judge instead of our patients, including on intimate matters. Who, as a therapist, has not felt bored out, even irritated, about patients, who are ruminating for months, years even, about crushes who did not return their love, feeling entitled in their place to judge that their rumination is meaningless and senseless. Here the idea that empathy should be our (sole) guide, reveals the point where, especially as therapists, we may become intolerant, or even violent. Instead, holding open the possibility that there is something rational there, this is something to be understood, even if empathically we remain totally clueless, fuels our investment in reconsidering over and over again, and from continuously changing perspectives, what is insisting to be read.

4. Finally, empathy is the bedrock of mammalian, and therefore also human, attachment. Without any doubt, it contributes fundamentally to healthy mammalian, and therefore also healthy human, development. However the unmitigated resting upon empathy for conceiving human society, could also turn in some form of violence. We can work in therapy to enhance synchrony, resonance in the mother-baby interaction, like what we saw yesterday. But I may hope that, especially as mental health workers, we don’t conceive of an ideal society as a synchronous, harmonious group of collaborating people, whose hearts – in a kind of image – would all beat in sync. I do hope that we see the civilization value of heterogeneity and difference, conflict and tension being the unavoidable prize of that. I hope that, especially beyond the baby-mother work, we are aware that there is a structural limitation to what can gets synchronized in human interactions and therefore that we are also, and maybe primarily, attentive to help our patients to do with conflicts and that we avoid to induce them, implicitly, or explicitly, to see conflicts as a sign of dysfunction or failure to solve them. Because disharmony, heterogeneity, tension and conflict are what uniquely challenges us to love – like any clinician will know, it is through transference and countertransference conflicts that we are really induced to love our patients – and because love beyond empathy is the civilization achievement of our human condition.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.