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The Human Nature Review Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 331-333 ( 20 August )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/love.html

Essay Review

True (altruistic) love is hard to find

By Markus Kemmelmeier*

A review of Altruism and Altruistic Love: Science, Philosophy, and Religion in Dialogue
Edited by Stephen G. Post, Lynn G. Underwood, Jeffrey P. Schloss, & William B. Hurlburt
New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

This edited volume is the first publication of the Cleveland-based Institute for Research on Unlimited Love and its president Stephen G. Post. The mission of this organization is to “support research and education on ‘unlimited love,’ a concept defined as ‘total constant love for every person with no exception.’” Quite apparently this mission is founded on religious and spiritual values, which resurface at various points in the book, be it in the choice of contributors or through the (perhaps to some unexpectedly exciting) discussion of the compatibility of religious and evolutionary conceptions of altruistic love.

Those who find the idea of unconditional other-regard too idealistic should take another look. Even though the possibility of unconditional love and altruism is perhaps as much a presupposition as a conclusion of the book, this compilation is far from being ideological. To the contrary: This is a relatively comprehensive proposals for the possibility of unconditional altruism aimed at pushing the frontiers of the debate on the nature and origins of altruism. It is a truly interdisciplinary endeavor bringing together scholars from various disciplines in the humanities, the sciences and religion. Without exception, the contributors take issue with the idea that in contemporary social and evolutionary science a commitment to selfishness is often portrayed as the only acceptable motivation underlying altruistic love.

Careful editing has provided the book with a characteristic architecture. There are five sections, each including between three and five chapters. Each section is framed by an introduction and a conclusion by one of the four editors, creating a remarkable degree of thematic coherence. The first section, titled “Definitions,” offers perspectives on how altruism and other-regard has been conceptualized philosophically and biologically by Elliott Sober, theologically by Stephen G. Post and Edith Wyschogrod, and psychologically by Jerome Kagan. These four contributions are drastically different in their approaches. Yet, all of them address important questions posed by evolutionary theory, be it to reject the now classic writings of E. O. Wilson’s as arbitrary with regard to human ethical behavior, as in the case of Kagan, or to attempt a careful integration and contextualization of the concept of agape as self-sacrificial, other-oriented love, as in the case of Post. Especially remarkable in this section is Sober’s succinct “ABC of Altruism,” a text that I will use in my future teaching on the subject. With great clarity, Sober isolates a number of central issues in the analysis, including the different conceptualizations of altruism in evolutionary science and psychology. As in his recent book with David Sloan Wilson “Unto others: The evolution and psychology of unselfish behavior,” Sober also points out the dark side of group-oriented altruism, which may underwrite intergroup competition and conflict. This aspect of altruism, as the general attempt to explain both favorable and unfavorable behaviors within a unified theoretical framework, does not receive too much attention in a book devoted to the understanding of a human virtue.

The second section focuses on “Human Motivation and Action” covering social-science approach to altruism and compassion and featuring contributions by health scientist Lynn G. Underwood, experimental social psychologist C. Daniel Batson, political scientist Kristen Renwick Monroe and sociologist Samuel P. Oliner. The theoretical approaches taken by these scholars illustrates one of the challenges in the study of altruism and love: Whereas Monroe and Oliner, both devoted to the study of rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust, focus exclusively on completed other-beneficial action, Batson and Underwood focus on altruism as a central aspect of subjective experience and motivation, which may or may not result in effective prosocial acts. Although the former casts altruism as rare and exceptional acts, the latter seems to focus on a frequent but often inconsequential sentiment. In spite of their differences, both perspectives similarly portray altruistic tendencies toward strangers as often emerging spontaneously and without reflection.

The third section titled “Evolutionary Biology,” with contributions by Michael Ruse, Stephen J. Pope, David Sloan Wilson and Elliott Sober, Melvin Konner and Jeffrey Schloss, deals with the question of how self-sacrificial behavior could have developed if it reduced the chances of reproduction of the actor. This section reveals perhaps most clearly the general thrust of the book as contributors focus less on tracing the natural conditions under which altruism developed and more on the evolutionary bases of ethics and the conditions under which human nature is more (or less) adept to selfless behavior. The notion that altruistic behavior and morality are based on the genetic evolutionary advantage they entailed is difficult to reconcile with religious and spiritual traditions that advocate “radical altruism” and selfless, nondiscriminating love as discussed in Protestant theology by the concept of agape. Contextualizing theories of Christian love, theologist Pope acknowledges that any moral or religious system needs to take into account that there is always an elemental “ordering of love” and even virtuous persons are expected to show preferences for those who are genetically or otherwise close. Ruse is more radical with his proposal of a Darwinian commonsense morality, which leads people to expect other-serving behavior from others and themselves, regardless of whether such behavior is driven by self-interest or not. This commonsense morality exists for the sake of promoting biological altruism, thus rendering a Darwinian approach an objective basis of a morality, in which discriminating (but not unconditional) altruism is a moral imperative.

The title of the fourth section “The science of altruism” I hope does not mean to imply that other sections are less scientific only because this section contains some neuroscience. Nevertheless, even though some chapters in this section focus on brain science, the primary topic is empathy and perspective taking, important precursors to altruistic behaviors in mammals. Thomas Insel offers a glimpse into research on the neurobiology of attachment, Antonio R. Damasio provides an outline of the neurobiology of emotions and Hanna Damasio examines the implications of brain damage for other-related behavior. William B. Hurlburt emphasizes the critical role of empathy in the development of morality and altruism. A particularly fascinating chapter by Stephanie D. Preston and Frans B. M. de Waal outlines the frequent occurrence of empathy in mammals. Evidence of acts of helping occurring across species boundaries powerfully illustrates the role of empathy for the occurrence of many altruistic acts.

The fifth section focuses on “Religion,” featuring integrations of the science-religion issue by Don S. Browning and Gregory L. Fricchione. However, the only time a non-Christian religion is allotted considerable coverage is in Ruben L. F. Habito’s chapter on Buddhist perspectives on compassion. Particularly enlightening to the present reviewer was Downing’s explorations of how the advent of evolutionary science has shifted Christian models of love away from the agape concept toward Aristotelian and Roman Catholic conceptions of love that imply notions of reciprocal and kin altruism.

Last but not least, this volume includes an excellent annotated bibliography, in which Shelley Dean Kilpatrick and Michael E. McCullough summarize 68 research papers on personality and individual differences in altruism. Although not integrated into the remainder of the book, this bibliography represents a great service to the field as it will be enormously useful to behavioral researchers on altruism and prosocial behavior.

Altogether, the book is a highly interesting read on diverse perspectives on the topic of altruistic love. It is important to keep in mind that although problems and limitations are often duly acknowledged this book does not represent a debate on the issue, as there is the conspicuous absence of critical voices. But even if skeptics had been invited to the party, this collection of essays comes a long way in making a case for unselfish behavior that is as much grounded in cogent philosophical analysis as it is informed by modern evolutionary theory. Nevertheless, the reader is left with a somewhat skeptical view of the possibility of “unconditional love.” The present volume makes clear that altruism is complex, widespread, and certainly not limited to kin or based on expectations of reciprocity. However, with few exceptions altruism seems critically dependent on group membership, an argument central to Wilson and Sober’s (1998) multi-level theory of the evolution of unselfish behavior. On the bright side, the chapters convey that evolved psychological mechanism of empathy and perspective taking are sufficiently independent and flexible to be applied not only to ingroup members or members of the same specimen. Yet, it is not clear that, even in modern rather than ancestral times, such border-crossing prosocial behavior would present a stable evolutionary strategy. In order to make such an argument, perhaps one may have to focus on an aspect that is regrettably absent from this volume, namely the (evolved) nature of social organization and its capacity to channel and shape individual behavior.

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© Markus Kemmelmeier.

* Markus Kemmelmeier, Interdisciplinary Ph.D. Program in Social Psychology, University of Nevada, Mail Stop 300, Reno, Nevada 89557, USA.


Kemmelmeier, M. (2002). True (altruistic) love is hard to find. Human Nature Review. 2: 331-333.

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